Alamo Longarm Adventure

Just the right mix of art and technique


In a world filled with flavorless, cookie-cutter chain stores, it’s nice to talk with local shop owners. There is a zest for life and an urge to create that fuels their day-to-day living. Lisa Blevins of Desert Threads and Susan Bolinger of Pins & Needles in Alamogordo are engaged in mastering their longarm quilting machines. When I asked Lisa why she would buy a longarm that she didn’t know how to use, she said, “Well, honestly, I was tired of pinning and basting.”

She thought a moment then laughed and said, “But it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that.”

Lisa teaches classes in one half of the store occupied by Pins & Needles. The fabric fills the front half, enticing shoppers with the most current collections as well as the stock selections that will provide the background for the more dramatic fabrics. Susan manages this part of the enterprise and is a wealth of information on how fabrics are selected from the sales representatives, the issues of having the fabrics manufactured and shipped, and the vagaries of when they will be delivered.  Due to COVID, she says, manufacturers can be one to several months behind.

Susan has had her longarm for about 3 months, half a year less than Lisa has had her 10-foot version, which resides in her Desert Threads section in the back half of the store. Both say they watch lots and lots of YouTube videos, learning not only free-motion quilting patterns and techniques, but also how to maintain their machines. Lisa said since there is no local repair technician, they have had to learn to do their own maintenance and repair. Both Lisa and Susan were lucky enough to find used longarms and for them, this sweetened the adventure.

I commented on a lovely heart and vine pattern on one of the counter display items. Lisa described how she had doodled that pattern for months in every notebook she had. She doodled in meetings, she doodled while she was on the phone, she doodled whenever she got the chance. 

“People laughed at me,” she said. “But it worked.”

There are several books on developing free-motion design skills by doodling. The one I have is by Cheryl Malkowski and it’s called Doodle Quilting: Over 120 Continuous-line Machine-quilting Designs. I have tried this and I noticed that once I was comfortable doing one design, it often morphed into a different one. Susan said, in contrast to the more organized and often structured designs beginning free-motion quilters can often find themselves exploring other options without really thinking about it.

The goal in developing free-motion skills is to be able to do patterns automatically, sometimes also called muscle-memory. And while developing this muscle memory, those muscles, like the quilts they are adorning, just let the wild side shine and take the newbie on a free ride.

Lisa said at first, she was skeptical of the muscle-memory concept, but with the success of hearts-and-vines, she is a believer. She quilts every day on her sit-down longarm at home. You must practice, she said.

The wild side of muscle memory quilting is we end up with quilts with lots of different patterns and designs.  While this won’t get you high marks at quilt shows, or even often during quilt guild critiques, the quilts we beginners make often end up with friends and loved ones, non-quilters who fall rapidly into the thrall of the gifted quilt. There is little so rewarding as the look of total joy on the face of a quilt recipient. It’s the quilt that matters, not whether the quilting is perfect or sophisticated.

The heart of what Lisa and Susan had to share was that if you don’t try, you will never succeed. As for many of us, the first attempt at longarm quilting is very scary. Susan shared a vignette about setting up a quilt on her longarm so that it was ready to go and then spending several days working up the courage to turn on the machine and set those first stitches.

Being able to work together in this great adventure with their longarms lets them help each other over the humps. But more delightfully, they can share new approaches and methods. Exploring how each approaches a new technique and comparing differences and similarities is another facet of the adventure. This aspect, being able to work together on what can often turn out to be a research project, adds a depth and richness that those working in isolation don’t have.

“If you don’t try,” Lisa said. “You won’t get it done. You just have to get out there and do it.”

Visit Pins & Needles and Desert Threads at 915 New York Avenue in Alamogordo from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday or call 575-437-8121.


 Mia Kalish lives in tiny San Miguel. She began sewing couture clothing at 16, got away from it as life took over, and then became fascinated with the hugeness of quilting about 5 years ago. Her favorite projects are lap and pet quilts. She sews on her Bernina 475QE.