It’s Been a Year Already?! (How I Became a Longarm Quilter)

Coleen Barnhardt, Owner – The Quilted Thistle

Today marks the one year anniversary of the real beginning of my longarm journey – the day my Innova longarm quilting machine was delivered and set up by Jack and crew at Boersma’s in McMinniville, OR.  Previous to delivery, I had taken a one-day class with Capri after meeting her towards the end of September at the Northwest Quilt Expo in Portland.  All I really knew was that the machine was fun to drive, and apparently, I showed some talent.  Based upon that little information/experience, my amazing husband supported my wild idea of quitting my job as a special educator and following my new passion into the realm of professional quilting!  What a guy, right?!

My class sample quilt.  Not too bad for a first attempt.

You see, I wasn’t an experienced quilter.  While I had young childhood memories of my grandmother and great-grandmother sewing quilts and clothing, the love for making had skipped a generation and wasn’t something my mom was interested in doing.  I, however, was a maker from the start.  I remember fondly all of the beautiful handwork that my great-grandmother did, and was fascinated by her treadle sewing machine.  I was eager to learn how to crochet and knit, and took to sewing quickly in my Home Ec classes during middle and high school.  I loved the challenge of learning more and more complicated techniques to sew all sorts of clothes – but as the years progressed and I spent more and more time working on my career in special education and being a single parent, eventually the time came when I boxed up the sewing machine and the notions/fabric because I just didn’t have time for it anymore.

Fast forward 20 years, and I found myself at a crossroad.  I had tried my best to be a super single mom and provider, but it had all come at the expense of my health.  As the years progressed, I started having one serious health problem after another.  My doctors started urging me to get a new job.  I didn’t see how I could possibly do that, however. About this time, I finally found a great guy who moved across country to marry me, and I thought things would get easier.  Except they didn’t. We got married in the summer of 2008.  My husband left his 20+year job at NC State University to move to the Coffee Coast, just as our economy crashed.  It took him a long time to replace his job on the West Coast.  But I had a good job and benefits, and kept getting up every morning, no matter how terrible I felt, and tried to make it all work.  Except it didn’t.  I honestly don’t know how he managed to stay in love with me during this time.  I was a mess.

After being put on medical leave for the second school year in a row, and finding myself in a state of severe depression with a body that was seemingly attacking itself from the inside out, my doctors decided they needed to be more assertive about my need to make some big lifestyle changes.  They asked my husband to start coming to my doctor appointments with me.  By this time, I had several appointments each week with one specialist or another.  They were frustrated that I wasn’t following their advice to quit my job.  I was frustrated that they thought I could just walk away from a job that I had invested so much in.  (I had finished my undergrad degree as a young single mom and then followed it up with a two year masters degree program, which I was still making payments towards.) The doctors stopped talking to me at these appointments and started talking to my husband.  He listened to them, and agreed that something had to change….but no one knew how to make it happen. I usually just sat there and cried at these appointments.

One day’s worth of paperwork my last year as a special educator.


In an effort to fight my depression, I started making again.  This inevitably led me back to sewing, and I decided I’d try my hand at quilting.  Which led me to attend that quilt show in September, where I tried one of those big quilting machines…

It all happened so fast after that.  I went from teasing my husband about him buying me one of those expensive machines to actually thinking about making it a reality.  I remember very clearly one night in the dining room, when my husband looked at me and said, “Why not?”  After all, I needed to do something!

So over the course of a couple of weeks, we converted our front room/dining room into my new quilting studio.

Our recently redecorated front room before the decision to quilt.
My new Innova being delivered.
From living room to quilting studio in one day!

This is when it all became real.  I remember waking up the next morning and wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into?  I had taken a big risk, invested a lot of money we really couldn’t afford, and this is what my first attempt on my new machine looked like:

My first sample on my new longarm was scary.

To say I felt panic is an understatement!  I couldn’t turn back now, though.  I had to pay for this machine and start making some money!  The next month was filled with as much online learning as I could do while still getting enough sleep to be able to learn more the next day.  Thank goodness for online classes!  I discovered Linda V. Taylor and subscribed to her online quilting school. I practiced, practiced, practiced!  We started to see a little improvement:

I watched every YouTube video I could find about longarm quilting.  There are some amazing videos out there for free!  I joined a couple of guilds and kept practicing every day.  I started feeling more confident.  I was also feeling better physically.  I had rediscovered the artist inside of me, and I  had more and more creative energy.

