The Free Motion Quilting Project: Looking Back and Letting Go

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking Back and Letting Go

Today I had a wonderful yoga class that was all about letting go and preparing for the new year.

I believe that part of letting go is also looking back, seeing what went on during the previous year and learning from and then letting go the successes and failures that happened.

What's amazing to me is just how much happened in 2009. Chances are, you didn't know me back in January, but here we are!

Last year I started the year with the intention to be more creative, to share that creativity, and to start taking my quilting business seriously.

It wasn't always easy, but this year has been a time of growth and strength, pain and forgiveness. I'd like to share the past 12 months with you and then my intentions for next year.

Just a warning, this post is long and personal, so you might want to read it in chunks if you're short on time!

free motion quilting | Leah DayBack in January 2009, I was neck deep in The Duchess, my very first wholecloth and first show quilt.

At this time I had a really firm theoretical knowledge of advanced quilting, but not very much experience. As with many things in my life, I didn't want to wait, to take my time and gain skills slowly. I wanted to do everything right NOW!

If I've learned anything this past year, it's to take my time. Thinking, planing, and taking extra time with design will always save time in the end.

But I was pretty impatient to finish The Duchess and that impatience lead to big mistakes. Once the quilting was finished, I decided the top needed more decoration and sparkle.

I decided, on impulse, to try the iron-on rhinestones without ever trying or testing them before. The result?

Scorch marks in the dead center of my all white quilt! I tried every trick in the book to wash out, bleach out, cover up, paint, or ink my way out of those scorch marks, but they kept coming back like a nasty little reminder of my mistake.

But I also learned while finishing this quilt the wonderful joy of handwork. Since the iron-on rhinestones had been banned from my studio, I decided to hand sew thousands of Swarovski crystals, seed beads, and delicas over the quilt along with 40 yards of lace.

Maybe it was the intense cold we all got during this time (high fever has been known to make me do ridiculous things), but it was a wonderful experience to sit and stitch and watch the cold weather swirl around my house.

Once all the hand work was done, The Duchess was officially ready to show and I was filled with both anticipation and dread. What if the quilt was rejected? What if the judges see every mistake and flaw?

The "what if's" really got to me for a few months, but finally I entered the quilt into the Denver National Quilt Festival and lined up two more shows for the following months.

The most agonizing thing about sending a quilt to a far away show is not knowing what's happening while it's away. I really wish there was some watchdog organization who's job is was to report show winners the day they are announced. Hint. Hint.

So I had no idea what happened at the show and 2 weeks later I'm mowing the yard and the UPS lady comes up with a box I definitely recognize. I jump off the lawnmower and take the box right in to open it.

As I'm opening the box, I'm lecturing myself "Don't be disappointed. They probably saw the scorch marks. The quilt wasn't perfect"

But amid the solid white of my wholecloth is a glimmer of blue. I had won my first ribbon!

I can't explain what winning a ribbon feels like other than it's the most amazing feeling in the world. For me, it was golden validation.

It was like the world was finally saying to me: You are good at what you do. Keep doing it.

While I was sending The Duchess to show, I started working on 2 projects at the same time. I'd been asked to quilt my guild's donation quilt, Baskets in Bloom and I was starting work on the hand applique for Release Your Light.

free motion quilting | Leah DayWhile the ribbon for The Duchess helped me build much needed confidence, Baskets in Bloom tested all of it.

I'd cheerfully agreed to quilt this quilt, excited at the challenge, and ready to take it easy and be patient with my skill level. But I hadn't really expected to feel the huge amount of pressure and worry that this quilt came with it.

What if all the quilt members hated it? What if they asked one another why I'd been allowed to ruin their quilt?

I had a plan for quilting the quilt, and I thought it looked good, but by this point I was questioning everything and doubting my every move.

I called a quilt friend and had her take a look at the quilt. That helped to boost my confidence tremendously and I was able to silence the nasty fears that were limiting my abilities.

And do you know what's funny? My guild loved the quilt. No one said a single bad thing about it. It just goes to show that most fears, most negativity, are not even remotely real.

With Baskets in Blooms finished, I took a few weeks off to play with some quick quilt projects and to travel to the NC Quilt Symposium where The Duchess was showing a second time.

