Slow Sewing: Why It’s Good to Have a Pile of WIPs (Works in Progress)

on October 15 | in Slow Sewing | by | with 30 Comments

Cheryl Arkison adds her voice to our Slow Sewing series! Cheryl is a quilter and a writer, author of the popular Sunday Morning Quilts and A Month of Sundays. She teaches quilting classes, including the online Craftsy class Inset & Appliqué Circles by Machine. (We also just featured an excerpt of her chapter from the Essential Guide to Modern Quilt Making on Appliqué Circles.)

Cheryl fills you in on why it’s actually a good thing to have lots of WIPs (Works in Progress), and she even let us know exactly how many quilts she currently has in the works (lots!). Take a look at some of Cheryl’s finished designs and visit her Dining Room Empire for the latest in her work and play.

What do you think? Do multiple projects in process nag at you, or inspire? Do you enjoy having the options multiple projects provide (hand stitch a binding here, piece together squares there…)? How many things do you have Under Construction?!

Under Construction
I recently stopped referring to my UFOs (Unfinished Objects) and WIPs (Works in Progress) as just that. Rather, all the quilts in my studio– until the last stitches are in the binding– are considered “Under Construction.” Making a distinction made the UFOs feel bad, like they’d been abandoned. And it gave the WIPs a superiority complex.

All jokes aside, I really don’t see a difference between these two things. From the moment a pile of fabric becomes an idea connected to a sketch it is under construction. And that lasts until the last stitches are in the binding and all the threads buried.

There are quilters for whom more than one project on the go is stressful. Some of us hit double digits with quilts under construction and the sweat starts dripping onto the cutting mat. Each of us are different, for sure. I, personally, thrive on having more than one project on the go and here’s why.

You Never Know What Will Happen
With three kids and a predictably busy household I never know what each day brings. Over the years I’ve had to let go of my pre-planning and desire for neatness, the pursuit of which drove me more crazy than accepting a certain amount of chaos. It actually makes me more stressed to plan out the week and then not have it go my way.

In a way, quilting has helped me learn to roll with the punches.

With each moment in the studio I eke out what can be done. Impromptu playdate in the backyard? Let’s cut fabric! Extra long nap for the little guy? Pedal to the metal at the sewing machine. Hubby away and trashy TV? Pressing leaders and enders.

If I was only working on one project at a time I would spend more time waiting than working. Waiting for just the right moment of alertness to cut fabric. Waiting for quiet afternoons to sew. Waiting for the kids to go to bed so I can wash the floor and baste. Waiting for inspiration to hit when I get blocked. So much waiting.

Instead of waiting I can hit the ground running on any project when time and energy allow. Less waiting, more working. Even if the work takes a long time to become a quilt. I can make progress because progress is always happening. It just isn’t always on the same project.

For the Record
It was time to do it and in the interest of full disclosure, I counted up all my quilts under construction.


And I’m totally okay with that. At least four of them will get done in the coming month or two, maybe some more. Some will continue to grow because they are teaching samples. And yes, I may start another one or three.

I’ve also finished a half dozen quilts and wrote another book this year. And quilts have moved from fabric piles to blocks, from blocks to finished tops, from tops to quilting. New piles have been created.

I don’t even think I am a serial starter of projects. (That might be debatable, but I don’t think I am.) No, I am simply willing to embrace the ideas and inspiration as they come. To me, this all represents creative freedom and opportunity.

It’s Just a Number
I’m often told it makes people feel better about their number when I share mine. Okay, I’ll take that hit. But I also think no one should feel guilty about their number. It is what it is, you do what you can.

Own your projects, all of them, from the piles of fabric to the quilts only needing binding. Be proud of them. They represent a moment of making. Or many moments. Ultimately, they represent you and your creativity. They reflect your time and commitment to the craft.

If it does stress you out, here are tips for making it through the pile of quilts under construction:

  • Give it away: Give away all of the blocks, the fabric already cut, the quilt top.
  • Find a long armer and some spare change to get those tops turned into quilts.
  • Learn to machine bind; it’s a huge timesaver and way to avoid hand stitching if you don’t like it.
  • Set goals. Buckle down and commit to finishing projects on a regular basis. Make the commitment public so you feel even more pressure to stick to the commitment.

Creative Challenges
Counting my quilts under construction serves me well. For one, it keeps me honest. But most importantly, the inventory reminds me of projects I have lurking in the closet.

Revisiting the hiding projects also helps me take stock of where I am creatively. Are the projects still, in some way, exciting to me? Just because they once were thrilling, I need to know if they are still. If there is even a hint of excitement then they can stay under construction. If there isn’t, the pile of fabric gets returned to the stash, the work is given away, or I buckle down and finish it so space can be cleared for more creativity.

One frequent criticism of having too many quilts under construction is that it amounts to clutter for the creative mind. I strongly disagree. It isn’t like a messy desk or cutting table literally keeping you from work. It is all opportunity. It is up to you to grab it when the moments are made.

