Sustainable Creativity

The subject of this blog is “Quilter’s Block,” not “Quilt Block.”  Don’t get the two phrases confused, they are very different.  A quilt block is a quilt block.  A unit of a quilt top.

Quilter’s block is not a part of any quilt.  It’s that thingie which invades your creative space and keeps you from making the quilt you want.  It’s a dam holding back your creativity.  It’s the death-knell to your inspiration.  I sort of hit on this subject way back in 2019 when I wrote this blog: I talked about when your desire to quilt has left the building.  When you have no craving at all to handle fabric, thread, and needle.  A bad case of lost quilting mojo means you may never quilt again.  A less severe case means it may be a while before you do.

Quilter’s block isn’t quite like that.  With quilter’s block, the desire to quilt is there, but you just don’t know what to do.  You wander aimless up and down the aisles of a quilt shop, and none of the fabric speaks to you.  You hole yourself up in your quilt studio only to spend hours lost on YouTube or Pinterest.  You leave without putting in a stitch.  If you’re at this place now, or you’ve been there and got the t-shirt from the trip, don’t despair.  We’ve all had quilter’s block at one time or another.  And instead of giving you a hot, hip list of all the mental exercises you can put yourself through to get rid of quilter’s block, I want to try to explain the creative process (which in many ways is like nailing Jello to a wall), which may in the long run, allow you to understand why creative people think and react the way they do, and how to deal with yourself when the creative spigot is turned off.

In my world, there are three types of quilters:

  1.  The ones who follow the pattern to the letter – down to either using the exact same fabrics the designers used or purchasing material as close to the designer’s fabric as possible.
  2. Those quilters who veer from the pattern a bit – they may alter a few of the blocks, enlarge or reduce, make the border their own, etc. Minor alterations, but the pattern is followed about 70 percent of the time.
  3. The quilters who are not even in the same room as the pattern – they consider the directions a jumping off point (such as how much fabric to buy), but overall, the pattern is merely a suggestion, that is if they use a pattern at all

If you read the above characteristics with broad strokes, it’s easy to think the third category of quilters are not only the most creative, they’re also the smartest quilters – I mean radically altering a quilt pattern or even designing your own is a fairly detailed process, right? 

Yes and no.  It is a process, but it’s not too complicated.  If you have a grasp of basic math skills (and I’m talking addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication and know how to use a calculator), you can alter almost any pattern and can certainly design your own quilt.   The fact is creativity has nothing to do with intelligence.  Once you get past an IQ of 120 (which is only slightly about average), creativity and intelligence are not related at all.  Allow me to give you a personal example.

I taught high school science for years.  One of the perks of this (or at least what I considered a perk), was I got to help judge middle and elementary school science fairs. 

I loved elementary school science fairs.  Crowded gymnasiums filled with kids, their science fair backdrops, cool experiments, and chattering excitement.  These students were excited (meh – at least over all excited) about their experiments and projects.  After you’ve judged these things a few times, you know the drill.  The students who the teachers feel have done a particularly good job with the presentations, the hypothesis, experiments, and reports are strategically placed so you see them first and they’re easy to get to.  This allows the judges to spend a bit more time with them before they check their watches and find out they need to hurry along before judging is over.  And I’ll be honest with you here – those kids did tend to take home the ribbons and move to the next level of competition. 

However, it wasn’t those kids who fascinated me.  It was the kid in the corner who honestly, really had a brilliant and probably original idea, but didn’t know quite how to execute it as well as the kids who were now flaunting ribbons.  These were the students I spent extra time with after the fair was over because I knew in all probability, it was going to be those kids who grew into the adults who would rock our scientific world. 

What does this example tell us?  Both groups of kids – the one in the corner and the one with a ribbon pinned to their backdrop – were of at least average intelligence.  However, the one with the ribbon was probably more creative.  They could execute idea and package it attractively.

So you see, intelligence and creativity actually have very little to do with each other.

