Long Arm of the Cloth

Like many quilters, Suzanne Leblanc learned the art from her great-grandmother. She even recalls going to quilting bees with her where all the church ladies sat together stitching to finish a quilt.

Years later while working in a quilt shop, LeBlanc was introduced to and learned a more modern way to quilt via a long-arm quilting machine. This opened up a whole new facet of the art, for soon she had purchased her own and began offering quilting services.

Having recently returned to Jaffrey where she grew up, Leblanc’s business and shop, Maple Leaf Quilt Studio, is now available to assist quilters in the eastern Monadnock area.

“Long-arm quilting helps to finish the quilt,” Leblanc explained. “There are many way to put a quilt together, but to start a quilt has three layers — a back, the soft batting in the middle and the top, which is often the pretty part and has the piecing which the quilter has worked on.

“You can tie a quilt, which is more like a comforter, or there is the traditional hand quilting. With a bed-sized quilt, that can take a long time, so that is where you had quilting bees. But they came up with this great machine, the long-arm, where you can stretch the whole quilt out and it takes days instead of months to finish.”

LeBlanc came to realize the wonders of the long-arm machine while working at a shop named Sunshine Carousel. At the time, the owner had gone through several employees whom she had trained to use the long-arm, but none of them lasted.

LeBlanc asked to give it a try and found that she loved using it. The backlog of quilts waiting in the shop soon disappeared.

“When I was little I was always stitching. My first store was in second grade when I baked bread and made potholders,” Leblanc recalled. “During my senior year of high school, I was canning and there was an explosion and my wrist and nerves were sliced. I gave up doing everything by hand.

“Years later when I was working in the quilt shop and saw the long-arm I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this again.’”

For many quilters, even with modern sewing machines, the size and space between the needle and the throat of the machine is just too small to effectively quilt approximately anything larger than a baby quilt. The long-arm allows the quilt to be set up on a frame and a larger machine moves freely across it to quilt.  However, the price and the size are prohibitive for everyone interested in the hobby to own their own.

“I have a Gammil Optimum Plus, which is what I learned on. I have had it since 2006 and it really is a work horse. It paid for itself within five years,” Leblanc said.

“I use pantographs a lot, which are a pattern for quilting that goes from edge to edge. I have more than 100 to choose from so there is something to suit whatever quilt, from feathers to children’s patterns and more. I can also do custom quilting for T-shirt quilts, or stippling, cross-hatch designs or stitch in the ditch.”

For example, Leblanc recently matched a client’s patriotic-themed quilt top with an all-over stars pattern and a variegated red, white and blue thread.

“The piecing is the focal point of the quilt and the quilting can accent what is going on or it can simply hold it together,” Leblanc added.

Beyond the quilting, Maple Leaf Quilt Studio also offers fabrics (including extra-wide backing fabric), notions, patterns, ready-made quilts and a lending library with everything from books on quilting techniques to quilt-themed fiction.

“I am not looking to be a big fabric shop and we are looking toward retirement,” Leblanc said. “I like to long-arm to keep myself busy. I’d also like to start videoing myself doing informational pieces to put on Facebook about the long-arm, such as how to load it, so people can understand why I need three extra inches of fabric on each side and why it doesn’t need to be basted beforehand.”

With the recent closing of The Bunkhouse Quilt Shop in Lyndeborough, Maple Leaf Quilt Studio fills a need for “sewists” — a relatively new term, combining the words “sew” and “artist” to describe someone who creates sewn works of art — and quilters looking for supplies in the eastern Monadnock Region.

“In addition to the long-arm service, I also do binding, and piecing the backing. Whatever part you hate in the quilting process, I can do it,” Leblanc said. “I was surprised to see that there was such a need in this area. People seem very excited that I am here.

Maple Leaf Quilt Studio is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Leblanc is happy to open the store or consult about a custom quilt at other hours upon request. To learn more, visit the studio on Facebook at facebook.com/Mapleleafquiltstudio.