Heading to a quilt retreat? Read this “think big” story

Mary and TracyWhen heading for a quilt retreat, Think Big!

In March, I was invited to go on a Leavenworth Quilt Co. retreat at Ingalls Creek Lodge in Peshastin, Washington, about a 2½-hour drive from Martingale in the Cascade Mountains. (That’s me on the left and Martingale’s customer service manager, Tracy, on the right, taking in the scenery by the lodge).

Usually when I go on a retreat, I pack at the last possible minute, come up with some vague idea of what I want to make, and throw a bunch of fabric and books in a bin (or two!). Then I have to concentrate at the retreat on what fabric will go where and spend time cutting it all before even starting to sew. I usually come home with one (almost finished) quilt top.

Meanwhile, my friend and coworker Karen Burns is always busy sewing her precut quilts. She finishes five or six quilt tops on retreat!

This time I was determined to be more like Karen. I spent a couple of evenings beforehand planning and cutting out all the pieces for four quilts, so all I’d have to do on retreat was sew, sew, sew!

Think BigI don’t know about you, but when I go on retreat, I find it’s best to work on something that doesn’t require a lot of concentration. With all the chatting and sharing and EATING (and maybe a few adult beverages too), I like to work on fun, easy projects, or else too much time is spent “unsewing!”

One of the books I chose for this retreat was Amy Ellis’s Think Big. Besides the great designs with large blocks (and hence large quilts!), what I really love about this book is how Amy gives the fabric requirements for each pattern. Not only does she list the yardage needed for six different sizes in one chart; she also tells you how many of each shape to cut from the yardage in another chart.

Example of materials chart from Think Big
Example of materials chart from
Think Bigspacer 10px deep

I chose to make a pattern from Think Big called “Building Blocks.”

Building Blocks quilt projects
“Building Blocks” from
Think Big. You can make a pillow, a runner, or one of several sizes of quilts. The cutting charts make it a snap to find out how much fabric you’ll need for the project you choose.

Most of my stash consists of precuts. So instead of yardage, I worked with a fat-quarter bundle of Central Park by Kate Spain for Moda Fabrics. Amy’s charts make it SO easy to figure out just what you need. The math is spelled out for you!

Using the charts for “Building Blocks,” I figured out that I could cut all but one shape, the center square, from one fat quarter of light fabric. So I just fussy cut the center square from a different light fat quarter for all the blocks, and it worked out great! I had enough fat quarters to make 16 blocks, right in between the throw and twin size on Amy’s chart.

Partial cutting chart for Building Blocks
Example: a portion of the cutting chart for “Building Blocks.”
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Here’s my 16-block version of “Building Blocks.”

Mary's Building Blocks quilt

So how many quilt tops did I finish? Three! I probably would have started a fourth, but the mountain setting was so beautiful I ended up spending a lot of time on long walks outside, enjoying the scenery.
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Scenery at Ingalls Creek

Next on my list from Think Big: “Filmstrip!” All cut out and ready to go.
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Filmstrip quilt
“Filmstrip” quilt from
Think Big

Do you plan and cut ahead for retreats or are you a “throw-it-all-in-a-bin-and-figure-it-out-later” kind of retreater? Tell us in the comments!

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42 Comments (leave a comment)

  • Just returned from our annual retreat and working on my double wedding ring bed runner was hard work being a complex pattern but once it was out the way I was off at full speed on 4 other projects as I had taken the time to pre cut the fabric beforehand. That is what I will do next time.

    Cynthia on June 30, 2015
  • Love this idea, but not sure I could put it into practice! I take 2 or 3 different stacks of coordinating fabrics, each with a bunch of patterns I find after days of searching through all my books and magazines and downloaded printed patterns. And the first thing I make is small, cute and something I would probably never make at home, like trying out a mini wedge ruler or a circle coaster, so I have one thing done right at first, and the pressure to produce is off and the creativity is on!

    —Deb from Texas on June 30, 2015
  • I like to plan ahead. Usually I have a quilt that needs to be done for a special occasion, but lately I’ve been able to work on some UFO’s! I still like to take a few days to cut the pieces I need so when I get to the retreat, I can sew, sew, sew!

