Richard Larson is a longarm quilter. This doesn’t have anything to do with the length of either of his arms, but the size of his sewing machine. It’s a 10-year-old, longarm Gammill, the first generation of sewing machines made for professional quilters. With a vast throat space of about 30 inches, Larson’s machine is your grandmother’s Singer on steroids, an elegant, elongated device that looks like it might have been designed by Modigliani.
Larson’s shop is in Plano, off G Street, near the historic town square. Considered by his peers to be one of the best quilters in the country, he sews there six days a week, eight hours a day. It earns him a good living—there are few people who quilt professionally full-time, and of those, even fewer are male. As machine quilting becomes more popular, he expects more men to take it up. “We have bigger fingers and hands, so it’s hard for us to hold a small needle,” he says. Larson has one male client, a retired neurosurgeon, whom he taught to use a machine.
A quilt is made up of three layers—a backing, an interior batting, and a top, usually made from pieced-together fabrics. It’s not technically a quilt until the layers are stitched together, and it’s the stitching that can make or break a quilt. “Most quilters are actually ‘piecers,’” Larson says. “They don’t have the time or the skill to quilt, so they send their tops to me to finish them.” A quilt can take six months to a year to stitch by hand, but a machine-stitched quilt only takes about 30 hours.
I first met Larson, a tall, strapping man with a healthy thatch of silver hair and a youthful, unlined face, at the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas’ annual competition. Our quilt show is the largest competition in the United States judged entirely by unpaid volunteers. Submissions come in from across the nation, and the first 350 quilts received were chosen for this year’s competition. Of those, 36 were stitched by Larson, though submitted by others. He’s a quilter-for-hire, a skilled artisan with a machine needle and a three-month waiting list.
Larson’s walls are papered with dozens of ribbons he’s been awarded for his own quilts, but he’s got nothing to show for the many hundreds of others he stitched for his clients. “It’s very controversial,” he says with a frown. The Dallas guild only awards a single ribbon, and it goes to the entrant, even if someone else actually quilted it. Most other competitions award two ribbons if more than one person worked on a quilt. “It won’t change until certain members of the Guild retire. It’s an outmoded way of thinking,” Larson says.
Larson started sewing clothes at age six. In junior high and high school, he designed prom gowns for his classmates to earn extra money. After graduating from Miss Wade’s Fashion Merchandising College, he designed gowns for local “after five” apparel companies during the ’70s and ’80s. “I wanted to be the next Bob Mackie,” he says. “I’m all about bling.”
Quilting fell into his lap in the late 1990s, about the same time he became disillusioned with the fashion business. He had a machine-sewn, unfinished quilt top and appliqué that he sent off to be stitched by machine, “when longarm machines were brand new and a dirty word,” he remembers. The quilt came back badly stitched with monofilament thread, or fishing line. “It was awful, and I thought, ‘I can do this better.’”
The only longarm machine in North Texas at the time was owned by a Gammill rep in McKinney, so Larson drove out to watch it in action. Rather than pushing fabric under the needle as with a standard sewing machine, a longarm Gammill has two handles on the nose that allow the operator to guide the needle over the fabric in elegant, freeform movements. Learning to use one takes years of practice and skill. “It’s like drawing with a needle,” he says. Smitten, Larson drove straight to the bank that afternoon for a loan—it cost $15,000. “I hadn’t even tried it,” he says. “I took a leap of faith and quit my job. I never would have thought things could end up like this.”
Larson estimates he’s quilted about 5,000 quilts in his career, many for other people. His experience as a gown designer gives him an advantage in quilting. “Construction of a quilt is just as intense as the construction of a gown,” he says. Several of his favorite quilts—stitched with metallic silk threads and embellished with Swarovski crystals—hang on the studio walls. They exude a Bob Mackie sort of bling. He points to a quilt done in cream silk fabric, with an ornate Victorian design stitched in gold metallic thread. “That could have been a dress bodice or a skirt,” he says, pausing a moment to reflect. “I think I might get into quilted garments someday to step up my edge a bit.”
E-mail Rebecca at [email protected].