The Free Motion Quilting Project: 16. Overcoming a Quilting Rut

Thursday, March 14, 2013

16. Overcoming a Quilting Rut

Super thank you for all your support yesterday with the launch of my newest Craftsy class! It's been a hectic week, but your kind compliments helped me put some lurking fears to rest and feel great once again about teaching online and sharing as much as I can with everyone who wants to learn.

Now speaking of fear, it's time for me to bite the bullet and admit something I've been far too afraid to say for far too long:

I'm not happy with my quilt.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

This is a super hard thing to admit because as the leader of this project, even though I'm not doing a paint-by-numbers quilt along, I still feel pressure to show everything perfectly, as though I have it all figured out, in a solid plan that can be explained in bullet points step by step.

But this isn't that sort of project! It never was supposed to be that kind of project! I'm supposed to make mistakes!

This project is all about finding NEW ways of doing things: new designs, new techniques, new colors, new spontaneity of creative process.

But trying new things doesn't always look good. Sometimes it looks messy and chaotic, which is why I'm struggling to even look at this quilt right now. It feels like a mess!

I also have to admit that I've never tried making multiple versions of a goddess before, so while I know in my heart I can always make another one and likely will end up with 3 or 4 finished quilts by the end of the year, my brain is still screaming that I suck and this quilt is a total failure.

Okay. Breathe. I am enough. I can fix this.

I could lie and hide the fact that this quilt is upsetting me. I could continue to stitch pretty things on Duchess Reigns, but that would be avoiding a very big elephant in the room, and my goal this year was not to make any more UFOs. I must finish what I have started, which means fixing what bothers me, and that always starts with just being honest and admitting This Bothers Me.

So how do you do this? When I finally got up the guts to be honest, I had to ask myself that very question - How do I fix what bothers me in this quilt?

And that lead perfectly into Step 1 - Identify what is wrong.

I can't fix anything until I know exactly what is the problem. If I stumble blindly into this, I could easily make the quilt look worse and wind up hating it even more.

So to identify the problem, I shot that picture above and printed it out and every time I was sitting down on the couch, riding in the car, making dinner, I'd pull out the picture and STARE at it.

I've been avoiding this quilt for weeks so this wasn't very comfortable. Every time I looked at it, my brain would first want to berate me for all my mistakes and the failure of the project.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

But very quickly I found that both tiresome and pointless. Beating myself up isn't going to make this better! I forced myself to just ask the simple question over and over: what is wrong?

And surprisingly quickly I got an answer! I think I carried the photo around for about 8 days, but I had a pretty clear idea of what the major issues were in 4.

#1 - I don't like the words. I love their meaning and I definitely want words in my quilt, but these aren't working for me. They're too big, and because they twist around with the swirling "breath" areas they're very hard to read, which defeats the point of them being there in the first place.

#2 - I need to fill the orange rays. All those large empty spaces are bothering me. We need more fills in these spaces so the background is complete.

#3 - I want less chaos and more color. I don't know exactly how I'm going to achieve this, but I do see a need for more bold color to balance out the multiple thread colors I used in the background.

So that's really it! 3 issues, and honestly not very big issues are what's causing my bad attitude about this quilt. Now that I know the problem, finding a solution will be a lot easier.

But getting here - getting to this point of understanding and accepting the problem was uncomfortable. Sitting with that photo, staring at it, trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with it - that wasn't much fun, but it was a necessary step and it allowed me to break out of this rut.

And just in case I wasn't clear in how to bust out of a rut above, here's a short video on it as well:

I must say there's something cathartic in admitting I make mistakes in this video! It's important for you to realize that this year is a big learning experience for me as well, and this isn't going to be the only time I make mistakes.

But the one thing I don't want to do is to rip out my mistakes.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

I have 2 lines of words thread painted into my quilt. At this point ripping out this stitching would take hours and hours of time, and that would be a total waste of effort in my opinion because the fabric probably won't stand up well to the abuse.

