Area 51…or Managing Your UFOs

There’s an area out in the Western United States that’s known for its…other-worldly happenings.  Little green men (or little gray men, if you’re an avid X-Files fan) supposedly have landed in Area 51.  You approach this desert area and Keep Out signs abound – primarily because it used to belong to the US Armed Forces.  Weird stuff, such as flying saucers, are everyday experiences out there…supposedly.

However, I call bunk on this…not because Area 51 doesn’t exist…but because I know for a fact that my quilt studio closet is the home of a large number of UFOs.  Probably far more than NASA has called in by people that may have had one beer too many and spent too much time in the desert. 

And you must understand that when a quilter tosses out the term “UFO” it doesn’t mean Unidentified Flying Object.  It means Unfinished Object.  Most quilters have a closet full or at least a few.  I do myself. Why is this?  Why do we quilters, in general, have a difficult time completing one project before starting another?  Why do we have several projects we’re working on at the same time? 

I can’t say for certain, but I believe it’s primarily because quilters as a whole are a creative bunch and this creativity is the culprit.  We have a difficult time working on the same thing day after day.  We get bored.  One of the reasons I particularly adore Sampler-type quilts is that each block (or row or border) is different.  If there is one particular block (or row or border) I’m not particularly fond of, I know there’s something different waiting for me in just a few more stitches.  I can ride out the discomfort for a little while and be rewarded soon.  There is no boredom and creativity abounds.

However, I don’t think you can hang all those UFO’s on the creativity peg.  There are other reasons quilters don’t finish what they’ve started.

  • The project is a lot harder than what we thought it was.
  • We decided we didn’t like the fabrics we chose after all (or just got tired of them).
  • We got to a part of the quilt we don’t particularly like to do in any quilt, not just the one we’re working on right now.
  • We think we’ve made too many mistakes.
  • We misjudged, miscounted, mis-ordered, or mis-bought and now we don’t have enough fabric to finish the quilt and we can’t find anymore of what we need anywhere.
  • We simply got bored with the project. 

I’m sure there are even more reasons, but these six seem like a good place to start.  Let’s look at them one by one.

The project is a lot harder than I thought it was.  This is a big issue with beginning quilters and even some veterans like me run into this situation.  I’ve always been a big proponent of quilting classes for beginners.  These classes can break down the solutions to lots of quilting problems into easily managed chunks of knowledge.  However, if you’re working on a quilt at midnight on a Friday, that’s not a great time for a class, let alone calling or texting your teacher with a question about binding.  What I have found very helpful is to Google the name of the quilt pattern in question.  There may be blogs or YouTube videos on it.  Those are invaluable. 

If it’s not the pattern that’s giving you a hard time, but a quilting technique, you’re still in luck.  Google the issue that’s giving you issues…such as binding.  In a matter of seconds literally hundreds of blogs and videos pop up.  Find the one that looks like it suits your needs the best, point, click, and learn.  In my opinion, the internet is still the best tool today’s quilters have in their possession. 

Sometimes it’s not the pattern or a technique that’s the real problem.  Sometimes the methods employed are tedious or take too much time.  I ran into that problem a few years ago with Lucy Boston’s Patchwork of the Crosses.  The original Patchwork of the Crosses quilt is old, and like a lot of our treasured older quilts (think Dear Jane), it was experiencing a resurgence of popularity.  This heyday was at its height a could of years ago when a friend of mine purchased several kits while she was in Florida and brought them back to show us at one of our guild’s quilt bees.  Most of us immediately fell in love with it.  The fabrics were fussy cut and the resulting tiny blocks were simply gorgeous.    I signed up for the kits and began receiving two a month.  I dutifully made them, but after the tenth block, I knew Lucy and her Patchwork Crosses were not for me.  I love to fussy cut, but this fussy cutting was very, very exacting.  And it was English paper pieced – the entire thing.  All the background, every piece of every block…all English paper pieced.

It was too tedious and time-consuming, even for me – and I love hand work.  So, I had a choice.  I could either modify the pattern or…

Sell the whole thing.  By this time, I had about 30 kits.  When another friend mentioned she wished she had gotten in on the bottom floor of Lucy Boston, I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.  I sold her everything – even the blocks I had so painstakingly made.

And I’ve never regretted it.  It wasn’t the fussy cutting that really got to me, it was the English paper piecing.  By this time, I had experienced the joy of Cindy Blackberg’s hand piecing stamps and English paper piecing drove me nuts.  Will I make a return to the Patchwork of the Crosses?  Probably.  It’s still on my Quilting Bucket List.  But this time I will use Cindy’s elongated tile stamp, chose my own fabrics, and it will be a much smaller quilt – not the 56 blocks the original quilt called for.