Creativity has been defined as “A joyful willingness to engage with the world.  It’s a fearless state of alertness to detail.” (Peter Himmelmann, Forbes, April 16, 2018).  While our creativity isn’t determined by our intelligence, it is fostered by our openness to a given situation.  We’ve seen this played out again and again when fabric shopping with friends.  We can look at a piece of fabric and think it’s the ugliest, homeliest, awfullest thing we’ve ever seen.  We mutter under our breath “What in the world was the designer thinking?  Do they need glasses?”  Another quilter in our group will purchase three yards of that fabric, go home, and turn it into one of the prettiest quilts we’ve ever seen.  Same fabric, different level of openness.

As quilters, it’s important to keep ourselves open to the possibilities of a pattern and fabric.  Found a quilt pattern you like?  Great!  However, are there a few things you’d like to change about it?  Does it have a block unit or technique you really would prefer not to execute?  Redraw the blocks or block units to what you want.  Better yet, draw a complete quilt top you’d like to make.  The sketch doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to reflect what you’d like the quilt to look like.  Then break it down into blocks, and then the blocks into block units.  Keep yourself open to the possibilities.  The one tenant I continually emphasize in my blogs is this:  The pattern is merely a suggestion.  It’s the place you begin, not necessarily the place you finish.  Make your quilt yours. 

It’s also important we don’t evaluate while we create.  Evaluating while you’re trying to create it is a bit like trying to drive your car forward when it’s in park – it doesn’t work.  Creating means you’re playing with new ideas, visualizing what you want to make, planning it, and considering all the possibilities.  Evaluating means you’re analyzing and judging.  You’re picking apart ideas and sorting them into piles of good or bad, useful or not useful.  So as you begin the process of creating your quilt, pull your fabrics with abandon.  Audition them.  Keep out all the ones you think will work – even if it’s more than you need.  Shelve the fabric you won’t use. 

Then leave them alone for 24 hours or longer.  Go back and narrow the field to what you need.  Make your blocks.  Lay them out the way the pattern suggests.  Then play with the arrangement.  Use your phone to take pictures of the different layouts.  Then once again, give yourself 24 hours or longer to “stew” over the possibilities.  Now begin to evaluate. 

In this creative/evaluating process, there is always room for you to catch your breath.  Instead of deciding on your fabric and immediately launching into the cutting process, you’re allowing your mind to “breathe.”  While you may be moving onto other things, your subconscious mind is still evaluating.  When you return to your fabric choices or layout, the creative side of your brain has done remarkable work.  Now it’s possible to narrow decisions and decide what really pleases you. 

Personally, I think the worst quilting mistakes I’ve ever made (although to the viewers these blunders may not be visible), is rushing the creating/evaluating process.  I either evaluate while I’m making my initial choices, or I evaluate too soon.  A 24-hour time span works best for me.  Yours may be shorter or longer.  But the more you allow yourself “breathing” room between creating and evaluating, the more tuned in you become to what works best for you in this process.  The important take away here is this:  There should be a clear separation between creating and evaluating. 

We should also be cautious about how we listen to “experts.”  There are many quilters who have plied their art for a long, long time and I truly consider them the “Grand Masters” of our field.  These are the quilt teachers, best-selling authors, YouTube stars, and noted fabric and pattern designers of our world.  And yes, they are truly worth listening to and taking note of.  I’ve taken their classes, read their blogs, and have their books.  However, following anyone’s advice to the letter can stifle creativity.  Listen to what your gut is telling you about your quilt.  Some of the most successful people in the world did what people told them would never work.  Some of what I consider the best quilts I ever made are the ones I truly listened to my heart and gut and went with those verses the pattern or the designer.  With this thought, we need to be cautious about how we view failure.