Having projects in different phases also allows me to work through any blocks, slumps or challenges. If one quilt has me stumped or I’m feeling listless I can pull out something that needs to be sewn without too much thought. That allows my mind to wander while my body moves in its familiar rhythm. It works out the kinks.

I am always in forward motion, but not with full on sprints to the finish line though. No, it is about taking a leisurely stroll through interesting streets filled with painted nooks and surprising crannies. By being open to the exploration, my creativity is fueled no matter what I find. And there is always something to find, always a new street to explore.

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30 Responses to Slow Sewing: Why It’s Good to Have a Pile of WIPs (Works in Progress)

  1. Darlene M says:

    I, too, love the orange and turquoise fabrics. Hopefully you will quickly complete the quilt so we can all enjoy it! heehee. This said by someone with two quilt rooms filled with UFOs! (grin) Great article and really hits home to many who have been quilting for years. Your article has inspired me to write an article for my guild’s newsletter and web page. I will privately contact you.

  2. Bev says:

    This is the first time I’ve read about dealing with a long term change in taste. I felt guilt to the point of desperation when I started buying bundles of brights while my stash was mostly CW era and other darks. It was a big load off my shoulders when I passed many yards on to others; they were newly inspired and so was I.

  3. Carrie says:

    That’s what I’m talking about! I love having tons of quilts in progress. What I want to do when I’m “making” all depends on my mood. (I also loved the advice for what to do if works in progress are stressing people out. Great tips!)

  4. Cindy says:

    Thanks for what you had to say. My husband thinks I’m nuts to have multiple projects “in the works”.

  5. Julie in GA says:

    I loved your post, and I totally agree. I have never been someone to make one project at a time. I love having many projects at different stages of completion. Some days I just want to do some mindless, easy sewing, other times I am better able to handle figuring out where I am going next on a quilt. I need to go through my old projects and get rid of the ones that no longer inspire me.

  6. Juliet Wood says:

    I love this post! I am desperately trying to finish a quilt a friend is paying me to do because she got stuck above her pay level and asked me to rescue her. Then I only have 2 WIPs not 3 because I always forget the Christmas quilt that goes from year to year. After this I am going to start about 10 quilts I want to make just because and have long since collected the fabric for, with your 42 I am not going to have any problems. I have been liberated – thank you!

  7. Elizabeth McDonald (catskill quilter) says:

    Wonderful post! UFOs might be having a fallow period – inactivity but lots of ruminating either on what step is next, or what can I change to make this better or….The creative process in quilting does seem related to the creative process in writing. (I have noticed that with writing, an awful lot is happening during those periods of time when ‘nothing is happening!’)

  8. Ginger says:

    I have found that if I only work on one project at a time I just rush along. I miss noticing the creative inspirations waiting in the project. When I work on a number of projects and see my stash and partially put together pieces everywhere my mind plays with new ideas. But, my method is not for everyone. For the neat and orderly, please enjoy your work. For the messy-multi-tasking bunch, have fun.

  9. Liz says:

    I love your article on WIPs! Like you I have many projects going at a time – there are just so many different patterns and a huge variety of fabric combinations that I want to work with. I never know exactly which I’ll be in the mood for so for me personally, it’s fantastic to have quick go-to options available. My tastes have definitely changed though over the years and some of the projects that had been sitting around untouched for a long time felt like burdens rather than being exciting. So instead of carrying guilt over those, or forcing myself to work on them, I have either given them away or sold them. It makes me happy to put them in the hands of someone who will be excited to work on them.

  10. Mary says:

    Finally, a quilter after my own heart! I get burnt out if I try to do it all in one fell swoop. I already have to do that if I’m making something as a gift, and I absolutely hate the deadlines and pressure of that. Thanks for a wonderful article.

  11. Barb N says:

    You have an extremely sensible, logical and creative approach – you must use both sides of you brain equally! Thanks for the permission, so to speak, to allow ourselves the freedom to move from one project to another without guilt. Guilt is no reason to finish a quilt – who has the time for that? I love your options for getting rid of projects that no longer spark your interest. Thanks!

  12. Margie says:

    What a great post. I love that I now look at all my projects as works in progress and something to learn from. Thank you Cheryl.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for this post! I could really relate to her “make haste” when the time is right approach. I think anyone who is parenting young children can relate to jumping on a project during the spare 10 minutes you have. Although I don’t quilt (yet!) this is how I approach my garment sewing. I usually have a few projects going at once. Thanks again for this fun read!

  14. I so appreciated this perspective! I’ve recently started to embrace having a few projects on the go for the same reasons as you, so I could work on what I felt like at the time. But I was still trying to attack my wip box to keep the number down to 3 or 4. In the process of working through those old wips, I’ve realised a few things about myself: quilts I’d completely lost inspiration for a while ago, I came back to fresh and with new ideas and enjoyed finishing them; I’ve enjoyed finishing up some of them when I needed to make something quickly for a new baby or birthday; and I really enjoy having a mix of new ideas forming and old ones to go back to. So my year to finish off my wips has turned into a complete embracing of that box! I love your picture of different clear boxes for projects though! I think I might try this. Thanks!