The trip to Raleigh didn't start well. I'd planned to attend the show, take a class, and pick up my quilt all in the same day. To add icing on the cake, I also invited my mother to come with me, and she invited a friend to come too.

With all the chaos of leaving and trying to get everywhere on time, I ended up getting a speeding ticket on the way to the show. Super Ugh! The ticket, combined with the stress of the day totally took the fun of the show right out of my hands.

This experience was my first real wake up call that I needed to change now only how I dealt with stress, but also my family. It's easy to assume that people know what you need from them, like in this case, I needed my mother to be "on" and a working partner during the show.

But because I hadn't communicated that with her, she had no clue! It wasn't anyone's fault that the trip went badly, but it made me realize that in order to attend an important show, I really needed to have the time and money to take it easy, to stay the night, and to make the trip fun.

I did ribbon again at the NC Quilt Symposium, but when I picked up The Duchess, I was starting to notice some stains and dirt on my quilt.

This wasn't the first time. After the Denver show, I'd unwrapped my quilt to find a few dirty spots on the top and back.

Of course, any white quilt is going to show dirt faster than a dark quilt and this was my first lesson for show quilting: don't use light colors if you want the quilt to show often.

Unfortunately, I had very little experience as to what to do with a quilt when it got dirty. Most bed quilts I'd just throw in the washer. With all the beads and lace on The Duchess, the washing machine absolutely wasn't an option.

So instead I stretched the quilt out on my big tables and soaked the top with hydrogen peroxide.

Big mistake. Astronomical mistake. Horrible, horrible, huge mistake.

I didn't know it, but hydrogen peroxide can weaken cotton fiber. I'd soaked the whole quilt in an undiluted solution of Hydrogen peroxide, not once, but twice after the second show.

I had one more show lined up for the summer, the 40th Annual National Quilting Association show in Columbus, OH.

Before I sent the quilt out, I looked it over carefully. It looked fine, but I could see signs of wear starting in certain areas. The lighting wasn't that great down in my basement studio at the time and I missed the greater issues: discoloration, loose beads, and thinning fabric.

I sent the quilt off, and received it back after the show, this time with no ribbon and a judges critique that made me cringe. The discoloration I'd missed had darkened into coffee colored stains over more than half of the quilt. Beads were falling off left and right and part of the sleeve had ripped.

Please don't get me wrong as I describe this. I don't think anyone damaged my quilt at any of the 3 shows it attended.

I think white quilts naturally attract and show dirt. I also know that I DIDN'T know what I was doing when I started this quilt.

I choose backing fabric for the quilt top and back, not knowing that this cotton is thinner and lesser quality than regular muslin. This cotton was already thin, and it just got thinner and thinner every time I treated it with Hydrogen Peroxide.

The beads were stitched on with cotton thread too, and apparently it can only take so much.

When I got The Duchess back from the final show, I stretched it out on my styrofoam boards and tried to fix it. After 2 days of playing with it, I could see that my efforts were just making things worse.

The top fabric is now so thin that a heavy touch will rip holes in the fabric. Every time I move it I find 10-20 beads on the floor. The white fabric has now darkened, I think due to the chemicals still reacting in the fabric to sunlight, to a blotchy milk chocolate color.

As wonderful as it is to make a show quilt and ribbon,
it's heartbreaking to see it get ruined.

I hung The Duchess in my guest bedroom for awhile, but then took it down and put it into storage. I still think it's a beautiful quilt, but it's too delicate to leave up and depressing to look at.

It took awhile, but eventually I was able to move past the mistakes I'd made. I vowed to never make a white quilt again. I also declared that all of my show quilts would need to be washable. I definitely vowed never to spend a whole month stitching beads on anything ever again!

It's good to get to a place where you can see your mistakes, see what you need to do to improve, and take the steps to get past the hurt and disappointment.

free motion quilting | Leah DayTo help me move beyond this experience, I really wanted to start work on Release Your Light. This was going to be one of the biggest quilts I'd ever done and I was designing it to hang on a wall in my home.

More than anything else, I wanted a quilt that would signify my intention for the year: to be more creative and to share that creativity with the world.

