Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Answering Elena's question -- suggestion #1

Elena wrote back to tell us a little more about her situation. From her comment and her blog, it seems that it takes her a long time to make quilts because she’s doing small projects and samples (a good idea) and because her major work sits on the design wall for a long time while she tries to decide what to do next. And she admits to procrastination.

I don’t want to urge people to rush ahead and finish quilts before they know what they want to do. And I have had work on my design wall for months myself. But while I’m waiting for inspiration, I tend to work on other things.

I know there are artists who like to work on only one thing till it’s finished, then move on to the next thing. Perhaps it helps them focus, and gives them an incentive to get through the tedious work (no dessert till you finish your vegetables). But that’s not the way my head works.

I like to do something every day. It helps me maintain the discipline of regular work because I know that even if I’m blocked on Project A for a bit, I can work on Project B or C. Sometimes you’re blocked for creative reasons – you don’t know what to do next. Sometimes you’re blocked for technical reasons – your sewing machine is in the shop, or you can’t get more of the red fabric till Monday morning. Sometimes you’re blocked for personal reasons – you’re exhausted and overworked from your day job, or you’re under emotional stress, or you’re feeling sick and can’t concentrate enough for major decisions. In any case, I think you need a fallback plan so you can keep working and not lose your momentum. Otherwise, you may fall into the trap that Elena may be in – when she’s blocked, she doesn’t work. So of course it takes her months to finish a quilt.

If this is in fact one of the issues that Elena has, then perhaps she could move herself along by developing two or three tasks to do while she’s waiting for her fabric to talk to her. For instance, maybe she could have a not-important top available to practice free motion quilting. Or she could allow herself to start another piece and work on two more or less simultaneously.

I once attended a workshop with my sensei Nancy Crow in which one of the other participants had accomplished nothing after several hours of "work". She was fussing over a piece on the design wall, making minuscule changes every half hour or so and not moving along (which is a big problem at an intensive workshop where you’re expecting to make major progress during the week).

Nancy told her to start five pieces and put them all up on the design wall. She was to work on the first piece till she hit a block, and then was immediately to put that piece back on the wall, take down the second piece and work on it. It was OK to realize that she couldn’t make the decision right now, but it was not OK to stop working. By the end of the week, she had managed to work herself out of her funk and made a good quantity of acceptable work.

In the past I occasionally got myself through periods of emotional stress by having totally mindless things that I could do at the sewing machine. Sewing was my therapy, my time to go into my room and work on something comforting, but I wasn’t up to serious thinking. So I sewed bits and pieces into 2 1/2 inch squares and put the squares into a box. Eventually I had several thousand of them, and I made a quilt. At the time, just making a few squares of an evening was all I could manage, but it did give me something to do and I could feel I had accomplished something.

Suggestion #1 to Elena: when you’re stalled on a project, work on something else.

Suggestion #2 comes tomorrow.


  1. I agree with your thoughts about having a simple project that you can work on when your inspiration fades. I always keep a project going that requires a lot of grunt work- simple sewing that needs little thought or creative energy but has lots of little pieces to sew together. That sort of quilt would drive me crazy if I worked on it non-stop, but it's nice relief when I just need to keep sewing for my own sense of well-being.

  2. Great advice Kathy! Can't wait to hear what's next.

    -Marie from NW OH

  3. I am one of those - "artists who like to work on only one thing till it’s finished, then move on to the next thing".

    I admit to being easily distracted by my own creative impulses. Starting a project is always more attractive than finishing one as evidenced by my ufos. This tendency applies to non-quilting projects as well. So I make a pact with myself to complete more and start less – whittle down the distractions.

    Okay. So I can't handle multiple projects. But maybe a more limited number. I'll give it a go and start with two.

  4. Elena -- how about this for a compromise. Take out a UFO. Decide what has to be done in order to finish it -- perhaps a decision has to be made (I need to resolve the top right corner, I need to choose a quilting design) or a task has to be done (I have to finish the quilting, I have to put on a facing or binding). Write down the next step -- or maybe the next three steps. Do this for several UFOs in your stash.

    Then when you're blocked on some other project, run through your notes and choose a step that seems doable and unthreatening at the time. Work on that till you're unblocked from the first project, then return.

    Some days you'll feel up to making a decision on something else, and it may just energize you enough to return to your first project. Other days you won't be up to thinking at all, so you can work on one of the more mindless tasks. But the trick is to have it all written down on a list, so all you have to do is choose one from column A and one from column B.

  5. Excellent advice, Kathy. I always have at least 2 works going so I can switch if I hit a roadblock in one. I also work in several media (in separate spaces), which allows me to switch actual physical process and environment as well as mental states.

    Something else to think about, Elena... do you really need to finish *all* your UFOs? Perhaps you learned what you needed to with however much you accomplished on them and can just let them go as part of your learning process. Not everything needs to be "finished" to be valid.

  6. Cynthia, good question. Okay not all.

    Only ones I want to finish. Like my first ever quilt top for sentimental reasons. Or the one from my first Nancy Crow workshop. Then there's the one I've targeted for the first with free motion quilting.

    These three are foremost in my mind so I'll focus on them and make my list of steps for each like Kathy suggested. Finishing these will ingrain that process of making the quilt sandwich and add to my knowledge bank about the effects of quilting lines.