I followed my quilting mentor’s advice (thanks Capri!), and decided at the beginning of December that I was ready (gulp) to take on customer work.  I offered my services at a discount via a Facebook Group, and found some clients willing to take a chance on me.

My first customer quilt:  Thank you for believing in me, Wanda!

I challenged myself every day in the studio.  I practiced every night with paper and pencil before going to bed.  One by one, the customer quilts started coming in, and I could see my skills grow with each quilt.

My first finished quilt that I gifted to my parents for Christmas 2014.

It was about this time that I felt like I had learned everything I could by myself and needed some expert lessons to see myself grow further.  I was a fan of Claudia Pfeil’s quilting, and looked for where I could take a class from her without having to travel to her in Germany.  Luckily, Claudia teaches at many quilting shows in the USA, and I found out that she was offering several classes at HMQS in Salt Lake City.  I signed up for classes, booked my hotel and flew to SLC in May to take classes from some amazingly talented ladies:  Claudia Pfeil, Karen Sievert, Angela Walters, Judi Madsen, and Linda V. Taylor.

Paisley quilting taught by Claudia Pfeil
Advanced fills taught by Claudia Pfeil


Me and Claudia – HMQS 2015


Me, Karen and Kazumi (my quilting friend and fellow longarmer) – HMQS 2015

I cannot tell you how taking classes at the right time from the right people can make all the difference!  When I got back from that trip, I had learned so much!

One of my client quilts after taking classes at HMQS

Thanks to Claudia, Karen and hours of doodle practice, I had finally figured out feathers!

My first attempt at feather quilting AFTER classes with the pros.

I started working on developing a textile painting technique so I could turn my quilts into coloring quilts.

I had improved so much that this last September, I got to see my #coloringquilt hanging at Northwest Quilt Expo!

I’ve even been invited to be a guest longarm teacher at Boersma’s:
My first longarm quilting students Fall 2015
I still do charity quilting to try out new motifs and techniques.
Charity quilt for Northwest Quilters
I’m designing my own quilting motifs and sharing my techniques with others via YouTube, Facebook, and my blog.  I’m moving towards digitization of some of my designs, and I’m heading to Virginia in February 2016 to take more classes from amazing teachers like Jamie Wallen, Karen Sievert, and Bethanne Nemesh.
I’m getting to meet the people who I’ve watched on tv and read about in books/magazines – and they are interested in what I’m doing, which is such a thrill!
Mary Fons was interested in my #coloringquilt technique at the October 2015 Portland Modern Quilt Guild Meeting.
My free-motion quilting skills have definitely improved:
The back of a Halloween panel I recently quilted for fun
And I still practice my doodles every night so that I can push myself to get better and better:
Next week, I’m even a guest on American Patchwork & Quilting’s Podcast:
“Color Me Quilted” by Coleen Barnhardt, photograph by Bill Volkening
Each week, I am contacted by new and returning clients who are interested in having me put my art on their quilts. My friends and family tell me how happy they are to see me glowing with happiness and excitement. I’ve been making some wonderful new quilty friends and have rediscovered joy and patience.  My health is slowly improving every day, and I am so excited about this new adventure in my life.  I believe my family is doing well, because as a dear friend of mine says, “When mom is happy, everyone is happy!”

It will be exciting to look back in another year’s time and see just where this quilty experience takes me!

5 thoughts on “It’s Been a Year Already?! (How I Became a Longarm Quilter)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing this one year journey with us. I'm very happy for you and your wonderful new experiences. You are definitely talented in more ways than just long arm quilting. I'm very glad to count you as a friend. I new last January when I started getting posts from Pacific NW quilters that I needed to broaden my own horizons and have been blessed with friends, support and inspiration. I love our group on Wednesday. Feel better soon friend. And I'm so excited to know you will be quilting my new French General. Thank you thank you thank you!


  2. Portland Modern Quilt Guild says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey! You are an inspiration, and I'm going to tell others who are at a life crossroads about your experience. Best of luck for the future, and I'm glad I decided to read blogs as I wait for trick-or-treaters to stop by. 🙂


  3. Brandy Pettit says:

    Hi Colleen! I'm so glad I got to read your story, it's very inspiring. My husband is currently looking into buying a longarm and starting a business as well, since his job is getting to be unbearable and I'd rather put the money we're using for therapy towards a longarm payment… Anyway, it's so fantastic that you found your happy place, and now I have another amazing quilter to learn from!


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