The image for Release Your Light had come to me in a dream and I knew that this goddess quilt was definitely the quilt I wanted, and needed, to see daily on my wall.

But I got ahead of myself. I finished the hand applique in a rush, excited and ready to be quilting again. Part of this was a desire to forget about what happened to The Duchess, and part of it was just my usual impatience at the beginning of any project.

I looked at the quilt top and saw the 96 rays and decided, which no previous experience or testing the technique, that instead of appliqueing, I was going to paint all those shapes in after quilting.

So I jumped right into the project and started quilting away. Because I wanted the quilt top to be very flat, I choose not to use trapunto or design any special motifs within the quilt top.

This mean that almost all 77" of the quilt had to be quilted. And not just any quilting - filler quilting!

To say that this took forever is an understatement. Any quilt top seems small and quick when you're working in the center, but as soon as you get to the borders, and in this case the 96 rays, you start to realize just how big it really is!

During this time, I started to think about fillers a lot. I was spending whole days stippling or McTavishing, so it was pretty understandable!

More than anything else, I was horribly bored as I stitched the same designs over and over again. I knew there had to be more designs and while talking to a friend one day, she mentioned Paisley, which I had seen previously but didn't like very much.

She then said something that really changed my life "Well if you change the shape a bit you can make a whole different design."

Eureka! What an amazing revealation!

I changed Paisley into Flame Stitch and used it to fill 28 of the rays. It's amazing how the smallest thing and make such a big deal and that one single comment was the first step to starting this blog. Amazing, isn't it?

With a full month and a half of solid quilting, Release Your Light got finished right at the beginning of July. I had a quilt show I wanted to enter by the middle of July and was still planning on trying for that goal.

But the one thing I hadn't counted on, or planned well, or even really thought about was the painting I was going to do after the quilt was quilted.

I had read Quilts of a Different Color and was planning on using a combination of colored pencils and shiva painstiks to color the entire surface of the quilt, except the previously appliqued areas.

To seal my fate into painting the quilt top, I'd soaked and blocked the quilt and found that the red batik backing fabric had bled into the quilt top and turned the white fabric an ugly shade of pinkish red.

So now I had absolutely no choice but to paint it.

You have no idea how much I wanted to be done with this quilt. I wanted to work on something else, anything else!

But I stuck with it because I'd already put so much time into it and I knew that it was going to be awesome if I could just get it done.

Quickly I realized that my goal if finishing the quilt by the show date was impossible. It just wouldn't be done in time. Instead I took it easy and decided that this was a lesson I really needed to experience and learn: ALWAYS TEST TECHNIQUES!

When I (finally!) finished the quilt top, it was amazing. Here was a quilt that I'd first seen in a dream and was now a reality almost exactly the way I'd invisioned it.

free motion quilting | Leah DayThis was also the first double sided quilt I'd ever made. Most people when they see it comment that they like the back better than the front!

Having this quilt hang on my dining room wall to greet me each morning was wonderful. She is a daily reminder of just how powerfully creative I can be - explosive!

I realized just how attached to this quilt I was when I started thinking about showing it. With The Duchess, I'd jumped right in, needing those ribbons, needing that validation.

With Release Your Light completed, I realized that I really didn't need a ribbon to know that the quilt was a winner. I honestly didn't care. Having the quilt, seeing it on my wall daily, that was all I really needed.

I'm still not sure if I will show Release Your Light nationally or not. I did enter it into my local quilt guild show and it did extremely well, but I'm hesitant and a little fearful of mailing this quilt out.

While I know that my experience with The Duchess will never be repeated, it's hard to let go of that fear. I also know that even if I don't show Release Your Light, there will be many more show quilts in the years to come that I can show.

I mentioned before about how I started thinking about fillers while quilting Release Your Light.

I thought about them even more as I painted the quilt top. I thought about Paisley and how easy it was to create Flame Stitch by just changing one little thing about the design.

One day the idea for this blog just popped into my head. What if I created a new filler design every day? What if I did this for a whole year?

Once I got the idea, I couldn't shake it! I couldn't get rid of it. I HAD to try and see if it was even possible.

Of course my family was mostly lukewarm on the idea. My quilting business at this time wasn't extremely successful and everyone really wanted me to focus my attention on my skin care business which was making more money.