Fear of failure – wasting resources and time – is like putting a wet blanket on a burning creative fire.  The thought of “What if this doesn’t work, and I’ve wasted all this fabric and time on nothing?” is real.  We all face this thought.  And none of us want to waste material or time.  So with this fear, let me remind you of the wonderful athlete, Babe Ruth.  During his athletic career, Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs.  I realize this record has been broken, but it’s still an outstanding number of home runs, and for years he was known as the King of Home Runs.

However, did you know he was also the Master of Strikeouts?  See, the Babe never swung for singles or doubles – he only swung that bat with the thought of making another home run.  He thought it was worth the risk of failure (striking out) to be successful (homeruns). 

If you avoid failure, you won’t be successful in anything.  Be okay with your mistakes.  If you take more chances, you’ll have more gorgeous, wonderful quilts than you know what to do with.  And those quilts with mistakes – don’t toss them.  Quilt them up and use them as charity quilts or cuddle quilts or gentle reminders risks are always worth taking.  Failure is as much a part of the creative process as successes are.

Not my studio….

The creative process also means finding your Zen in the middle of chaos and confusion.  Sometimes the best description of my quilt studio is this:  There appears to have been a struggle.  In the middle of making a quilt (usually several quilts at one time), to the casual observer my studio is a mess.  Fabric is everywhere, papers are strewn, and my design board makes no sense at all. 

But it all makes sense to me, and that’s the most important thing.  While to others (including my long-suffering husband) it may look like a quilt store threw up in my studio, I know exactly what I’m doing.  After the project is complete, I will clean it all up and it will return to its former state of tidiness, but when I’m pushing through the process, it often appears quite chaotic.  While you’re pulling fabric, designing, and redesigning your quilts, realize your studio may look like mine.  But keep in mind there will be time to return everything to its rightful place. 

Now, after reading all of this you decide to take the leap and veer from the quilt pattern directions.  You’re excited to put your stamp on this quilt but also a little leery you’ll make a huge mess of the whole thing.  Let me offer four pieces of advice.  First, have confidence in your abilities.  I’ve mentioned several times in my blogs making a quilt is like eating an elephant – you can do it as long as you take it one bite at a time.  In other words, don’t look at the entire quilt while you construct it.  Look at it one unit at a time, one block at a time, and then one row at a time.  This way you not only keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed, but also are able to concentrate on only what’s under your needle.  If you want to change a block and use half-square triangles instead of set-in seams, you just need to remember a half-square triangle is a half-square triangle no matter what quilt it’s in.  You pick your favorite construction method and get down to business.   A flying geese is a flying geese.  A four-patch is a four-patch.  Take it one step at a time and realize you know how to make those units.  Yes, a little self-doubt is good for the soul – it does keep you on your toes – but it shouldn’t stop you from changing things up a bit

Second, realize very, very few things are impossible in the world of quilting.  You may think your idea seems crazy at first, and you may wonder if your concept will work, but nothing is impossible.  Don’t even let the word “impossible” dwell in your mind.  Instead divide your quilt world into two categories:  Things I’ve Tried and They Worked and Things I Haven’t Tried, but I’m Pretty Sure Will Work.  This sounds much more positive and workable.  And truthfully, it is accurate.  Every quilter has had to back track and change things, but in the end usually a wonderful quilt is the result.  Ignore the word impossible and get on with it.

While you’re ignoring the impossible, also ignore the discouragers.  This is my third piece of advice.   No matter what you do in life, there always will be some people who tell you it’s impossible, it won’t work, or you can’t do it.  I’ve quilted over thirty years, and during this time, I’ve discovered most quilters are extremely positive people who encourage each other.  But there’s always that one…who no matter what… will find something wrong with everything.  Including your quilt or your quilting ideas.  Ignore these quilty lemons.  Every road to victory is paved with predictions of failure.  And keep this little mental tidbit in mind:  Once you have a great quilt under your belt, full of your creativity, your ideas, and your skills, those naysayers will probably shut up.

And good riddance to them.

