The Free Motion Quilting Project: Quilting Without Fear

Monday, January 16, 2012

Quilting Without Fear


This elemental emotion has been with us forever. It helped us survive when we were living in caves, always driving us to run fast or fight hard. We can't escape our capacity to feel fear because it's hardwired into our brains. Without our fight or flight drive, we wouldn't have lasted long on this earth.

But these days we don't have such simple fears that they can either be run away from quickly or bludgeoned with a club.

Sitting at my computer I've been thinking about fear a lot lately. It seems in exchange for the comforts of modern, civilized life, we now have to deal with a new sort of fear. It's the slow, insidious fear that creeps in under the door and slowly encircles your ankles.

These simple fears don't seem like a big deal in the beginning - worry over your kids/grandkids getting hurt, concern over the economy, or stress over which fabrics to pick for your next quilt.

They seem simple enough, but if allowed free reign to grow and manifest, these fears can drive you to do crazy things like not letting your child outside to play, hording canned foods just in case the world ends next week, or stalling out your next quilt project simply because you can't pick the colors.

The more I think about it, the more I see that our modern fears are all things we can't easily fight or fly from, so it makes sense that, for our brains at least, it's difficult to know how to react when a fear goes from just a small worry to a life-controlling obsession.

So how does all of this relate to quilting?

I've been watching and reading many blogs over the last two weeks and it seems the one thing stopping most quilters from even TRYING free motion is just simple fear.

What if I mess up this quilt?

- Use a practice sandwich so you're NOT quilting on a real quilt that took many hours to piece. It's just batting and fabric and thread after all. It's not going to sit up and yell at you.

What if I'm really bad at free motion quilting?

- Chances are you will see some ugly stitches, but this is totally normal. It will also feel weird because you're using your machine in a different way. Neither of these things mean you're particularly bad or good at free motion. You're just starting! Give yourself a break!

What if I never get the hang of it?

- If you put time and effort into practicing this skill, you will see an improvement every time you quilt. Fear of being bad at it, or never improving is just not logical. The more you work at it, the better you will get.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? No matter what little worry comes into your head, there is a logical argument to counter it.

Logic is the enemy of fear. You will not be afraid of illogical things if you only look at them in a logical way.

If you allow it, fear will stick you in place, stop you from trying and doing the things you want to do.

I know this all too well because last year I allowed fear to squash me flat. This time last year all 365 designs were stitched out and I had an ENTIRE YEAR to plan and create what was coming next on this blog.

But what did I do? I allowed fear to enter the equation and it stuck me in place.

For an entire year I stressed and worried and had many good ideas, but I couldn't actually START on any of them!

Every time I had an idea about what to do, fear would start asking questions. What if everyone hates this idea? What if I don't do it right and everyone is confused? What if I can't get all of x,y, z done in time?

Never before in my life have I used the word Procrastination to describe myself. I wasn't intentionally treading water, wasting time, but that is exactly what was happening because I couldn't make a decision.

I was stuck. Fear stuck me in place. No movement. No forward. Just STUCK.

It was only in the last week of the project that I finally forced myself to make a decision. I was still so consumed by my illogical fear that I was sure, absolutely positively sure, that you would all hate the way I was changing this blog.

I sat waiting for dire emails lambasting my need for change, criticizing this new quilt along idea, and demanding a return to the way the project was. It just proves how illogical my fear was - I never received even ONE nasty email this year.

As the first and second weeks have gone by, I've slowly unbent from the curled, squashed position my fears put me in last year. I conquered the fear in the end by coming to this realization:

Nothing could possibly be worse than being stuck in place by fear.

All the most terrible and nasty emails in the world were not as bad as the feeling of being pummeled by illogical fears. To make the feeling even more visual, I sketched this drawing of a goddess under a torrent of fear (that's a rain cloud above her by the way, not a bundle of balloons!):

free motion quilting | Leah Day
Something about having a visual image made me realize I couldn't stand this stuck feeling for another second.

Finally I just said - Shut up and go quilt Leah and you'll figure it all out later.

Shut up because all these worries are illogical.

Shut up because you don't need to ask any more questions.

Shut up because the answers will come, but ONLY from behind a machine.

Shut up and MOVE beyond this stuck place!

So if you're feeling particularly stuck, held in place by all the many questions and worries and fears that come with free motion quilting, consider for a second what this state feels like.

Consider the chains holding you in place, the ropes tying you to one spot, all the pull and weight of that fear reigning down on your back.

And now consider the fact that you can MOVE out of this place of fear by taking a single step:

Go quilt.




  1. I really like this post - thank you for sharing your thoughts.


    babsnwv at gmail dot com

  2. Oh, yes, I needed this post! I am not afraid of the quilting, I love that part! I am afraid of cutting into my fabrics. There, I said it! I know how expensive they are and how long I work to buy them. I do not want to waste them. But, I need to just get over it and go piece a quilt! Then I can FMQ it! (the reward at the end)! Thank you, Leah!

  3. I start a new quilting class this evening, so your post couldn't have been written at a better time! It's hand applique and I've been putting off cutting the pieces in fear I would use the wrong fabric, make a mistake or or or or....but its just fabric and I can buy more. Thanks so much for your wonderful words! Tomorrow I start practicing my fmq. No fear, its only fabric, batting, thread and a few hours of time.

  4. Wow...did I need to read this post today! This is a message for me not only about quilting but life!

  5. We are so much harder on ourselves than others are. Because of your blog and other online challenges I just finished quilting a top that I actually like. The quilting isn't beautiful or stunning, but I like it and the curved lines are actually curved and I don't have any eyelashes, so thank you.