    —Patty on June 30, 2015
  • I almost always precut before a retreat. The thinking part has been done, it takes up less room and I can just sew, sew, sew! The last retreat I went on was just a week after I broke my arm. Thanks to my preparation before hand I was able to complete one entire quilt top and the blocks for two others! Of course I also spent time walking on the beach, chatting with friends and eating wonderful food! I love quilting retreats!!!!

    —Susan C on June 30, 2015
  • I usually have everything cut out before the retreat, and with each project in their own container. I like the containers that scrap bookers use because they are about 3 inches deep and 15 inches square.
    I have made lists in the pass for retreats so I don’t forget things, like a foot(speed control) pedal! Now I have a notion case, a featherweight sewing machine, and an extension cord ready to go that are separate from my sewing area supplies. One thing that I always tell newbies is to lay out what projects that you want to take, and then take 1/3!

    —nancy rowe on June 30, 2015
  • I like to plan ahead but sometimes I take too many projects making it difficult to choose what to work on. It can be frustrating to spend that valuable sewing time making decisions! Great article. Thanks.

    —Karen Dicken on June 30, 2015
  • I plan ahead as to what I will be working on so that I can make sure that I have all of the materials I will need to put together the project I will be working on. I also take some things that will require less concentrations allowing for free input on group projects we may want to participate in putting together.

    Mary F. Myers on June 30, 2015
  • I try to have everything cut and labeled. Then separate it into zip lock bags to keep it organized and readily available.

    —Joyce Wilson on June 30, 2015
  • I tend to take several projects to retreats. I try to precut as much as possible at home, so I don’t get too distracted, and to make sure that I have all the fabrics that I need.

    I will be working on a Filmstrip quilt at my next retreat in September too!

    —Wendy on June 30, 2015
  • I try to plan a couple of projects, and get the cutting done ahead of time if I can. That a way I don’t hog the cutting area. Also,I’m less likely to make mistakes when cutting at home with fewer distractions. I always throw in some odds and ends, like BOM blocks I haven’t finished or a quilt that needs the binding stitched down, so I have some quick things to do for variety.

    —Theresa on June 30, 2015
  • I always go prepared. Otherwise, I won’t get anything accomplished.—I will have forgotten a needed piece of fabric, I am undecided about what to make, I will change my mind about what I want to do—-the list goes on. So, I need to have a decision nailed down, and the fabrics chosen so that I am "locked" in to what I will accomplish. Works for me!!! BTW your retreat location looks amazing!!!

    —Linda Taylor on June 30, 2015
  • I am at a quilting retreat right now while reading this!! I just finished a beautiful morning walk with my mom and am ready to start on "my" project before we leave around noon. We worked together and finished a quilt top for my niece’s upcoming wedding. We did precut, which was very helpful. We had never collaborated on a project before, so it was wonderful working together!!

    Robyn on June 30, 2015
  • I usually have a couple ufo’s to work on when I go on weekend quilt retreats. but sometimes I take projects to cut because I have the big space & good cutting height table to work there. The next quilt camp is in Sept. & I hope to have all the blocks done for a queen sized quilt so that I can lay out the top & put it together. (I always take several projects in case one isn’t working for me, or — just in case! — I get others done 😉 )

    —Ann Hedington on June 30, 2015
  • I definitely take pre-cut projects, well as much as I can that is. There are always borders that need to be measure before cutting! I am very used to the height I have on my cutting table and am not too distracted. How much to bring? I’d rather bring several projects and not get through all of them than bring fewer and run out of things to work on. Sometimes I’m disappointed at how much I get (or don’t) get done but then I also realize that some projects just take more time. I also really enjoy the social time so I take advantage of that too.

    Bonnie in Va on June 30, 2015
  • Since I do not consider myself a decent enough quilter to even attend a retreat, I can not answer that question. However, thinking more about what the retreats are all about, it seems that I’ve missed out on quite a lot. If I do ever get the chance to attend one in the future, I’d most likely do a bit of both. Have one or two ready to sew and some mish mash of fabrics.

    —debra lee on June 30, 2015
  • Most definitely, I plan and cut ahead of time. In theory, I should come home with a finished quilt but I am very particular which requires measuring and squaring as units are assembled, so I seldom finish the project at the retreat. Besides that a retreat IS a social event, right??

