In Praise of Never-Ending Handwork: A Quilter’s Guilt-Free UFO

English paper piecing, needle-turn appliqué, hand quilting: these time-consuming handwork projects don’t appeal to everyone. But a project like this can be a genuinely rewarding work-in-progress. One that serves as a comfort, a project-on-the-go, and a mediative joy for a lifetime. (And in my case, I might mean that literally).


Quilting UFOs (Un-Finished Objects)

Several years ago, Marianne Fons, co-founder of Fons & Porter’s Love of Quiltingsaid the most shocking thing I’ve ever heard a quilter say: “I don’t have any UFOs.”

The UFO (Un-Finished Object), also known as a WIP (Work In Progress) or PIGS (Projects in Grocery Sacks), is a specter that haunts us all. Incomplete, these quilt tops lurk in closets, under beds, or even in unceremonious stacks.

But Marianne Fons doesn’t have any. “I just stick with a project from start to finish,” she told me. “Maybe because from early on, it was mine job to complete a quilt, it’s just become my habit to keep going until it’s done.

That has stuck with me. I admire her for it, but it’s just not me. No, apparently, I just love to collect UFOs with a true procrastinator’s passion.

But let’s take a step back, and really look at some of these incomplete projects.

What actually qualifies as an Unfinished Object (UFO)? In-progress quilts? Scrap blocks added to over time? Fabric stacks? Half-fused appliqués I haven’t touched in 5+ years? A growing collection of “strings”…?

Know When to Fold ‘Em

Some are true UFOs, like the half-fused fabrics I intend for a collage-style quilt à la ‘Gus the Penguin’ from LOQtv’s episode 3202—Getting Gussied Up. I have everything I need, the project’s half-done, but it has sat on a shelf for at least 5 years. It truly qualifies as “un-finished,” because I haven’t touched it or added to it in all that time.

fons-and-porter-love-of-quilting-episode-3202
This collage technique Angela Huffman showcased it really, really cool, and I mean to get back to my variation of this project… But it’s been almost 5 years since I touched it, so that qualifies as a UFO!

But mostly my UFOs are… in progress.

For example, I have a box brimming with random Half-Square Triangles, intended for All together now, but that box is still growing. With every project, I create HSTs as leaders or enders. I put two squares together and, either using the 8-at-a-Time Triangle Squares or Quick Triangle-Squares method, I sew a set before chain stitching patches from my current project. It’s a trick that helps prevent snarled triangle tips, while actively building up my HST collection.

It’s not unfinished, really; it’s growing. Like kitchen scraps for the stock pot or a sour dough starter, you need time to let the necessary elements build up.

Using a leaders and enders approach, my collection of Triangle Squares (or Half-Square Triangles, if you prefer that term) grows as I chain-stitch.

I have several of these ‘stock pot’ UFOs, including my box of daughter blocks and a growing collection of strings for string quilting.

And I’m going to say that stacks of fabric that are waiting to be cut and sewn don’t count as UFOs. Too often, I’ve let a fabric collection build for a specific reason, and then completely change my mind and cannibalize the stack for another project.

But there’s another type of ongoing UFO, one that I’ve found to be truly satisfying: handwork.

The Appeal of Handwork UFOs

Were you overly ambitious with your first quilt? I was. I decided I wanted to make the vintage quilt design called Lover’s Knot. Even with all of its curved pieces, I wanted to hand quilt it (click here to download the free quilt pattern).

Looking back at my first quilt 20+ years later, I realize…There’s still an unquilted patch. I guess this qualifies as a UFO?

I did it. The machine piecing took me a few weeks; the hand quilting took me about 7 years. (Keep in mind, I didn’t have air conditioning in my post-college apartment, so it was set aside for the summer months). Other quilts were pieced and quilted at that time, but that quilt inched on, stitched by slow, awkward stitches.

Never again would I hand quilt, I swore.

But then came the big-stitch quilting crazeand it looked really, really cool.

I just love the chunky, primitive look of big stitching quilting. And so does my cat, as evidenced by the stray cat hairs.

Find Your style

So I found a compromise. I created, well, not exactly a wholecloth quilt, but a single fabric quilt. This included two lengths of fabric sewn together for the front, and two matching lengths sewn together for the back (reversible!). Then I machine-quilted it so that the layers were secured, and bound it. Now I can use it on my bed, I can wash it fearlessly, and I can stitch on it whenever I want.

Before I bound it, I got a few hand-stitched rows in…. When my cat would let me.

Sometimes I hoop it, other times I don’t. I use two or three strands of embroidery floss, and I’ve been experimenting with different needles (sashiko, quilting betweens, tapestry, etc.) and thimbles. I’ve also been incorporating different colors of floss, swapping for a new color when I get bored.

I don’t mark the quilting lines—it’s all primitive-looking, chunky stitches and wonky lines. It’s kind of a deliberately sloppy liberating mess, really.

It has been bound, it has been slipped under, it has been washed multiple times, and it’s still not ‘finished.’

Handwork On the Go

I work on it when watching TV and stitch a little while on video calls with family. I’ve brought it to sewing socials and guild meetings, and even brought it camping, where I stitched next to the fire! I have a little travel pack of my handwork tools ready to go. (There’s a reason the ‘Top 5 Quilting Projects to Take on a Road Trip’ are all handwork!)

My handwork travel pack—it ain’t fancy, but I love it! Needles, floss, painter’s tape (handy for separating floss), manicure scissors, and thimble, all ready to go in a former chewing gum container!

The handwork is soothing and meditative, just a simple running stitch that keeps my hands busy without being too fussy. The quilt is technically done, because it’s bound and I use it. But conversely, it’s never done. I kind of love that.

handwork

If you ask around, you’ll find others have some variation of this, too. A lot of quilters have a travel set of English Paper Piecing hexagons, all ready to grab for long car trips or even flights. Nail clippers work fine in place of scissors if you’re basting hexies! And I know some prolific quilters that always have a quilt sandwich to hand-bind during the evening news or while watching the latest binge-worthy series.

I even know one quilter who has a Baltimore album quilt for this purpose. A queen-sized Quilt project with needle-turn appliqué leaves, flowers, vines, and berries. It has taken her several years already, and will likely take many more. Which is fine by her; she’s not in any hurry.

Quilting a Meditative Experience

There’s a patient, unpressing joy in a UFO like this. A project that’s always close to hand, ready to steady your nerves or soothe away the day with each meditative stitch.

Something familiar that’s undemanding. It doesn’t expect to be completed by tomorrow or for you to develop new skills — and yet it’s steadily building toward something magical.

It’s slow sewing, at its finest.


  • Sew-On-the-Go with Needle-Turn Hand Appliqué | Starts 11/1/2022

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  • Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting TV Series 3200 Video Download

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  • Love of Quilting September/October 2018 Digital Edition

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  • All Together Now Quilt Pattern Download

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