5 Things Will Help You Become A Better Quilter

January 15, 2014 at 7:18 am 41 comments

January is always a good time to reflect, take stock, set goals, and look forward. So is October, in case you’re reading this in a month that isn’t January. For traveling quilt teachers, however, January is the beginning of the new teaching season, so I’m taking advantage of the rollover to 2014 to think about my teaching goals.

Then and NowI’ve been mulling it over and I’ve decided that I basically want to help students, both the ones I meet in person, and the virtual students with whom I interact electronically, to become better quilters. (And coincidentally, that’s what I want for myself, too!) Why better? Because better is more fun.

Doing something well is tremendously satisfying. And fun. Doing something even better than you did it before is even more satisfying, and more fun. Fun is good. Success always feels better than failure. Confidence beats doubt, satisfaction trumps frustration, and in the struggle for good over evil, well, OK I got a little carried away there.

So, as a teacher, how can I help you become a better quilter? It’s a five-part plan:

1. Practice Makes Perfect. We’ve all heard that old chestnut, usually from our parents in reference to piano lessons we weren’t all that thrilled about taking. Repetition can enhance muscle memory and will certainly make you feel more comfortable with the process. Familiarity with the basics of quilting, through practice, can build a secure foundation for learning more complex skills. Yada-yada-yada.

Practice is good, and you should practice with sufficient frequency that you can actually call yourself a quilter, but you need more. You need…

Machine Piecing & Hand Quilting2. Feedback. Sounds like you have to hook your brain up to electrodes and hang around with somebody in a white coat all day long. Not at all.  Feedback requires evaluation of some sort, either by you or by a knowledgeable bystander. Feedback at the basic level is comparing the quilt you’re making now to the one you just finished. Does it look better to you? Worse? How so?

Feedback can be looking at the diagram in Step #4 of the pattern and checking to make sure yours looks like theirs. (And trying it again if it doesn’t.) That redo often involves doing something differently. If you are tweaking the process, feedback is examining the outcome to see if there is a difference and if that difference is positive or negative.

Feedback at the highest level is putting your work in the hands of a quilt judge who will evaluate your quilt against quilts made by your peers and against an established standard.

Think of feedback as an awareness of where you are in relation to where you want to go.

So where do you want to go? What would help you become a better quilter?

Corners3. Define Better. You can’t get better if you don’t know what better looks like. When I first began quilting nearly 40 years ago, I hadn’t seen very many quilts. I had no idea what the standard was for traditional patchwork. I thought if I shook my quilt top and nothing fell off, I was doing OK.  I didn’t know what a good binding looked like either. Now I do.  (The list of things I didn’t know when  I first started quilting could fill a book. Oh wait! It DID! I’ll even autograph it for you!)

You need to go out there and look at quilts! Find quilts (or parts of quilts) that inspire you. Recognize them as examples of excellent craftsmanship or design or whatever it is that floats your boat. If they are worthy of your emulation, then you have just defined “better.” Now you have something to aim for.

Just keep in mind that getting there is a journey over time. You can’t fix everything at once. More importantly, it’s a journey that requires change.

4. Embrace Change. I know there is comfort in doing things the same way we have always done them.  But, make quilts the same way, over and over again, and it is unlikely you will become a better quilter. (That fun quotient goes way down when you realize you’re not getting closer to your goals.) Growth and learning require change, and change is risky.

TrShana's Quilty a different color combination; attempt a new technique; experiment with a tool you’ve never tried before. It could be wonderful, or horrible, or somewhere in between. The quilt could turn out less than you hoped for or better than you ever expected. Sometimes you just don’t know until you try it. So, try!

If the fear of failure is overwhelming, lower your expectations. Instead of making a prizewinner, make a baby quilt. Knowing the finished quilt will be barfed on might make it easier for you to risk experimenting with design, construction, color, or technique.

I made this quilt (right) for my niece Shana. I had never made an asymmetrical quilt before. I wasn’t sure if I would like it. (Turns out I liked it a lot!) So, step out of your comfort zone and give yourself permission to experiment.

5. Be Gentle With Yourself. Never before have quilters had so many opportunities to become better at their craft, nor more people telling them how to do it! Magazines, books, guilds, quilt shops, blogs, videos, quilt shows, workshops, television shows, list serves, newsletters, smart phone apps, webinars, and radio shows all tempt us with beautiful quilts, tools and techniques, patterns and advice. Take advantage of what is available, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Seek advice, but pick your own path. And remember, it’s nearly impossible to go from quilts you let the cat have her kittens on to Best of Show without experiencing a learning curve of some kind. 

