Handi Quilter Makes Machine Quilting A Breeze
|March 11, 2002||in Product Reviews|
A review of
from Handi Quilter Inc.
If you don’t have time to hand quilt all your work, you can always machine quilt it. But you may have found that wrestling a queen-size quilt through your sewing machine is just too difficult. And you may have realized that sending out your quilts to a long-arm quilter can be expensive.
Buying a long-arm quilting machine is out of the question for most of us. But there is another possibility that offers many of the benefits of a long-arm machine, but at a fraction of the cost — the Handi Quilter.
The Handi Quilter is a machine quilting system that retails for $579. It works on the same principle as a long-arm system — several poles hold your quilt in position, and a sewing machine rides along a track, quilting as it goes.
The big difference between the Handi Quilter and a long-arm machine is that with the Handi Quilter, the sewing machine riding the track is your own sewing machine, not an expensive long-arm machine. You don’t get the tremendous reach of a long-arm machine, of course, but for $579 you can’t expect it.
The big question, of course, is whether the Handi Quilter delivers enough of the other benefits of a long-arm to be worth the cost. I tested the Handi Quilter was very happy with what I found.
Managing The Sandwich
Like a long-arm machine, the Handi Quilter uses three sets of poles to manage your quilt sandwich. The poles are telescoping aluminum poles, so you can quickly make them shorter for small quilts and longer for large ones.
Two large brackets hold the poles (and your quilt sandwich) in position. The poles mount to sprockets on the brackets so you can tighten up your sandwich for quilting. Unlock the sprockets and the poles turn easily for winding or unwinding the sandwich.
The brackets must be mounted to a table you provide. The collapsible banquet tables you can buy at Sam’s Club or Costco are perfect. An eight-footer will do for many projects, but if you’re going to be doing queen-size or king-size quilts then you’ll want a ten- or even twelve-foot table.
Sewing Machine Carriage
The most impressive part of the Handi Quilter is the dual carriage assembly on which your sewing machine rides. Two acrylic carriages, one atop the other, allow your sewing machine to move freely in all directions.
The bottom carriage rolls left and right, parallel to the poles, on tracks that you tape to the table. (Sounds flimsy, but it works great.) The top carriage rolls in and out, toward you and away from you, on tracks molded into the top of the bottom carriage.
Doesn’t sound like it would work, does it? How are you going to make it move in swoops and swirls, not just side-to-side or in-and-out?
Well, I can’t explain the geometry, but trust me — with your machine on top of the stack of carriages, you can swoop and swirl to your heart’s content. The machine moves in exactly the direction you guide it, with no sense that it’s riding on two pairs of tracks (one pair on the table, the other pair on the top of the bottom carriage) at right angles to each other.
It all sounds complicated, but the Handi Quilter is a simple, clever, economical design. It does the job, and there’s not much that can go wrong with it. I like the simplicity because it makes the whole product unintimidating.
Quilting With The Handi Quilter
The important thing to remember about using the Handi Quilter is that it is using your sewing machine. Therefore, your quilting stitch will be only as good as your sewing machine.
The Handi Quilter is used primarily for free-motion quilting — you drop your sewing machine’s feed dogs and use a darning foot.
But it is also possible to use your walking foot with the Handi Quilter for straight line quilting. In using the walking foot, you engage the feed dogs. But instead of the feed dogs pulling the fabric under the needle, they pull the machine along the quilt sandwich. But you do need to give it a little help so it runs smoothly.
For my test, I worked with Michelle Bilodeau, co-owner with Laura McCarrick of Quilting by the Yard in Vernon, Connecticut, a Handi Quilter dealer. I’m really glad I chose Michelle to show me the machine.
Michelle has had a Handi Quilter of her own for almost a year. And she has sold quite a few to her customers. As a result, she was able to give me all kinds of tips for making my quilting experience pleasant.
Get The Speed Right
When I started, the machine moved so easily on its tracks that I had pretty big stitches. In free-motion quilting, the stitch size depends on the speed at which you move the machine in relation to the speed at which the motor is running. Because the Handi Quilter swoops and glides so effortlessly, I was moving the machine along so fast that my quilting stitches were too big.
But with a little practice I quickly got the feel of moving the machine in rhythm with the motor speed.
Michelle showed me how to hold the foot pedal in my left hand while I guided the machine with my right hand. Since I still had my left leg in a walking cast at the time, I found holding the foot pedal much easier than trying to step on it while balancing myself and walking behind the moving machine.
