One of the most frequent questions I get asked concerns how I organize myself for projects. There are several answers to this question. A lot of it depends on the project. Some of it depends on where I’m making it (a quilt retreat, a friend’s house, my mom’s home, or my studio). A tad bit even depends on my mood. The one concept which stays constant in all of this is that quilting isn’t my only job. My husband and I own our own demolition and environmental company and I’m the CFO. Some weeks I work 60 hours. Some weeks I may only clock in 20. This forces me to stay semi-organized, so if I can snatch just 15 minutes of sewing time, I can make the most of it.
The first item to discuss is the fabric itself. I’ve come a long way from the corner of my kitchen in the mid-1980’s where I was the Queen of Fat Quarters. I have more room, and thus more fabric. In addition, during the Pandemic shutdown, I’ve done my part to help our quilt stores stay open. I purchased fabric from LQSs across the nation in an effort to keep them up and running and help the owners keep their bills paid and food on the table. I really, really need to sort and straighten again. Let me also put this fact in right here: There are literally hundreds of thousands of ways to store fabric. Google fabric organization and literally hundreds of blogs and pictures will appear with the click of a mouse. In earlier blogs I’ve highlighted the way I purchase fabric and how I organize my vast textile collection. In a nutshell, here’s a repeat: I flat fold anything over a yard. Fat quarters and single yard cuts are folded and wrapped around cardboard inserts used for comic book display (these are way cheaper on Amazon than the cardboard bolts for fabric). And any scrappage 8-inches square or larger is sorted according to color and placed in bins. I do occasionally purchase bolts of fabric and these few items are stored along a wall. The way I store my fabric will differ from the way you store yours due to space. You must make your storage area work for you – it has to be kept semi-organized and you have to be able to see what you have. So, Google and Pinterest ideas until you find something which fits your space and your quilting style. Let me also insert this thought: The storage system which works well for you now, may not work in three years. Be flexible and open to change.
As far as purchasing fabric, my rules of thumb still are the same. If you’re purchasing for a pattern, be aware most or them already allow for the “oops” factor – in other words, they’re giving you several inches of extra in the fabric requirements in case you mess up. There is generally no need to purchase an extra ¼-yard to guard against any cutting or sewing mistakes. If you’re purchasing fabric which has no real clear purpose other than you like it, three yards will usually cover any quilting needs. If you’re buying the material with applique in mind, one yard should do the trick. But if you find a fabric which completely wins your heart over and you simply cannot live without, buy five yards. Why so much? First, five yards will cover its use in at least two quilts. And if you love it enough to buy five yards, you will want to use it in more than one quilt. Second, once a fabric is out-of-print, manufacturers will rarely ever reprint it. Yes, Ebay and Etsy can save your quilting sanity, but why take the chance. In my entire quilting career spanning 34 years, I’ve only known one textile manufacturer to reprint a fabric more than once. And it was a panel, not a fabric line. If you really, really love the material, purchase the entire bolt. I’ve done this a couple of times – primarily it has been for backgrounds/neutrals. I’ve purchased prints twice. And except for the bits and pieces in my scrap bins, every inch has been used.
When I initially discussed my fabric purchases, one item I didn’t include was quilt backing material. It was probably around during that time span, but it never registered with me because I didn’t have a long arm then. I was quilting all my tops on Big Red, who manages pieced backings just fine thankyouverymuch. Enter my long arm, and suddenly backing fabric became important because Leanne prefers it over a pieced back. How do I manage backing fabrics? Backing is wider than regular fabric. Whereas a bolt of “the normal stuff” is 44-45-inches wide, backing fabric can run from 108-inches wide to even wider. Therefore, it does take more shelf space. Typically, I purchase backing fabric as needed, due to the space issue. That, and we all know there may be
months weeks of time between stitching that last seam on a top and putting the first quilting stitch in the sandwich. When a quilt is prepped for Leanne, then a backing is purchased. However, let me throw this out here – quite often you can find a lovely backing fabric for the front of your quilt. With The Fish Almighty quilt I’ve made the DH for Christmas – the background fabric is a backing. And I’m prepping an applique quilt right now and the background is a backing fabric from the Bella Suede line of P&B Textiles. Both of these quilts required significant yardage, and once I crunched the numbers, the backing fabric actually saved me money.
