Eating a Quilty Elephant (or How to Gain Quilting Confidence)

We’ve all been there.

You know the spot…

The place where we gaze at a quilt or quilt pattern and we’re just in awe.  It’s beautiful and it speaks to us, and only one thought goes through our head:

I have to make this quilt.  I must make this quilt.

So we look at it more closely.  If it’s a pattern, we may find ourselves pulling out the directions and reading them.  If it’s an actual quilt, we may look at it as closely as we’re allowed, trying to reason out how it was constructed and what techniques are used.  If it’s a picture, we summon Google to our rescue, investigating the name, if there’s a pattern available, or how the maker constructed it.  Then at the end of all this research, come away with this conclusion:  I can’t make this quilt.  It’s too hard.  I don’t have the skill set.

Well, if you think this is one of those blogs that’s sunshine and unicorns and I’m going to tell you to just jump in with both feet and give it try, you’re wrong.  This blog won’t do that.  If I told you to go ahead and begin constructing a quilt you’re not quite ready to make, I would be doing you a horrible disservice.  Chances are, you would give up on it (and me) before long and toss the quilt and perhaps quilting itself, in the circular file (trashcan).  What this blog will do is tell you at some point you will be able to make that quilt.  Just give yourself time.  What you need to do is build your confidence and skill sets as a quilter before you begin cutting out this quilt you want so badly to construct.

The first step you must take to become a confident quilter is kiss the idea of perfection good-bye.  No quilt is ever perfect.  No quilt you make will be perfect.  No quilt I make will ever be perfect (believe me, I can point out every error in every quilt I ever made).  In a way this is a difficult thing to do.  We work so hard to make sure all the little details are just right – corners meet, points aren’t chopped off, all of our cutting is accurate – it’s not easy to let go of the fact  even if we are contentious in every facet, there will still be mistakes.  However, on the other hand, it’s also very freeing.  If you chop off the tips of a few flying geese blocks, it is helpful to realize other quilters have done the exact same thing.  It’s also comforting to know that someone standing six feet away from your quilt won’t notice three of your geese have blunted beaks. 

After you’ve kissed perfection good-bye, it’s time to eat the elephant.  Remember the old joke – how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re making any quilt – even more so if it’s a quilt you’re struggling with a bit.  Try not to look at the whole thing – don’t view all the instructions as one huge unit.  Only deal with the step you’re on at the time.  Yes, I know I’ve told you one of the very first actions to take before cutting out your quilt is to read the directions through until the end.  Then read them again and mark them up.  And I stand by this.  But once your quilt is cut out, organized, bagged and tagged, work through one step at a time.  Don’t worry about step 10 when you’re on step 1.  Get through the first step successfully, and then the second.  By the time you get to the part of the quilt you’re most concerned about, your quilting confidence will allow you to work your way through that step.  Plus, by the time you’re there, the quilt instructions may make a lot more sense to you. 

The same process applies if you’re working on a quilt you don’t have a pattern for.  Let me throw in a personal experience.  As I was reading a book on Mary Shafer and her quilts, I saw a picture of her quilt Flowering Almond.

I fell in love with this quilt.  The colors drew me in, and I knew I wanted to make it.  So before long, I Googled the quilt name and my search returned lots of images, but no pattern nor even a block I could break down into units.  I had to view the quilt and find out where the blocks began and ended.  Then I had to break the block down into units.  It’s an applique quilt, so I couldn’t define units like four-patch or flying geese.  I had to look at the block and determine where else I could pull in those applique shapes.  Eventually I found the same shapes or similar ones in other applique patterns.  Then it was just a matter of deciding how big I wanted my blocks, if I wanted to use the same border treatment, and how many of each applique piece I needed.  It’s all one step at a time, and don’t view the whole quilt at once.  Just like eating an elephant – one bite at a time. 

With perfection and the elephant behind us, now it’s time to take baby steps.  And these baby steps are important to take because they walk us out of our comfort zone.  The third process you can take to build your quilting confidence is to start making quilts just slightly out of your comfort zone.  Notice I didn’t say waaaaayyyyy out of your comfort zone.  No.  Just slightly.  Again, let me throw in some personal experience.  When I teach beginner quilters, the first block we tackle is a four patch.  This is one of the basic – if not THE basic – quilt blocks.  It’s versatile.  It can work as a block unit or a block unto itself.  I can teach accurate cutting, strip pieces, nested seams, and squaring up, all in this simple little block.  I can then take this block, make it the center of an economy block, set them in rows with sashing and add a border.

