Last Sunday, I sewed up binding for six twin-sized quilts, trimmed five twin-sized quilted tops and finished piecing three twin-size quilt tops. I was sewing for about 8-9 hours straight (I took a lunch break and a dinner break).
A commenter on Facebook, Cathie, recently asked that I do a tutorial on how I get so much done. I kind of laughed to myself and then wondered do I really get a lot done compared to other quilters? What do I do differently? Have my sewing habits changed since I started quilting a few years ago? Then I realized the answer to the latter question was yes, I do sew differently than I did when I first started.
As far as getting more stuff done than other quilters – I don’t know. I don’t really want to compare my productivity level to other quilters because we are all different. We all have different lives and the amount of quilting time available can vary from quilter to quilter. Does that mean you should feel guilty because one person “gets more done” than you do? No! Even if you are a person that enjoys the end result rather than the process to get there, keep in mind – we are all different! Our skills are different, tools are different and the distractions of our day to day life can be different.
With that in mind I do want to share some tips on how I’ve increased my productivity the last two years.
- I do everything in steps. – If I’m making up a bunch of the same blocks or quilts I will do each step completely through before starting the next. I’ll cut all the fabric to size first, then as each block is being pieced I’ll do each step of piecing the block before moving onto the next step. Ironing is another step I do all at the same time.
This is going to feel slow at first because if you are making three identical quilt tops you are going to be stuck at step one for a long time. When you get to the last step things will start to really snowball.
This saves you time because you aren’t having to: attach a new sewing foot to your sewing machine every 10 minutes when you switch tasks, wait for your iron to warm back up, move back and forth between two areas of your studio (I.E. cutting to sewing and then back)…. the list goes on and on and on. Sure you think it only takes 60 seconds to switch that machine foot or two minutes to change thread and bobbin but add that up throughout your sewing session and you’re wasting a heck of a lot of time.
Chain-Piece Everything – If you aren’t chain-piecing yet you need to start now. This will save you so much time and thread.You can piece two quilts at a time (if you are a scrap lover like me) by doing the Bonnie Hunter Leader and Ender technique. It also prevents things from being sucked down into your bobbin case due to long thread tails. I’m currently working on an Eye Spy quilt as I’m piecing other blocks together and one day it’ll be done without me really having to work on it.
- Get Comfortable – If you find that your back is hurting after a while or your eyes are hurting you need to take a look at the way your sewing space is set up. Do you have adequate lighting? Is your sewing table and chair the correct height for you? Is your cutting table up high enough so you aren’t having to bend over? These things make a huge difference when it comes to the length of time you can stand to sew and quilt.My little task chair that I use to sew in doesn’t have great lumbar support built in. I should probably get another one. What I ended up doing was lashing a pillow with a big piece of elastic to the chair so I’ve got a comfy lumbar support. It isn’t pretty but it works and now I can sew longer without being in pain. My cutting table sits up on concrete patio blocks and it is the perfect height for me so I’m not having to bend over while cutting up yards of fabric. These things made a huge difference in my productivity and I didn’t realize how bad it was until I made the change.
Do you like to listen to music or watch TV? Set up an area in your studio for that stuff so you can access it easily. Are you the opposite and can’t work with noise in the room? Make your space serene and quiet.
- Get Organized – Not being able to find Tool X or Fabric Y can eat into your quilting time and totally throw you off out of sheer frustration. If you’re noticing this happen a lot maybe it is time to take a few days and really scrutinize your sewing space and how you have things currently laid out. Reorganization can also revitalize your creativity as you will find things you didn’t remember having and hopefully you’ll find new projects to work on at the same time!Instead of buying fabric one month maybe invest in some new organizational bins, boxes, drawers or something similar that fits in your sewing space.
There are many suggestions out there on how to organize your fabric stash. Find one that works for you and use it or make your own system! You will occasionally have to re-organize as your own stash grows in size or as you make changes in the types of fabric you are stashing away.
Being able to easily find different rulers, rotary cutters, threads, fabrics and other notions can save you a lot of time. I keep a basket of commonly used items right next to my sewing machine so I can grab things as I need to.
For scrap organization go no further than Bonnie Hunter’s Scrap Users System!
- Schedule – I have certain days/evenings of the week that I sew and quilt. During those days I avoid scheduling other things that interrupt me unless I absolutely need to switch something around.Typically I have deadlines going on so I plan accordingly. For each sewing session I determine what I want to get done and if I have time leftover to “play” then I’ll work on string blocks or something else fun.
To keep myself on track I have a white board with things I need to get done written on it so I can erase them as they are completed. Being able to check things off or erase things is very reinforcing and begins a good habit of finishing projects!
- Work Stations – I recommend setting up work stations in your sewing room if you have the space. Your ironing station should be equipped with water spray bottle, starch or sizing and a pressing cloth if you use one. Cutting station should have a variety of rotary cutters, extra blades, rulers, and scrap baskets if you collect that sort of thing.I do recommend having a portable ironing station for when you want to sew and iron without having to get up every few minutes.
- Plan Ahead – I keep a sketch or printout of the quilt that I’m working on so I can reference it continually while I’m working. I need to keep track of how many blocks I have left to sew up, what the next step will be, what I’m missing if anything, and a due date if one is attached to the project.Before I end my sewing session for the night I figure out what I need to work on next time and try to get things together for it so I’m somewhat ready to go next time I walk into my room.
- Small Steps – If it is one thing that I’ve learned while working on commissioned projects is that you need to break everything up into small steps otherwise you are going to feel overwhelmed. I think this is important for any quilt that you do otherwise you are going to get lost and make mistakes.Determine what steps your project can be broken down into and work on a little bit of it each time you go into your sewing room. I’d also suggest incorporating Step 9 below while you’re at it!
- Reward Yourself – I think all of us have steps in quilting that we hate doing or when you’re making a quilt for someone else it doesn’t feel as “fun” because it’s become work now. I know the biggest problem I’ve had with working on commissioned projects are all the little things that get in the way.
I found that when I rewarded myself for completing a step I seemed to work harder and not feel so bad. For instance, I hate cutting fabric. I had to cut something like 40 yards of fabric for eight quilts I had to make and I was not excited about doing that. I’d schedule days to cut fabric and at the end of my cutting session I’d do something fun for an hour or two as a sort of reward for completing that step.I’ve done this with lots of things that I hate doing (like housework) throughout my life and I find I tend to get things done faster and feel better about it in the end because I know I’m going to be rewarded when I’m finished.
- Limit Your Internet Time – I think this is the hardest step for a lot of us due to how prevalent quilting has become throughout social media, blogs and forums. We’re inundated with free patterns, tutorials, videos and lots of new quilters asking questions that we feel the need to respond to.How much extra sewing time would you have each week if you cut back your time on the internet? Maybe enough to tackle some of those UFOs lurking in your closet or reorganize that space you’ve been wanting to do for a while?
I was surprised how much sewing time I was able to fit in once I cut back my time on the computer. I love reading blogs, being on Facebook, chatting with other quilters on forums and finding new tutorials to try out. I think I could do it several hours a day. One lecture with Bonnie Hunter was all it took. She talked about people asking her how much she got done and she had to explain to them that she doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on her computer because she’d rather be sewing and finishing a new project!