Set reasonable goals and, above all, be gentle with yourself. Make sure your inner voice speaks to you with the same patience and compassion you would speak aloud to a young child learning the same skill.  You don’t want to be your own worst enemy. After all, becoming a better quilter is supposed to be as much fun as being a better quilter. Rock it!

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Ami Simms

Entry filed under: Quilting. Tags: , , , , , .

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41 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mary ann  |  January 15, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Such very good advice Ami. Last year was a very busy one and although I did get several quilts made they were all of very straight forward and easy piecing. This year I have jumped right in but the quilt has lots of hst and flying geese. I am enjoying the thrill of having points that match! And I have gone back to writing a project plan for the year. So far I am on target, one ufo done and off to the long armer. Happy New Year

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  • 3. Gwen  |  January 15, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Thanks for the reminders

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  • 5. ruthiequilts  |  January 15, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Awesome post Ami! Thanks for all the ideas… Gotta get some more of those quilt tops out.

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    • 6. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Ruthie!

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  • 7. Marcia Porcelli  |  January 15, 2014 at 11:38 am

    Ami, I begin each year with the goal of stepping outside my comfort zone and attempting new things to make myself a better quilter. I succeed with the quilt patterns I choose. But my quilting is stagnated at the meander stage. When I attempt something new and it’s not very good my friends tell me I’m doing a wonderful job. Their feedback doesn’t help at all! Do I need new friends?

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    • 8. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      Marcia, keep your friends. Encouragement is a great thing. But don’t forget that when you try something new, especially machine quilting, you’re probably going to get worse before you get better. Do you have a sample (picture, book, real quilt) of the technique you’re aiming for? Do you know what it SHOULD look like? Do you know how to get from where you are to where you want to be? Often that requires instruction of some sort, rather than trial and error. And, when you’re learning, you really ought to give yourself a whole bobbin of sewing before you evaluate anything. After you see some improvement yourself, then show your friends.

      What would you rather do, instead of meandering?

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  • 9. Bunnie Cleland  |  January 15, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    I love this!!
    You put into words what I have been thinking/wondering/dwelling on.
    Thank you for your inspiration.

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    • 10. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:59 pm

      Bunnie, thank you for your kind words. I’ll be bothering you soon about that pattern of mine….hint, hint! Let me know if you’re up for it.

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  • 11. barbarag97  |  January 15, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Hi Ami – your last piece of advice really rang true for me. I have a tendency to make everything I sew perfect. Too perfect. To the point that I give up if I have to ‘un-sew’ too many times. This year I will make a resolution to finish, even if it’s not ‘perfect’.

    I was re-reading some of your past posts and wanted to turn you on to a super chocolate drink – brewed chocolate. For reals! I buy Criobrü and LOVE it! I brew mine in a French press following this recipe

    6 coffee scoops
    20 oz water
    Pinch of salt

    Nuke for 4 min. Stir for 30 seconds. Let sit 1 min. Press and pour. You can add sweetener of choice and creamer if you’d like.

    Super YUM and super long lasting energy without the caffeine jitters. You’re welcome. ;)

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    • 12. barbarag97  |  January 15, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      http://www.criobru.com

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    • 13. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:59 pm

      If perfect is fun, do perfect. If you’d rather clean the oven than sew, it’s not so good. Your own path is the best. As for that chocolate stuff? Take out the coffee part and you might have something there. :)

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  • 14. Mutti  |  January 15, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    I signed up for the new newsletter! I thought I did before but just in case I didn’t, I wanted to be SURE!!

    Thank you for the tips! I have been learning from you ever since I attended a class you taught in Denver. Now is not the time to take a chance on losing out on anything! I do appreciate your willingness to share, your marvelous sense of humor and the way you blend the two with all you have learned about quilting in an effort to help the rest of us become better quilters! Actually, these tips can help us improve in lots of things! Not just quilting! Thank you!!

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    • 15. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:55 pm

      Mutti, you’re on the newsletter list. I just checked! You’ve been following me since Denver? That’s awesome! Thank you! I think it’s interesting that you said my 5 tips for becoming a better quilter could transfer to other skills too. Why not?!

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  • 16. Debbie in SD  |  January 15, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Your tip about the ctrl button and mouse wheel is genius. I will be using it a lot. I also love the colors of that quilt you made your niece the aqua and gray taupe colors are wonderful.

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    • 17. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:49 pm

      Thanks! The wheel mouse really makes a difference, doesn’t it? I’m happy you liked Shana’s quilt. (I think she did too!)