But you can leave your foot pedal on the floor if you feel more comfortable working that way. Michelle said she tried to Velcro her foot pedal to her foot. But she decided that she didn’t like that technique.
I suspect that the Handi Quilter would work great with one of the sewing machines that have start/stop and speed buttons so you don’t need a foot pedal. Both the Janome Memory Craft 10000 and Nancy’s Notions Discover sewing machines have that feature.
Read my review of the Janome Memory Craft 10000
Read my review of the Nancy’s Notions Discover
I ran the sewing machine at slow, moderate, and fast speeds while doing all-over patterns. I tried stipple quilting, circular patterns, and repeated shapes. After my first few minutes of practice, all my quilting looked good.
I asked Michelle how she uses continuous line quilting patterns with the Handi Quilter. She traces a design from a book onto a sheet of paper. Then she attaches a bent wire coat hanger to the upper carriage using packing tape.
The wire hanger acts as a stylus, and Michelle follows the lines on the pattern with the end of the stylus. A reproduction of the design appears on her quilt in thread.
I wondered how easy it is to break needles by moving the machine too quickly or too slowly. Michelle has broken only one needle since she has had her Handi Quilter.
But one of Michelle’s customers had broken several needles. It turned out that the customer’s problem wasn’t with the Handi Quilter. It was with the bobbin not being inserted properly into the sewing machine. So I guess that everyone catches on to the rhythm pretty quickly.
I was surprised that I got no vibration when I ran the machine at top speed. Michelle told me only one of her customers has ever reported a problem with vibration. The customer just placed a mouse pad between the sewing machine and the top carriage, and all the vibration stopped.
Setting Up The Handi Quilter
The Handi Quilter system comes as a kit that you assemble. You can have a Handi Quilter set up and ready for quilting in a short time. You will have completed your first quilt top before the weekend is over.
Assembly is easy, thanks to a video tape that guides you through every step. While the video isn’t professional quality, the information on it is top notch. I had a little trouble hearing Laurel Barrus, owner of Handi Quilter, in a few places. But she gave so much helpful information that it’s worth watching the tape several times.
The first part of the video explains how to set up the poles, the tracks, and the carriages that your sewing machine rides on. It takes a little while to set up, because you want to be sure that the tracks are aligned properly so the carriages slide smoothly when you are quilting. You also want the poles to turn smoothly and lock into place properly so your quilting is even.
Laurel works rather quickly on the video. You can tell she has done all of this before. I think I would be a bit more careful making sure the tracks are parallel to the edge of the table. But Laurel doesn’t think that matters much, as long as the tracks are parallel to each other, which is easy to do.
Laurel explains what parts of the set up are critical, and what parts don’t have to be as exact. Laurel then explains the symptoms of incorrect set-up. She tells why the problem is happening and how to fix it. This is valuable information that you don’t usually get in written instructions.
The second part of the video shows how to load a quilt onto the Handi Quilter. You’ll need lots of pins. And rather than pinning on a future heirloom right away, I recommend starting with a sandwich of two pieces of muslin and some batting for practice before you begin on a real quilt.
The last part of the video shows different techniques you can do using your Handi Quilter. It looks very easy with Laurel doing it. While using the Handi Quilter is not very difficult, it does take a little practice to get the feel of moving the machine and controlling the foot pedal speed to get nice, even stitches.
The first thing I would like to have that isn’t provided with the Handi Quilter is written instructions with pictures. They don’t come with the Handi Quilter, but you can download them from the Internet. You’ll want to do this if your VCR is in the basement and your sewing machine is upstairs.
The second drawback is having to put my sewing machine on and off the Handi Quilter. The machine sits on the two carriages, so it is higher than table height, which makes it an awkward lift.
The take-up pole goes under the arm of the machine, and that makes taking the sewing machine on and off even more awkward, though the pole is easy to remove. Having a sewing machine that you can just leave on the Handi Quilter is a much better way to go.
While you’re pondering that possibility, there are several things that make some sewing machines better suited than others to life on a Handi Quilter. A great quilting stitch is important, of course, and a fast stitch would be nice. And light weight is an advantage, too.
The way the bobbin loads is very important. For example, my Janome Memory Craft 3000 has a drop-in bobbin, and this would not be very convenient once the machine were installed in the Handi Quilter.
With everything in place, the quilt sandwich would cover the drop-in bobbin bay of my machine. If the quilt weren’t the full width of the poles, I could slide my machine beyond the quilt sandwich to expose the bed of the machine and drop in a new bobbin.
But if the quilt took up the entire width of the poles, I would have to either remove the machine from the poles, or raise the poles to their maximum height, reach under the sandwich, and hope I can install the bobbin correctly without being able to see very well.
