Better Beginnings Quilt, funny, humor, New Quilters, Newbie Quilters, Quilting, starting over, Stories

Better Beginnings

Have you ever noticed that some folks, children particularly, are ashamed when they don’t do something well – the very first time they try?

I’ve noticed. I’ve even felt that way, myself. For example, I was trying to learn a new graphic design program on my computer today. I was bothered that I hadn’t mastered it by lunchtime. And no, I am not a graphic designer, so…I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Why on earth do we feel that we have to be good at something – let alone great at something – on our first try? Learning a new skill requires more than just the gumption to give it a go. It requires patience, practice, and prayer (for more patience). Why can’t we just embrace the uncertainty that comes with learning something new?

After all, being a beginner is not a bad thing. In fact – it’s a great thing, if you wish to live in peace.

Buddhist monk, teacher, and author Jack Kornfield talks about embracing the “beginner’s mind” ( A beginner’s mind is free to see the wonder in the world, and free to accept the wisdom of uncertainty. It is a mindset where permitting “I don’t know” releases us from the misery and suffering that comes with grasping for interpretation or opinion.

Beginner’s mind is difficult to achieve, no doubt. I’m certain that all of us, at one time or another, just want to start over. Or – maybe that’s why we like starting over so much, to get back to that mindset.

After writing last week about my Neverending Nine-Patch, I got to thinking about all the things I would do differently if I had a “first quilt do-over.”

Even though I adore my giant nine-patch quilt, there wasn’t much wonder and uncertainty to embrace. After you make three or four nine-patch blocks, you’ve pretty much got it mastered.

My wish isn’t to have made a different pattern, though. I just wish I had learned some piecing techniques that were more versatile and allowed me to build my own blocks, or to continue on to more complex patterns with confidence. If I could do it over, my first quilt would have these elements:

  • Flying Geese. Used in both modern and traditional quilts, flying geese are a “must-learn” because they are so versatile – they can be used for points on a star, or more traditionally as a triangle.
  • Half Square Triangles (HSTs). When I found Jeni Baker’s blog ( and read her book Patchwork Essentials: The Half-Square Triangle (, it changed how I saw quilting. Suddenly almost any pattern seemed possible for me. Jeni’s methods for making fast and easy piles of HSTs keep her book on my sewing table for fast reference. I love it, and I always go back to it when I need inspiration.
  • Strip Piecing. Did you know that there are easier, faster ways of making nine-patch blocks besides cutting out a gazillion small squares? They can be strip pieced. Strip piecing is all about efficient cutting and sewing – sewing long strips together and then cutting them into strings of small squares. This technique makes quilts come together like magic, and can create the illusion of movement (think bargello quilts). Definitely a skill that you’ll use again and again.

Now, because I want this quilt to be newbie-friendly, I want it small. Wall quilt or baby quilt sized. Keeping it small has two benefits:

  1. Finishing options. No need to worry about finding (or paying) a longarm quilter to finish the quilt for you. If you have a domestic sized sewing machine, you can quilt a small quilt on it easily. Or – try hand quilting! Some of the newer hand quilting techniques like big-stitch quilting are more forgiving (and fun!) than ye olde “perfect tiny stitch” methods. Interested in big-stitch hand quilting? Check out Wendi Gratz at Her tutorials are the best I’ve seen, and her designs are whimsical and fun.
  1. Early success. When you’re learning something new, you should be challenged but not discouraged. A smaller project gets finished faster, before you get bored or distracted. Nothing is more encouraging than success.

Keeping all these things in mind, I designed a quilt for newbie quilters. I call it my “Better Beginnings Quilt.” Here’s the drafted quilt:

I’ll be working on it the next few 1-3Better Beginningsweeks, and I’ll post pictures so you can see how it comes together. I’ll make an effort to keep my beginner’s mindset intact as I go, enjoying the wonder that comes from creating things with my hands.

As for that graphic design program? I’m sure I’ll have it cracked by dinner.


funny, humor, New Quilters, Newbie Quilters, Quilting, Stories

Looking for the Amen

From my seat on the firm wooden pew bench I could see deep blue sky, white cotton clouds, and green leaves like hands, waving drops of sunshine towards me through the church window. It was a picture-perfect spring day. I imagined myself out in the churchyard, lazily walking among the close-by tombstones, maybe picking a violet or two from the grass.