With any fabric which makes it way through my front door, it’s first stop is my washing machine. I’m a pre-washer and if you wonder why, go here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2017/09/01/to-prewash-or-not-to-prewash-thats-the-question/. It’s washed and draped over a drying rack. Once dried, one of two things will happen. If it’s fabric which has been purchased for a future use, it’s ironed and either put on a cardboard insert or flat folded. However, if it’s been purchased with a specific quilt in mind, it’s starched and ironed before I cut it. I don’t starch any fabric until I’m ready to use it. The reason behind this is I use real fabric starch – not Best Press or other starch alternative. And starch can attract bugs. So, the fabric that hangs out with my stash gets a good pressing but no starch. Fabric immediately destined for the cutting mat gets pressed and starched. And then it’s rotary cut according the pattern directions, regardless of whether or not I’m starting the quilt immediately or in a week or three.
I often am asked why I do this – cut everything out when I’m really not sure when I’ll start making the quilt. I do it for three reasons. The first concerns the fabric itself. If there’s a mistake in the fabric requirements or I make major cutting errors, then chances are that particular fabric is still available. Six months from now, this may not be the case. Secondly, cutting the fabric is my least favorite activity about quilting. I’d much rather get it over with. I even cut out the binding. Plus, knowing I have the quilt already cut out and waiting for me in a project box makes me feel all warm and eager to start. The third reason is the project box itself.
I use project boxes. Most of the time they’re either the plastic storage tubs from the dollar store or these (my favorites) from our local office supply place. I have plenty of room in the boxes. I have also come in possession of these:
Also pretty darn perfect and free from a friend.
I’d like to park it here and explain what I put in the project box. There’s the cut-out quilt, of course, and the pattern. However, I also add in any special quilting notions, rulers, templates, etc., to the box. If it’s an applique quilt, I toss in specialty threads, fusible webbing (if needed), and anything else required except my applique tools (which have their own box). If I have the backing at this point, I don’t put it in the box because it takes up too much room. This system makes it super-easy to grab the box and begin the quilt no matter where I’m constructing it – my studio, a friend’s house, my mom’s, or at a quilt retreat. It just makes my quilting life a tad bit easier – I’m not running all over my studio hunting down everything – it’s all nicely packaged together. I realize that bags can be used for this purpose, but for me, it’s easier to see I have everything if I put it in a box.
How I handle the basic supplies is a bit different. I tend to purchase those in bulk. Here’s why: Hancock Fabrics is out of business. There was a Hancock’s near my house and if I needed anything, it was literally 10 minutes to the store and 10 minutes home. But now? Totally different story. Where I live, there are no longer any fabric stores near me (and I’m not counting Hobby Lobby – their line of sewing notions is limited). If I run out of something, I’m doomed until I can get some delivered or make the 20 – 30 minute trek across town. Thus, I purchase the basics – such as thread, needles, and bobbins – in bulk.
Big Red is my primary sewing machine, and I always have her threaded and ready to go. One of the great things about quilting verses garment making is thread. When you make clothes, the thread has to harmonize with the fabric. With quilting, you’re primarily working with neutrals. I always make sure I have a stash of black, dark gray, light gray, and beige-ish thread. However, the one neutral missing in that list is white. I don’t – as a rule – use white thread unless the entire quilt is white. A beige or ecru thread will blend with the white and any other color put with it. If the light gray thread is super-light, it will work just as well. The fact that quilters can use these standard colors is great because we can take serious advantage of thread sales. You all know I’m a thread snob and I like long-staple thread. If I run across a great thread sale, I can use it to my full advantage and none of the thread will languish in my thread cabinet. It will all be used.