    —Gail Muller on June 30, 2015
  • I go on a quilt retreat every year in August and I mostly cut up my pieces before I go so I can just sit and sew. Some I do that with and some I not. I sometimes bring little quilt kits to work on if I finish the two or three I have cut out.

    —beth on June 30, 2015
  • Although it is not in my character to preplan, I try to precut one or two projects plus throw in some hand stitching items. Still I often forget to cut one block or pick up the sashing strips from the ironing board. I am sabotaged by my own tendency toward disorganization.

    —Sandy W. on June 30, 2015
  • I’m in-between. I go to the retreat with each project in a separate plastic box – usually more than i can possibly complete. Some cutting will be done. I mostly sew scrappy, so fabric choices are approximate and way too many. That way, I can still surprise myself!

    —Lynette on June 30, 2015
  • I like to always plan ahead, and usually I have more projects than I can finish. I get way to caught up in the social aspect to concentrate on cutting.

    —DEE on June 30, 2015
  • While I usually have something organized and cut (basically because I want to make sure that I take everything that I am going to need to complete the project), I sometimes wait and get a special fabric as a rememberance of that retreat. It is always a good idea to take more than one project so that you are always busy and never get bored with only one project. Then again, if you’re near a quilt shop or two at the retreat its always a reason to go shopping for a new project or two (and even an adult beverage refill).

    —Sue Fender on June 30, 2015
  • I always plan to cut my fabrics ahead of time, but sometimes I end up just bringing a kit (or three) to cut there. I love to get the opinions of other quilters too so I bring an assortment of fabric to get feedback on what combinations to choose. I don’t feel the need to mass-produce while I’m there. The retreat is where I fill my soul with the camaraderie of like-minded people. Debra Lee, you must go to one. It doesn’t matter what your skill level is! The sharing and energy is mind-blowing!

    —Wendy on June 30, 2015
  • I just returned from a 4 day retreat. I like to it everything ahead of time so I can just sit and sew. I came home with 2 finished throw size tops and a table runner this time. Plus some fabric from our field trip to a few quilt shops!

    —Jill on June 30, 2015
  • I definitely plan ahead and have projects all cut out. I always bring more projects than I could possibly finish!

    —Janet in ND on June 30, 2015
  • I like to be prepared so do as much ahead as possible.

    —Diana O. on June 30, 2015
  • I cut ahead of time. That way I can at least finish the top during retreat. We all feel so much better and more productive with a finished top than going home with a stack of pieces that end up in the ufo pile

    —connie b on June 30, 2015
  • I plan and cut everything ahead of time. Makes packing a lot easier and much more organized!

    —Diana R on June 30, 2015
  • When I go to my mens quilting retreat twice a year, I always pre-cut and bag all my pieces.

    Cutting at a retreat requires using ironing board and cutting matt that you will likely be sharing.

    One retreat I managed to make 47 9″ blocks, all different, from fairly simple to very complex in three days.

    —Jim Hahn on June 30, 2015
  • Oh yes, I will cut ahead and sorry to say but a two tubber of projects just to be sure I will have choices. Truly agree with you on the simple projects, hate to do "frog quilting" because I was talking instead of paying attention to the sewing.

    —Sarah jo on June 30, 2015
  • Definitely cut the pieces before I go…..and I always take way more than I could possibly accomplish. Nice to have options and you don’t want to run out of things to work on.

    —Barbara Spurr on July 1, 2015
  • I do a little of both, however, over the years I have learned it is best to cut before hand and sew at the retreat. You do not have to take as much fabric that way. I always take too many projects, but that way if I get tired of one, I always have something else to work on.

    —Lynn on July 1, 2015
  • I’ve only been on one quilt retreat and I took the fabric I wanted with me and a few patterns. I had a great time and won a great door prize…I did get two quilt tops done!

    —Jeanette S on July 1, 2015
  • I love to go on retreat and cut before so can finish more projects. Always bringing more than could ever finish. Reasons for this is then have a variety to choose what project to work on next, and if I get bored with what working on at the time.

    —Marilynn on July 2, 2015
  • Definitely a plan and cut ahead, so I can spend my retreat time sewing! I get a lot more accomplished that way!

    —Sue Cleek on July 3, 2015
  • I usually plan ahead and take too much. My first two or three retreats were with many many people so it was easier to come prepared and everything cut out.