The sudden boom of the preacher’s voice shook me out of my daydream. Prayer was still in progress. But I’d not been caught daydreaming. My friend, muscle memory, was covering for me. My head was still bent, my hands still pressed lightly together. I sighed inwardly. Surely the preacher was going for the record on this one. I snuck a peek at my watch – how long had we been praying?

I glanced down at my three-year old girls (twins) sitting between their father and I on the pew. They had their prayer hands together, too. Grace was looking around the room. Emma was looking up at me. She seemed confused. I smiled reassuringly at her. She smiled back, then put her head back down. The prayer went on.

I shuffled in my seat a bit. Still the preacher talked, but I’d stopped listening. Emma was wiggling, getting restless. I didn’t blame her. She patted my leg. I smiled at her and put my finger on my lips. I showed her my prayer hands. She mimicked me with the hands, but still looked confused. She patted my leg again. Again, I put my finger to my lips. She lowered her eyebrows and looked at the preacher. Looking back at me, she said – in her three-year old, huge, no volume control voice –


I was mortified. Sort of. I giggled. Kids are fun. Our neighbors in the pew behind us laughed and patted her on the head. The people across the aisle laughed. The choir laughed. The preacher wrapped it up tout de suite.

Even at the age of three, Emma was patient by all human standards. But the elderly minister of that old country church tested her, to be sure. I don’t think she wanted it to end so much as she was confused – had she missed the ending? I’ve felt that way myself many times, and not just in church. Did I miss something? Is it over and I just didn’t notice? God is good, all the time. Prayer is wonderful. But sometimes even God must be waiting for the Amen.

My first quilt was an exercise in wrapping things up, finding the Amen. I call it the Neverending Nine-Patch.

I made that first quilt under the watchful eye of the talented quilters at the Buffalo Senior Center in Buffalo, West Virginia. I suppose I learned the ‘old school’ way of making a quilt:

  • How to cut strips and squares from yardage. No pre-cuts (charm squares, jelly rolls, etc.) were used.
  • How to quilt without a pattern. Once several squares were cut, I sewed them together to make nine-patch blocks. Once I amassed enough blocks, I measured them to determine the length to cut sashing strips. No strip-piecing, no chain piecing, no shortcuts.
  • How to measure and attach borders.
  • How to add blocks/rows to increase the size of your quilt.
  • Where to buy fabric locally and what to look for. Fancy quilt shop fabrics were deemed too expensive by my instructors, although sometimes they splurged.

Once I got the pieced quilt top finished, I laid it out on my bed. But it wasn’t big enough. I hadn’t measured the bed before I started. I had Googled reference charts for average quilt sizes, but they didn’t match my actual bed.

Working without a sized pattern + not measuring your bed before you start = Neverending Nine-Patch.

I kept trying to fix the size. I added another row. Then another. I added borders. Not one, but two. Like Emma in church, I kept anticipating the end – but I just couldn’t get there. I was looking for the Amen.

In the end, that first quilt was huge – 96” square – a king size quilt. Here’s a picture:

My Neverending Nine Patch

Since then I’ve been thinking about what a Newbie Quilter should do differently. Here’s my list:

  • Plan ahead. Don’t start that quilt before you know how big you want it to be. Do the math and keep it around for reference.
  • Start small. Don’t fall into the ‘I may never make another quilt so better make this one count’ game. Starting small – a table runner, wall quilt, or small throw – gives you an opportunity to practice all parts of quilting on your home sewing machine. There’s more to quilting than just piecing the top! A small project can be easily batted, backed and bound on the machine. And a quicker success story will keep you interested.
  • Get the big picture. With many quilt patterns, blocks can be arranged in a way that creates a secondary pattern across the whole of the quilt. As you can see in my quilt, I gave no thought to that! But my mom – who took the quilting class with me – did. Here’s a picture of her finished quilt.
    Mom’s Nine Patch

    Note how the white blocks align to make a plus sign/cross and the pink blocks criss-cross the quilt. By not having a big picture in mind, I missed the opportunity to create extra visual interest.