I'm so glad I didn't listen to that advice.

Sometimes you have to make the harder choice and give up peace of mind and sanity for awhile and just see where it will take you.

I had no idea if anyone would like the blog and in truth, I really didn't care. Creating the designs and writing about them was just for me in the beginning.

It was something I wanted to see, a resource I wished had existed and finally decided needed to be created.

But by Day 14 when I started posting videos to the blog, I started realizing just how many quilters there are out there in the world!

The comments and emails started pouring in. If you've been with me since the beginning, you probably know that I had absolutely no intention of starting a book or DVD until the very end of the project.

With all the encouragement, and sometimes blatant begging for workbooks and DVDs, I started compiling the designs. Free Motion Fillers Volume 1 came out in October and was an immediate success!

Volume 2 followed soon after and due to the tremendous amount of support from everyone, I've taken my formerly small website and expanded it to have a full online quilt shop.

This was an amazing transformation. I've dreamed of opening a crafting store of my own since I was about 15, but never thought it would be online!

Of course, working on DVDs and books has taken my focus away from the blog as times. Josh and I also started a remodel of our kitchen this fall and the combination of so many things led me to stop posting new designs every single day.

Sometimes I post a different technique or a video on the latest quilt I'm working on instead.

Occasionally, I question if this makes the blog a failure: not posting a new design every day.

But I know that even after the 365 days are over, I'll probably continue to post new designs. I really don't see this project ever ending because it's too much fun!

I really look at the last 3 months with wonder. I couldn't have predicted, nor expected, that this project would be so successful. It would have scared me silly if I'd known!

More than anything else, I feel enormously blessed and grateful to everyone who reads this, who comments, who's shared the blog with a friend. You all mean the world to me.

Looking back at 2009, I couldn't have asked for a better year. I set the intention to be more creative, and to share that creativity. I know I've absolutely fulfilled that intention and it feels wonderful!

So now that I've shared the last 12 months of my life with you, here's what I'm going to let go in order to start this new year:

In 2010, I want to laugh more than I've ever laughed. In order to do that, I need to let go of a lot of negativity and past hurts that can keep that laughter inside.

Some of those hurts run deep and letting them go feels very hard. What I realized today during yoga is that it only feels hard because it's different. Suffering is easy because it's familiar.

I want to continue to quilt daily and to continue to share that with everyone, maybe even in person, not just in videos!

In order to do that, I need to get over my stage fright of being in front of real people. That sounds crazy, doesn't it? Yep, I'm really pretty terrified of getting in front of a group!

I'm also setting the intention to be good to myself: to do yoga weekly, eat better, sleep more, and spend more time with my son and husband.

In order to do these things I will have to let go of my work-a-holic, type-a mindset and loosen up!

I really feel like 2009 was my year to evolve and 2010 will be the year to bloom. Right now I plan to create 2 show quilts, already tentatively named "My Cup Runneth Over" and "Emergence".

I'm looking forward to this year with excitement and hope and I trust you are too.

Let's go quilt!

Leah Day


  1. Woohoo way to go, I read every word and the whole post was fantastic, I wish you heaps of good things for next year - I love the blog and no you dont have to post every day - no pressure I am sure we shall all read it regardless and look forward to the posts when you are ready.


  2. Rock on with yo' bad self!

    I loved this post. Leah, you have no idea how inspiring this quilting adventure has been to me. Imagine how many others feel this way too.

    Nothing but good vibes your way...

  3. Leah - Good for you for realizing that you need to give up your work-a-holic ways. I myself suffered from this and perfectionism for years. Unfortunately, my children were grown and I am in my 40's before I figured this all out. Life is short and the emotional accomplishments will far outweigh the physical accomplishments. I understand perfectly how we can use projects etc to try and heal our hurts and insecurities from the past. But you are successful regardless of your achievements. You have a wonderful spirit and are certainly loved by your family, friends and the quilting world. I wish you the best of luck and many blessings as you move forward in this direction!

