Easy Fixes For Common Quilting Mistakes

There Are no Mistakes in Quilting Only New Patterns

Like death and taxes, mistakes are inevitable. No one likes them but we live in a world of duality – ying and yang, good and bad, day and night, right and wrong, etc.

The optimist would say mistakes exist to help us appreciate those times when we have not made a mistake!

How we respond to a mistake is entirely up to us. WE DO have a choice. We can allow the mistake to drag us down to the depths of despair or see it as a teaching tool that propels us forward to become the new “expert” in our field.

When a mistake is made our first response may be to first feel let down. If we stew too long on what went wrong our spirit can quickly spiral downward and if we hit rock bottom, it may be a depth that does not allow us to pick ourselves up and try again.

Quilt Grief

This often happens to those who begin quilting.

1. You begin with high hopes. 2. You make a mistake (one already made by MANY before you!). 3. You decide you can’t do this and never pick up another yard of fabric or turn on your machine again.

From those us, myself included, that have gone through every one the stages of quilt grief listed above we made the choice to change our perspective. Putting on a pair of lenses of a more flattering shade, we joyfully picked up that unfinished quit top and confidently sauntered over to our sewing machine!

Perfection Is NOT A Thing!

Do not… I repeat, DO NOT try to be perfect.

DO NOT even entertain the idea that you will go from cutting fabric into small pieces to attaching a quilt label at the end without committing a range of at least 10 – 200 mistakes.

Not every mistake you make will be a huge, life altering mishap. It may something as small as ironing a seam in the wrong direction – an easy fix. Or, sewing an entire row of squares out of order – this is also fixable but the very idea of having to spend quality time with “Jack” (the seam ripper) for the next hour was probably not on your list of things to do that day!

Earlier this week I spent some time thinking about my early quilting days. I began my trip down memory lane with those cringe-worthy mistakes (the memories that will invariably float to the top first!). Once I recovered from wincing and eye rolling, I turned my attention to the solutions I rely on every day.

What follows are bits of sage advice as well as techniques that I wished that I knew when I first began my quilting journey. t

Yes, 7-8 years later I’m still making mistakes but the number of those huge, massive epic failures not equipped with a life raft occur much less often.

Start With a Small Project

You need to start with a success.

Make the first few projects you start with items that are quick and easy like a mug rug, wall hanging or lap quilt.

Mug rugs made f rom Christmas themed fabric

These mug rugs are a perfect size for a beginner. You sew together a combination of squares and rectangles. The trees appliqued on top and can be either sewn by hand or on a machine. Read more about these here.

Take a close look at the pattern. If it has many seams, triangles and more than 3 colors, it will also take a LOT of time, skill and patience to finish. Your first project should be something you can finish in a day or two – at the very most. Anything requiring more time and skill has a high probability of becoming a permanent UFO = UnFinished Object.

Those gorgeous and elaborate quilts abundantly displayed throughout Pinterest are tempting and are a wonderful source of inspiration however…many of those took a l-o-n-g time to make. The quilters probably spent upward of 8 or more hours each day for several months and the actual “quilting” was likely done on a long arm machine.

I started with a simple patchwork top using a charm pack (5″ squares) then went on to make this patchwork mug rug from 2 1/2″ squares.

Patchwork Mug Rug

The bigger the fabric squares the better. Once you learn the basics of stitching squares together with a consistent 1/4″ seam and then nesting those seams as you sew the rows together, you have won the two biggest challenges that continue to baffle and confound even the most experienced quilter!

Have More Than Enough Fabric

Stacks of folded quilting fabric used to make quilt backs

Yes, the nice quilting fabric can be expensive but like cooking – the higher the quality ingredients, the better the outcome. Not having to worry about having enough fabric to re-cut just in case you do make one of those “there’s no fixing this” mistakes removes another layer of stress you really don’t have time for.

I’ve started to buy an extra half yard backing fabric anytime I begin a new quilt. There is nothing more frustrating then finally reaching the quilt sandwich phase only to discover the ultimate horror – not having enough fabric to cover the entire back!

And yes, I realize many quilts have pieced backs and most look quite nice. (I did one you can see here). But, if I did not start out with that plan and instead of quilting I’m forced to spend extra much time piecing the back. The end result is usually OK but not without my stress level going from 0-60 in about .02 seconds.

Having extra fabric on hand has pretty much eliminated that problem!

Starch All Fabrics

Q: How do you get those sharp, straight cuts of fabric and perfectly matched points?

