And instead of sitting on a tabletop and moving the fabric through the machine, the longarm machine sits on wheels and the fabric sits still. The wheels are on a carriage that rides 2 sets of rails, enabling a full circular motion of the machine. The fabric is pinned onto long rollers so it can be held flat and smooth. As one area is stitched, the rollers can be turned to advance the fabric to a new area.
There are 2 ways to run the machine. One is from the "front" of the machine, closest to the needle, as this picture shows. I am seated on a rolling stool and holding onto the handlebars. There is a start/stop button on the handle. When I start the machine, it starts stitching at a speed of my choice, and I move the machine in a freehand design of my choice. Here I am working on a leafy vine in the border of the quilt.
An alternative way to run the machine is from the "back" of the machine, using a pantogram. A pantogram (or pantograph) is a printed paper pattern of a quilting design. It is laid on the tabletop underneath a plastic cover. A little stylus on the side of the machine projects a red laser dot onto the pattern, and I move the machine to follow the printed design. As I am moving the machine, looking at the paper, the needle is sewing the same design on the quilt top. The design is worked in horizontal rows, at the end of a row the quilt top is advanced on the rollers, the machine is realigned to sew the next row in the proper place, and away we go! Here you can see the paper pattern on the tabletop, stretching the length of the quilt.
My table height is adjustable with a hydraulic lift, so I can stand to do this type of quilting and work at a comfortable height. There are handlebars on this side of the machine just like the front. Now before you get really confused, this picture is for demonstration only--I am not doing pantogram quilting on the same quilt as freehand--I'm just trying to show how I would stand on the other side.
This is the laser light shining on the pantogram.
Lest you think that this would be the easy way to stitch a quilt, let me assure you it is not easy to stay on track and keep a smooth movement and be aware of where the needle is and whether you have spaced your design correctly and whether the bobbin has run out and try to take a step all at the same time! There are pantograms of varying degrees of difficulty, and this is one I have worked up to. Not one I started out on!
This shows the gears on the roller bars on one end, they have little teeth and latches so they lock into place and keep the quilt taut.
This is the simple explanation--there are a lot more modifications than what I have. The biggest being a computerized feature that controls the movement of the carriage to stitch the design on the computer screen. Maybe someday.....
A girl can dream!