A machine that has a bobbin case that loads from the front, like the Bernina, or from the side, like the Brother, would be better suited than my Janome to life on a Handi Quilter.
Room Under The Arm
The other important sewing machine issue is the amount of space under the arm. My Janome has about six and a half inches under the arm. That would let me start out quilting about a four-inch-wide section (allowing for the take-up pole that goes under the arm).
But as the quilt builds up on the take-up pole, the size of the section you can quilt gets smaller and smaller. So a sewing machine with more room under the arm is going to be much more satisfactory on a Handi Quilter.
Michelle uses a Brother 1500, which has more room under the arm than most. Juki also makes a machine with extra space under the arm, and some Berninas are pretty big, too.
There is also an alternative to home sewing machines. The folks at WowQuilts offer a rotary machine that they have modified to work as a long-arm quilting machine. Their Model I-a includes an electronic on/off switch and speed control, a stylus, a cone thread holder, and a halogen light to help you see your work better.
Finding The Space
The biggest challenge for many of us in welcoming the Handi Quilter into our homes will be finding room for it. In order to save space, Michelle has the shop’s Handi Quilter set up on an eight-foot table. This lets her quilt anything up to the inside section of a queen-size quilt.
For queen-size quilts, Michelle removes the quilt from the Handi Quilter and finishes quilting the outer borders on her regular sewing machine. But if you want to go all the way to the borders of a queen-size quilt using the Handi Quilter, get a 10-foot table. For king-size, you’ll need at least a 12-footer.
Fortunately, the Handi Quilter makes very efficient use of the room that it requires. You can load a quilt and run the machine from one side, so you can put the table up against a wall if you need to.
And you don’t need to get to the right end of the table, either, so you can push that end up against another wall. And you only need a little room on the left side to be able to remove the sewing machine, if necessary.
Flynn Multi-Frame System
As big as it is, the Handi Quilter still takes less space to use than my Flynn Multi-Frame System. With the Flynn frame, the sewing machine sits still and you move the frame. So the Flynn frame needs almost twice as much room as the poles are long — about 15 feet for a queen-size quilt. But to be fair, it only costs a fraction of what the Handi Quilter costs.
Read my review of the Flynn Multi-Frame System
Running the Handi Quilter I feel I have more control moving the machine than I do moving the Flynn frame. The Handi Quilter carriage system moves easily with a finger or two, without my having to support any weight.
I also like the Handi Quilter better because I walk along beside the table while guiding the machine, instead of sitting in one spot pushing the Flynn frame around. My back doesn’t get as tired when I’m moving as it does when I sit still.
Deciding On The Handi Quilter
The Handi Quilter is easy to use and provides lots of flexibility. But it is only as good as the sewing machine that you put on it. So I would get a good, fast straight-stitch machine with a large space under the arm and a front- or side-loading bobbin. I’d put that machine on the Handi Quilter and leave it there.
For space, devoting fifteen feet along a wall to the Handi Quilter would be ideal. But if that’s a problem, you could get by with as little as six or seven.
It is pretty easy to decide if the Handi Quilter is worth the price and the space. Once you are good at it, you can quilt a queen-size quilt in a few hours. That is a big time savings.
And if you avoid sending out quilts, you save $50 to $250 for each quilt, depending on the amount and kind of work you have done. At that rate, the Handi Quilter could pay for itself in no time.
A big Quilter’s Review “Thank you!” to Quilting By the Yard in Vernon, Connecticut for letting me do all my testing on the Handi Quilter at their shop.
And special thanks to co-owner Michelle Bilodeau, who generously gave of her time and talent to help me with my testing. Even though her shop was very busy, I never felt rushed. Everyone got lots of individual attention.
In addition to selling the Handi Quilter, Quilting By the Yard sells fabric, books, quilting notions, and patterns. They also offer many quilting classes. Call them at (860) 896-1056 for a schedule of classes.
Everyone I met from this shop was very friendly and helpful. You never feel like a stranger. The women who work there know most of their customers on a first-name basis and make you feel like part of the family.
You can find this great shop at:
Quilting By the Yard
Shops at 30
4351-L Hartford Turnpike
Vernon CT 06066
Where To Buy: Handi Quilter
February 18, 2002
Maureen M. writes:
I just set up and used my Handi Quilter for the first time, and I hear that you’re about to review this product. All I can say is WOW!
The Handi Quilter is the right tool for the job. I quilted a 60″ by 60″ quilt in two hours – the first time I used the system! I can’t wait to try lots of new quilting designs.