  4. Leah - you are right - I didn't know you in January - but I have so enjoyed your blog over the past few months...What a great post - so generous of your thoughts and time...
    I absolutely totally agree with you about letting go - this year has been huge for me in that regard and I am still learning - my husband and I separated at the end of June, and that was a big letting go moment. For the first time in as long as I can remember I will not be making resolutions tonight - another letting go opportunity, as I am trying to really be focused on the present and what "is", not what I hope or fantasise "is". I have always been controlling and a doer - so this is big for me...
    Thanks again for your perception and communication and generosity!!!

  5. What a wonderful post! I absolutely read the whole thing and you should be so proud of your achievements. I also found it very comforting to know that you have had your ups and downs regarding problems with your quilts and the quilting process. I think we quilters need to know we are not alone out there and even those to whom we look to as role models are not perfect. I found it very comforting indeed, as I have never gotten up the nerve to enter a quilt in a show for fear of rejection. Maybe now I will let go of that fear and the goal of "validation" and actually enter one if for nothing else than a learning experience.

    Congratulations on your hard-won ribbons. You have a wonderful and informative blog and I hope our guild contacts you for a show and "class". Yes, I've started the wheels in motion and hope they follow up on it. :o)

  6. What you have done this past year and what you offer to continue to doing are all just amazing! Thanks for lessons about quilting and about life.

  7. I found your blog only 3 weeks ago. It was mentioned on one of the quilting podcasts. You have so inspired me to get up my nerve to try free motion quilting. I have taken 2 classes and feel I learn more from your videos than I did in the classes. Thank you, Thank you. Even if you only post once a week I will so look forward to that one post.

  8. I hope you continue to blog and share your amazing talents with us out here in blogland. Best wishes for an even better 2010!

  9. All I can say is "Wow". Ok...not really, as you can plainly see...I'm saying MORE. :-)

    I had NO idea that this venture was only 3-4 months old for you. Seriously. Not even a hint. I've been cruising quilting websites for years and a month ago I went to YouTube to watch some quilting videos. I saw one of yours, became an instant fan of your skills, your down-to-earthness, your perfect diction and your "spirit". I think I watched as many of your videos as I could that day.

    A month later, just like you inspired other quilters, I took the leap I've hesitated taking for years and bought my DDL-without even taking one free motion quilting class. YOU made me believe that I could do it just like you do it, and while I freely admit that I've got a LOT of practicing to do, every single day since then I have logged onto your site, located a design I want to try, and almost skipped into my studio to "play".

    I ordered your Supreme Slider/gloves combo kit from your store thinking you'd been selling them forever...looked professional to me. They arrived quickly and I can't imagine life without them now.

    I guess my point is, you're a natural at this girl! You DO speak in front of TONS of people-every day, through your videos and books! I can talk a blue streak in front of a live audience in my sleep, but don't point a camera at me and expect me to make any sense for long. You are a natural teacher and the camera loves you. You're also a natural writer and your posts inspire me, make me laugh, and give me courage to quilt outside the blocks!

    If you've come this far in only a few months, I can't wait to read your year end post next year! A toast-to Leah Day!

  10. Leah, thank you for taking us on your creative journey with you. It has been a very stimulating trip! 2010 will be even better for you, I'm sure.

  11. I read the whole thing, Leah, and I'm glad you gave us a chance to get to know you better. I like that you have put some more variety into your blog (and still love the filler videos!) and hope that you continue to be able to share all your quilting experience with the rest of us who are eager to learn from them.

  12. Bless you Leah for all you have shared with us - you have blossomed this year, but not only that, you have reached so many of us who have be afraid of FMQ, and I'm sure there are many like myself who are proposing to test, stretch and develop our FMQ skills in the coming year, with your continued help, inspirition and advice. To that end an idea that just 'popped' into my head - why not in 2010 - start a Flickr group showing your followers FMQ journies.
    Best wishes and warmest blessings to your and your family this coming year - embrace and enjoy the journey

  13. Yup, doing something in white and the spots show up. Leap into a commitment and we surprise ourselves. Evaluate the journey and we are better prepared to go forward. It is wonderful what we can learn from each other. Thanks for sharing yourself. That makes you courageous but also vulnerable. It helps me move forward. Blessings in the new year!