Also these words are so wonderful and powerful. Stitching them felt wonderful, but ripping would feel very bad. So rather than rip a single stitch, I'm going to investigate ways of covering these sections instead of ripping.

But first, let's finish up these orange background sections! I have a few new designs in mind for these spaces that will be fun to learn in the coming week.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

So here's to imperfection! I've made mistakes, but we will learn so much more in fixing them than we ever would have if I'd just shoved this quilt on a shelf and walked away from it.

Let's go quilt,



  1. Not that I'm happy you are unhappy with your quilt, it is lovely to know that you too can have problems in terms of working out a quilting pattern and need to take time and thought to figure out what is bothering you and find solutions. Part of the joy of quilting for me is working through the design and solving a problem as it hits. It will be great to see what you come up with. I love the quilt and the big words - like you are declaring rather then quietly saying. Has more emphasis. Loving your class as well, quilting juices a flowing.

  2. Thank you for being honest with us. I have faith that you can fix this and get back on track! :)

  3. Leah, you teach us so much more than quilting. Thank you for your wonderful, informative lessons and posts on quilting and life!

  4. LOL I love you to pieces!! I don't like mine either!! I haven't even gotten as far as you. Could you do a very dense filler over the words then either put other words or whatever there?? I am used to running into problems with painting and I always say that a mistake is usually an opportunity to create. Hang in there!!

  5. Oh shoot. I totally commented on your last blog entry what was meant for this one. OOPS!

  6. I am glad you aren't ripping out the words. I think once the hair is quilted, the words won't stand out as much and you will leave them in. I like that they twine around and are part of the breath. I agree about filling in the orange ray parts. And I can't remember the third!! Thanks for sharing your dilemma and your solution method--it will be helpful when things of mine aren't going right. BTW, I signed up for the Craftsy class (as did hundreds of others) so you must be doing a lot right! As I told my students: mistakes are your friends, they can teach you something.
    Sally in Seattle

  7. I made my entry "Whimsical Leaves" for your group challenge 7 times before I was satisfied. (Seriously.) I figure that if I didn't make mistakes, I wouldn't have learned what I did. If I didn't learn, I would not have made progress, and now I can honestly say that that little project has pushed me into different types of quilting that I never expected!

    Thanks for admitting you're human! I can identify with that! ;)

    All the best - Chris

  8. On occasion, I have felt like I spent more time staring at a project (or into space) and thinking about it than actually sewing it! This painfully time consuming effort is testament to how much we look at our work as personal art and how much we care about the results.

    Still, not every decision will prove satisfying in retrospect. That's when your experience and expertise (and all of these blogging quilters!) come in handy for ideas on how to solve issues.

  9. Awesome! I love how you sorted out and broke down what was wrong.

  10. I love this honesty! I know you never intended this to be a 'quilt-by-numbers' but I was treating it as a class. I have made a hundred mistakes, I have learned from every one, and I will finish this quilt anyway. The best part is that I have another version all planned out with different fillers, much more painting and many techniques I have learned from you!!

    Never feel bad about a project that isn't coming out how you hoped, just learn from it! Thanks for letting us know it's OK to dislike our work and to move forward anyway.

  11. A couple of things I learned in Art Classes are: look at your painting upside down and look at it backwards using a mirror. It is amazing what those two things will reveal.

    Thanks for being so honest and I am looking forward to seeing your solutions. BTY, I too am taking your Craftsy class and enjoying it.

  12. You never cease to amaze me with your candidacy and willingness to openly share your experiences. I agree with Robbiew - you teach us so much more than quilting. Thank you.

  13. I would love to see more colour - perhaps using paints?

  14. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being HONEST and truely HAVING AN OPEN HEART. Your sharing with all of us is a true testament to who you are. That was very brave of you to take such a huge risk. Sharing your road block breaking approach is a fantastic gift to the rest of us who end up with a quilt we hate and just toss into the donation bin. Keep on quilting!

