Bad Quilting Habits (Part 1)

Let’s talk about habits.    According to James Clear, author of the best-selling book Atomic Habits (which is a super-good read and should be on your bookshelf or in your e-reader), habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day. According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40 percent of our behaviors on any given day. What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality you portray.  

And the quilts you make.  

This week and next, I want to highlight some of the most common bad quilting habits.  Not all of these are my bad quilting habits.  I performed extensive research for this blog – I texted 15 of my closest quilting buddies at 9 p.m. on a Friday night and asked them “What is your worst quilting habit?”  They were more than generous with their replies.  Along with their bad habits I threw in a few of my own.  But I didn’t just list the bad things, I’ve tried to give you some ideas to use to break the bad habits.  

  • I only change the needle when it breaks/I use the same needle for everything.  Ideally you need to change the sewing machine needle after every eight hours of use – you can push this up to 16 hours if you’re using titanium needles. 

  I say this realizing it’s difficult to keep up with the hours.  If you’re super ambitious, you can track your sewing time with your phone.  But if you’re like me and forget, I change my needle after every large project or after every two or three small projects.  This seems to work well.    As far as using the same needle for everything…just don’t.  Different needles are made for different applications, and while at first glance they all may look same, they’re not.  Using the right needle for the right technique and the correct thread and fabric makes all the difference in the world.  Needles aren’t expensive.  Treat yourself to several different types and sizes.  You’ll thank me.  

  • Not regularly cleaning my machine or having it serviced.  If you are the type of quilter who works on only one project at a time, clean your machine after you finish a project.  If you’re the type of quilter who has several projects going, this won’t work for you.  Instead clean your machine every time you change your sewing machine needle. 

  Look, it’s easy to forgo this step – especially if you have a machine you only use occasionally.  But you’re really harming your machine if you don’t clean it regularly.  My machine-cleaning dilemma was solved with the purchase of my Janome M7.  After stitching for a while, suddenly my machine will stop sewing and a dialogue box appears telling me to clean my bobbin area.  I can close the dialogue box out and keep sewing – all for the space of less than five minutes before the dialogue box appears again and the machine quits sewing.  Finally I give up in exasperation and open the bobbin area and give it a good cleaning.  A couple of words of caution – read your manual to know what areas to clean and oil and what tools to use.  Almost universally canned air is a no-no, as it can actually force lint into crevasses it doesn’t belong in.  Canned air also contains some moisture which is not good for any machine.  I’ve found an old, clean mascara brush is my best cleaning tool, along with cotton swabs, toothpicks, and a soft toothbrush.  I know some quilters use a vacuum on their machines, but I’ve never tried this, so I can’t attest to how well or how poorly this works.   Sewing machines also need to be serviced regularly depending on how much sewing you do.  If you’re like me and use it almost daily, have it serviced at least every 18 months.  It’s during these sewing machine “spa days” the tech oils and cleans the areas you can’t.  The tech can also see any areas or parts which need to be replaced before they begin to cause major issues.  

  • Unthreading my machine wrong.  Zone of truth here…this is one of my worst habits.  It’s just so stinkin’ easy to pull that spool off the spool holder and then re-thread your machine. However, when you do this, you are forcing the thread through the machine in the exact opposite path it needs to go.  This abrupt, wrong movement can wreak havoc with the tension disks the thread goes through, as well as force lint into them.  The correct way to unthread your machine is to clip the thread at the spool and then pull the remaining in your machine out through the eye of the needle. 
  • Not reading the pattern thoroughly before beginning.  You really need to read the pattern, folks.  Read it through once to get an idea of how the steps go, what parts will take the longest, if you can do the hardest part first, etc.  Then go pour yourself a cup of coffee, make a cup of tea, get a bottle of water, or an adult beverage and read the pattern through again.  This time read it slowly and mark it up.  Underline the parts you need to pay close attention to.  See if you like all the techniques the designer used, or if there’s another technique you prefer.  If you have serious questions about the pattern, Google it.  Yes, this process takes away from the “fun stuff,” but it can save you so much time, headaches, and heartaches in the long run. Trust me on this one.
  • I don’t feel I make fabric purchases wisely.  Boy, this is a rabbit hole if there ever was one.  There are literally books written about handling your fabric stash. I won’t go into a lot of details here (this will be another blog), but let me give you a few brief tips I’ve learned the hard way.   First, don’t allow your stash to exceed your storage space. Even though a fabric hoard sounds like a wonderful thing to have, other family members may not appreciate it as much as you do.  Second, go through your stash at least once a year (depending on its size – if it’s a small stash, you may not need to do this).  This process lets you know what you have and what you may need, what beautiful fabrics you may have forgotten you own, and it allows you to purge what you now realize you’ll never use because all of us have purchased fabrics we look back on and wonder what in the world we were thinking.  Craft America put out some statistics a few years ago which stated the average fabric stash is worth $6,000.00  Respect your fabric and treat it well.


