Hindsight is Always 20/20 (or if I Knew Then What I Know Now)

There’s an old saying many of us turn to when we have to reflect on a past situation  we wish would have played out differently:  Hindsight is 20/20. 

Which means, looking back at what happened then, in the light of present circumstances, we would have made different choices.  At least we think we would.  However, we also have to realize different choices may not have yielded any better results than we got.

I decided to apply this little hindsight exercise to quilting.  For years, I was largely a self-taught quilter.  It was me, my sewing machine, and a few library books.  I learned what works (that whole ¼-inch seam allowance turned out to be pretty darned important) and what didn’t (you can’t always get pencil marks out of fabric).  And as opportunities arose for me to teach beginner quilters, I tried to let them in on all the “secrets” new quilters should know, but may not always find readily available in books or on the internet.  And that’s what my blog is about this week.  Some of you seasoned quilters may quickly scan through this, nod in agreement, and get on with your week.  Others of you who may not have been around the quilt block as long as I have may want to make a few notes.  So, without further ado, here’s my list of quilty things you really need to know now.

  •  Change your needle.  I know I’ve beat this topic to death, but it’s important.  I remember when brought home my very first sewing machine.  I read the manual through the first few pages to learn how to thread the thing and wind a bobbin.

Then promptly tossed it somewhere.  In my newbie mind, I had the information I needed and the rest I could pick up as I went along.  About a month later, my machine started making a weird popping sound.  A trip to the sewing machine tech yielded three important pieces of information:  You need to change the needle after approximately 8-hours of sewing time, there are different needles for different types of fabric, and from time to time, you need to clean your machine.  All of this information was in the manual, if I had taken the time to read the thing. Which I didn’t, which meant I had to fork over $50 (this was 1981) for the tech’s knowledge and cleaning ability. 

After you’ve accumulated about 8 hours of sewing time, change your needle.  Some people change their needle every time they complete a project.  Some roughly track their time.  I know the sounds my machine makes pretty well.  As soon as I hear an odd “pop”, it means I need to switch out the old needle for a new one.  If you sew with titanium needles, you can double your stitch time to 16 hours. 

Also be aware different types of fabric take different types of needles, and  different types of thread take different types of needles.  The very best resource for needles is  This site does sell thread and needles, but it also has an education tab.  Underneath this tab is tons of great information about what thread and needle to use with different fabric, as well as what kind of needle to use with different types of thread.  Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned quilting veteran like myself, time spent on this website is truly time well spent.  You may also find some quilting thread will offer needle suggestions on the spool.

  •  Don’t be afraid to cut the fabric.  Quilter come across some really beautiful fabric.  Our shopping habits run the gamut from on-line sales, to shop hops, to frequent visits to our LQS.  Keepsake Quilting and Pineapple Fabrics are literally within a few miles from my house.  When on vacation or other out-of-town excursions, visiting that location’s LQS generally gets written in the itinerary. 

Long story short, we have fabric.  And once in a while we purchase a piece of fabric we just love.  As a matter of fact, we love it so much, we don’t want to cut it.  I’ve had these types of fabric in my stash.  They made me happy just looking at them.  However, those few yards of fabric aren’t doing anyone a favor by just remaining in our stash.  Don’t be afraid to cut that piece of fabric and put it in a quilt.  I guarantee two outcomes from this.  First, you’ll have a quilt you will really love and use and will make you happy every time you look at it.  Second, you’ll always find another piece of fabric you’ll love just as much – I promise.

  •  Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  Honestly, there are very few mistakes you can make in quilting which can’t be rectified in some way.  As a matter of fact, don’t even call them “mistakes.”  Call them design choices.  Have a difficult time with keeping the beaks intact on your flying geese blocks?  Cut off all the tips.  If they’re all cut off, it looks as if this is the way the quilt was designed. 

Mistakes can be fixed, and we can learn from them.  Don’t let fear of messing up stop you from cutting a favorite piece of fabric or trying out a new pattern. 