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  • 18. Sandra  |  January 15, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    Ami, I think I would enjoy reading just about anything you write! You are always fun, refreshing, wise, a little silly and always inspiring. Thanks for doing what you do.

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    • 19. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:47 pm

      That’s really sweet of you to say, Sandy. I’m looking forward to more writing and more quilting this year.

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  • 20. Super Sashing OP 7 | Virtual Quilter  |  January 15, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    […] 5 Things Will Help You Become A Better Quilter […]

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  • 21. Gini Ewers  |  January 15, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    What a great article. One of my goals for this year is to try several new things, including working in a series. Thanks so much, Ami.

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    • 22. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:46 pm

      Gini, anything you do will be wonderful! Enjoy the year’s new challenges.

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  • 23. Michele Kennedy  |  January 15, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    You always put the fun with the truth! More than a year ago, I started a small design group. We used a design book specifically written to help this kind of group. We all love our group, and we can stretch and grow in a comfortable way. I will forward this post to them, and maybe they will sign up for your blog too.

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    • 24. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:45 pm

      Thank you, Michele! Your design group sounds wonderful. Caring friends, united with the purpose of bettering their skills, is a great thing. Enjoy each others company. You are lucky to have each other.

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  • 25. Nina Miller  |  January 15, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    I always enjoy your blog and your sense of humor. I’ve been teaching people to quilt in our local area for over 20 years. I’m going to read this blog entry to them. Plus, I love Scooter.

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    • 26. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks, Nina! I’d be honored. I’ll tell Scooter he has another fan.

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  • 27. Jeannette  |  January 15, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    Just would like you to know I enjoy all your newsletters and your website very much ….Love Scooter’s input also lol. Keep up the great work!!!!
    Jeannette /Pa

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    • 28. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      Well, Jeannette! When you say stuff like that it just encourages me! :)

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  • 29. Cindy Hamilton  |  January 16, 2014 at 12:43 am

    Wonderful advice and soooo true!!!

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    • 30. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks, Cindy! I appreciate the kind words!

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  • 31. Jan Curtis  |  January 16, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    I’m laughing at those binding corners, because I just hung up a quilt that I made for my mom thirty years ago and the corners looked just like the one on the left. I have gotten more precise over the years. It just took time.

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    • 32. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:42 pm

      Jan, I’m with you. I quilted for so long not realizing what to aim for. I just call myself a “late bloomer.” All in good time…

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  • 33. Maga  |  January 17, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you for these gentle reminders. It is great fun to experiment and I could not agree with you more about the practise makes better. I am certainly learning that but as you point out in #5 it is so easy to be overwhelmed by all the stuff you see on the internet. Sometimes it is good to just sit down in front of the sewing machine with nothing but thread and fabric and just sew. Even the most basic of blocks can be varied and played with for hours on end. I spend far too much time browsing and not enough playing. Must do something about that :-D
    Love the colours in the quilt and the pattern or layout is very lively and inspiring. Thanks for sharing

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    • 34. Ami Simms  |  January 17, 2014 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Maga. I’m glad you found my post helpful.

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  • 35. Constance Ross  |  February 14, 2014 at 6:56 am

    I made my first full-sized quilt to keep warm. It had bright colors in circles on white poly-cotton. None of the blocks were the same size, but I put them together any which way. I can’t remember how I quilted it or where it is now. I began taking classes, joined a guild, and bought lots of quilt books, two of yours Ami.
    I had a love affair with quilts.

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    • 36. Ami Simms  |  February 14, 2014 at 7:31 am

      So happy to have helped with your life affair with quilts!

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    • 37. Ami Simms  |  April 7, 2014 at 8:01 am

      So cool to read this, Constance!

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  • […] a quilting example. Do you remember the quilt I made for my niece? It was Lesson 4 in Five Things That Will Help You Become A Better Quilter. I had a major “opportunity” with this quilt as I put it in the frame. I didn’t […]

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  • 39. Liz  |  March 2, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    The first quilt I bound has horrible corners. Since then I have learned to make nice square corners. Your binding example reminded me of this. I can honestly say that I have learned something from every quilt that I make. Many times it is the hard way and I do a lot of ripping. lol I have deconstructed and remade at least three tops because of a poor choice of fabric or arrangment of values. With the price of fabric these days, it is worth it.

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    • 40. Ami Simms  |  March 3, 2014 at 10:47 am

      You’re a good learner, Liz. Good for you!

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  • 41. Episode 3 « Sewing Mom Podcast  |  March 30, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    […] Ami Simms’ blog post, 5 Things That Will Help You Become A Better Quilter […]

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