  • I don’t have a designated place for my supplies.  I waste a lot of time looking for things.  I think this is something we’re all guilty of.  When you’re in the creative process it’s easy to lay down your scissors here, stick a needle in any random pincushion, or move your rotary cutter or seam ripper.  Karen Brown of Just Get It Done Quilts has a great idea on how to coral your quilting notions.  She suggests using a container for your scissors, another for your smaller notions such as seam rippers, and a designated section of a drawer for your needles.  At the end of your sewing time, make sure everything you took out of the specified locations goes back in it.

   I took this a bit further.  I looked on Amazon and found this:  

This is a Cobbler’s Apron, and it not only protects your clothes from stray threads and such, but it also has nice, deep pockets.  Every time I move a notion out of its designated spot, it goes in one of my apron pockets (except my rotary cutter for obvious reasons).  At the end of my sewing time, I simply empty what’s in my pockets back into its designated spot.   

  • I can’t seem to get control of my scraps.  When you quilt, scraps happen.  It’s a fact of quilting life.  How you wrangle your scrappage depends on what kind of quilter you are.  If you’re a piecer, you will keep larger fabric pieces than an applique quilter.  There are numerous Pinterest Boards, books, and YouTube videos out there which are really a big help.  My advice would be to go through some of those and see what method will work the best for you.  Scrap storage is one of those personal quilting issues and what works for me may not work for you.  The most important idea to keep in mind is you can’t keep every little scrap.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  You could do this, but you’d have so much scrappage it would be difficult to store and even more difficult to use.  Set a size limit of what you’ll keep.  Since I do a lot of applique, I keep nothing smaller than 8-inches square and my scraps are sorted in bins according to color.  And like my “normal” stash, I go through my bins regularly. 
  • Not rotating my mat.  Oh, I’m guilty as charged.  My mat is so big, and it takes such an effort to do this.  However, if you don’t rotate your mat or continue to use your rotary cutter in the same places, you’ll get deep cutting ruts in your mat.  Alter your cutting locations and once a quarter, rotate your mat.  Put it on your calendar or in the reminder section of your cell phone.
  • Sewing over pins/not pinning when I should.  I’ve taught beginners quilting a few times.  I tell my students to pin.  It’s important.  It helps with accuracy.  However, I’ve found usually one of two things happen.  Either they don’t pin because they don’t want to take the time to stop and take the pins out before they sew over them, or they pin and sew over the pins because they don’t want to take the time to pull the pins out. 

  First, don’t sew over pins.  It can damage your machine or break your needle.  And I know what some of you are thinking right about now:  “I’ve sewn over my pins a kazillon times and nothing’s happened.  What makes me think I should change?”  Well, Zone of Truth…I thought that, too.  Then one time my needle hit a pin and the force drove the pin deeply into the feed dogs, which resulted in all kinds of bad things happening to my machine.  Expensive things.  So try to get in the habit of pulling out the pins before you sew over them.    Pinning block units, block rows, and borders is a habit you really need to cultivate.  It increases your accuracy so much I wrote two blogs on the different types of pins and how to pin.  Go here and here to see why and how to pin.  Keep a pincushion near your sewing machine and take a few minutes to pin before you sew.  You’ll be surprised at how much this helps you meet corners, keep points intact, and make rows and borders come out even.   

  • Not changing my rotary blade when I need to.  Zone of truth – I’m guilty of this one, too.  I begin cutting out a quilt or trimming blocks or doing something involving my rotary cutter and realize the blade needs changing.   But I’m smack-dab in the middle of something and think to myself I’ll change it the next time I need to use the cutter.