  •  Realize it’s not a race.  Probably the biggest issue I have with YouTube quilting videos is that they’re sped up.  We see quilters and designers zipping through blocks and the quilting process at breakneck speeds.  And from our observation, we think this is the way we should be sewing – fast and perfect.  Allow me to let you in a little secret:  Most of the time, these videos are sped up during post-production.  Sew at a pace you’re comfortable with.  Be sure you can stop on a dime if you need to and you’re able to sew a (mostly) straight line.  I am not a fast sewer.  Sewing fast makes me uncomfortable – I feel I can’t control my fabric. 
  • It’s okay to toss the pattern.  Seriously. It’s fine to throw the pattern in the circular file if you want – part of the pattern or the entire kit and kaboodle.  Think about what the pattern tells you.  It lets you know how much fabric you need.  It makes you aware of any special notions.  It tells you how many squares, rectangles, triangles, and/or circles to cut out.  The pattern gives you a pretty good backbone to go by, but you’re not obligated to follow the whole pattern if you don’t want to.  You can always make the quilt larger or smaller than the instructions tell you.  It’s fine to take a block such as this:

And piece the center. 

Certainly read the pattern thoroughly and decide what you will have to change to alter the pattern (more fabric, less fabric, enlarge the blocks, or shrink them), but no one is obligated to follow the directions down to the very last detail.  The instructions didn’t come down from a mountain, written in stone, to be completely and utterly obeyed. 

  •  Remember to hydrate and take a break.  It’s easy to get caught up in anything you love to do and lose track of time.  Hours can click away and it’s often not until we get a twinge in the back or realize we have a dull headache we grasp how long we’ve sat at a sewing machine.  This type of behavior isn’t good for our mind or body.  It’s a good idea to stand up after an hour and move around.  Get a glass of water.  Stretch.  By taking this time to give our bodies a break, we’ll be able to stay at our task longer. 
  • Realize quilting is so much more than the machine.  Don’t get me wrong, sewing machines are great!  I have the new Janome Horizon M7 Continental.  I love that machine.  However, it’s important to understand using a sewing machine is just part of the quilting journey.  And technically, the only stitches a machine really needs to perform for quilting are a straight stitch and a zigzag stitch.  All the bells and whistles on the new machines aren’t even necessary.  Quilting involves accurate measuring and cutting.  It plays with color choice and texture.    It requires attention to detail and creativity.  A sewing machine – state of the art or otherwise – is only a small part of the process. 
  • You need to pin.  Seriously.  Personally, I don’t trust quilters who say they don’t pin.  Either they don’t care what their work looks like or they’re lying through their teeth.  Using pins and knowing the correct way to pin seams, corners, and intersections keeps tips intact, seams meeting perfectly, and maintains the ¼-seam allowance.  With this said, know there are dozens of different types of pins on any sewing notions aisle.  Understanding what each type of pin is used for is important.  Generally, quilters use glass head pins, the long pins with flat, plastic heads, and applique pins.  Pins aren’t one of those super-expensive sewing notions so please purchase good quality pins which don’t feel like small nails and ones that won’t rust.  And for the love of your sewing machine, don’t sew over them.  If your needle hits one, the pin can break your needle.  The pin can become lodged in your feed dogs, or if the pin is hit hard enough, it can throw the timing off on your machine.  Sew right up to the pin, slowing down as you approach it, stop sewing with the needle down, remove the pin, and then resume sewing.  This takes a bit longer than simply zooming down the seam sans pins, but your patience and attention to detail will show in the end.
  • Test everything.  This hint comes from an experienced, former chemistry teacher who has taught more beginning chemistry labs than she will ever admit to.  Test everything to make sure it works exactly the way you need it to.  Thread your machine and stitch out a few stitches on some scrap fabric.  Make a test block out of scrap fabric to be sure it will come out the correct size.  If any of your tools are new (such as the iron, pressing mat, or a new starch or starch substitute), test those, too.  Trust me – this is time well spent and can save you so much possible future frustration. 

  • Pressing with an iron is important.  I realize part of that sentence seems redundant – “with an iron.”  I mean, what else do you press with?  Well, when it comes to quilting there are a couple of tools which can sometimes be substituted for an iron.  If the idea is to move the seam allowance over and out of the way, quilters have been known to use a tool such as this:

When the flat, wooden part is rubbed over the seam allowance, the fabric will lay to one side.  Then there is this:

Which does the same thing.