  15. Hi Leah,
    Thank you for saying how you feel about this. We all feel like this from time to time about our own work and its helps for us to know that this is part of the process. Quilting is our medium for expressing ourselves. We are always disconcerted when our work does not convey how we feel or what we are trying to say and that is probably what does not sit right with us. My thought on the words in the beginning was that them being so bold it was like shouting.
    Perhaps something more subdued? For me the words are like a mantra, something that reaffirms and comforts.
    Like a murmur or whisper we say to ourselves, reminding us we are worth it, we are so blessed, etc. The bright white thread is a big contrast. Maybe a simple fix of using an inktense pencil to tone it down.
    Hope you don't mind my opinion on that but that's how I felt about it and this is how we feel. Whether you feel it's a mistake or not it helps us all learn to express ourselves and feel good about what we create. I so appreciate what you offer us with no strings attached.
    Thank you.

  16. This is a really interesting post to read because I have to admit, I'm stuck in a rut with mine too. I've actually set it aside for another project because I'm just not 'feeling it".

    I haven't gotten nearly as far as you have- I haven't done any of the rays for instance, but I just can't figure out what to do to make it mine. The goddess on my quilt is beautiful, but everytime I work on it, I feel like I'm making someone else's quilt.

    Maybe the words on the quilt make it harder because it makes it so personal that you (general you) want it to be perfect. I think that is what I'm feeling.

    I eventually really do want to finish this quilt, but I'm not sure how I'll go about it.

  17. Hi Leah, thanks for this post. I am really happy you will be going back to this quilt. I was wondering why you stayed away from it. I'm excited about this project and want to improve my quilting skills, bring them to the next level. And I feel this project is going to help me do that! So I want to use all the right tools. I've ordered silk bating, it came in yesterday, yippee! I have the thread I love quilting with, in many colors. I am ready!

    Thanks for doing this project! You are wonderful! Mary

  18. James is very lucky to have you as his Mom, Leah :) From you, he no doubt learns grace & honesty, strength & courage, self-reflection & self-worth, confidence, and how to be an all-around kind, compassionate human being.
    You rock, woman!

  19. Thank you for walking through the process, good and bad! I struggle to overcome my percieved flaws, and to hear you talk about how you think it through helps me in so many ways. thanks for everything you do!

  20. Leah, Your way of teaching is why so many of us are with you. So many of the other teachers online are so perfect. There doesn't seem to be a hitch in anything they do. We students feel exactly as you have expressed so clearly and your method allows us to say oops and move on. The others tend to make us want to hide our work and feel as if we aren't capable so why bother. I doubt if I will ever be "the Queen of Quilting perfection" but I know that I love working with fabric and design and I am not afraid to try anything that I have a desire to try. My attitude has changed from "what will other quilters think" to "Damn the torpedoes, Full speed ahead" And my dear, that is because of you! ♥ ♥ ♥

  21. "An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail."

    True, or not??

    "Mistakes are made. It is the response to the error that counts."

    So, I'm curious how you'll respond. We're all human, we make mistakes and for a not-so-famous-quilter it's a revalation to see you make mistakes too and are honest about it. Thank you for sharing. Means a lot.

  22. Sorry to hear you were in a quilting rut. It happened to me when I was making a queen-sized quilt. In my case I was in the zone, cutting fabrics for 2 straight weeks. Then my sister called to tell me she didn't want a white background, instead she wanted a beige, neutral background. So after much discussion, I decided to stop cutting and pull neutrals from my stash. I felt derailed, like a freight train! It was downhill from there. After 4 months, I finished the top. Then came the matter of whether to add the border or not. After measuring the quilt top before adding the border, I already had a queen-sized quilt top. it took me another 3 months to move the quilt from the quilt rack and ship it to my long-arm quilter. I know my rut was not caused by a design issue, but I was in a big rut regardless. Ugh!

  23. Thanks for your honesty Leah. Perhaps you are somewhat of an introvert like me. If you have time for reading, there's a great book out now called "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. It helps foster understanding and self-appreciation.


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