Anyone who has ever finished a quilt really deserves congratulating. Patchwork and quilting are hugely enjoyable but they are also very demanding, stretching your skills and your determination. Non-quilters often ask how long a quilt took to make, but time is only one factor. The hunt for that perfect fabric, the tedium of cutting and piecing, the struggle to quilt by machine, the slow progress of hand quilting - it’s a wonder we do it at all!
Triangles in four colourways (detail)
"Triangles in Four Colourways" (detail) 70 x 66in (178 x 167cm). Accepted into Quilt 2001 at the Knitting and Stitching Shows in London, Harrogate and Dublin. Silks, machine pieced, appliquéd and quilted. 2001
We all have UFOs (Unfinished Objects) stacked away. They sit at the bottom of the cupboard, reproaching us for abandoning them, a reminder of the time and money wasted when we were seduced into more exciting quilting pastures. I have my fair share - for example, a bedspread I started for my ten-year-old son. He is now eighteen. Although unfinished, it has occasionally been used when we’ve had a glut of teenagers at a sleepover. The wadding flaps freely round the edges and it’s held together with enormous tacking stitches and the odd safety pin. Every time it comes out I shudder, because I know if I live to be 95 I will never finish it. More recently, I embarked on a piece that just didn’t give me the buzz that tells you all is going well. I beavered away sporadically and unenthusiastically for a while. Then I quit. I coped with the guilt feelings by chalking it up to experience. (I told myself that knowing when to give up is part of the wisdom of age.)
Cross references
"Cross References" 57 x 57in (145 x 145cm). Toured the UK and Europe with the exhibition ‘Moving On’ by members of Quilt Art. Silks, machine pieced, embroidered and quilted. 2000
Despite this confession, it’s my contention that UFOs are a Bad Thing. They are demoralising. If you don’t finish a piece, you will never get any satisfaction from it. So how to deal with the quilting blues?
These can strike at different stages. Some quilters get bogged down while piecing, others when quilting. Some hate the whole process of finishing - attaching borders and binding. One solution is to work on several projects at once, so that you don’t grow bored with a particular technique. If you feel like some soothing hand-work, reach for the quilting hoop. If you crave the quick fix of instant results, dig out the log cabin. If you fancy challenging yourself with something fiddly, unroll the freezer paper and appliqué away!
Acid squall (detail)
"Acid Squall" (detail) 75 x 75in (190 x 190cm). Made for ‘The Art of the Quilt’ exhibition at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, 2001. Silks and hand-dyed cottons, machine pieced, embroidered and quilted. 2001
Sometimes colours are the problem. It’s common to fall in love with everyone else’s fabrics and out of love with your own. A big quilt that takes months to complete, can test your commitment to the more subtle colour combinations. Alternatively that yellow and blue which looked so enticing in the quilt shop suddenly seems garish compared to your friend’s greens and pinks. Everybody seems to be wearing prettier fabrics than you are working with. Keeping a few other projects up and running helps to prevent this kind of colour overload. You and your eyes need a break.
Golden Rain
"Golden Rain" 44 x 44in (112 x 112cm). Silks, machine pieced, appliquéd and hand quilted. 1997
I personally can’t juggle work in this way, because once I abandon a quilt I find it difficult to go back to it - hence the guilt feelings mentioned above. That’s why I only ever work on one quilt at a time. Many of my quilts consist of small units which require lots of repetitive cutting and piecing. I have evolved a few coping mechanisms to see me through the inevitable doldrums.
Kitchen Curtains in Three Colourways
"Kitchen Curtains in Three Colourways" 74 x 60in (188 x 152cm). Silks, machine pieced, embroidered and quilted. 2
  • Divide and rule. Split the work mentally into its constituent parts: cutting, piecing and quilting. Reaching a half-way point in any technique is a cause for celebration. So congratulate yourself - there is less to do than has already been done. Share your achievement with your family: they won’t care, or possibly even respond, but it will give you a lift.
  • Vary the routine. It’s sometimes possible to switch between techniques, even within one project.
  • Set yourself deadlines. Sometimes they will be out of your control, such as a birthday or a competition entry date. Sometimes you decide: before the children break up or a holiday. Make deadlines realistic and you are more likely to keep them.
  • Don’t be over-ambitious, particularly if it is your first quilt. There’s no law that says you must complete a king-sized cover to call yourself a quilter. You’ll get plenty of satisfaction out of finishing something smaller.
  • Try to avoid displacement activity. Keep a distinction in your mind between work put into the quilt and seminecessary activities which somehow take all morning. Easier said than done!
  • Visualise the finished piece in all its glory. Boost your motivation by reminding yourself why you are making it. If it’s for a friend, picture it in her house. If it’s for an exhibition, imagine it hanging there for all to see. If it’s for a grandchild, think of their delighted face!
  • Try to remain focused on the task in hand by keeping your brain occupied - listen to music, the radio, books on tape . . .
  • Think ahead. Use a long period of repetitive work to mull over ideas for future projects.
  • Satisfy your need to vary the colour scheme by hunting for fabric for the next quilt.
  • Try to work little and often. Even if you can’t commit long stretches of time, it’s surprising how half an hour every now and then builds up. Any work done is done, and you don’t have to do it again.
  • Share your low points with other quilters. Their encouragement will revive your flagging interest.
  • Bear in mind the sad but inevitable truth that the quilt won’t get finished by itself!
Organised Rain
"Organised Rain" 51 x 51in (130 x 130cm). Winner of the Gold Award in First Horizon, Spring Quilt Fairs, 1999> It subsequently toured Japan with an exhibition of British quiltmakers organised by Michele Walker in spring 2000. Silks and cottons, machine pieced and quilted. 1998
That, to me, is the nub of it. You are creating something unique with your own hands and while this is sometimes tedious and frustrating it is also challenging and immensely satisfying. Knowing that you alone are responsible for whether a quilt ever gets finished can be the strongest motivating factor of all.
I hope I haven’t put off any quilters who are just beginning. Most of us love it most of the time, or we wouldn’t do it. It might even be comforting to know that we all get stuck sometimes. Sorry, can’t chatter away all day like this. I’ve got a quilt to finish . . .

Although Sara Impey trained as a journalist, quilting has always been an important part of her life. She made her first quilt whilst still at school in the 70s. Sara is a member of Quilt Art, and her work features in the V&A Quilts 1700 - 2010 exhibition

First published in Popular Patchwork January 2002