So, if you’re a veteran quilter and the project just becomes to difficult, you have some options – alter it, give it away, or post it on Ebay.  One quilter’s headache is another quilter’s treasure.  And let me assure you, there is no shame in that game.

We decided we didn’t like the fabrics we chose, or we just got tired of them.  Right now, let me encourage you to go with your gut with your fabrics.  If there is a certain line of fabrics that you always love (such as French General) or a certain type of fabric that makes you happy (like batiks), there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking these fabrics out when you are designing your quilt.  The reason I’m telling you this is a personal experience I had about seven years ago.  A group of ladies I quilted with at Dragonfly Quilt Shop decided to make the quilt Hop to It! by Edyta Sitar.  It’s a wonderful quilt with vines and flowers and berries and this cute, little bunny in the center block.  I was pretty new to this group and let the leader influence me in the fabric selection.  Everyone in that group was using the same fabrics as the leader.  Instead of standing my ground and picking my own fabrics out, I let myself be influenced too much.  As a result, I made three or four blocks and set the thing aside.  As much as I wanted to make that pattern, after about six months, those fabrics got on my last nerve.  The book, my applique patterns, the fabric – everything – is in a large project box in the bottom of my closet with about six other project boxes on top of it.

Will I return to it?  Probably.  With those fabrics?  No.  More than likely they will go in my stash. 

Take my advice.  No matter how pretty the picture looks on the front of the pattern, if you don’t like the fabrics or the colors, you have the option to switch it up.  Make it something you will love or at least can live with for several months. 

We got to the part of the quilt we don’t like on any quilt, not just the one we’re working on right now.  As much as I love to quilt, there are a couple of steps I really have to push myself to get through. I dislike cutting out the quilt most of all.  That’s why I’ve disciplined myself to go ahead and cut my quilt pattern out as soon as I’ve purchased my fabric and prepped them.  This is a good idea for two reasons.  First, it gets the part I like the least over with first.  And I do mean I cut everything – borders (I cut these a little longer and then shorten when I square up my quilt), binding, backing, applique pieces, stems – everything.  If I do this now, then I don’t have to stop and return to the cutting table.  I can keep on sewing and am not tempted to put the thing back in a project box and put it out of sight.

At this point, I also may discover I haven’t purchased enough fabric, or I may mis-cut something and need more fabric.  By cutting the pattern out immediately after making my purchases, I’m pretty much assured that I can still get the additional fabric I need.  Three years later, I may not be so lucky.

The other area I struggle with is binding – the part when you sew it down to the back of the quilt by hand.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy the handwork, it’s just that I would rather be sewing on Big Red or Marilyn or even Loretta.  To get me through this part, I promise myself a large cup of my favorite latte at my favorite coffee shop when I’m done.  I try to find a good movie on Netflix and watch it as I’m hand sewing.  My favorite way to get through this is to take it to a Sit and Sew or Quilt Bee and do it there.  It’s amazing how great handwork can be when you’re chatting it up with friends.

In other words, I develop coping skills to get me through the part I dislike, always with the knowledge that the part of quilting I really enjoy  is just a few stitches away.  My coping mechanisms may not work for you, so search your soul and decide what will motivate you to work through the parts you don’t like and keep you from that project becoming a resident of area 51. 

We think we’ve made too many mistakes.  This can be a real kill-joy.  And a lot of quilters are guilty of this.  It’s easy to look at another quilter’s work and think “She/He is so much better than I am.  I could never to that – or at least do that as well as they did.  Their work is perfect.

No.  No, it’s not.  It can be really close to perfect – great, even – but not perfect.  No one’s quilting is perfect.  Ever.

Every quilt should be a learning experience.  If you come away from any quilt without learning at least a thing or two (even if it’s a little thing, such as this quilt needs three bobbins wound before I start sewing), then that quilting experience has failed you.  I always try to do my best (and I always encourage other quilters to do so, too), but I have never made a perfect quilt.  Every quilt of mine has mistakes in it, even the ones that have won ribbons.  My rule of thumb is this:  If I think I’ve messed up, I set that part aside for 24 to 48 hours and then come back to it.  If whatever the mistake is still bothers me after that, then I redo it.  If not, then to borrow a phrase from Frozen, I “Let it go…” 

My point is this:  If we redo everything we think we did wrong, we will never get anything done at all.  Finished is way better than perfect.  And perfection is a destination none of us will reach this side of Glory. Don’t let perceived mistakes stop you from finishing that project. 