  • Try a sampler. As much as I like nine patches, I wish I’d learned how to make HSTs (Half Square Triangles), flying geese, sixteen patches, and stars. These blocks/techniques will build your skills and fuel your imagination.

Finishing that monster of a quilt could have scared me off quilting, but instead it felt great! And not just from relief that it was done. You see, I made it for Emma. It’s our reminder that looking for the Amen is just as important as finding it.


New Quilters, Newbie Quilters, Quilting, Stories

Unopened Boxes

One day I was talking to a friend of mine, who is a retired mail carrier. He was telling me some wild stories about working at the local post office. Yes, wild. Not “crazy postman brings a gun to work” wild. More…. curious. The “make you scratch your head and say ‘what’?” kind of stories. This is one such tale.

There once was a postal worker who came in from his route one day and casually mentioned to his supervisor how many boxes he’d had to deliver.

“This guy must be loaded,” he said, “he’s getting new stuff every day.”

The supervisor didn’t think much about it, even after hearing the same worker come in several times after that, always with the same complaint.

“Geez, this guy gets a lot of packages.”

Finally, the worker came in one day near Christmas and said the guy had gotten thirty packages that week. That got the supervisor’s attention. He got the name and address of the package recipient. Turns out it was the address of an employee at that very post office branch. He worked in the sorting room, with – you guessed it – parcel post.

The postal inspector came, and the investigation revealed that the parcel post worker had been redirecting random packages to his home address. How? Simple. He kept a pocket full of labels pre-printed with his address. When a promising-looking package came through, he’d wait until no one was looking, and slap on his label. The package was delivered to his house, no questions asked. Investigators found that he’d been doing it for years. He only got caught when he got greedy, sending too many packages at a time.

Now, I can think of any number of reasons why someone might steal packages, and I bet you can, too. Reselling the goods. Giving them as Christmas gifts. Just plain meanness.

Here’s the kicker – there was no reason.

When investigators searched the guy’s house they found a garage loaded to the brim with unopened boxes.

Unopened boxes.

The guy never even opened them. There they sat, towers of brown boxes, all sealed up like the day they were shipped. He was just hoarding them. My friend says the guy himself had no explanation.

This story kills me. I cannot imagine the willpower it would take to not open those packages. It makes me a little bit ill, just thinking about it. Wasn’t he curious? I am. I’m dying to know what was in there.

I’ve found this story to be a great metaphor – what are the unopened packages in your life? What gifts await your unwrapping? As curious as I am about the postman’s parcels, I have to admit that I’ve occasionally had my own unopened boxes. Haven’t we all?

The best box I hesitated to open turned out to be my sewing machine. Back in 1998, my husband heard me mention that I’d like one, and he braved Black Friday to get me one on sale for Christmas. I’d been decorating our rented house, and I had big dreams of making some curtains. It was a thoughtful, loving gift. I appreciated it then, and I still do.

But I didn’t use it for seventeen years. I opened the box once, saw the instruction manual, and stopped right there. Sewing was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t know how. Reading the instruction manual for the machine was one thing. But how do you know what fabric to use? What thread? What projects are good for beginners? Since this was in the days before YouTube, no easy video instruction was out there. Books existed on the subject, but…. they just didn’t have projects I was interested in.

And so, my sweet little sewing machine sat in a closet.

As the years passed, the subject of sewing kept circling me – I so badly wanted to learn! I dreamed of someday learning to piece a quilt. I knew there were places to take classes, but I just hated going it alone. None of my friends sewed or quilted.

Later that year, I got lucky. I took a job as director of a senior center, and the first lady I met said,

“I’m tired of quilting alone at my house. I want to start a quilting class. I know a lady who teaches, and she’s willing to come on Mondays. Can we start next week?”

“Yes,” I said with a big grin. My chance had come! “Yes, we can. As long as I can sit in.” Then I went home, opened up that old box, and started quilting. I haven’t stopped since. I waited a long time to open that box, but it was worth it.