The Free Motion Quilting Project: How I Nearly Ruined my Favorite Craft

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How I Nearly Ruined my Favorite Craft

I've been stitching a new beadwork necklace this week and enjoying the slow, peaceful process of stitching tiny beads together. Of course, anytime I do beadwork I'm reminded of why this craft was once nearly ruined for me. Hear the full story in this story video:

So what do you get from a very narrow definition of your craft? Boredom. Frustration. Anxiety. Disappointment.

In the beginning, forming a narrow definition of your craft may feel like a logical way to reduce information overload. If you don't have a sewing machine, learning how to hand piece first is a logical first step to learning about quilting with the materials and tools you have on hand.

However, you run the risk of getting stuck in one place with one style of piecework if you begin to think that only hand piecing "counts" or worse, judging all other forms of patchwork as inferior. It's always a dangerous position to think in terms of "right" and "wrong" but this is exactly what can happen with your craft if you're not careful.

How I nearly ruined beadwork for myself

I got into beadwork when I was 11 or 12, possibly the most judgmental age of a kid. I quickly decided only stitched beadweaving counted and was the "right" way to do beadwork. Even when I worked in a bead shop, I turned my nose up almost all other forms of the craft.

Eventually this hard line attitude began effecting what I created. I began judging my stitches, the colors I was using, and how the beads looked next to each other. I got into a terrible habit - I'd start a necklace, get it halfway created, judge it as inferior, and rip it apart to "save" the beads from the project.

This combination of constantly ripping, and the shrinking amount of time I had for crafts in college resulted in no finished work for many, many years. Thankfully I didn't get rid of my bead collection, but for a long time this craft just wasn't any fun. I didn't find joy or fulfillment from it because my narrow definition and intense judgement of my work had made it absolutely no fun.

Why quilting will never be ruined

When I got into quilting many years later, I immediately saw the different styles and categories of quilting and quilters. Traditional and art quilters were the largest groups when I began quilting, and both rather rigidly set against one another.

I remember hearing a group of art quilters condescendingly slam a traditional quilt as being so "predictable" and "uninspired." I can also remember reading lots of magazines where traditional quilters would write in to demand that this "art crap trend" please end already!

More recently the modern quilt trend has created a brand new bunch of rules for what is considered cool for quilting. But the definition of what is a modern quilt feels like a forever shrinking box. You may be making a modern quilt today that will not be considered "modern enough" tomorrow.

My reaction to all of these groups, rules, definitions, and trends has been to smile sweetly and ignore them all completely. I don't want to be a card carrying member of any group because I don't want to limit what I can make or how I make it. I'm a quilter. I can make anything I want.

Quilting will never be ruined for me because I've learned my lesson from beadwork. No rules. Nothing is right. Nothing is wrong. You can try everything. And everything is awesome.

What do you think? Do you consider certain quilts "right" and other techniques "wrong?" Do you consider yourself a traditional, art, or modern quilter? Have you ever felt bored by the quilting style you've been doing?

Let's go quilt,

Leah Day


  1. Leah, you are so right. I have been so surprised, and so delighted, at quilting's potential for learning. There are so many different options, and opportunities, as you mentioned. In fact quilting enters so many realms, even beyond sewing. It is my peace, my therapy, and my favorite way to challenge myself. I knew a decade ago that I would be a quilter for life. Thank you for your vast and wonderful contribution to my personal journey and to that of so, so many others.

  2. Ditto Carol!! She put my thoughts into words perfectly with the one exception of quilting experience. I've only been quilting for about 2 years but I quit every single day. My life would not be as full and as rich as it is without it, in all of its forms. I adore that it is endless and find it to be a shame that people "quilt themselves into a corner" with restrictions, rules, rights, and wrongs. I AM A QUILTER! Total happiness.

  3. I was a member of the Modern Quilt Guild, but no longer. I thought I had finally found a group that my work would fit into, but no it did not. I wanted to have an opportunity to show my work, but apparently it doesn't fit in with their idea of what a modern quilt is. My work in not traditional, it's not art, it's not modern, I am undefinable! This is fine with me as I do my own thing to please me. I don't need to belong to an organization to tell me my work is valid. I have never had any complaints from the people that have received my quilts. Michael Stipe gave me a big hug and love the quilt I made him, Richie Sambora keeps his at his beach house and named me The Quilt Lady, Jimmy Buffett takes his on tour with him, shall I go on?

