Quilt rules (and how to break them)

Posted by on September 10, 2012, in quilting & sewing, ,

Ever since I discovered quilting, I’ve been passionate about it. Quilting has been my creative outlet, my therapy, and my joy. I’ve cried in frustration, chortled with happiness, wept in gratitude, and found priceless friendships because of it. I’ve even made my living as a teacher, illustrator, and technical editor of quilts. Along the way I learned a few lessons I’d like to share with you. You may already have learned several of them.

Lesson One: The Quilt Police can’t arrest you.

I’ve always been a person who will cut off her nose to spite her face. Tell me I shouldn’t do something and I’m immediately plotting how to do it. I have trouble following directions, much less following the rules. Tell me a quilt is best balanced like a picture in thin and thick border frames and I’ll design a quilt with a border on one side only. Tell me I must always strive to quilt in an even manner and I’m going try and prove I can make a well-made quilt that is heavily quilted in some areas and barely quilted in others. I’m just contrary like that. I’ve always known the Quilt Police can’t arrest me. If I put my unevenly quilted masterpiece in a quilt show, however, I can expect it to be marked down because of the uneven quilting. That’s okay. The judges are sticking to the “rules” of what makes a good quilt, and my vision was not strong enough to shine beyond the rules.

Sometimes that’s not the case. In 1989, Caryl Bryer Fallert won the AQS Best of Show Purchase Award with her groundbreaking quilt, “Corona #2: Solar Eclipse.” It was the first time a machine-quilted quilt had won the award, and it rocked the quilting world. Traditionalists were outraged that an art quilt without a single hand stitch had won the top award, and some dropped their AQS memberships in protest. Look at how far we’ve come, thanks to an amazing artist and the judges who honored her talent.

Lesson Two: When it comes to mistakes, don’t ask—and don’t tell.

If for some reason a mistake or something less than perfect makes its way into your quilt, for goodness’ sake, don’t point it out to everyone! If someone compliments your quilt, simply smile and say “thank you.” Don’t rush to point out the place where your seams don’t match or where the little bit of selvage shows, or even where you flubbed piecing an entire block! Simply accept compliments without denigrating your efforts. It’s okay to strive to make your quilt perfect, as long as you accept that a quilt doesn’t have to be physically perfect to be perfectly suited for what you have planned for it.

Truly Tipsy Nine PatchFor example, when I learned my Dad had only a few months to live because of cancer, I wanted to make him a quilt to keep him warm and to hug him for me because I was living 2000 miles away. I wanted to make him a masterpiece, but there wasn’t enough time. In just a couple of weeks I whipped up a “Truly Tipsy Nine Patch” quilt (right) in his favorite colors. It’s not an intricate quilt, nor is it a perfect one. Some of the seams are wobbly and the corners don’t all match. But my quilt was made with love in every stitch, and I have the comfort of knowing my dad snuggled under it during the last months of his life.

On a less serious note: suppose you are at a guild meeting and someone you don’t know very well is proudly displaying her latest effort. This is not the time or place to blurt out, “You have a mistake in row three.” I’ve been guilty of this behavior, and I apologize for it. I spoke without thinking. Now I know it’s better to let the maker of the imperfect quilt have her moment in the sun. If I feel I have to point out a mistake, I do it quietly and subtly.

Lesson Three: Be open to learning something new and expanding your comfort zone.

I like routine. I can live happily in my own little rut for months on end. But I feel truly alive when I’m learning something new. Or I should say, after I’ve learned something new. The actual learning can be awkward, frustrating, and even a bit traumatic. In acquiring a new skill, I often hit a point where I feel like a failure and have even burst into tears. But if I take a deep breath and persevere, and work past my poor self confidence, I’m rewarded many times over with a feeling of achievement and even of pride for trying something new.

Sign up for that challenging class. Go to a conference or a retreat. Take an art class. Ask someone to show you how to paper piece or hand appliqué. Read books! Expand your skills and knowledge. It’s what living is all about.

Lesson Four: Quilting friends can be the best friends.

