The first idea to consider is the need for this service as part of your business. Some months back, I did an article expounding on the need for each business to find its niche in the marketplace. (November, 1997) If quilting is a service none of your competitors are offering, but is a service they need, then this might be a profitable venture to consider. Even if your workroom services only your own retail customers at present, quilting for the trade may be a way to open a whole new market for your business and increase your income.
Quilting can offer a creative outlet entirely different from other areas of the decorating business. With the ability to quilt, you will be able to design entirely unique treatments for your customers. There are many quilting designs and patterns available that offer great versatility as well as inspiration to create your own designs. After viewing some quilting machine videotapes my creative juices were flowing, which was very frustrating as I had no machine to "play" on.
Quilting hobbyists are another market you could tap into. Many enjoy hand-quilting only the tops and never finish the quilt! If you have a lot of hand-quilters in your area (there are guilds all over the country), this could turn out to be a very lucrative part of your business. Contrary to what our grandparents' generation might think, machine quilting not only is accepted now, but some are considered art and are entered into competitions. It is truly amazing what can be done with quilting machines!
The hobbyist market also can solve that common dilemma for drapery workrooms: slow periods of the year when income drops. Offering hobbyists incentives for their business during this time may mean you never have a slow period again!
Before You Shop
Here are some tips to keep in mind when looking for a quilting machine:
• First determine how much space you have for a quilting machine. While a few models are 12 feet long, most are 14 feet long and require up to 16 1/2 by 8 1/2 feet of floor space. Nolting Mfg., Inc., Stover, MO, has a sit-down model that takes up much less space.
• Do a market study in your area to determine the need for quilting service. Determine what products are needed. Comforters, small samples or wall hangings, single widths and seamed widths require different features on a quilting machine. Determine what type of quilting is of interest. There are many ways to quilt: patterns, outline, channel, circles, diagonals, stippling, meandering, echo, etc. Some of these are not easily done free-hand style and require special attachments and tools. Familiarize yourself with a variety of methods and designs to educate people with whom you talk. There may be an interest in something they don't know exists.
• Find out what prices are being charged for quilting and how the prices are determined. Some companies charge by the inch and some by the square yard.
• Based on your survey, determine how many quilt orders you could expect, how often and how much income they could bring. Be sure to calculate a higher price for more creative quilting.
• If possible, visit with other quilting machine owners to observe firsthand various methods of quilting and ask them what machine features they consider important and what features are potential problems. If you can't visit these people, look for them at trade shows or on the Internet. Experienced owners are an invaluable resource of information. They can recommend companies with good products and customer service.
When you are ready to shop for a quilting machine, there are many, many features you will be asked to consider. Some of these things may not be so meaningful to you, but others will be very important.
It will help you to be as focused as you can on what type of quilting you want to do with the equipment and how fast you want to do it. Also, have some idea of the growth you envision for your business five to 10 years down the road. Now is the time to know what you might have to do to upgrade later. These are all good reasons why you need to talk with experienced quilting machine owners first.
Following are some of the features you must compare and consider when you are ready to shop:
• The least costly quilting machines usually are made from converted industrial sewing machines rather than built as custom quilting machines and therefore have a much smaller throat area (space under the machine head). As you finish quilting a section, it is rolled onto a take-up roller under the head. If you plan to quilt very large pieces with great fluffiness or loft, the quilted piece may not fit under the heads of some of these machines.
These less costly machines lack many of the efficiency features of more costly models. The tables for these machines probably will be 12 feet long.
As mentioned before, Nolting has a sit-down model, called the Keith 15, that does not have a long table. With this machine, the operator manually moves the fabric under the needle rather than moving the machine as is done with other models. Gammill Quilting Machine Co., West Plains, MO, has the Home Craft Quilter available with and without a table to make it more affordable.
• The custom quilting machines with larger throat sizes can accommodate more and loftier quilted fabric. They also quilt a deeper area. If you plan to do outline quilting, you will need to be able to quilt a 27-inch repeat without moving the fabric. One of the guidelines for quality quilting is to work a continuous line of stitching without stopping and breaking the thread and, in many cases, without crossing another line of stitching. This is done for efficiency and for appearance. You do not want to see a lot of broken threads throughout your piece.
• A table that adjusts easily for height is necessary if you plan to hire people to operate it. The table must be sized to the person working the machine to prevent unnecessary stress on the operator's body. This is so important because the operator will be standing at the machine doing tedious work for long periods of time. This kind of repetitive motion over time can cause physical problems if the body is performing in a stressful position.