But the same thing happens the next time.  I end up with a cutter I’m pushing through the fabric multiple times to slice all my fabric layers.  A sharp, new blade would have made this work so much easier – however, changing the blade takes time, we only have a little fabric to cut…yada, yada, yada, and the excuses pile up on why we don’t just stop and change the blade. There are a couple of solid reasons why we should – beside the dull blade making the cutting process more difficult.  First, we end up putting a lot of pressure on our wrists, arms, and elbows as we bear down and push the blade along the fabric.  Second, the additional pressure is really making deep gouges in our cutting mat.  I did two things to help me break this habit.  First, most rotary cutter manufacturers have YouTube videos on how to change out the blades.  I watched these a few times before I disassembled my cutter, installed a new blade, and then put it back together.  Second, I purchased my blades in bulk, so I didn’t have to scramble to find a new one or take the time to order them.  It’s just so easy to pull a new one out of its designated spot and install it in my rotary cutter.

We’ve still got ten more bad quilting habits to go. These will be covered in next week’s blog. Until then…

Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


11 replies on “Bad Quilting Habits (Part 1)”

Great article, Sherri! I am definitely guilty of not changing my rotary cutter blade as often as I should. Something I’ve found that lessens my dependence on pins is to a) starch my fabric, b) cut accurately, and c) sew accurately. When everything lines up, minimal pins are needed. I resisted starch for many, many years, but have found it makes a huge difference.

Starch is my BFF. While I do believe it helps (especially with cutting accuracy), I still think pinning increases accuracy — especially with large blocks or large pieces of fabric, such as borders or joining rows together.

Enjoyed reading about bad habits. I was relieved to discover I’m guilty of only a few. I have a question about dealing with used needles and rotary blades: What is a safe way for disposing of these sharp objects? I’ve thought of this often, but don’t have a clue. Last year when cleaning out my mom’s sewing room, we discovered several plastic camera film canisters filled to the brim with used machine needles. I guess she didn’t know what to do either.

I use an container, such as a Kraft parmesan cheese container, which has a mouth large enough for rotary blades as well as needles. When I get 15-20 in there, I duct tape the lid securely and drop it in the trash. Since the lid is held in place by layers of duct tape, I feel nothing will escape the container.

I take the label off old prescription bottles (the larger ones), sit the bottle on top of the cap and drop my old needles in. When it’s full, I simply put the child proof cap on and toss it into the recycling bin. I’ve been doing this since I began longarming over 20 years ago.

Oh boy, let me count the ways! I really, really need to cull my fabric. I’m including UFOs and WIPs in this. I don’t have room for very much else. I’ve started working on the projects, but the yardage and scraps…OY VEY!

Best piece of advice I can give you about scraps is set your personal boundary (what’s the smallest size scrap you’ll keep) and then dispose of the rest. Cotton fabrics deterioriate in landfills in less than two years. Second best piece of advice is either go big or go home (as far as culling your fabric) or start small and stay consistent. By this I mean pull everything out at one time, decide what you’re keeping, what you’re donating, and what you’re tossing or selling. Then determine your sorting and storage method and go at it. OR do a bit at a time, but make a promise to yourself you’ll do a little bit each day (this is what I do because I don’t have one or two days to exclusively donate to making heads or tails out of my fabric),

I am guilty of sewing over needles but I try to put them back far enough that I can get by most of the needles, but with my old machine when I took it in to be serviced, a needle was found down next to the gears, so I was lucky it sewed at all. I’m also guilty of sewing with the same needle longer than I need to. So thank you for those tips

This is a great article and made me feel good about myself (absolutely wonderful to be honest!). I have a designated space for everything, and can’t work in clutter so I clean after every project. I’ve been quilting for 52 years, plus I received all the fabric, notions, thread, sewing machine, etc., that my mother had when she retired from working at a quilt store for 35 years and moved to an apartment. It has paid off to have everything in its place so I don’t have to look for anything. I spend January going through every scrap to yardage, tools, rulers, etc.. My priceless husband made me a huge sewing table that fits over a desk so I never lost drawer space. I even have an Excel data base with all my quilt magazines, page by page, listed and another data base for books. I have weeded out more than I want to admit, and books are next. I quilt daily and am on my way to reaching my self-imposed goal of 100 Project Linus quilts – 52 donated and 48 to go! Hi, my name is Deborah, and I am a proud Quilt-aholic.

Oh Wow, Deborah! You are by far the most organized person I know on any level! You are an inspiration. I am working my way on Excel spreadsheets for books and patterns. If I find a pattern in a magazine I like, I scan it and save it and save those in designated files.

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