Some of the best times of my life happened with other quilters. I love going to retreats, taking classes, or just getting together to quilt. Get a bunch of quilters in a room and magic can happen. When I started to quilt, a group of us got together to take classes. Now many years later we are few and scattered, but two women remain my quilting buddies. We cheer each other’s successes and give hugs of comfort when life gets hard. We’ve made countless quilts while sharing opinions on fabrics and techniques, and often have “just the perfect fabric” for the other person’s quilt. Now through blogs and the internet, my quilting community has expanded beyond belief. Thank you for being part of it.

Do you have any quilting life lessons to share? I’d love to hear them.

Robin Strobel is the author of The Casual Quilter and Quilter’s Bounty.

18 Comments (leave a comment)

  • Never underestimate the power of play.

    Play time is so important. Every now and then you can really surprise yourself, do something really cool you’ve never done before, and get truly outstanding results. Use books or magazines as jumping off points for play. Explore a new technique totally out of your realm. I’ll bet you’d be surprised. You might even discover "your thing" that way.

    Jean on September 10, 2012
  • Robyn, that was just what I needed after struggling with a pinwheel block quilt! You are so right-quilters are some of my most supportive friends- we all know the agony of perfectionism! Your essay is going in my quilting folder right at the top!!!
    All the best to you,
    Cathryn in Corvallis, OR

    —Cathryn Kasper on September 10, 2012
  • The only perfect quilt is one that is loved and used. Pefect seams don’t make a quilt better unless they were sewn with love.

    My favorite quilt has a huge pucker in the backing. The entire quilt is hand sewn using various castoff fabrics my grandmother collected from family members. It is totally scrappy and wildly imperfect in many ways. However, it was made with much love and it will always be perfect in my eyes.

    Gene Black on September 10, 2012
  • If you made a mistake, but can’t see it from the back of a galloping horse…well, then it doesn’t exist.

    And those few people that point out that I put 2 pieces of the same fabric next to each other…I just smile and say, "I planned it that way!"

    —Ann B on September 10, 2012
  • A quilting lesson I have been learning this summer involves a "Broken finger" which ended up affecting three fingers and wrist. Life happens sometimes and being flexible, adaptable, and accepting "It is what it is" has happened to my quilting. I am lucky and very fortunate that this life change is temportary. My mother had crippling Arthritis and had to forsake her love of quilting. I still am able to study quilting blogs, quilting books, LQS shops, escape in Pinterest, quilting boards, Online Tutorials and YouTubes as I begin my therapy bending fingers and squeezing a ball as I anticipate my first Quilting Play Day and life is good.

    carol on September 10, 2012
  • About following rules or not…think outside the box…create something that grows your skills and gives you pleasure…something that makes you and others smile. Play with color…move your brain to: harmonious boldness!!!!!!!!!

    —Jane on September 10, 2012
  • I often tell my students, "I am the quilt police, and I can be bribed (preferably with chocolate)."

    There is always more than one way to do a thing, and I like to let them know that the only RIGHT way is the way that they like the best.

    While it’s important to know the rules, it’s no cause for alarm if those rules are broken accidentally or on purpose.
    I’m the queen of Plan B. If (and when) Plan A goes awry, I can always find a solution to adapt what we have to make it work, one way or another.

    —Stephanie on September 10, 2012
  • A couple of things I’ve learned:
    1. Slow down when rotary cutting, not all things can be sewn back on.
    2. I’ve made some wonderful friends, even online throught different quilting groups.
    3. Embellishments cover some mistakes and know one has to no any better.
    4. Have fun!!! I love to take a pattern or photo and make a project my own. It’s your quilt or project, make it your way!!!!

    —Kathy Jones on September 10, 2012
  • Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts, Robin. I am a newbie quilter, have yet to finish my first quilt, and I’m not sure I even KNOW all the RULES! It’s good to read everyone’s thoughts here.

    —cy on September 10, 2012
  • I have learned that nothing feels quite as sweet as sitting in a room filled with other quilters.
    I’ve just come back from my bi-annual quilt retreat and feel so incredibly relaxed and inspired. I ususally take a quilt that is pinned and ready for hand quilting, so that I’m able to take everything in and not be so focussed on the project I’m creating. I love to stop and see ladies who ‘get it!’ The sight of them creating their quilts, pinning up blocks, spreading out a quilt backing on a large table and seeing women gravitate towards it to help smooth out the wadding and top then help pin it together. The sounds of laughter and sewing machines. Bliss!