We misjudged, miscounted, mis-ordered, or mis-bought and now we don’t have enough fabric to finish the quilt and we can’t find any more of what we need anywhereQuilters are no different than any other artist.  This happens to us all at one time or another – we run out of material or run short.  Usually this happens late on a Friday night when all the stores are closed and even Amazon Prime can’t promise us our fabric until…oh, maybe Tuesday.  The BEST way to avoid this situation is to do what I have suggested several times:  As soon as you’ve purchased and prepped your fabric (if you’re a pre-washer), go ahead and cut the quilt out.  That part will be over and done and if you’re running short or make a mistake, it can be quickly and easily rectified by another trip to the store or a quick point and click venture on the internet.

But….what if this didn’t happen?  What if, between the time you’ve purchased the fabric and started the quilt, several years go by (hey…life happens…this is a judgement free zone).  Or what if you simply purchased some eye-catching fabric several years ago and now it just works for the quilt you want to make.  In the first situation, a mistake could be made cutting the quilt out or there may be an error in the pattern.  In the second case, you had no idea how much fabric to purchase for the quilt to begin with – you just bought several yards because you liked it.  In either case, now you’re looking at a fabric shortage and it’s breaking your heart.

Don’t despair.  There are a couple of ways to overcome this obstacle.  The first one is the easiest:  Make the quilt smaller.  Instead of making a queen-sized quilt, make a throw, twin, or lap-sized quilt.  This down-sizing should take care of the fabric short shortage. 

However, if you still want to try to keep the quilt the size desired, and if the fabric is several years old, the first place I’d look is Ebay.  Ebay has saved my quilting sanity more times than once.  If it’s not there, try Facebook Marketplace.  And Facebook (I know…it’s a love/hate relationship with good, ol’  FB), has lots of quilting pages that will let you post what you’re searching for.  Most quilters have been in the same situation you’re in, and if they have it in their stash, they’ll either sell it to you at a reasonable price or give it you if you pay postage. 

Just don’t let a fabric shortage permanently derail your project.  There are options out there…work them.

We simply got bored with the project.  This one is a little more difficult to manage because what works to get me out of a boredom funk may not be effective for you.  I can tell you how I manage my quilting life, but again, this works for me.  You know yourself better than anyone and some of what I’m going to suggest may help you, none of it may work, or one or two ideas may be very effective. 

First, I’m not one of those quilters who can work on one and only one project from beginning to end.  I learned early on that I need a minimum of two projects going at one time to keep my interest – one that’s heavily handwork (so it’s portable and can be worked on while watching television) and one that’s primarily machine work (because I do love my machines).  The maximum number of quilts I’m happiest working on at the same time is three.  Currently, that is enough.  There is always another quilt I can turn to if I get bored with the one I’m working on.  Three is also not an overwhelming number to me.  Remember, quilting is not my vocation.  I work full time.  While some women have the wonderful opportunity to spend several hours a day up to their elbows in fabric and patterns, that is not where I am in my life right now.  Three is a comfortable number at this point, but that number may increase when I retire.  So, my suggestion is to have a couple of projects in progress at the same time, this way when you get bored with one you can turn to another.  Then return to the other quilt a bit later. Just don’t have so many in progress that you feel overwhelmed.

Second, I bribe myself.  Don’t judge.  It works.  If I get really stymied on a quilt, I promised myself a cup of my favorite latte or tea, a good piece of chocolate, or something else my little heart desires if I get to a certain point on the quilt pattern.  Often this act of progress is enough to push through the boredom and spur me on to the finish line.  You know what works for you…go with it.

The third thing I do – and this is a completely LAST resort – I put the thing in time out.  I put the quilt top, pattern, and everything else that I need for that quilt in a project box and put that box under my sewing machine table. Why there?  Because I will see it several times a week, and this reminds me that while that project and I are spending some quality time apart, we still need to get back together, and I need to finish it.  And this time apart is not a divorce, it’s a vacation.  I give myself a time limit – three weeks, a month – something reasonable.  I mark it on my calendar.  At the appointed date, I take it back out and resume the making the quilt.  Most of the time, this is all I need.  If not, then I seriously consider finding this project a new home. 

In closing, at this point, I could get really cutesy and trite.  I could tell you to avoid making your studio an alien destination like Area 51 full of UFOs.  But I won’t.  I will tell you this:  Every minute you make time to sew, even if it’s just a few stitches, hastens the end of a project.  It propels you towards the finished line and finished is better than perfect (just ask anyone who’s made a Dear Jane).  Learn how to work your project and what to do with yourself if you get into a funk and can’t seem to finish that project.  This is like a lot of things with quilting – and with life itself – trial and error are the names of the game.  Take the time to find out what works for you.

Until next week, Quilt with Passion!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


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