It’s OK to Spread Yourself Thin Creatively

This morning, I came across a note to myself that says: “Maybe I should give up quilting.”

This was a scary thought for me. I’ve been quilting for over two decades. I have a studio full of fabric, thread, batts, and unfinished quilts.

It’s not uncommon for me to think I need to cut back on my creative pursuits. I’m interested in so many fiber arts: soft sculpture, knitting, spinning, crochet, embroidery, and of course quilting. I’d like to learn how to make lace by hand, too. Then there’s drawing and painting, art journaling and book binding. And of course, I write whenever I can.

As a result, I’m constantly telling myself I would be do better work if I stopped spreading myself so thin and just focused on one thing. Wouldn’t I get more writing done if I stopped making quilts, spinning wool, and knitting sweaters for dinosaurs?

Whenever I consider cutting back so I can focus, resistance swells in me. I don’t want to cut back. I like variety. I like doing different things throughout the day or week. And I get different things from my various interests. The satisfaction I get from writing is very different from the more tactile activity of sewing.

Fortunately, I never acted on the idea of getting all the quilting supplies out of the house.

Recently, I’ve had bouts of insomnia that have left me drained. I always want to be making things, but when I hit a certain level of fatigue, I make more mistakes than stuff. When I go through a period like this, dragging around too tired to move, I need something that is repetitive and automatic, no serious thinking involved.

This is why I love to quilt.

Some stages of making a quilt take tons of thought and energy. Planning the project and choosing the fabrics are high-energy tasks for me. But once all the decisions are made and it’s time to just sew fabric together? That’s the sweet spot in the project when I’m tired. The mindless stuff that is boring when I’m feeling good is restful and restorative when I’m feeling bad.

My current project: The Scrap-o-lator Quilt Pattern by Dianne Springer

Danny Gregory said it best in his book The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are. He tells us to dabble in the things we’re interested in, instead of expecting to become experts or professionals. We’re free to spend as much — or more importantly, as little — time as we want on our passions.

If I had gotten rid of my quilting stuff, I would be looking for something to do, to help me rest when I can’t sleep. I’m so glad my sewing machine and fabric scraps are willing to wait around until it’s the right time for me to work with them.

What about you? Are you interested in more things than you can learn in one lifetime? What do you make when you are super tired?

Quilting Doesn’t Take Forever; It Just Feels Like It

I sometimes think the “F” in UFO* stands for “Forever.” As in, “this thing may be finished one day, but it will feel like it took forever.”

This is the downside to be a quilter (and a novel writer, for that matter). I love big, complex, time-consuming projects. They are engrossing and challenging. The intricate, detailed results are satisfying, but getting from start to finish can take me a long long long long time.

For example, today’s quilt (which I finished last week) is part of a series that I started in 2000. You read that right. This project is fifteen years old. And it’s still not done! There are 6 different pieces in this color exercise I’ve challenged myself with, and it’s taken me over a decade to get them all designed and pieced. I have three left to quilt, so I am nearly there.

Color Exercise #4: Green-Orange-Yellow (34" x 34") by Kit Dunsmore
Color Exercise #4: Green-Orange-Yellow (34″ x 34″) by Kit Dunsmore

My goal is to use three adjacent colors on a 6-color wheel for each quilt. (Remember the color wheel from art class? Red-orange-yellow-green-blue-violet.)

The basic color wheel (primaries and secondaries only)
The basic color wheel (primaries and secondaries only)

The latest piece is my green-orange-yellow quilt, the fourth one I’ve pieced, but the third one quilted.

Close up of the Green-Orange-Yellow quilt
Close up of the Green-Orange-Yellow quilt

These quilts have been sitting in the closet, waiting for me to quilt them, which is part of the reason it is taking me so long. Of course, this quilt didn’t take fifteen years to make. It took a few months to make. But I spread out the steps over time, because I get stuck, distracted, bored, or all of the above. I constantly start new projects, despite the UFOs I know I have lying around.

