Prep Work Makes All the Difference

I get asked a lot of questions about my quilts and my quilting.  Some of those inquiries really only need a paragraph or two to fully answer.  I tend to collect these and when I have between ten and a dozen I write a blog and answer all of them at once.  However, on occasion I get asked a question which merits an entire blog.  This is one of those occasions, and the question asked is “How do you prep your quilts?”  My first thought was the person wanted to know how I readied my quilt for the long arm.  But no, this person wanted to know how I organized my quilt units for maximum efficiency when I sat down to sew.

Ohhhh booyyy.  Maximum efficiency.  Some days I have it and some days I don’t.  In the words of that great lyricist, Mary Chapin Carpenter – Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug. I’ll be honest, I don’t have all the answers to this efficiency dilemma and what works for me may not work for you.  Each studio set up is different and each person works at a different pace.  Some people can work steadily for an hour or two and then feel the need to get up and stretch.  Some can only manage twenty or thirty minutes at a time.  I can tell you I had to develop a system which not only allowed me to put in some serious work in short spurts of time, but also set me up for longer periods of time without interruption.  I am not retired.  I work full time at the company my husband and I own.  I know Monday and Tuesdays are my most difficult days and those are the times I may not finish pushing paperwork until late in the evening.  Wednesdays are lighter and so are Thursdays.  Work on Friday is virtually non-existent.  Weekends are pretty much wide open.  This means at the first part of the week, I may only have thirty minutes or less to sew.  The other days are more flexible.  Regardless, I like to have things semi-organized so when I can sew, I make the most of it. 

My quilting world is divided into three types of quilts: Kits, Pieced, and Applique.  How I organize each depends on the type of quilt.  Let’s start with kits.

I treat all quilt kits the same way:  As soon as I get them into my studio, I open them up and make sure I have all the fabric listed and the amount included matches what directions state should be there.  Let me add this caveat here:  Most quilt kits are just fine and dandy.  The amount of fabric included in the kit is what’s stated on the pattern.  As a matter of fact, there’s usually a bit more.  However, mistakes can be made anywhere along the way, so measuring to make sure you have what you need is always a wise thing to do.  No matter if it’s one block from a 12-month block of the month program or an entire kit, this is time well-spent.  And as much as everyone knows I’m a pre-washer I don’t prewash the fabric in a kit.  Even though you usually have a bit more than you need, prewashing does cause the fabric to shrink a bit.  I would err on the side of caution and plan to throw several color catchers in my washer the first time I wash the quilt. 

If the unthinkable occurs and I am short a few inches or an entire piece of fabric, I immediately email or call the website or store where I purchased the kit.  They will supply you with additional fabric and in some cases replace the entire kit.  The sooner this is done the better.  If the kit is an especially popular one, it could sell out completely and additional fabric may not be available.  I’ll also add this – Ebay and Etsy can save your quilting sanity.  Sometimes you can find additional kits or kit fabric on these sites.  I’ve found Ebay to be especially helpful if I am working with a kit which is several years old. 

Moving on to non-kitted pieced and applique quilts… I treat both quilts alike in a couple of ways.  First, I make sure all my fabric is prewashed.  Second, with both quilts I cut out all the blocks and block units before I take my first stitch.  I have some sound reasoning behind this.  Of all the quilting steps which must be taken, I dislike the cutting out part the most.  I would rather get it all over with at one time so I can get to the fun part as soon as possible.  The other reason has to do with the fabric itself.  If I make cutting errors and need to purchase some additional fabric, now is the best time to know it.  It could be drastically too late if I’m 35 half-square triangles into a total of 50 and run out of one of the fabrics.  If the fabric is a recent enough purchase, chances are I can still find it where I purchased it at.  However, if it’s from my stash, it could be several years old and no longer available for sale.  Again, this is where Ebay and Etsy can save your quilting sanity.  There have been several times one or the other site has exactly what I need. 

Other than those two facts, the way I treat pieced and applique quilts differ.  With pieced quilts, I read the directions through a couple of times.  I decide if I will strictly follow the cutting instructions on the pattern or will make the units the way I want to. If I have to make dozens of four patches, I won’t cut out individual squares.  I’ll use the quick strip method.  I’ll make my half-square triangles larger and trim them to size.  I’ll decide if there are certain parts (such as flying geese) I can paper piece.  After these decisions are made, all the units are cut out – including the borders.  Some people wait until the top is completed before cutting the borders.  I personally don’t do it because it slows down my momentum.  If I know I have to get up from my sewing machine and wrangle several feet of fabric, I tend to try to find something else to do.  Let me also add I do cut my borders out longer than the pattern calls for.  Sometimes the finished measurements of your quilt top will differ from those on the pattern.  Always measure the length and width of the quilt center to get the correct border measurements and then it’s simple to just trim the cut-out borders to that – much easier than wrangling yards of leftover fabric.

After all of the units are cut out, it’s very important to coral them so they will stay organized.  The way I control the madness depends on the status of the quilt.  If the quilt will be stashed away for awhile or there’s travel plans in its future, I like these:

I keep the zip-type storage bags in three sizes – sandwich, gallon, and two-gallon – in my studio.  I generally put all the units of the same size meant for the same intended use in a bag.  For instance, if I have a grouping of 4 ½-inch squares which will be used to construct half-square triangles, all of those will go in one bag and I’ll write on the front of the bag “4 ½-inch square for HSTs.”  Sometimes I even write the name of the quilt on the bag – especially if I think it may be several months before I can begin sewing.  Just a note of personal reflection right here – always write what’s in the bag and what it’s for on the outside of the  bag.  You may think you’ll remember, but that’s not always the case ask me how I know. 