Fourth, avoid analysis paralysis.  This means don’t spend so much time thinking about what you want to do and cramming your brain with so much information that you decide the risk is too much and you back out of your decisions.  Yes, information is knowledge, but knowing what could possibly go wrong with each step can make attempting the project seem not worth it. Remember, chances are what could go wrong – the mistakes you might possibly make – more than likely won’t happen.  The risks are worth the rewards. 

The last few thoughts I’d like to leave you with are ideas to nurture your creativity.  For quilters, pretty fabric, viewing beautiful quilts, and talking to other quilters are all part of this creativity sustainment.  However, there are a few additional, non-quilt-related activities you can undertake which will also help foster your creativity. 

  • Exercise more – Often the more you sit around, the more lethargic and unmotivated you feel.  The key is to realize when you actually need rest and when you’re avoiding physical activity.  If you’re not really tired, make time to move around more than you normally do. Instead of implementing a strict workout routine (unless that’s your thing), just make sure your day involves some gentle forms of exercise.  Take a walk, do some stretching…changing your environment by moving around helps you see things from a different perspective.  This is why I encourage you to take a break from quilting after you’ve sewn an hour.  Get up.  Stretch.  Hydrate.  You’ll find you’re a better quilter for it.
  • Cut out mindless entertainment – If you are what you eat, are you also what you watch?  If you opt for more creative entertainment, rather than mindless stuff all the time, it will have a positive impact on your creativity.  It’s not that you shouldn’t have some completely mindless entertainment at times (because we all do), just balance that with some good movies, good books, and quilty YouTube channels, too. 
  • Follow your inner voice – Listening to your inner voice can be simplest way to overcome stifled creativity.  Treat all your “crazy” ideas as valid, rather than immediately dismissing them.  You can always dismiss them later if they turn out not to be the best option. But first, give them a chance.  Brainstorm how you can follow through on an idea so you can accomplish your goal.  It might not look anything like your original quilt idea, but you’ll discover this by taking time to imagine the different possibilities. 

I realize I’ve discussed creativity in broad strokes.  I’ve touched on quilting with some of these strokes and in others I’ve left the ideas solely up to you.  The primary issue I want you to come away with is this:  Use all the creativity you have in a quilt.  Don’t be afraid to switch things up.  There are honestly very few quilting “mistakes” which cannot be fixed.  And with every goof, there are valuable lessons learned.  You’ll never reach your full potential in anything until you push yourself out of your comfort zone. 

Until next week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,


8 replies on “Sustainable Creativity”

Good post – I like your advice. Here’s something I read recently on creativity: When blocked, stop looking at other people’s quilts. Quit scrolling through Pinterest and get out in the world instead. Your bullet points are right on target.

Thank you! I am a novice quilter. I desire to learn that I boggle my mind with doubt and anxiety. So, between not wanting to screw up a quilt and health issues, I am privy to both blocks. It describes me to a t. Thank you very much for this blog. E

You’re welcome! Couple of things you may want to consider as a new quilter — and things I certainly wish I would have known when I was a new quilter. One — master the easy blocks first. Make four patches and nine patches and churn dash blocks. These help you learn how to nest seams, make half-square triangles and aren’t too overwhelming. Once you’re comfortable with these, take on harder blocks. Two, realize that it’s really super difficult to completely mess up a quilt so bad that something can’t be salvaged. Concentrate on one block unit at a time, and then the block. This may help with the anxiety.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment!

Thank you from the bottom of my wilting heart! I realize the caption on that sewing studio says not your studio, but it is mine! I got a lot out of your blog. Specifically, I realize I do a lot of the things you suggest. I’m not only feel a part of the wonderful world of quilting, but I also feel a tad bit validated in my approach❣️

Feel the validation!!!!! One of the wonderful things about quilting is there are so many approaches and none of them are wrong! It’s all about what works best for you!! I am so happy you enjoyed my blog and thank you so much for reading and then taking the time to comment on it. It means a lot!

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