Close up of the quilting in the border. The quilt is so busy this is the only place you can really see the quilting.
Close up of the quilting in the border. The quilt is so busy this is the only place you can really see the quilting.

I’ve decided it’s time to get some of my UFOs F’d and out into the world. I have lots of finished tops, so this is my chance to practice my machine quilting and finish some projects at the same time. If I stick with it, I might be able to get this color exercise series done before 2020.

Do you have lots of UFOs lying around? How do you trick yourself into finishing things?

*In the quilting world, UFO stands for “UnFinished Object.” It’s code for “yet another project I abandoned in the middle but still expect to return to someday.”

Taking Quilting Workshops With No Intention of Learning

I’ve taken my share of quilting and art-related workshops over the years. Most of the time, I sign up to learn a new construction method or how to work with a medium I haven’t handled before. But I don’t always go to a workshop to learn. I have two other very good reasons for attending workshops: to get in some practice and to take advantage of the opportunity.

For example, I’ve taken at least five machine-quilting classes in the two decades I’ve been quilting. The first time, I was a novice, and had a lot to learn about threads, needles, and machine settings. But by the fourth class, the teacher didn’t have much new information for me. So why keep taking the classes?

The Unknown Child by Kit Dunsmore (a sample of my machine-quilting)
The Unknown Child by Kit Dunsmore (a sample of my machine-quilting)

Because machine-quilting takes more than knowledge. It takes practice — hours of it. It’s a little bit like drawing with your sewing machine on your quilt. Hand-eye coordination is a factor, one that improves with practice. Unfortunately, when it’s time for me to sit down and sew, I don’t feel like I can afford to practice. I only have a limited time and I want to get something done, so I just work on my project and put up with the imperfect results.

When I’m feeling dissatisfied with my skills, I sign up for a machine-quilting class. They usually run for one day, so I can get 4 to 6 hours of practice in. At this point, I only learn one or two new tricks, but I’m fine with that. Instead, I focus on my technique without worrying about ruining a project. I give myself permission to just practice, and always consider it time and money well-spent.

Machine-quilting sample from my last class
Machine-quilting sample from my last class

The other workshop that I’ve taken repeatedly is a fabric dyeing class taught by Ann Johnston. The first time, I really wanted to learn how it was done. I bought her book and took notes in class. Her low-volume immersion dyeing technique was perfect for me. It generates luscious hand-dyed fabrics with subtle and not-so-subtle variations in color. It felt magical, just like dyeing Easter eggs.

Examples of handdyed fabrics from Ann Johnston's class
Examples of handdyed fabrics from Ann Johnston’s class

Much as I loved the results, I realized I wasn’t all that interested in dyeing fabric at home. Preparing to dye includes handling a variety of chemicals, including careful measuring of powders while wearing a face mask. It’s fussy and messy and I’d rather not, thank you. The best part of dyeing was turning the white cloth into a rainbow of colors. So I took the class again just so I could dye more fabric. I was willing to pay to have someone else do the work so I could revel in the fun.

It’s easy to get hung-up on my expectations for a workshop and to be disappointed if I don’t come away having mastered some new skill. But I remind myself that I can take a workshop for whatever reasons I like, and sometimes I like them best when I’m not there to learn anything at all.

Do you ever take a workshop with no intention of learning anything? When and why?

Finished Friday: Knitting Lace and WIP

Thanks to some extreme fatigue this week, I had plenty of time for knitting. Add to that birthday money spent on yarn and a book on lace knitting given to me as a gift, and you have this week’s finished projects, both from Lace One-Skein Wonders (ed. by Judith Durant).


The first is my very first try at knitting lace. I wanted something small that I could use scrap yarn on, so I went with Myrna A. I. Stahman’s Circular Magic Trivet Set. I repeated her lace pattern six times, winding up with a snowflake-like hexagon.

My "snowflake" ornament. Of course it's purple.
My “snowflake” ornament. Of course it’s purple.

