The Craft of Quilting: Process

Many moons ago, I earned a degree in Musical Theater. Tra-la-la!! As I was learning how to sing to the balcony without ripping out my vocal cords and how to form the perfect pair of Fosse jazz hands, I also learned about the difference between art and craft. The art of acting — or painting or playing the violin or dance, etc. — is not easily defined and can be associated with vaguely defined terms like “talent” or “the it factor.” The ability to tap into that mysterious inner fire of creation is essential to any artist. But equally essential is the development of one’s craft in conjunction with their art. Yes, to be a successful actor, you need to have that inherent ability to capture the attention of a 1,500-seat theater full of people and bring them with you on your character’s journey. But being able to successfully do that eight performances a week, 50 weeks a year requires craft.

Now, I have to admit that when I first started quilting, I didn’t think too much about any of this. I mean, sure, I was learning techniques and trying to improve each time I pieced a block together, which is part of honing one’s craft. But as long as I was following someone else’s instructions to achieve their design, the idea of process never really crossed my mind. In fact, it wasn’t until my third original quilt that I realized I couldn’t wing my way through designs that were percolating in my head and just expect them to appear fully formed under my sewing machine.

You see, I had decided to create a quilt as a housewarming gift for a very dear friend. Because she is a fellow crafter, I knew she would have no problem with me experimenting a bit with my scrap bin to make something fun. I decided I would make a bunch of Log Cabin blocks using a somewhat random selection of scraps and just kind of figure out the rest as I went along. After I made about 11 or 12 blocks, I decided to slap them up on my design wall to see what order I wanted to put them in, and I was horrified by the result. They looked horrible together!! It didn’t matter what order I put them in. They all completely clashed with each other, and I had a fit because I had spent so much time making all of them.

After I managed to calm down, I stood and stared at the blocks for a very long time. I mean, like, a really long time. (One of the things I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I am not a quick thinker.) I gave myself permission to just stand and stare and let my creative juices do some behind-the-scenes work in my brain.

I eventually came up with a couple solutions. One, I would use sashing to put some much needed space between each of the blocks. Two, I would frame each block with the same navy blue I had used for the center square of each Log Cabin. Once I tried that on a few of the blocks and put them back up on the design wall, I realized it was actually going to look amazing!

This was a big epiphany for me. I thought, Oh, yeah! This whole designing-a-quilt-thing is actually a process! Sometimes ideas work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they don’t work until you try something two or three or four more times. And that’s great because it means you’re thinking like an artist! No one creates perfect pieces of art out of thin air no matter how brilliant they are. You have to ponder, sketch, workshop, rehearse, change your direction, think outside the box, and all of that good stuff before you actually achieve your vision.

Now I want to offer a few suggestions specific to quilters who want to start working on their process.

  • Sketch out your ideas or use a program to help you sketch out your ideas
  • Get a design wall
  • Make test blocks using fabric you don’t care about
  • Don’t get frustrated when your test blocks don’t automatically come out how you wanted them to; use it as an opportunity to discover the changes you want to make
  • While it’s always great to stretch yourself and try new skills, don’t feel guilty if you decide you just don’t like certain techniques; embrace your strengths
  • Take an art class that has nothing to do with quilting and learn about composition, form, line, color theory, and all that good stuff that can elevate your quilt designs to a new level
  • Take photos throughout the process of your quilt so you have an archive of how you overcame past challenges
  • Don’t be afraid to ask others to look at what you’re making if you find yourself stuck, though be aware that some people do not know how to give a helpful critique (I should probably write a post about how to participate in a critique)

I’m sure if I sat here for another few hours, I could come up with many more suggestions, but I’ll stop here for now. Instead, I would now love to hear all about your process! Please leave a comment and share how your process works, so we can all help each other continue progressing through our exciting quilting journeys!

Published by Andrew Ve Hansen

I live in Brooklyn with my husband. I'm obsessed with all things quilting! Some of my other interests include taking advantage of all of the culinary delights this city has to offer, hanging out with my friends, board games and tabletop RPGs, reading, watching movies and tons of TV, crafting, and going to the theater (especially musicals).

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3 Comments

  1. Well, of course, I LOVE this post! But I have to especially agree on the need to take time when creating — I have gotten much better at it, but still, I have to remind myself that it’s ok to not get everything done as quickly as possible.

  2. Well, of course, I LOVE this particular post, because it’s about MY beautiful quilt! But I also appreciate the reminder to slow down and let one’s mind work in its best way, something I need to remember all the time too. And also, to remember that what may seem to be a failure can actually be a triumph, given enough time and thought!

    1. The whole prototyping part of the process is hardest for me. I have a hard time getting over the thought that it’s a waste of time and I should just be able to make something perfect the first time.

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