    —Kayt on September 10, 2012
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  • I’m a create as you go quilter; what starts off to be a simple pattern, multiplies and divides as I go along, so it wasn’t unusual for me to step back, view my latest creation, and say to myself….something is missing. I took it to a dear friend, who not only is a creator of quilts herself, but a Judy Neimeyer and Jaclyn de Jonge quilter, as well. I told her my idea to solve my problem, and she in return showed me a better way which meant adding 12 more rows, instead of my intended 6. My "flat" connecting surfaces would now become points, like the rest of my design.

    Ever since I corrected my friend’s wonky binding, she has called me the Quilt Police and as she continued to look at my creation, she finally found what she was looking for: two of my HST came within 1/8 of an inch meeting at one corner. I told her, not to worry, before I was finished, that tiny problem would be solved.

    Over the years, I’ve learned there’s a right way, a wrong way, and a quilters way of creating a quilt and as much as we try, not everything is perfect. I’ve learned, as we cross the set quilt pattern street versus a create as you go street; quilters hold hands and help each other across. I’ve learned, what "works" for me doesn’t necessarily work for others and to accept that fact, except in bindings, then I expect perfection. Just for the record, I took my friend’s binding apart, fixed it, so when she hand stitched it down, it was no longer wonky. I’ve also learned, finish everything on your quilt except tacking down the bindings, and those, are quickly finished while waiting your turn at a doctor’s office. Like the leftovers in our refrigerator, the left over blocks and fabrics can be used in a scrap quilt, backings, or another design. I recently pieced my own Civil War creation honoring my family who fought in the Civil War and using the left over won raffle blocks and fabrics, I created the backing. Yep, wouldn’t you know; everbody loved the pieced backing consisting of rectangles, HST, wonky raffle blocks, squares to make it fit, more than they did the front. I just tell them, it’s a two sided quilt. You don’t like the family side, flip it over and have a scrap quilt.

    Most importantly of all, I’ve learned, if you want to be remembered: stitch your name in cloth. Don’t forget your lables.

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on September 11, 2012
  • The first time I joined a quilt guild I was a little intimadated because I was a new quilter, had been self taught and have never been a "joiner". I had been told to bring some of my work and show so I brought one of the quilts I liked and thought was good. Well I had not trimmed all of the threads and one lady there sure told me about it. Don’t you ever cut your threads in a loud and outraged tone no less!!! I thought….well can’t put what I thought! Anyway we have since became very good friends! She has a great eye for color and is a fearless quilter, tring new things and dragging me along. We went to quilt shows together, took lessons and just hung out sometimes. Recently I have moved and thow we keep contact by phone and internet I miss her greatly. Thow there are no quilt police (some say) she came close that first day! Thank you Mary for being my friend…Even thow I still sometimes miss trimming those threads!

    —Marcia Huckabee on September 11, 2012
  • Re: your # 2 about mistakes
    a few years ago I was taking a mystery quilt class and I had gotten a bit behind. In my hurry to catch up I mixed up my fabrics in one step but I didn’t realize it time to correct anything. At that point I called it an Inadvertent Design Decision or and IDD. My students and quilty friends are now using the term too. We laugh every time it happens.

    Also I have been a rule breaker from my first learn to quilt class. It was a sampler and the teacher demo’d with one student’s block each time. When it was my turn I guess I had a funny look on my face and she asked why. I told her I wasn’t planning to do it quite the way in was in the sample quilt. She laughed and did it the way I wanted. We are very good friends now and I work for her in the shop, too.

    —Barbara on September 11, 2012
  • When a quilting project is giving you firts, walk away from it for a few minutes, a day (or even a few years) to gain the perspective to tackle the problems and a restful night before doing so. That is what helps me the most!

    —Janey Cook on September 13, 2012
  • There’s never "enough time to quilt" but once I realize it’s my special time to create and is so therapeutic, I have to make the time!

    —Barbara G on September 14, 2012
  • I frequently say, "I do not do perfect, I do done! " My projects get completed – no tops hanging around waiting. I would probably not get back to them if I put them away. If I find a mistake while piecing, I will fix it, but not everything that is not quite right is apparent once quilted and bound. Sewing the binding is my favorite part – I call it the victory lap.

    —Jean Usner on September 5, 2016

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