The results of this pattern are understandably curly and she mentions the importance of binding off loosely and blocking your trivet when you are done. But I decided it would be faster to just make a second hexagon and stitch them back-to-back. The two hexagons would pull each other flat and I would have a knitted ornament I could hang up, no blocking needed. It was not fast, however. It took me three tries to get the second hexagon made, and it still could use some blocking. But I think it looks good.

Once I had a chance to get to the store, I was ready to tackle a harder pattern. I seem to have lost most of my winter hats, so I started with Meg Myers’ Lacy Liberty Wool Hat. I loved the lacy rib design that covers the hat, and once I got the hang of it (and thought to use a post-it to mark which row of the pattern I was on), it went pretty quickly. I haven’t blocked it yet, either, but you can see what a nice design it is.

My hat (with a towel in it to help show off the lace).
My hat (with a towel in it to help show off the lace).

For those worried that I have forgotten all about quilting or spinning, I’m including a picture of the UFO I am quilting at the moment. I am still waiting on new parts for my used spinning wheel but hope they will arrive soon.

My Green-Yellow-Orange quilt in the process of being quilted.
My Green-Yellow-Orange quilt in the process of being quilted.

I’m finding this practice of posting my finished handwork makes me feel a lot better about my progress with my projects, even though I’m in the middle of a knitting binge and am not clearing quilting projects out of my studio as I’d intended. Giving myself credit for things accomplished, no matter how small, is showing me I do finish things, no matter how long my UFO list is.

Finished Friday: Maple Leafz

As I’ve mentioned, I have a lot of unfinished projects stashed in my studio. While it’s probably unrealistic to expect to have a finished project to share every Friday, I hope there will be at least some Finished Friday posts this year.

First up is my Maple Leafz quilt. When I pulled it out of the box it looked like this:

Before: still needs some quilting before I can bind it.
Maple Leafz before: still needs some quilting before I can bind it.

It now looks like this:

Maple Leafz After: quilting done, binding on.  Yeah!
Maple Leafz after: quilting done, binding on. Yeah!

Granted, I didn’t have a whole lot to do to it, but at least it is done. So I heave a sigh of relief and cross one thing off my project list. Yeah!

For those who are interested: the quilt blocks are a variation of the traditional maple leaf block. I used Jan Mullen’s techniques (see her book Cut-Loose Quilts: Stack, Slice, Switch, and Sew) to make the leaves irregular. I think they look more life-like when they are a little less symmetrical. I call the quilt Maple Leafz in honor of Mullen, whose blocks include “Log Cabinz” and “Snailz Trailz”.

The Solution to The Problem of Too Many Projects: Let Some Go

My Great Horned Owl quilt... Almost done!
My Great Horned Owl quilt… Almost done!

I promised myself studio time this year as a first step to letting myself sew more. But every time I walk into the room, I get lost. I’ve been telling myself I need to get organized (again), clean up (one more time), and then I’ll be able to get to work (at last).

But my attempts to get organized have shown me that what really needs to happen is something I hate doing: I need to let go.

I have been quilting for about 20 years, and I have plenty of quilts already under construction. I’ve decided one of my intentions for my studio time this year is “finish”. I am nearly done with the owl quilt I designed in Linda Beach’s class last March, so it’s time to choose my next project to finish. In order to make an informed decision, I started making an inventory of my works-in-progress. If you’d asked me last week, I would have guessed I had about 20.

So far, I have found 41 quilting projects ranging from blocks for a king-sized quilt to 5″x5″ exercises I made during a class. The scary thing is that I haven’t even gone through all the shelves or drawers yet. I have no idea how many more WIPs are lurking in the shadows. (I think there’s only one, which means there are probably ten or so.)

With 40+ projects to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start.

I didn’t put these projects down because I was bored. I put them down because I was stuck. In most cases, I need to make a decision. I have to make fabric choices or decide how I will set the blocks I’ve made. In a few cases, the next step is unpleasant. For example, I have seven quilts that just need to be basted (a step I hate) so I can quilt them (a step I love).