I’m very impressed, and hope you like this truly new product, too.
March 10, 2002
Debi W. writes:
I purchased the Handi Quilter at the QuiltFest in Jacksonville, FL last
year. I think the concept of the Handi Quilter is wonderful.
biggest turnoff for me is taping the leader onto the pole. I think this is
very unprofessional and leaves room for too many slip-ups.
demonstrator neglected to mention a few important things about the
Handi Quilter. The video is very unprofessionally done.
Again, the concept is excellent. It just needs a few bugs worked out.
don’t know why this apparatus is almost $600, especially when you’ll go
through two rolls of tape setting it up! I returned mine, upsetting the
quilt store owner, but it wasn’t the price to me.
March 10, 2002
Bobbi B. writes:
I totally agree with the review on the Handi Quilter.
I hate to just
practice on muslin, so I quilted two quillows, and did each in a couple of hours. It was such fun. I don’t know how I lived without it all these
years. I could have paid for it five times in all the quilts I have
March 10, 2002
Mary L. writes:
A simply superb review for the Handi-Quilter. I can’t think of a question
that you didn’t cover. I feel this review is all encompassing and should
please anyone who is thinking of getting one, like me! Thanks for
March 10, 2002
Linda M. writes:
I can’t stand for long times and was wondering if it would be possible to
sit and use the Handi Quilter.
March 10, 2002
Yes, you can sit at the Handi Quilter to quilt. I saw Laurel Barrus do it on her video. And it is
mentioned in the FAQ section of her Web site.
March 10, 2002
A Quilter’s Review reader writes:
I found the Handi Quilter review facinating, but when I watched the video, I realized I have a question.
I know you said you carried the foot pedal, but in the video it showed the
pedal on the floor. If it’s on the floor, how do you move it around as you move
the machine? I have trouble walking…could I
still use the Handi Quilter?
March 10, 2002
Even Michelle, who does not have a broken leg, uses the foot pedal in her hand.
But she did demonstrate using it on the floor.
Since it’s tethered to the
machine by a wire, it must be moved when the machine moves. You would have to
stop long enough to reposition the pedal. That isn’t a problem as long as you
stop with the needle down in the quilt. That would keep the carriage from moving,
giving you a smooth line of stitching when you start up again.
But I would use the foot pedal in my hand anyway. I was surprised how easy that
change was to make. You only need one hand to guide the machine because it moves
so easily. And you don’t have to guide the fabric because it is stationary. So
the other hand is free to use the foot pedal. The other advantage is you
don’t have to chase the foot pedal across the floor.
One of Michelle’s customers had her husband put an on/off switch on her machine
so she doesn’t have to use the foot pedal. But not everyone’s husband is that
March 11, 2002
Michelle M. writes:
I recently purchased the Handi Quilter after seeing it demonstrated at the
Williamsburg Quilt Show. It is great fun. Easy to set up and run. Our small quilt group will all
be using it.
We are looking to purchase a sewing
machine to use exclusively with the Handi Quilter. We all agree that
having a machine just for the Handi Quilter is the best idea. I highly
recommend the Handi Quilter.
March 11, 2002
Jerri M. writes:
I bought a Handi Quilter last year and have
enjoyed it. However, I don’t use it constantly, and having to replay the
video every time to remember how to load is for the birds.
being able to download written instructions off the Internet – my
questions is where? Any help you can give me is greatly
March 11, 2002
I, too, couldn’t find them on the Handi Quilter Web site when I looked. So I wrote to Laurel and asked.
You can find Handi Quilter’s written instructions here. You will need Adobe Acrobat to read or print them.
March 16, 2002
If you’re seriously considering the Handi Quilter, you’ll want to spend some time reading about users’ experiences with the product. You’ll find a lot of these at:
March 20, 2002
A Quilter’s Review reader writes:
I tried a Handi Quilter and decided it wasn’t
for me because I would not be able to do a design such as a feathered
wreath in a 12″ block without doing it in several stages. I felt this was
a major limitation of the system, along with the awkwardness of trying to
hold the foot pedal with either one hand or my foot.
Handi Quilter will not let make full use of the 16″
throat of the WowQuilter. I’ve decided on the WowQuilter system and their
rails for this reason.
March 20, 2002
Debi S. writes:
I ordered my Handi Quilter on the 16th…got the box on the 19th…had it set up that
night. I loaded my backing, batting, and a muslin practice top, and away I
went! It’s was very easy, and I can’t stop.
So plug in the crockpot and quilt
the day away!