It’s Sew Time (or Finding Time to Quilt in an Increasingly Fast-Paced World)

I’ve quilted well over thirty years now.  Blogged about it for at least 12 years.  And as much as I’ve written about color choice, technique, and hints, there’s one question I get asked consistently:

How do you make time to sew?

Believe it or not, this is a difficult question to answer, because I’ve quilted throughout lots of stages in my life.  I began when my children were babies, continued through teaching and grad school, kept it up when I was running a school, and now as CFO of a company.  I’ve hardly missed a stitch no matter what stage of life I was at.  I’ve mentioned before quilting calms and centers me better than almost anything else, so I’ve always made time for it.

Someone else asked me this question again over the Fourth of July holiday week, and I kind of half-heartedly answered it:  I make time, it’s a priority, yada yada yada…  However, I really begin seriously considering this topic.  And I came to the conclusion no matter what stage of life I was in, there were always a few tricks I had up my sleeve which helped me  carve out a few minutes to sew.  I want to share these tips with you, because life seems to get busier and busier, and it’s easy to think a hobby such as quilting can be delayed or postponed – that in the long run of everything-else-is-more-important, it can wait.  However, if you’re passionate about the art, you know as well as I do, you gotta make time for it in order to keep your sanity.  So here are my tried-and-true ways to carve out some time to quilt.

  • Block out some time

This is way easier said than done, I know.  And since I don’t live your life, I can only offer suggestions via the way I do this, and you have to take these ideas and make them work for you.  I have made a commitment to myself to quilt a minimum of 20 minutes a day.  Twenty minutes is a workable amount of time and you’d be surprised how much you can get done in those few minutes.  When my kids were at home and I was “Mom’s Savings and Loan and Taxi Service,” I’d get up about a half an hour early, shower, and quilt.  Then I’d rouse the kids, pack the lunches, throw something in the crockpot for dinner, and herd everyone out the door for school.  This was a sure-fire way to get in my quilt time and it made me a much more pleasant person to live with the rest of the day.  Once everyone got home from school, we’d do homework, eat dinner, and then read and hang out as a family until time for bed.  At this point, the only person literally losing sleep over my quilting was me. 

And it was amazing how much I got done in those 20-30 minutes. 

Now, with my kids all grown up and gone, I’m more flexible.  I certainly don’t get up earlier now, but I do look at my day and plan when would be the best time.  If my mornings are super-busy with meetings and work, then I shoot for the afternoon or evening.  The first part of my week is always much busier than the later part of the week.  Weekends are really flexible.  Somedays I can get the entire 20 minutes or more in at one sitting.  Other days, I have to break it into several sessions. 

The important take-away is this:  Commit to a time block for your sewing.  Realize this isn’t written in stone – you may get sick or a loved one may be ill; you may have out-of-town company – and you can’t keep the commitment every day.  But carve out some time to put needle to thread.  Write it down.  Put it in your iPhone reminders.  And stick to it as much as you can. 

  • Turn off distractions

For those few minutes, ignore texts, Facebook messages, phone calls, emails, and anything else which may grab your attention.  Focus solely on your project.  I admit this is difficult for me, because I am of that generation who was raised to answer the phone, answer the mail, and do it as promptly as possible.  I learned to give myself permission not to do this – chances are, unless it’s a real emergency, these folks can wait for twenty minutes.  Another helpful hint here is to be choosy about what you watch while you quilt.  YouTube can be a big culprit.  This social medial platform has “snippets” of videos and often one of these “snips” can be shorter than your committed sewing time.  When this happens with me, I find myself searching for something else to watch, and wasting valuable sewing time.  If you’re YouTubing, make sure the video is long enough or bleeds into another video you’re interested in.  Personally, I’m Team Audible.  Recorded books can go on uninterrupted for hours

  • Organize your space

Most quilt studios are simply pictures of beautiful, colorful chaos.  We have two or three or more projects under construction and it’s near impossible for the untrained eye to understand that yes, we do know where everything is! And we do.  Most of the time. 

