When I first came to quilting years ago, everyone was writing tutorials about quilts you could finish in a weekend, short cuts for piecing, and faster ways to make half square triangles. There's nothing wrong with these, of course! Short cuts and quick designs are wonderful and great to share. But sometimes, when all the messages are, "this is how you can do this faster," it can be mistaken for "this should be done faster," or "this can only be enjoyed if finished faster."
I switched to English paper piecing (EPP), not because I wanted to slow down, or because I hated machine piecing, but because I wanted to build a collection of EPP patterns for my business. I always assumed I would keep machine piecing for fun, but it turned out EPP worked in really well with my lifestyle.
I could do it easily in company. I could stitch and hang out with Tim in the evenings. I could take it with me to long, boring work meetings. My creative time changed from being something I had to carve out in the day to something that filled almost every moment.
But in that process, another really significant thing had to change: my expectations. Going from making a quilt in a week to taking a few months or a year is a huge shift in momentum!
In the book Essentialism, Greg McKeown says that the most important factor for motivation is making progress. If you're traditionally a machine quilt maker, and you suddenly take up hand piecing, the progress can feel pretty discouraging. Maybe you used to be able to set goals of a few quilts blocks in an afternoon, or sewing a quilt top's worth of rows together, or complete all the cutting. In this post I want to give you some tips for keeping momentum, making progress, and enjoying the slower pace of English paper piecing.
1. Time yourself.
I remember while making some blocks for my book, The Seedling Quilts, that I was stitching up the outer round to a bunch of blocks, and kept being disappointed at how many I could complete in an evening. So, one night, I decided to time myself, and discovered it took half an hour to complete one block, stitching quickly and with concentration.
Before timing myself, I had expected that I should be able to complete four blocks in an evening. After all, I generally stitch for a couple of hours after the kids go to bed. But, I like to stitch in front of the TV, or while listening to a podcast with Tim, so I don't often stitch for 2 solid hours. I stop. I take a break. I rethread. I lay a few out to see what I think. I can't stitch and talk at the same time!
And so, I adjusted my goal to finishing two blocks. Making that change meant that I no longer had the unrealistic goal of finishing all my blocks by the end of the week, and it helped me plan my sewing time better. And, I got to enjoy my evenings being present with my stitches!
If you're new to EPP or quilt making, you might take longer deliberating over fabric choices, getting used to holding your pieces, or keeping your stitches even, so please don't worry if you find yourself disappointed from time to time. Quilt making is here for you to enjoy! Set realistic goals and reassess when things don't go to plan.
2. Prepare for uninterrupted time and interrupted time.
I have discovered that I'm really good at stitching and basting all through the day, but I cannot choose fabrics in the rough and tumble of life. Or, decide on a layout, or work out fabric requirements. So, if I use uninterrupted time well to prepare quilt blocks for stitching, they are there, ready to go in all the interrupted time. As a result, I maintain my momentum, and my quilts make progress.
I prefer to cut fabric at my cutting table, so I do that during the day when I'm uninterrupted. I like to baste at my dining table, so I might do that on weekends when I can be interrupted by the kids around wanting to chat and eat and play, and I can still be available to them. I like to stitch in my comfy sofa, so that happens in breaks through the day and in the evenings.
But I've noticed, if all my quilts are at a decision-making stage, I lose momentum and they'll stall. I just don't bring them out in the evening or with other people around. I'll scroll through Instagram instead. Figure out how you work best so that it feels more like flow and less like pressure.
3. Don't mind the wasted stitches.
When I made my Kingfisher quilt a few years ago, about a quarter of the way through stitching my flowers to diamonds, I just couldn't bring myself to keep working on it. Now, I don't know if I'm just really strange or stupid (I know I'm not stupid!), but my instincts will always kick in before my head does. I'll push back for a little while, assuming it's just mid-quilt tedium, until finally a light comes on and I think to ask myself why I feel uncomfortable about this. That's when I usually realise that I don't like it. And it's really, really awful slow-stitching a quilt you don't like.
It's also really scary. All that work. All that plan. All that fabric. Will it be ok if I just push through? Do I really want to unpick all that sewing? Thankfully I'm getting better at deciding to unpick.
When I made this Kingfisher quilt, my original plan was to use rich, solid coloured diamonds for the background, but they made my pretty, scrappy flowers look muddy rather than shiny. So, I switched to low volume backgrounds, and I loved it. Even though there was more work involved, the remaining stitching for that quilt was joyful and relieved, rather than full of dread. If you're losing momentum, check in with yourself and see if it's because you need to change something.
Quilting is an old, beautiful craft with a long and rich connection to women and men with incredible stories, and ordinary ones. So, when I learned to EPP, I wanted to do it like they did 200 years ago. Maybe it was for that connection, but I think also there was an assumption in me that it was the right way to do it.
The problem was, however, I hated it. By the time I hand cut all my hexagons, which I had hand-drafted on scrap paper (!), and then cut my fabric, I'd had enough! I hadn't even begun basting the fabric or stitching it together! No wonder people viewed their EPP as a one project in a lifetime method!
I did eventually finish that quilt but figured I wouldn't make another. Until there came a season in my life when, as part of a community group we worked with, I had 3 hour weekly meetings. I knew I was going to go crazy without something to do with my hands, so I decided to give EPP another shot.
I bought my papers, tried glue, and figured out ways to rotary cut fabric for my shapes quickly. I experimented with systems to stay organised and created little bundles of pieces, a zip-lock bag per block, to take to my meetings. Soon those blocks also filled my evenings and holidays and road-trips and home-school hours.
Quilting traditions are wonderful, but it's also good to remember that they too were once new methods, developed with what worked best at the time, with tools they had on hand. Don't trade the tradition of joy and beauty and warmth for traditional methods.
5. Find a process that works.
You'll already have picked up a few processes I use from the tips above, but I thought it still deserved it's own point! For some quilts, I stitch all the blocks together before moving on to any other stage. But, that's not always how I do it. If I'm getting bored with one stage, I'll skip to the next one for some finished blocks even if I have others in pieces. Sometimes, I cut just enough fabric to get a feel of the quilt colours, and then I make up the blocks and see what else it needs.
If you're the kind of person who loves one step at a time, go right ahead! But if you are a flitter like me, enjoy that part of you! Work with your motivations and inspiration to keep making progress rather than losing momentum because you're tired of one stage.
Keep the momentum going!
There's great joy and satisfaction in finding ways you enjoy working, and discovering tricks for keeping your momentum going. And, sometimes those tricks won't be techniques that make things faster (although pre-cut shapes and glue did that for me in a great way!), they'll be methods that help you create with joy. So, today, if you're feeling stuck, take some time to tune in, to play, to listen and experiment. It will be a worthwhile investment into your creative time, I'm sure!
These are my tricks for keeping my momentum going, but do you have others? I'd love to know in the comments!