  14. Leah, you will have so many comments you won't even notice this one. But...I want to say that you have become a regular part of my conversations about quilting. You have inspired me to try FMQ, which I always wanted to do. I started a blog so that I could comment on your blog, which has been a really special experience for me. I, too, have a lot of emotional things to let go of this year and realizing my creativity helps me to find my direction and focus my energies. I owe you a huge debt. Thank you for all that you have done and continue to do. You are so full of light and it shines out of you every day.

  15. Thanks for sharing with us. I also have the type of personality that makes me feel like I have to "do it all", but sometimes I have to stop and focus on some advice I got from two very important people in my life - my grandmother and my husband - and they told me to "follow your dreams - but don't forget to stop and smell the roses along the way".
    Wishing you all the best with your business AND your family in 2010.

  16. Leah - I stumbled upon your blog earlier this fall and was hooked! I check in daily waiting for my next "fix" of quilting inspiration. I love the DVD's and the new tools I have purchased through your online store. You really do inspire us quilters out there that aren't confident that we can finish our own quilts. I have already finished one this fall using your filler design inspirations!! I have a whole stack of quilt tops that I am going to hopefully get through this next year also. Can't wait for your next inspirational message!!

  17. Wow, Leah...
    Just... "Wow!"
    Thanks for putting so much of yourself out there for all of us. I know it's really for you. But we grow with it too.
    Thank you.

  18. Dear Lea,
    thank you so very much for your blog. i read your 31/12/09 blog and it really moved me. even without knowing it, you encourage so many of us, and we love you dearly. it's not only the quilting info , which is amazing - it's your "shining" personality we grew to love.
    i'm sending my hugs. you deserve to by happy.

  19. Leah, thanks so much for this wonderful revealing of your quilting life. I found your blog a few months ago and reading it has given me so much confidence to just quilt! I've done a couple of table runners and wall hangings and a crib quilt and am just about to launch into my first full size quilt. I was too scared to even try it until I read your encouraging posts. Now you've given us your story about the Duchess. I am speechless. I can't imagine the anquish you must have felt, damaging an item that you put so much work into. And then to have the chutzpah to tell us all about it. Great for you.


  20. What an inspiring post! I had forgot today was New Years Eve and that there is a whole year of new possibilities ahead of us. We just took a trip with my MIL and my BIL and his family for Christmas. My MIL and me went to a quilt shop and she bought me a pattern and the fabrics for it as a gift then we picked up a pattern for her, I and my daughter to do together when she comes back down next month. We have a lot of baggage together and your post has inspired me to let it go and start anew with her. I vow to finish more quilts this year also. Thank you so much for sharing your quilting patterns, personal stories, inspiration and love of quilting.

  21. Babe, I have no doubt that 2010 will be *your* year. I'm so grateful to have met you, and can't wait to see what you have in store for us all.

  22. Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been sewing for 42 years but recently started quilting. Your blog has been a wealth of information and inspiration. I am happy to read that you plan to work on stage fright as one of your goals in the coming year. My crystal ball says that you will be much in demand in the near future. I'm excited to see you are creating stencils and I wouldn't be surprised to see a Leah Day fabric line some day.

  23. Thank you for one of the most inspiring stories ever... I am huge fan of yours and really, really hope you've gotten over your stage fear as we have almost registered Patchwork Bulgaria and will invite you for our tutor (as soon as we can arrange the travel expenses:)) Anyway...Thanx again for sharing your miracle...

  24. thank you so much for sharing your journey with quilting. I am in the first baby steps of becoming an art quilter and learn with every project, I can so relate to wanting to rush ahead and regretting it later. You are an inspiration to this young quilter but old woman. Diedre Duncan

  25. I just got a picture in my head after sending my comment, and I just had to share it with you. Now that you've Released Your Light (what a wonderful masterpiece!), perhaps it's time for Nurturing the Light. In my mind I see the goddess in your quilt nurturing the new creation that has come from releasing the light, like a mother holding a new baby.

    Sorry if this sounds weird, but I just had to share it for some reason.

  26. I wish I'd found this post sooner... I just sent off my first show quilt and of course, it's primarily a white background. I had issues with white scraps bleeding and tried to fix it with a bleach gel pen. It looked great for a few days and then started yellowing. I sent it off not knowing what's going to happen to it a month from now in the show but I guess I'll chance it and see.

    Thank you for sharing what you learned along the way with your other show quilts too.


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