It does save a lot of time if you have a resting place for all the tools you use regularly:  Scissors, seam ripper, stiletto, needles (hand and machine), pins, thread, etc.  Always return these to your storage spot at the end of every sewing session so there won’t be a mad hunt for them during your next sewing session. 

Those of you who are long-time readers of my blog know I am a big proponent of project boxes.  I keep my cut-out quilts, thread, and any specialty notions in them.  This keeps everything together, so I don’t have to hunt them down.  If you’re not into boxes, or don’t have room for them, keep everything you need for a project in a bag or somewhere in your studio can access them.  This saves so much time!

  • Take advantage of margins

Remember this?

Notebook paper.  It comes in regular ruled and college ruled.  We use the center of it for lots of things – take notes, work equations, write letters – the list is endless, including making lists.  There are two red lines on the right and left side of the paper to denote left and right margins.  The left margin has the hole punches, and the right margins are blank.  In school, we were instructed not to write in the margins.  This empty space hung on either side of the center for teachers to write in or us to doodle in. 

Our lives are like notebook paper.  In the center are all the things we have to get done.  Work, chores, shopping, cooking.  But there are little snippets of time along the way which are completely blank – our time margins.  A few minutes while you’re waiting on a return call, a couple extra minutes  before dinner is done. Take advantage of those to put in a few stitches here and there.  I always keep handwork out and available.  It’s super-easy to grab this if I’m on a phone call or have a few minutes here or there.  A couple of minutes isn’t a lot of time, but you’ll be surprised how much you can get done in that space. 

  • Determine if you’re a morning person or evening person

Some people are “springers” and others are “creepers.”  Some are early birds, and some are night owls.  If you bounce out of bed at daylight like Tigger, chances are you’re a morning person.  If your disposition is more like Eeyore, more than likely you’re a night owl. 

I’m at my best in the morning (especially after a hot shower and a cup of hot coffee).  Anything which requires accuracy or is pretty complicated, I need to undertake it before lunch.  So, if I need to cut out a quilt, construct some Y-seams, or fussy cut, I am much better and more accurate with it in the mornings.  I save my “mindless” tasks, such as chain piecing or hand applique for the evenings. 

Examine what time of day you have the most clarity and plan your harder, more complicated quilting tasks then.  You’ll breeze through them with more accuracy and in less time than if you put them off and try to do them during a more low-focus period.

  • Breakdown projects into like tasks and groups of tasks

For me, this is the step which saves me the most time.  When I start a quilt, the first step I take is to read through all the directions.  Then I mark the directions up according to tasks – this is strip piecing, this is half-square triangles, this quilt needs so many circles, etc.  Since I’m not the type of quilter who only works on one quilt a time until it’s completed, it’s feasible I may have a couple of quilts which needs half-square triangles or strip piecing or circles. 

Then I decide which step will take the most time – in this instance, it’s the circles because I’ll either use Applipops or Perfect Circles. Now I look at my calendar.  The one night I have the most time is Monday.  Unless I have an executive board meeting with my guild, most Monday nights are wide open.  That would be the best time to work on all the circles, not just those for a specific quilt.  The next step which takes some time is half-square triangles.  Friday nights are generally always open, so I’ll schedule all of those for Friday.  The strip piecing takes the least time, and it’s something I can do at my Zoom and Sew on Tuesday night.  Wednesdays and Thursdays are held open for class work (I’m taking three classes right now) or quilting on Dolly or LeAnne. 

It may take a bit of time to organize your quilt week (this is something I do on the weekends), but I can’t tell you how effective this is.  If you come away with nothing from my blog but this step, you will save yourself massive amounts of time.

  • Use a timer

A timer was my best friend when I had little ones at home.  If they needed to read 30 minutes a night, I’d set the timer.  This eliminated being asked fiftyhundredmillionity times if reading time was over.  When the timer dinged, they were done.  Dentist said to brush your teeth for five minutes each night?  Timer employed.  Cake in the oven and I needed to pull weeds?  Timer in the apron pocket saved dessert from becoming a burnt offering. 