However, neither of these tools work as well as a regular, hot iron.  Pressing with an iron ensures seam and stitches stay put and greatly improves the look of the block. 

  •  Grainlines are important.  There are three grainlines in all fabric – the crosswise grain (from selvedge to selvedge), the lengthwise grain (from cut end to cut end), and the bias, which is a 45-degree cut across both the lengthwise and crosswise grains.  Most patches which are sewn into block units are cut on the crosswise grain.  Borders work really well when cut on the lengthwise grain.  Bias cuts are great for applique pieces or when true bias binding is needed.  Usually quilt block pieces are so small that that if some grainlines are compromised in block construction, you can get away with it.  However, if the block units are large (such as the background blocks for applique) you want to make sure all of the blocks are cut on the crosswise grain.  Don’t mix them and have part of the blocks cut on the lengthwise and part cut on the crosswise – the quilt will hang cattywampus.  Likewise, cut all the borders on the same grain.  Don’t mix the grainlines or the borders will not lie flat. 

  •   Don’t expect the sewing machine to do all the work for you.  I know this sounds kind of obvious.  The machine can’t cut out the quilt or pick out the fabric or chose the pattern.  However, this isn’t what I’m getting out.  Realize, as much as you perhaps dislike handwork, some parts of quilting require some hand stitching.  I have close quilting friends who despise any hand sewing and have figured out how to do 99 percent of quilt construction via sewing machine.  However, there’s still the one percent which needs a bit of hand work.  It may be sewing the binding closed on the miters at the corners on the front of the quilt, or adding beads, or stitching a label.  Learn how to hand stitch well, keep good hand sewing needles in your stash (they’re not expensive, so buy some good ones), and have some beeswax around to keep the thread from tangling.  If you know how to hand stitch and have the right tools, the process will at least go quickly and then you can return to your machine.
  •  Learn the best way for you to sew a curve.  Generally, when we think about quilts, pictures of blocks, columns, and rows come to mind.  All of these are on the square-ish side of things.  However, it’s important to realize quilts do have their fair share of curves – whether it’s applique pieces such as circles…

Or curves in the blocks themselves. 

At some point, you may face the dilemma of sewing curves.  The great – no, wonderful thing – about quilting is there is more than one way to accomplish a task and the internet is FULL of different techniques you can try in order to find which method works best for you.  I promise I will have a blog on curves up before very long so you can try the techniques I use and see if those work for you or if you need to view other methods.

  •  As you’re sewing, focus on the seam allowance, points, and intersections.  I’ll be the first quilter to admit to you there are some parts about quilting which are boring.  Those long seams around borders are one of the less interesting parts of the process.  However, if you’re mind doesn’t stay in the game, it’s easy for the seam to be sewn crooked, or the fabric to slip out of place and suddenly the borders aren’t attached correctly at all. Which inevitably leads to quality time with your seam ripper (which is really no fun at all).  Pin long seams, focus on keeping both pieces of fabric together as you sew a consistent seam allowance, sew as fast or slow as you feel comfortable with, and take out the pins before you sew over them.  When you come to a point, make sure the seam intersects correctly so the points won’t get cut off.  Make sure the intersections stay nested as you sew over them, so the seams won’t be off.  In other words, even though Netflix may be blaring in the background with the latest true-crime drama, pay attention to what’s literally under the needle.

I hope my “hindsight” glasses are definitely 20/20 for you.  I think these 14 items are good to keep in mind no matter how long you’ve been quilting. 

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,


4 replies on “Hindsight is Always 20/20 (or if I Knew Then What I Know Now)”

As a longarmer, I’ve seen my share of borders that wave. It’s never occurred to me to point out that they should all be cut on the same grain. I like the word cattywampus. It is so perfect for what my fabric can do.

Cattywampus can cover a lot of territory. So can wonky. Discombobulated works well, too. It seems like an AQS judge told me ideally borders should be cut on lengthwise grain, but the main thing is that they are all cut on the same grain.

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