If the quilt is in the “direct to the sewing machine” status, I organize differently.  The zippered bags sit well in a project box, cardboard box, or tote bag.  However, they’re slippery and tend to slide off my sewing tables, especially when stacked on top of each other.  If I plan on starting the quilt right away, I opt for these:

These clips come in small, medium, and large and keep the cut-out units together pretty securely.  Recently I discovered these clips:

Which are bigger and can hold quite a bit.  They also have a hook so they can hang.  I use these to hold completed blocks as well as units.  Just like with the plastic bags, you need to indicate what size the units are and their intended use.  With the clips I simply write this information down on a post-it note and slide it under the nose of the clip. 

Once my units are organized, I find an old cookie sheet, disposable baking pans from the dollar store, or any other large-rectangle-ish pan.  These work great to store these units in and they fit nicely in the area beside my sewing machine.  If the project will be transported or stored for a while, I like stash them in the clear, plastic boxes you find at office supply places or dollar store establishments. 

Now that all the units are cut out and ready to rock and roll, it’s time to make sure I have any specialty threads and notions nearby.  If I’m paper piecing any units, all of the copies needed are printed.  I have the machine threaded and extra bobbins available.  I’ve changed my sewing machine needle (if needed) and I have read through the pattern directions at least twice and have my plan of action.  When I have time to sit down to sew, everything is there, and I can make the most of my time whether it’s 15 minutes or three hours.  I don’t have to stop and cut out additional units or chase down any special rulers. 

I handle my applique quilts in a similar manner.  If the quilt is both pieced and appliqued, I follow the method I use for pieced quilts and save the applique part until last.  And no matter whether I machine or hand applique the quilt, I prep the quilt the same way.  Like pieced quilts, the first step is cutting out all the units.  And let me add this helpful hint: If your applique pattern doesn’t state your background squares are larger than needed and will be cut down to size later, be sure to add ½-inch to the size of the square.  Both hand and machine applique will cause the fabric to pull up just a bit and if it’s not larger than needed, it may be smaller than you want when the applique is complete. 

At this point, the quilt prep becomes like an assembly line.  I mark all the centers of my applique squares and mark the backgrounds with any reference lines for applique placement.  Then I prep all my applique pieces.  Zone of truth here – this can take a long time depending on the size of the quilt.  Some quilters prep one block at a time, but as much as possible, I try to have all the applique pieces prepped and bagged/clipped for each block before I begin sewing.  This works for me because I love the applique process.  Once I start, I don’t want to stop.  I just want to keep sewing!  I may spend two weeks or more prepping an applique quilt, but this prep time is really worth it.  It doesn’t matter if it’s machine or hand applique or what method of applique used, advanced prep work really pays off. 

The one thing I usually don’t do is layout the applique pieces on all my background blocks. I don’t do this because I use glue to hold my pieces in place (unless I’m using the needle turn or back basting applique techniques), and the units can come unglued, fall off, and get lost.  If you want to lay out all your blocks at once, you can always thread baste the applique pieces in place.  This generally will ensure they stay put. 

After all the prep work, make sure you have any notions near your sewing area.  With either hand applique or machine applique, thread is the primary issue.  If you work with silk thread, make sure it’s nearby.  Same with cotton thread or any other type of thread you plan to use.  This way there’s no hunting for what you need if you have a few minutes to put in a few stitches.  I find this is especially important if you’re switching thread colors to match the fabric. 

Finally, there are a couple of additional steps I take to make the most of my quilting time.  These suggestions don’t have anything to do with the actual quilt prep, but these are a few ideas I’ve found save me time in the long run.  I work full-time, have a dynamic family life, and am active in my quilt guild and several other quilt groups.  If I have even 15 minutes to put in a few stitches, it pushes my quilt a little closer to completion.

  1.  Every New Year, I make a list of quilt projects I want to work on.  Generally this list is broken into four parts – Projects to finish, projects to start, projects to start and finish, and “lifers” (those projects which may take a few years to finish).  I keep this list hanging over my computer so I can see it every day.  It keeps me on task.
  2. Every Sunday, I sit down and write out a list of everything I need to do for the week.  These tasks include projects around the house, tasks for my family and organizations I belong to, and three or four quilting goals.  The weekly quilting goals correspond with the yearly quilting goals.  Some weeks I have time for several goals or a couple of lengthy ones.  Some weeks I don’t. I just remember each little step pushes my quilt closer to the finish line.
  3. When I stop machine sewing for the evening, I always make sure the units for the next step are by my machine and ready to rock and roll.  This way I don’t waste minutes searching for the things I need.  They’re ready to go as soon as I can catch some spare time.
  4. I do the same thing with my hand work.  And this is super easy to do if everything is prepped and ready to go.  I may not have the time to spend time behind my machine or I simply may not feel like it.  But if my handwork is ready to go and stacked by my chair in front of the TV, I can easily put in a half an hour binding a quilt, sewing down some applique, or hand piecing a few units. 

I’ll be the first to admit, prep work is not a lot of fun.  It’s not the “sexy” side of quilting.  But I will also be honest and tell you good, solid quilt prep saves time and sanity in the long run.  Once everything is prepped, you have the ability to make the most of your sewing time, whether is fifteen minutes or several hours.  And every step — big or small – gets you closer to finishing your quilt.

Until next week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


7 replies on “Prep Work Makes All the Difference”

Very good and helpful post on being organized and planning that will help make a difference 🤗, thanks!

This was helpful! My quilt guild has a UFO “competition” every year. We choose 10 UFO’s and the next month’s number is picked randomly at each meeting. Three points if you bring it next month, one point if by the end of the year. The yearly prize is a $10.00 grocery store gift card. And it can be cutting out a quilt, organizing your stash, etc. It really helps me get on track.

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