The bad news is: I can’t finish all this stuff.
The good news is: I really don’t want to. I started some of these over ten years ago. Some I still love, but I’ve lost interest in others.

So my next step isn’t cleaning the studio out or even finishing the inventory . It’s looking at what I already know about and deciding what to do with each project.

Some ideas of what I might do with my numerous WIPs:

1) Finish the quilt as planned
2) Finish the quilt according to a simpler plan
3) Donate the quilt top or blocks to a good cause (like Project Linus or my guild’s yard sale)
4) Experiment with pieces I don’t like (by cutting them up and using them in other quilts)
5) Paste smaller quilts or pieces into my art journals and use them as the base for a mixed media piece

(Note: “Get a really big garbage can” is not on this list because I’m pretty sure that throwing away anything I’ve spent a lot of time on will crush my soul.)

I am dreading making these choices. Choosing between my projects is going to be hard. I recently made myself finish a book I didn’t like because I’d paid full price for it. If I feel like I’m invested in something, I find it hard to let go.

But letting go is what this is going to be all about. Letting go of perfection, letting go of old interests, letting go of old dreams. I could try to keep everything without finishing it all, but it’s taking up more than physical space. These projects are cluttering up the creative space in my mind, space I need if I’m going to start anything new*. So I will have to discipline myself and let some things go.

Do you have WIPs cluttering up your house and mind? How do you decide what to finish and what to release into the wild?

*I know what you’re thinking. “You’ve already got 40 quilts to make! You don’t need to start anything new!” But I know myself. I need variety, or I curl up in a ball and die. How do you think I wound up with all these projects in the first place?

My Search for Artistic Inspiration Reminds Me to Look for the New

The piece of art that gave me hope.
The piece of art that gave me hope.

It started when I began planning for 2014. I have a studio where I make art quilts, soft sculpture, and experiment with multi-media collage, but I haven’t spent much time in there lately. So my first goal was just to make time to get back into my studio.

Only that did not solve my problem. I walked into the room and was bewildered. My studio has become crowded since I re-organized in 2009. I have at least a dozen unfinished quilts lying around plus a bunch of other projects that have stalled out because each has hit a snag. I couldn’t figure out where to begin and worried that I didn’t know what I really wanted to be doing with my quilting.

Then I had a wonderful piece of luck. I was passing through Paducah, KY, and the National Quilt Museum was open. I’d never been there before and when I learned that the work of a quilter I admire was on exhibit, I got really excited. Here was my chance to get inspired and to figure out what I would do with my sewing time.

When I walked out of the museum, I was disappointed and in a daze. Why hadn’t I loved what I’d seen? Why wasn’t I eager to get home to my sewing machine? Earlier in the year, I’d felt just as baffled as I struggled to become an animal lover who eats meat. Had I changed again, this time into a quilter who no longer quilts? I nearly panicked at the thought. What would I do with my stash of fabrics and my sewing machines?

I told my sister about my fear and she sent me a picture of The Birds of Beebe Woods by Salley Mavor. It was love at first sight, not only because it’s a beautiful, rich piece, but because I was so relieved to find out there is still fiber art in the world that can excite me. Since then, I’ve also been woken up by the wild and wonderful fiber art pieces Tom Lundberg shared when he spoke at my quilt guild.

Thinking about it, I’ve realized that the quilts I saw at the museum are technical and artistic achievements beyond anything I will ever make, but they are achievements of the past. They were new and exciting when they were first shown, but most of those techniques are common place now. I wasn’t inspired because I was looking for things I’d never seen before, and that’s not what the National Quilt Museum is about.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not know what is next for me as an artist. I may go right back to making quilts and finish up all the projects I have lying around. I might launch into something new and completely different from anything I’ve done before. I might find some middle path that interests me.

But right now, I don’t care all that much. I’m just grateful that there is still fiber art in the world that makes me eager to walk into my studio and create.