  15. audrey says:

    You are so speaking my language! I quilt this way too, always working different phases of lots of different quilts. It keeps me interested and moving forward all the time. LOVE this post.:)

  16. Great and inspiring post – because I agree totally! I’m especially glad you included the “if you no longer like it, or if it no longer excites you, give it away” solution. That’s as important as anything. I haven’t done that yet, but I know others who have, and who have felt a lot of relief in doing so.
    One thing I’ve found useful occasionally, when I have felt stuck on a project – one that primarily needed work and not necessarily creativity to get it finished or over the hump – was to commit to working a little bit every day. Just work on it 15 minutes every day, sew one square, quilt one square, or however you can break it down in small bites. It may seem as if it’ll never get done if that’s all you do, but

  17. Margaret says:

    I seem to be on my own in not having many projects, well I get them to the flimsy stage and then start another, my problem is being quite new to quilting I find the actual quilting process hard to do and am not in a position to pay to have them quilted, at the moment I am quilting by hand which although slow is achievable but not all the stitches are the same size! I have done one or two BOM`s but now save the instructions till they are all on line then tackle the whole quilt which works better for me apart form the hexie BOM which I do as soon as it gets posted

  18. Jane says:

    I like having a choice to work on and call mine “Projects on the Go!”

  19. Georgi S says:

    Thank you for this ~ my pile of quilts “under construction” is under 10, so it’s not horrible, but I love your idea that having more than one is an opportunity to do what you want when you feel like it!

  20. Sherry says:

    Great article! I drive myself crazy making myself finish one quilt before starting a new one. I knew there must be good reasons for not doing it that way. Now I know what those reasons are and I will be starting a new quilt even though my current project is still under construction. Thank you! You are so right about the time spent waiting for everything to line up in place so I could work on the current project. That perfect block of time rarely happens and then frustration sets in.

  21. Michelle says:

    I always have multiple projects under construction (love that term!). I feel like it helps my creativity and the need to create. Sometimes I feel like working with really loud prints, sometimes I want quieter ones. Sometimes I want to work on curves, others ittty bitty piecing, machine quilting or cutting. There are also times I want to sew by hand whether that is EPP, hand-quilting or embroidery. I used to feel guilty about having so many different projects going on until I started embracing why I do it. Sure, I want the end product, but I really enjoy the process. Having multiple projects allows me to enjoy all parts of the creative process.

  22. rosa says:

    Fabulous post.Thanks!

  23. Megan says:

    This is such a well written and encouraging post! I most certainly do not have 42 or even close to that number of “WIPs”; however I do have a list of almost 100 of what I want to make. I do have about 15 or so “WIPs”… and I do not believe I could have expressed myself better with how well you put it and how it is glorifying in its own way. I can understand on one level not having so many at one time… yet more artists or creative thinkers than not, seem to always really take their time and have to feel the creativity and excitement towards what they are trying to express otherwise it doesn’t come across. This is absolutely perfect and THANK YOU for being the one to write it. I am moving onward with my Construction pieces!

  24. dangermom says:

    Great thoughts! I have often taken out a long-ignored project and finished it. This summer I finished two quilts that had each been around for over a year–one had been through a couple of editing sessions as I slowly figured out what to do with the border. And a couple of weeks ago I found a quilt top that must be over 5 years old–I realized it would be a perfect Christmas gift to my in-laws, who recently got rid of almost everything (they were unable to take much and a lot just had to be let go of) and moved into a tiny empty apartment. They have all they need…except something to brighten up the couch!

  25. Cheryl is always amazing. Thank you for sharing your valuable thoughts!

  26. Nancy says:

    I gave two flimsiest to my guild for service quilts. Alas, when they were finished I wanted them back because they looked so nice. They went on to comfort others. N

  27. Mary Mell says:

    What an inspiring article! I think those of us who are in their 50s and 60s look at quilting as a creative outlet. I find older quilters look at quilting from a more start to finish ALL HAND DONE. Both are fine! The reason (and I am a newbie) I quilt is for the creative. Each project for me is a teaching moment. I love to have a couple projects going so I can move from one to the other so as not to get burned out on one.

  28. Brilliant post! Its like you read my mind!

  29. Marianne says:

    Great post, Cheryl…….I’m totally with you on this. My creative mind loves creative clutter, I too see it as opportunity. I have long decided that my studio needs to be a guilt free zone and hate the UFO term. Under Construction sums it up perfectly.

  30. Marianne says:

    This was such a great encouraging post! I am a fairly new quilter (3 years now) and have been feeling a bit guilty with all my projects under construction. I actually have them hanging from an old bunk bed ladder strung from my ceiling. I actually enjoy looking at them in their various stages but had been feeling sort of guilty that I would start other things, when I have projects already in progress! What you wrote totally resonates with me and gave me the ‘okay’ I needed to keep a balance but not to freak out about not finishing things right away, but doing things in stages!! Thanks ever so…..oh, and I am so interested to see what will come of the lovely orange and turquoise stacks! My very first quilt was similar too those colors and it is still one of my favorites!! Blessings!

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