    —sew happy on July 3, 2015
  • Planning your projects ensures you will have a good time. I have seen people at retreats having to go home or talk a family member into bringing them a forgotten item. I bring a variety of projects so I can do whatever I feel like. Some are pinned and ready to sew the minute my machine is set up. With all the laughing, talking and late nights, I try not to bring anything that requires too much thinking or I’ll make mistakes.

    —Linda on July 3, 2015
  • I usually have some on-going projects that I take with me and try to finish. Then I take more ideas and fabrics, just in case I need more to work on. That usually doesn’t happen–but we usually find a wonderful new little project that someone is working on that we decide to do too. Retreats are great sharing times and impromptu lesson times.

    —Carol Kussart on July 4, 2015
  • What a hoot! Several of the ladies got this post while we were on retreat, LOL!

    I have always been very organised and hate to waste time at retreat cutting fabric.
    As usual, I was armed with plenty of unfinished projects and fabric cut specifically for projects I planned to make.
    Because this was an 8 day retreat (yes, I know…. 8 days!!!!) I also included a few kits and was I disappointed with myself 🙁
    I made the rookie error of thinking that everything I’d need for the kit would be in the kit. On reading the first page of instructions I realised that I had to cut templates and glue them to cardstock and that I’d also need some interfacing. None of these things came with me!

    So, I am not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants quilter. I’m a planner, a list maker, a list ticker-off(er) and, as it’s worked for me so far, that’s how I intend to stay.

    One last thing. This was the first retreat I’ve ever organised myself, and to those of you who are thinking about organising one – my advice is DO IT!!!
    Finding the venue was as easy as picking an area and Googling "Craft Retreat Venue"
    One word of advice – think carefully about the people you’re taking with you, drama queens and attention seekers can suck the fun out of any size room.
    Also, remind everyone that this is YOUR retreat too and they should pack their big girl panties and be prepared to sort out their personal issues prior to arrival, and to remember their manners and behave nicely towards everyone once they get there.
    Anyone offended by these rules are probably the fun-suckers you don’t want to have at the retreat 😉

    —Kayt Deans on July 5, 2015
  • Sounds awesome, I live in Chelan so know the area well, it’s lovely. I would love to do a retreat some day, I just need to get a little more experience first.

    —Kathy Whetstine on July 6, 2015
  • Usually manage to get to two retreats a year, new to retreats, only been to four so far. My first one, I just "dumped" fabric into a large plastic tote box and threw in some patterns. DID NOT WORK!
    I’m learning! On my last one, I had my projects ready, each one pre cut as much as possible, pattern copied, everything was placed into recycled plastic bed linen bags – the one with the zipper all around (one your new sheet sets or comforters are sold in. Great reusuable item) Place a copy of your finished project where it is plainly seen so that you know which one is inside.
    For my small projects, I placed everything into zip lock bags. I enjoy completing a project while at my retreat, we only have a 2 or 3 night retreat, so small items are great fillers when taking a break from one that is big. I love to take placemats or table runners.
    My advise is to make sure you have EVERYTHING for your project, even if it’s only one that you complete, it’s so nice to be able to say "I completed this at retreat", you can always take extras to make small items to be used as gifts.
    I would love to attend a week long one or do a quilting cruise – maybe some day!
    In the meantime, remember it’s also a very nice social outing! Happy Retreating!

    —Helen on July 7, 2015
  • I have gone on a few retreats and they are wonderful. I usually have my projects cut out and with a label, Also really enjoy seeing what the others are working on. And the food is always great as we give out a list for each quilter to bring. We have some ladies come who enjoy the kitchen work and each quilter coming has at least one kitchen duty such as setting the table, helping with the food and cleaning up after. Always a great time. Show and share and sitting by the fire place in the evening as well as sewing keep us busy.

    —pansy girl, on July 12, 2015
  • When going on a retreat, I like to put 3 or 4 kits together. I cut out
    all the pieces and label them. I use the 2 gal plastic zipper bags. You can see thru them so they are easy to pull out when you get to the retreat. Also If I really like the pattern I might cut out 2 kits.
    Saves time and I get more done. I like to enjoy the conversations and at one of the retreats I attend we stop in the evenings and play cards and games. Gives your mind and eyes a chance to unwind from the fun filled day.

    —Liz Brigham on July 13, 2015

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