• The weight and construction of the machine head will affect the durability, maneuverability and speed of the operation. Gammill builds a head die-cast all in one piece. Nolting welds machine heads and American Professional Quilting Systems, Inc. (APQS), Des Moines, IA, fabricates the heads out of aircraft aluminum for lighter weight. All have their advantages, but the best test is to try them out to see which is more comfortable for you.
• The size of the bobbin can be a major consideration. Gammill has a standard super-large bobbin that holds almost twice the normal amount and has a bobbin winder mounted directly on the head of the machine for convenience. Nolting and APQS provide a bobbin winder to mount wherever you wish. APQS says it doesn't mount the winder on the head because it would add too much weight.
For efficiency, most quilters use pre-wound bobbins that come in an amazing array of threads. Actually, a light-weight monofilament thread is becoming very common in the drapery industry, which reduces the cost of thread and the need for a large inventory of colors.
• Double-thread capacity may be important if you plan to get real creative. That means you can run two threads (of different kinds if you like) through the needle at the same time. APQS offers this feature on its machines.
• Placement of the wiring can be an issue because you don't want to be tripping over it every time you move about the workroom. Nolting provides a track on its tables to hold the cord out of the way and APQS offers an overhead system.
• How the layers of fabric are fed into the machine can be a major issue. Some machines are set up so the operator has to put the layers together then roll them onto a roller that will feed them into the quilting machine. Others allow for the separate bolts to nestle on or under the machine and feed off together automatically. It certainly is a nice feature not only for the batting to be mounted under the machine to be fed into it, but to be stored there and out of the way as well.
• Adjustable speed control is an advantage, particularly when you are just learning to operate the machine, but also when you must do intricate, detailed quilting.
• Machines that can be used to trace patterns may have a pencil-like pointed stylist or a laser stylist that follows the lines of a pattern. Many find following the little red dot of the laser stylist much easier for tracing the pattern. Gammill has a portable Stylaser that can be attached to the needle area of the machine so you can work in front of the machine rather than behind it for tracing patterns.
• A needle positioner is quite an advantage. APQS designs its machines so the needle always stops in the up position to make it easy to move to another location. With a push of a button, the needle will take one stitch to anchor the stitching. It also has a thread trimmer to cut the bobbin thread. Gammill has a two-station needle positioner. That means with a push of a button you can put the needle in the up position or in the down position.
• It is very difficult to quilt straight diagonals or true circles without the aid of special attachments. Gammill has the Circle-Ease, Gam-guide, and the Perfect Pattern attachments to accomplish this and more. APQS offers the Harley Fence to draw circles and diagonals.
• Black lights also are available with many machines. These allow you to draw designs on the quilts first with fluorescent chalk visible only with the black light turned on. That way you don't have to worry about removing marks from the quilt later.
• Learning how to use and maintain the equipment is important. Be sure to ask if the company sets up the equipment and trains you in its operation. Also, investigate the guarantees offered and the degree of difficulty in repairing equipment. If a faulty machine has to go back to the manufacturer for repair, find out what the usual turnaround time is.
• There are high-volume machines available for mass production. The Lightening Bolt is available from APQS and Nolting has a computerized machine that automatically stitches the programmed patterns.
The list above, which includes many add-ons, contains only part of the many features to look for in quilting machines. While many features are the same or similar between companies, each has its own distinctive and sometimes exclusive offerings. This makes it quite a challenge to weigh and prioritize the benefits between the companies.
The best way to shop is to have a clear idea of exactly what kind of quilting you plan to do, how much volume you anticipate and how much you can charge for your work. These details will enable you and the salesman to determine just how much to invest in all the add-ons for efficiency.
For the most affordable machines, you can expect to pay a minimum of around $2,000 up to about $4,000. For the machines with throat sizes of 18 to 36 inches, the base price will be from $6,000 to about $10,000. Add-ons could run $50 to $10,000 depending on how much efficiency you require.
Purchasing a quilting machine is a major investment that will require real commitment to pay for itself. But in this case, there could be a lot of fun wrapped up in that hard work. Companies, no matter what the industry, invest major amounts of dollars in their businesses in anticipation of growth and profit. If you have thoroughly researched and are firmly convinced that there is a need for a quilting service in your area and that it can be and will be profitable, then take the leap. After all, wouldn't you rather the profit from such a venture go into your pocket instead of your competitors'?
Information for this article was provided by:
American Professional Quilting Systems,
Gammill Quilting Machine Co.,
Nolting Mfg., Inc.,
Kitty Stein, WCAA, is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 18 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.