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Setting Goals and Self-Discovery: Making a Cross Stitch Quilt
It’s good to set long term goals for yourself. That’s what I thought when I picked up a cross stitch quilt kit from my local Walmart in the summer of 2013. Even the woman at the cash register who rang me out remarked on how nice it was going to look when it was finished. I felt really good about my purchase…until I got the package home and opened it. That’s when I uttered those classic words.
“What was I thinking?”
I’ve never learned how to knit or crochet, and the idea of diving into a huge project like a blanket seemed a bit overwhelming to me. However, I have done a cross stitch before, and I liked to sew. So, I thought I’d give it a try. Little did I know that it would be a year-long try. I like to finish what I start so I always like to ensure that what I start I can finish. However, with a full time job, a house to keep up, and a book to finish writing and publish, it wasn’t easy to devote my time to this side project. It wouldn’t further my writing career, put money in my pocket, or earn me any praise. Then, I realized how much of my time is devoted to these three goals and how little of my time is spent doing something just to do it. This was a project that would result in a practical, creative achievement, no matter how insignificant or time consuming. It felt worth the effort.
The pattern on my quilt was a series of nine butterflies surrounded by groups of leaves and the names of each butterfly bordering the quilt. It was a lap quilt so it’s not like it was meant to cover a bed, just the back of a couch or a sick person’s legs, but the sheer expanse of the fabric at this beginning stage might as well have been a circus tent. The kit also failed to equip me with all of the tools needed to even begin my work. I had some leftover thread from a smaller project along with a collection of needles. So, I got to work on the first butterfly, laying into the first yellow stitch with purpose and determination.
The instructions that came in the kit color coded the entire quilt to match the picture on the front of the package perfectly, but the amount of colors involved along with the counting of x’s that were required to follow the pattern exactly were mind blowing. I would have to plan out every stitch. It would be tedious and overwhelming and no fun at all. That’s when I decided to bend the rules, eyeball it, and choose my own colors, using the picture as a guide and not a dictator. I bought thread that changed shades every several inches to give the impression that I was using multiple shades of one color for each section. It gave the butterflies and leaves some shading without having to count each x before I sewed.
As a person who usually conforms to rules and instructions, I felt satisfied with this decision, determined to make this a leisure project and not the bane of my existence. Too often I end up making things harder for myself by following the rules, even if there is an easier way to do something. Maybe it was time to make things easier on me and trust in my best judgment to make the piece work. In my creative projects, I too often rely on some other source or template to complete my project. This time, I would just use the blue stamped, washable x’s that covered the fabric and keep the color schemes similar so that each species of butterflies could be recognized but not completely resembling their natural color patterns.
The first butterfly took the longest to complete, about six weeks. I wasn’t quick with the needle yet, and I fumbled with the thread and the multiple colors involved in filling in the x’s. At one point, I considered ripping up the quilt and turning each square into handkerchiefs. Then, I realized that no one used handkerchiefs anymore, nor did anyone want to be blowing their nose on rough, cross-stitched thread. I decided to stick with the plan, no matter how long it took. What was the hurry? Too often I rush things along that don’t need to be rushed out of my fear that I’ll lose interest or the time to complete it. No one was waiting for this quilt to get finished but myself. As long as I did a little each night, I would make progress, and the more progress I made, the more I would want to continue.
I worked my way through the quilt, “x” by “x”. I worried only about one section of each butterfly at a time, spending about an hour of free time on it each day. I got faster and more confident in my sewing, and I actually began to make progress. After about nine months, every “x” was filled in. The fabric was a bit wrinkled, my hands were a bit arthritic, and my eyes were nearly as crossed as the stitches I was making. At that point, I was back to square one. It was now time to back stitch the outline of all of the butterflies and leaf vines. I took a deep breath and began. Then, I realized I didn’t know what I was doing and had to give myself a refresher course in the art of the backstitch. Thank God for Youtube.
The backstitching actually took just a fraction of the time for each butterfly. I outlined most of the butterflies in black and the vine leaves in green and was done within a few weeks. The closer I got to being done, the quicker and longer I worked. It was beginning to feel like something I could complete, and I was determined to finish within one year.
As I was rounding the bases, outlining the names of each butterfly on the boarder of my quilt, I realized that I was almost done. As I neared completion, I realized that finishing the backstitching didn’t mean that the quilt was finished. It was just a piece of white cloth. It needed to be filled and attached to another piece of cloth to become fluffy and warm. I reviewed the instructions, watched more Youtube videos, and eventually decided to improvise. I went to the craft store and bought some fabric and filler, which I learned was called “batting”. I measured out my fabric and batting and tucked in the edges of the quilt just as I was instructed. When I finally had the three pieces matched up, I pinned them all as tight as I could.
It was only then that I regretted not buying and using an embroidery hoop while I was doing all of that stitching. Pulling the fabric tight with my hands while sewing still created wrinkles in the quilt. It was even more apparent now when I tried to sew the backing and batting to the quilt. It was, and still is, quite wrinkled, but as an imperfect person, it only made sense for me to make a flawed piece of art. I wasn’t going to tear out a year’s worth of stitching just because the fabric was wrinkled.
Instead, I tackled the chore of using a sewing machine for the first time in about 15 years. That was a mistake. Not only could I not keep my lines straight, but I ended up breaking the needle of the machine. So, that ruled out that method. I went back to square one and hand sewed the rest of the fabric together with white thread. I realized then just how much of a control freak I am. I would rather take a month to hand sew the rest of this quilt than go out and buy a new sewing machine needle and master that beast.
Still, it was a satisfying night when I sewed my last stitch and draped my new quilt over the back of my couch. It’s still wrinkled and bunched in places, but it has survived multiple washings with flying colors which says a lot. The colors do not always match the picture on the front of the kit. The back looks like something a mad scientist sewed up. But it reflects a year of effort, perseverance, and memories of what I did during the year it took me to make this quilt. What seems like a relatively small amount of time in the scheme of things felt like an uphill climb in a lot of ways. It wasn’t an overly important or productive task, but it was something I could do while I did other things, like watch TV, take a 12 hour ride to the beach, or wait for my dinner to cook. It made me productive while being productive, and in the end I had a finished project.
It’s not perfect, but it is appreciated, and while there are many flaws to point out, people just marvel at how I stuck with it and made it through. Self-gratification is all I could hope from this project, and while I don’t plan on starting any new quilts, it’s nice to know that I can squeeze in these special projects and make something that I can appreciate. It doesn’t make me any money or get me any fame, but it’s still worth doing, and that’s something that I had to remind myself to do.
Have you ever done, or are you currently working on a long term project that you never thought you would finish or took more physical and emotional effort than you anticipated? If so, leave your comments below!