  6. Me gustó Leah. Por eso me atrevo a pedirte si puedes poner en tu blog un traductor para los que te seguimos y no te entendemos en tu lengua. A mí me facilitarías mucho la tarea de leerte. Gracias.

  7. Yeah, sometimes I tell myself "Just do something, even if it is wrong!" I hate (strong word I do mean) wasting time with doing nothing. My problem isn't usually fear, it's just too many choices and indecision. Thanks for the pep talk :o)

  8. Great job moving beyond your fears--and inspiring others to do the same.

  9. A very important message that I find myself having to learn over and over. It always ends the same though. Shut up and do it. What is the worst that can happen>

  10. Perfect post for today! I've been thinking about what is keeping me from going to the next step and it is fear:( I need to confront it head on. I've got the long arm and I just need to "do it". I'm been so afraid of not being perfect that is's really holding me back from even trying.....

  11. WOW - such a great post! I have often procrastinated due to fear, especially about not doing it perfectly! When I first started to do free-motion I decided to do a rag quilt, where each block was quilted before the quilt was put together. I didn't want to "waste" good fabric on practice! And that way I wouldn't ruin a whole quilt either! The great thing was that each block came out OK, and I was able to use them to make the quilt. It was good practice, and also affirming to me. BUT - I do keep a quilt sandwich to do a quick sample to make sure my tension, thread choice, etc is going to work before I start on the real thing. I use this sandwich until there is nowhere left to practice, and then make a new one. I use whatever scrap fabric I have, as long as it is the same weight as what I'm going to be working on. Thanks for keeping me inspired and encouraged to keep on doing what I love to do! You are able to put into words so much of what I have struggled, or am struggling, with! It's nice to know I'm not alone!! THANKS!

  12. Brilliant, Leah. This echoes stuff I've been noticing in myself recently , relating to various issues, large and small - a level of background fear and anxiety, of "what if"s and catastrophising - imagining what MIGHT happen - or, there again, might not!

  13. That is such an inspiring blog post. Thanks so much for the inspiration. I hope for a day when no one would have to receive a nasty email for any reason. But until that day we won't let the fear or the nasty people get us down! i'll just take another step!

  14. Okay-have you been reading my mind or what? I have pieced together a beautiful quilt for my sister in law and it was supposed to be for her birthday last July....then it is middle of January and all I have done is stitched in the ditch. I have put some sandwiches together and my stitches on the back look horrible. So, there it sits. All because I am afraid to mess it up. My hubby keeps telling me just do it....she will love it anyway. But I keep saying "this is my first quilt, I want it to be right" You have given me the swift kick in the butt I needed.

    I am just going to not let this fear paralyze me and I am going to shut up and quilt.

  15. When I first found your blog, I spent a very long time being AMAZED at your work. I was scared to try it, mostly out of fear of WASTE. "what if it's too ugly and I'm ashamed of it? Will I chunk it out? What about all that fabric? And batting?" I just didn't want to throw away mistakes. So....I started practicing on "cat size quilts"...sometimes, I'd get part way thru and be disgusted so I'd just stop, satin stitch all the edges instead of binding and throw it in a box. When I had a box full, I toted them to the Animal shelter where they used them for the cats and puppies...,And you know what? Not one of those orphaned animals complained about ugly stitches!
    I grew to love making these smaller items and now make them all the time (I call them Table Scraps). I make a large quilt occassionally

  16. You are right on target with your thoughts on the topic. I can't believe how many of my friends refuse to even try to break out of their various quilt fears (FMQ with a DSM being #1....most think it's not even possible, must be done with a LA!!!). Am taking my Juki 2010TL to quilt meeting next Monday and give a demo. Hopefully they will at least give it a try!

  17. Wonderful website, wonderful post. I'll be participating in the QAL with you, as soon as I take this to heart and make a practice sandwich.

    Thanks so much!

  18. An interesting post on fear and quilting. Although I am not ready to try free motion quilting, I did make a resolution to complete my first quilting project this year. Even though it's an easy one, a simple quilted table runner, it's taken 15 days to erase the fear and to just get started. Tonight I cut the fabric and made the squares and triangles. My wife of 36 years has been a lifelong quilter, and she is my guide and mentor. I'm still afraid of how the finished product may look though, because I have to start sewing for the first time right away. I will have pictures on my blog at tomorrow evening.

  19. Leah-It always amazes me that such talented creative people suffer the same anxiety that I do. Thanks for admitting it-there is strength in numbers. FYI, if you read Beth Farrier's blog, she has chosen BRAVE as her word for 2012 because she, too, struggles with fear/anxiety about her work. (She has a similar post from 1/4/12 if you're interested.) I love the new tone of the project-I'm slowly stippling my way thru some baby quilts that have been in my stash (the kids are probably in middle school now!). I have confidence in my piecing skills-quilting, not so much. Thanks for loaning me a backbone!

  20. Thanks so much for this. You seem to find the right thing to say at the right time. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one.

  21. I know that feeling - when it comes on I always think of A A Milne's poem that begins
    "There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew
    Who had so many things which he wanted to do
    That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
    He couldn't because of the state he was in." Which sums it up perfectly.

  22. Fear can hold us back from so many things, fear of failure is such a biggie for me. Thanks for this post.

  23. Miss Leah, I thought your Goddess looked like she was in trees (and perhaps not seeing the forest for them.) You are a powerful woman and I have enjoyed what you are sending out into the world lately. k.

  24. Yes, I had a fear of free motion but didn't want to waste all of that time practicing, taking time away from quilting sooo I put together a lovely wall hanging and just went to it with free motion. It didn't turn out bad at all..I will use it and always know that "hey, that's not so bad for my first attempt" and look how I have improved from the beginning to the ending. I'm still practicing making real quilts!


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