A: Starch and press all my fabrics first.

Specifically, I do this in this order: 1) starch, 2) hand to dry, and 3) press

Starching and preparing quilt fabric

Admittedly, adding this step add prep time but the time saved by having accurate cuts and matching seams later more than makes up it. In the images above I simply unfold a fat quarter and starch away. I often use pre-cuts and I don’t recommend washing those cuts of fabric first. I have the opinion that there would be too much shrinkage from raveling. When your pattern calls for 5″ squares you want to be sure ALL the squares measure the full 5″.

If you are using fabric yardage, I would recommend washing and drying your fabric first before starching and pressing.

Putting off / disregarding / turning a bind eye to this step costs me a LOT of time and headache. The proverbial 2×4 that was taken to my head to get me to finally wake up and smell the starch came in the form of this exceptionally enlightening video by Kimberly Jolly featuring Lisa Bongean.

Refusing – yes, refusing to starch my fabric first, was a mistake I made too long.

Thank you Fat Quarter Shop and Kimberly Jolly! You saved my quilting future!

Be Aware of the Fabric’s Grain

I learned about fabric grain way back during my Home Economics days in high school. I have learned it is just as important now when using fabric to piece a quilt top.

The fabric’s grain is most important when cutting strips for borders. Borders or other strips cut along the length of the grain (cutting parallel to the selvage) prevents the fabric from stretching out of shape and “waving” and puckering.

If you experience a lot of stretching and nothing matches up, you may not be the problem – the problem may be due to the fabric being cut along the bias. Cutting diagonally across the fabric creates a LOT of stretch and distortion.

To learn more about the importance of fabric grain in quilting go here.

Have a System of Organization

This one comes fairly easy to me – I cannot do anything in a room / space that is cluttered, dirty and disorganized.

If organization doesn’t easily come to you, start big and as time goes on organize the smaller things.

1. Have a Dedicated Space to Sew.

For a lot of people, this may be a small corner of a living room or bedroom. Often this “dedicated” space is the dining table that has to serve double duty to family of 6 including 4 dogs and 2 cats.

If this applies to you, you could invest in a box of zip-lock bags to store fabric pieces after cutting.

Place these with all your notions (thread, scissors, seam ripper, rotary cutter, etc) into a lidded box. (Also, see below)

I also use binders with zip lock and open pockets to keep up with paper templates and patterns.

Binders with pocket and zip lock inserts

Labeling your fabrics not only saves time but makes it so much easier to know where you left off when you’re ready to resume your project.Quilter's linen quilting fabric labeled before storing.

Bonus Tip: If you have a small piece of unused luggage just sitting in your basement collecting dust now is a good time to put it to some use. Put your sewing machine, fabrics, zip lock backs, patterns – everything you need for the ONE project you are working on, into the suitcase. Roll it out when you’re ready to sew. Re-fill it and roll it out of the way when you’re done.

2. Utilize Design Boards and a Design Wall

It would be impossible to me to quilt or applique without using one or a combination of all of these.

Small sized that I made using Lori Holt’s Design Board tutorial:

Small design boards using Lori Holt's design board tutorial

Below is the first design board I ever made. I simply took a discarded canvas, wrapped it in batting scraps (sewn together) and stapled it to the backside of canvas frame. If you want more information about how this was made you can find it here.

Canvas repurposed for use as a quilt design board

My design wall, although only a temporary design wall, is still invaluable. It’s the felt side of a table cloth attached to the back side of a scrap piece of wood and then attached to the wall.

Flannel quilting design wall

This wall serves double duty – There is a small gap between the rail and the wall that allows quilts and large pieces of fabric on hangers to be hung from the top.

A work in progress quilt handing from the design wall rail

3. Invest in Storage Containers

These are what I prefer to use however, they are becoming very difficult to find:

Clear plastic storage bins for storing fabric

Each box holds the fabric and instructions for one project. I like the hard plastic that doesn’t bend or fold and it keeps all my fabric clean and dry. In the meantime, I have located these DIMJ lidded storage boxes. They are too flimsy for me and being covered in fabric are not ideal for storing fabric. Fabric pieces tend to stick to the bottoms, sides and lids but they do have a window in the front that lets you see what is stored inside.

Cloth storage bins with flip lids and window - Amazon

What I’ve covered here may not seem like much but trust me, if you are experiencing the same trials and tribulations that I have, these little “fixes” can make or break your next quilting project.

I’d love to hear your solutions to your common quilting mistakes!

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