    1. Really Patty!? That's incredible! I'm also an indefinable quilter. Maybe we should start an Quilting Undefined Movement. Lol!

    2. I follow your profile to your site - I also do tshirt quilts!

      WHO CARES if they are not definable?? They are still quilts. :)

      A quilt is a top, backing and sometimes (not even always) batting. That is IT.

      Any Warhol was derided for his new style. So was Picasso back in his day. And even Michaelangelo.

      You love what you do and the recipients love their quilts. That is all that matters.

    3. Love it Patty! 'Quilting Undefined Movement!' Let's just spread love around!

  4. As a newbie quilter, I am embracing all forms of quilting and piecing. Why not keep an open mind? I would like to do an abstract quilt - guess it is my painting background showing through ...

  5. A great story with great advice. It's never fun to limit ourselves

  6. I make what appeals to me no matter the style. We don't have to be perfect, we need to enjoy what we do, learn, and we will improve as we practice our craft. Everyone has their own standards. Be true to yourself!

  7. Well said and thank you! It's just like life as far as I'm concerned, why can't we celebrate and love diversity without being mean and nasty and hurtful.

  8. Very true. I enjoyed your video. I have a quote in a Baltimore Album Appliqué book that reminds me of what you said. It doesn't matter the skill level or technique. The end results are equally as beautiful. In answer to your question, I am traditional quiler but when reproducing Baltimore Album quilts, I tend to add a slight modern twist. The truth is I love all qiilts, traditional, art and modern. Sincerely Robyn MacKay

  9. I just make quilts I like and don't think about labels. I think defining what a modern quilt can and can't be is a bit odd anyway, because the most traditional quilt you can think of (maybe a log cabin or churn dash in civil war fabrics) was, at some point, one of the most modern quilts ever made. Give it another 100 years and the current "modern" quilts may be look very traditional too.

  10. Fabulous post Leah! I would say I fall somewhere in the middle. I love blocks, I love color, I love subtly in the variety of a scrap quilt. I'm not really a minimalist, although I love some 'white space' of non-traditional grid work. I was feeling a bit of an identity crisis until I read a book by Mary Fons Porter. She is MY age. And her quilts are sometimes traditional, sometimes with a modern edge, she loves blocks....very much like ME! Now I'm just going to be ME! Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. I've never made a quilt from someone else's pattern. I have made traditional blocks, but not much. I don't enjoy improv or wonky blocks. I have strong opinions about colour, symmetry. I continue to learn new ideas, new techniques and new directions for my work. I have no idea where that 'places' me in the quilt lexicon, but I'm OK being a group of one! Like you, I "smile sweetly and ignore" all the boxes I don't fit into. All I know is, I create because I can and because I must, and my chosen medium is fabric. I'm very much enjoying your series, and one of these days , thanks to you, I may feel brave enough to put away the little quilting needle and the walking foot, and try the darning foot on my sewing machine!

  12. I remember a former president of the Visions Quilt Art Museum telling me how they defined "quilt" for their exhibitions: three layers, fiber, held together with stitches (I'm paraphrasing from a few years ago.) But I liked her follow-up: "Hardening of the categories leads to disease of the art."

    I am able to look at techniques and styles and say, "not for me" while realizing it is right for somebody! Oh, my, I remember people who would say "It's not a quilt" unless it was done completely by hand! Talk about hard-line!

  13. I remember seeing a quilt show on tv years ago. The hostess asked the guest teacher, "when do you suggest that your students step out of the box?" Her answer, "after they've completed 2 or 3 quilts following the pattern, they should try to choose a few fabrics that aren't in the prescribed pattern". Wow, I was totally blown away. All that time prior to that I thought those patterns were just meant for inspiration. Stepping out of the box never happened for me, I never was in it! I started quilting when I was 8, using my mom's ragbag. That first quilt of 2" squares cut with a cardboard template lasted for over 22 years. It was used anywhere and everywhere. I only wish I had a picture of it. 44 years later, it's still a great memory.
    Leah, you are so open and honest. Totally refreshing to hear your stories.
    Thank you.

  14. Kinda late stumbling across this, but I love your thoughts about quilting on this post. I also enjoyed reading everybody's comments. I have my own rules and taste when it comes to the quilts I make, and the ones I like out there. It ranges from traditional to modern, and there are so many quilts I hope to make some day that would fall into different categories. I also notice quilts I DON'T like in all kinds of categories as well, and though I don't go on a public rant about them, they inform my process as well.


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