The next class I teach is Confident Beginners.  We graduate to a nine-patch, use those as the center of a star block, set those on point, and then teach setting triangles and mitered borders.  The second class — Confident Beginners – is just a bit harder than the first class.  It pushes those new quilters out of their comfort zone just a tad.  Enough for them to learn some new skills, but not enough to overwhelm them.  As you pick and choose the quilts you want to make, you may want to re-examine the patterns.  While it’s comforting and less stressful to make simple patterns (and let’s face it, we all have times when we need mindless sewing to get us over the demands of the day), it’s nice to have a bit of a challenge to deal with, too.  I wouldn’t jump from a beginner’s pattern to an advanced one, but I would advise a pattern labeled “Confident Beginner” or “Intermediate.”  As you successfully tackle new techniques or more difficult blocks, your quilting confidence will grow. 

Classes will also help build your quilting confidence.  While it’s true I often take a class in something I’m pretty proficient in just because I like the teacher or have several friends in the class, most of the time it’s because I want to learn a new technique or become more skillful in one.  Classes help you grow in a couple of different ways.  First (and most obviously), they teach you something new.  You’re enrolled in the class to master another technique or block or quilt.  You may have been reluctant to try it on your own, but with some help and demonstrations, you will come away knowing exactly how to make that block or quilt or execute that skill set.  Second, you may make some new quilting friends.  This is great, because I have learned so much from my quilting buddies.  They are my “go-to” for advice, knowledge, and opinions.  Third, there’ll be a lot of quilting knowledge handed off which has nothing to do with the class itself.  For instance, a year ago I took a long arm class with a well-known teacher.  We were learning how to quilt floral motifs, but in the middle of the demonstrations and hands-on exercises, she happened to mention the two colors of quilting thread she absolutely must have on hand at all times is dusty pink and pale yellow “because believe it or not, they blend with almost everything except black.”

Well.  I had never even considered that.  As soon as class was over, I hit up Superior Threads for a cone of each.  Three days later I loaded up my long arm with a practice sandwich made of a multi-colored print fabric and tried out each.  To my amazement, it worked.  I learned something new on two different levels and my confidence as a long arm quilter got a little better.

After you’ve gained experience as a quilter, try teaching what you know.  There’s nothing quite like seeing the light bulb go off in someone when they have grasped something new.  It’s addictive.  It taps the dopamine in your brain like almost nothing else.  Plus, before you teach someone, you have to make sure you really know and understand your subject matter, so teaching makes you review your skillset and reinforces it.  Teaching what you know to someone else and then watching them grasp it makes you feel super-good, and your confidence grow.  You don’t have to teach a class – teach a kid, teach a friend, teach a fellow quilter a trick you learned. 

Lastly – and this is most important – don’t let failure or fear of failure play with your mind.  Honestly, just don’t.  I’ve quilted for over 30 years, and I can say with all genuine frankness, there are very, very few quilting “errors” which can’t be fixed.  Just because you tried a new technique and it didn’t go so well the first time, don’t get discouraged.  The majority of us don’t get something right the first time we try it.  If a quilter is making technique look easy, it’s because he or she has performed that skill set lots and lots of times.    Keep practicing.  If one method doesn’t work, Google it.  You’ll be amazed at all the different ways of doing something.  Allow me to add one more personal experience.  I love to applique by hand.  Many of my fellow appliquers use silk thread.  I was never able to.  It kept sliding out of the eye of my needle.  Cotton thread didn’t do this, so for years 50 or 60 weight cotton thread was all I used in my applique.  However, I loved the way silk thread seemingly “melted” into the fabric and disappeared.  Then a quilting friend of mine showed me how to make a tiny knot with the silk thread at the eye of my needle.  It didn’t impede my stitching any, but it kept the thread from sliding out of the needle.  I had to look at another way of using the technique which worked for me.  At some point in your quilting journey, you will face similar challenges.  Find the technique which works for you.

Don’t let fear of failure freeze you out of trying something new.  What’s the worst that could happen?  You have to rip out a few stitches and start over?  Back up and try a different method?  Don’t let fear of failure paralyze your quilting.  Push forward.  As you garner success after success (both big and small) your confidence will grow, and you’ll know with certainty you can make the quilt you want the way you want to make it.

I hope this blog has shown you ways to build your confidence as a quilter.  Zone of Truth here – we all feel less than confident at times.  We’re all human.  Take the process one step at a time and trust it.  Your confidence will grow, and you’ll successfully tackle any quilt you want to make.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


2 replies on “Eating a Quilty Elephant (or How to Gain Quilting Confidence)”

Thanks for the pep talk. I am still a beginner, but I’m growing more confident with every project. I love analyzing a pattern and deciding if I want to change anything. Many aren’t written for strip piecing or four at a time geese, but I like to use those methods.

You’re doing all the right things! I always encourage quilters to find the technique which works best for them and use it, no matter what the directions say. Keep at it!

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