Another kind of thread-snobby thing I do is purchase pre-wound bobbins. I know I can wind my own, but the pre-wounds have so much more thread on them than any bobbin you can wind on your sewing machine or a bobbin winder. It saves me time and – in the long run – thread. Like the spools of thread, I can purchase my pre-wounds in the basic quilting neutrals and take full advantage of the sales. I purchase my pre-wounds from Superior Thread (go here https://www.superiorthreads.com/). They have a great selection of both bobbin styles and colors and wonderful customer service. They also tend to run sales pretty regularly, so at least go to their website and get yourself put on their email list, so you’ll know when these happen.
While we’re talking about buying in bulk, you may also want to do the same with the sewing machine needles which are used in your primary sewing machine. Big Red likes Schmetz or Organ. Superior Threads has both brands of these needles in the size I use the most – microtext, quilting, and topstitch needles.
I am prepping a future blog on setting up your sewing space, but I will share this bit of organizational wisdom right here: Command Hooks are your bestest friend. I use these in lots of areas in my studio, but the one which is the most useful is this:
It’s on the left side of Big Red and my small sewing scissors hang there. I place them on the hook after each sewing session, so when I return to my studio, I know exactly where they are.
Keeping your sewing space organized is important, and what works for me may not work for you. No matter what storage system you use or how you set up your sewing machine area, it’s important to keep a few commonalities in mind:
- As much as possible, have your fabric arranged so you can see it. With some studios, such as mine, my fabric is out in the open. But once upon a time, it was in a cabinet. Wherever it is, just make sure you can eyeball it and know what you have. I have mine arranged by color (except for holiday fabrics). This works for me. But I also know quilters who have their fabric arranged by designer and/or family. It’s whatever system works best for you.
- Find a way to keep your project(s) organized. For me, boxes work best. Some quilters use 1-inch deep trays. The main concept behind this type of organization is to save yourself time. If you can employ a project storage system which allows you to keep your quilt, the pattern, and any required notions such as specialty thread, templates, or particular rulers together, this will save you a lot of time in the long run. Future you will thank the past you for keeping all this stuff together, so you don’t have to run it down when you’re ready to quilt.
- Be consistent with your fabric. If you’re a pre-washer, wash all your fabric before you store it. This is a good idea for two reasons. First, you’ll never wonder if it has been prewashed and second, when you’re ready to cut the quilt out, this step is already taken care of and you’ve saved some time.
- You’ll never regret having a good supply of quilting basics, such as rotary blades, machine needles, thread, and pre-wound bobbins. I look at it this way – remember when COVID started and everyone was making grocery store runs for toilet paper? For years my family poked fun at my tendency to purchase this commodity in bulk, especially after both Meg and Matt left home and it was just Bill and me. They don’t any longer. You’ll never regret having a stash of machine needles on a Friday night at midnight in the middle of a quilting session and your needle breaks. If you have a stash tucked away somewhere in your sewing area, you can keep on stitching until the sun rises without waiting for the fabric store to open on Saturday or Amazon Prime to deliver them on Sunday. The items I’ve listed are consumables. Sooner or later they’ll all be used and used up.
- Keep you sewing area as organized as possible. At least know where your pins, seam ripper, stiletto, and scissors are. The Command Hooks work great for me, but you may want to use something else. Bottom line is this – know where they’re at so you don’t lose time looking for them. And put them back where you keep them after your sewing session is over.
The simple steps I’ve written about in this blog has saved me time and sanity. Quite often I only get a few minutes a day in my studio and I try to make every second count. Knowing my fabric is ready and I have everything I need at my finger tips allows me to make the most of my time.
Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting,
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam
PS — Standard disclaimer applies. I am not employed nor to I receive any free products from Command Hook, Superior Thread, Amazon, or any other companies listed in any of my blogs. I recommend and support suppliers and companies which I use on a regular basis that offer consistently wonderful products and stellar customer service.