But there it was, on display and I got to play with it. So play I did.
Orientation- Having learned to quilt well on a sewing machine, I have always found machines that are oriented perpendicular to the quilter to be disorienting. Plus I don't like the idea of pushing my quilt forward to eventually hit the machine. Having the rest of the machine to my right and the entire thread path easily visible and reachable from my seated position is my preference and that is how the Artistic is positioned.
Size of the machine- While the vertical clearance (which I didn't measure) of the long arm is less than many sit-down systems, it has a full eighteen inches to the right of the needle. That's 2 inches more than another popular brand.
Table- There's no point quilting on even the best machine if the table it is on is hopping around, so the table is important. My first impression is the table is a bit wiggly, but when I used the machine there was no hopping or excessive vibration. The table has a huge leaf to the rear to support large quilts. I didn't lift the leaf up in the shop while testing it out. The table is quite large and I think that the leaf is overkill, given that there is not a lot of space to the left of the needle. IMHO, the rear leaf should be half the size and there should be a leaf to the left, or even just a leaf to the left and no leaf to the rear. Setting a table to the left at the same height would be an easy fix. The surface of the table was a bit of a disappointment. It is slightly textured instead of perfectly smooth. Smoother is better!
Visibility- One of the biggest advantages I feel a long arm system has over quilting on a domestic machine besides the extra harp space is visibility. A sit-down long arm doesn't let you see as much of the quilt at a glance as a frame system does, but you can definitely see more of the area immediately around the needle. I think there may be less visibility than some other systems, but it is adequate.
It has a large lamp with CFL bulb on a flexible arm mounted to the machine to put light where you need it. I think does a fine job, but I might would opt to buy an after-market LED light strip to mount under the arm.
Foot- This may be the thing I like least about the machine. It's a hopping style foot with a presser foot lever (they call it a tension lever), this means that you have to raise the presser foot just like with a sewing machine when you remove the project or want to move to another area to quilt. The other long arm systems I have seen do not have such a lever. My Janome 6600 and all the other bigger Janome sewing machines have a wonderful knee lift mechanism for the presser foot. This means I keep forgetting to lift the lever, which I need to do if I want to pull on the top thread like I do when I stop and start.
The frame mounted machines in this line have a ruler toe available, but Janome does not have one available for the sit-down model yet. I am told that it is available through Tin Lizzy and will be available soon. You know I have got to have a ruler toe! I will be waiting to see what it looks like as the current open toe really isn't suitable for ruler work.
The height of the hopping foot may need to be adjusted depending on the thickness of the quilt sandwich, but it's very easy to do.
Tension and Threading- Like all long arm systems it has a vertical bobbin, which takes a little getting used to if you usually use a drop-in. The top tension, like most, if not all long arm systems is more complicated than a sewing machine but pretty straightforward. There are no thread-break sensors which is a plus to me. Nothing extra to go wrong and I have eyes for spotting thread breaks. I was able to easily get good tension and stitch formation with a few adjustments of the tension dial. Once when I was quilting on it, the thread broke after about 24 inches and I was a bit peeved until I noticed someone had threaded an old spool of rayon on the machine. Rayon is delicate and I don't think it's suited to such use.
Electronic features- This machine has two electronic features that I feel a sit-down machine really needs and nothing else. Once you have needle up/down and a maximum speed control, anything else is an extra- sometimes an expensive extra! (I show the controls in the video) These are very basic but functional controls. I did see a different, very economical (cheapest price for a sit-down long arm I have ever seen), basic machine at the Charlotte show that had no electronics-- not even needle up/down. The maker assured me that I didn't need one and that it meant there were fewer things to break down. He was mistaken. While I appreciate a basic machine at a basic price (about $2000 less than the Artistic), his was too basic (not to mention looking like Frankenstein).
Foot Control- The variable speed foot control was a bit on the small side, but pretty responsive. Working in conjunction with the speed control, it should serve the purpose.
Bobbin Winder- There's a built in bobbin winder which is nice. Who needs extra clutter? It will wind while you quilt. If you want to wind bobbins when not quilting, the needles still sews--- so remove your project and unthread the needle.
Operation- It's a bit noisy, some of which I will attribute to the size 18 needle, which is a bit large. I could easily put a smaller needle in it and reduce some of the noise. but since it's being test-driven in the shop by quilters of all skill levels, a bigger needle is better. Long arm machines are definitely noisier than sewing machines, so I don't find this problematic. It was easy to quilt on and there were no confusing keypad options to make sense of before I could quilt on it. Note that in the video, I had no trouble quilting with only one hand!
I have heard some complaints about the lower-priced long arm machines in general, and I have to wonder if sometimes it has to do with the skill level of the quilter and the willingness to adjust things to get the best out of each machine and thread combination. I think this applies to sewing machines as well. (To be fair, when it comes to long arms on a frame system, there are a lot more factors to consider, many of them a function of the frame and carriage--this isn't a factor with the sit-down machines.)
Oiling- Most of the long arm machines need additional oiling than sewing machines do. This machine has only 2 spots where it needs oil and has an internal oil reserve. That means you don't have to oil the hook itself.
Price- Since I work for a Janome dealer and Janome is a bit of a stickler about posting pricing info online for certain machines, I'm going to play it safe and not give the actual price. There will be variations among dealers on the price and you are free to search out the cheapest price possible and have this machine shipped to you, but I've got to say that buying a machine from the dealer that you will use for training, servicing, repair or parts is really important. For most folks that means using the dealer who is closest to you.
I will say that this machine seems to be around $2000 less than the Handi-quilter Sweet 16 and its variants. It is around $2000 less also than the APQS George (Which I will tell you is my absolutely preferred sit-down machine). It is about half the price of the Gammill Charm, which is a fabulous machine with a great table, but has more features than I need or am willing to pay for.
Summary- The Artistic18SD is a perfectly functional sit-down long arm machine. It's not pretty, there are no extra features and that helps to keep the price down. I'd call this a great, basic, "Git 'er done" kind of machine. I like it; I'm a "Git 'er done" kinda person. I won't be buying it as it isn't in my budget and I'm quite happy for now with the 9 inches of throat on my Janome 6600, and if I want to move up to a larger machine, I might only move to a Janome sewing machine with 11 inches. If I could afford it or the George, it would be a bit of a toss up for me and I might just go with the Artistic since I'd save about $2000 and the dealer is local to me, though George lacks the annoying tension lever which is a vote in its favor.
There you have it. I hope you found this review helpful. I wasn't paid in any way for this review, other than I was on the clock at the shop while quilting on it. You'll note that I am not horribly motivated to switch from a large sewing machine to a sit-down long arm machine as I think fabulous quilting can be done on a sewing machine with needle up/down, speed control, a good free motion foot, a large flat surface, and preferably with a few inches more than the basic sewing machine.