I also have discovered a timer is a good friend to keep in your quilt studio.  Of course, now most of us have Siri on our phones (or some other app) which will set a timer for us if we ask.  I generally set a timer for 15 minutes and during that time, I straighten and throw away.  When I begin my 20 minutes of concentrated, undisturbed sewing, I sometimes use a timer for this, too.  If I have a lot on my mind or there are other tasks which are stealing my attention, the timer helps me focus for 20 solid minutes.  If you’re easily distracted or are pulled in a thousand different directions, the timer may be a huge help.

  • If possible, make parts of your project portable

If you’re strictly a piecer (unless you’re piecing by hand), this may not be possible.  However, if you like hand applique or have a small-ish quilt to bind, try keeping those parts of your quilt together in a bag you can pick up and take with you.  My hand applique is always kept portable in a tote with all my supplies.  If I’m heading to my QBFF to sew, this bag is grabbed.  Likewise, if we’re heading out for a trip (I can sew while the hubs drives). 

When my children were younger, I kept handwork in the car.  I would work on it while waiting for them to get out of dance class, music lessons, or ball practice.  It was amazing how much I could get done in during this time. 

  • Be smart when it comes to your stash and supplies

In many ways, quilters have it easier than other sewing enthusiasts.  We tend to use beige, gray, black, or white thread.  We always need a neutral fabric.  And we don’t have to worry about someone outgrowing what’s under our needle before we get it done.  These characteristics of quilting allow us the awesome opportunity to keep standard supplies on hand in bulk, which means if we break a sewing machine needle at 8 p.m. on a Friday evening, we don’t have to wait for the LQS or a big box store to open the next morning.  We simply reach into our bulk supplies, pull out another needle, and keep sewing – saving time and in the long run, money (because it’s always cheaper to buy in bulk).

I think it’s good to purchase the following supplies bulk:

Thread (dark gray, light gray, white, ecru, and black)

Sewing machine needles

Rotary cutter blades

Marking pens/pencils

Pre-wound bobbins (if you use them)

Your favorite fusible

Starch and/or starch substitute

It’s always great to have these extra supplies on hand, and none of them take up a whole lot of room, even if they’re purchased in bulk. As a matter of fact, you could fit most of them into one drawer. 

Fabric stash is entirely personal and subjective.  I try to keep the basic neutrals (white, black, beige, and gray) on hand in three-yard cuts.  These may be tone-on-tone or low-volume prints. And three-yard cuts don’t take up a great deal of space.  However, those neutrals may be a great jumping off point for a quilt. 

The last item I keep on hand is a spare iron.  At this point, allow me to explain my iron issues.  I am hard on irons.  They invariably get knocked around or knocked off my pressing area.  For this reason, I don’t purchase expensive irons.  I make a Target, Walmart, or Goodwill/Thrift Store run and purchase two of the cheapest irons available.  I use one and store the other because invariably at some point, the iron I’m using will die an ignominious death and I will need another.  It’s so much easier just to pull out the spare iron and keep working.  I also don’t keep water in my iron.  This can cut down on the iron’s life span (even if it doesn’t get knocked off the ironing board).  If I need steam, I use a spray bottle and water. 

  • The freezer and a slow cooker or insta-pot are your BFF.

I still do most of the cooking around my house, which can seriously cut into my sewing time.  I try – to the best of my ability anyway – to have a few frozen meals stuck back in my freezer or have the supplies to make a crockpot or insta-pot dinner.  If there’s a day when I really have pull some serious time on a quilt, either a frozen lasagna or spaghetti comes out of the freezer, or I find some boneless chicken breasts and throw them in the slow cooker with a can of cream-of-something soup, a packet of onion soup mix or ranch dressing mix, and a half-a-cup of white wine.  Six hours later, dinner is done, and you have uninterrupted sewing time.

These are a few of the ways I make time to get in some stitching time.  Some days I feel like I’m constantly pulled in so many different directions, I never get anything substantive done.  However, a few stitches here and there really add up.  I hope you can use my suggestions in your own quilt studio!

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,


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