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Conquer Your UFOs: Tips from the Pros

Posted by Brenda Wolfensberger on

Brenda Wolfensberger - UFO

Above: Brenda Wolfensberger is the founder of Quilter's Stash Box.

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Ask a non-quilter what "UFO" means to them, and they will likely tell you flying saucers. But in our community, we all know the real answer: Unfinished Objects. Specifically, unfinished quilts and quilted projects.

See that strip block on my cutting table at the top of this post? Yep... that project has been waiting for me at least a full year. As it sits, it's something beautiful thus far unrealized that my family could be enjoying in our home. That should be easy to fix, right?

Some of us with UFOs know exactly why this happens to us, even when we don't want to face it. No matter how passionate we are about sewing, the rest of life can get in the way.

But our passion for quilting can get in the way as well. The endless array of beautiful patterns! That project that would be perfect for that special someone, right after you finish those two projects for those other special someones! Then we spend an afternoon in our favorite shop and make the mistake of touching those new batiks. Yep, a few yards are coming home and will be perfect for that next project... right after the other three "next projects." Oh, the vicious cycle!

We reached out to a few professional quilters for their tips on completing (and avoiding) UFOs and received some surprising insight. You can even download award-winning quilter Linda Jackson Thielfoldt's UFO Spreadsheet to keep track of your UFOs!

Scott Murkin

Scott Murkin

Physician, accomplished designer, quilter, and esteemed quilt judge - Scott Murkin has a lot on his plate yet remains remarkably prolific, having completed hundreds of quilts since 1994.

The surest way to tank a UFO is to put it away where you can’t ever see it. If you have the luxury of a design wall, leave one or more UFOs out at all times where you can glance at them while working on other things. When you least expect it, something will spark you to get back to work on it. If a design wall isn’t practical, find other ways to look at your UFOs regularly or they will almost certainly stay UFOs.

Make lists of what step each UFO needs to move it to the next stage. I love marking things off lists, so that’s a great motivator for me. Other people make themselves do one or two things from the list before they can work on their current favorite project. Figure out the reward system that works for you and engage it.

Visit: Scott's Flickr Page

Victoria Findlay Wolfe

Victoria Findlay Wolfe

With a fine arts background that includes painting and sculpture, Victoria Findlay Wolfe has said that she was "a little late to the scene" when it came to quilting. On her website, she explains, "In 2008 I saw a popular quilting blog online and I thought 'Hey! I can do that,' and here I am." Her nine-year trajectory through the quilting industry as a designer, instructor, and author has been staggeringly impressive.

And UFOs just aren't her thing. "I never consider them," she tells us. "UFO's... they just haven't percolated long enough. Eventually my ideas line up... and a great quilt will emerge. Can't rush the creative process just to finish something."

Victoria keeps her spark quilting just as she draws, by first stretching her creative muscles. "I use warm up exercises to get me started," she has explained, "fifteen minutes at a time. Fifteen minutes of 'play' and inevitably a quilt idea emerges."

Perhaps stretching your creative muscles will aid in tackling those UFOs. Allow a little play time at your sewing table to get the creative juices flowing.


Pat Slone

Pat Sloan

Pat Sloan is one of the most prolific quilting professionals in the industry. Design, workshops and lectures, podcasts, authoring books and blogs, sewing, travel - the list goes on for this remarkable icon of the quilting world. If she has a stack of UFOs, who can fault her? Nonetheless, she puts concerted effort into keeping those unfinished projects under control.

What I notice is that we fall into a habit. A habit of surfing Pinterest and all of a sudden it's two hours later. Or sort of looking around without knowing what we want to do, but it's bothering us we are not doing anything. A habit of not turning on the sewing machine, but instead watching TV, which is OK, but did you really want to sew?

Pat has come to think of UFOs as a question of priorities and time management, so much so that she recommends checking out Laura Vanderkam's ideas on the subject.

"I don't have time," says Laura, "often means it's not a priority." Laura points out that there are 168 hours in a week. Subtract 56 hours for sleep and even a massive 80 hours per week for everything else non-quilting, and we're still left with 32 hours a week.

So... the question may be: Are your UFOs truly a priority?


Mary Schilke

Mary Schilke

Mary Schilke co-founded the MQX Quilt Festival. That alone should take a moment to really sink in. Her impact on the industry has been profound (along with co-founder Janet-Lee Santeusanio). She is an award-winning longarm quilter and instructor.

Make time every day even if it's 30 minutes. Instead of watching the TV or surfing the web, promise yourself the time to work on your project a little bit every day. Those little points of time will contribute to inspiring you to finish, hone your skills and get you on to the next project.

Visit: Mary's Facebook Page

Linda Jackson Thielfoldt

Linda Jackson Thielfoldt

Linda Jackson Thielfoldt is an award-winning quilter, author, and instructor who even offers professional long-arm services and equipment sales as well at The Quilted Goose. Dear to her heart is her charity Quilted EmBrace, a non-profit to "provide comfort and support to senior citizens living in nursing homes through the gift of a handmade quilt." We have profiled Linda's work and charity in a previous post. Linda documents her UFOs carefully and has even offered this spreadsheet for you to try!

The best tip I can give you is to make a list and keep your UFO's in one place. I like to use pretty storage boxes and they are all in the same area of my sewing room. Additionally, I developed a spread sheet that keeps my projects front and center and I can list what stage they are in so when I feel like doing a certain technique I can look on my list and work on something I'm in the mood for.

Visit: The Quilted Goose. Download Linda's Spreadsheet.

Jean Ann Wright

Jean Ann Wright

Jean Ann Wright was editor-in-chief of QUILT magazine for twenty years and remains a strong presence in the industry as an author, designer, and instructor. She is featured in this month's Stash Box.

I used to put all of the UFO's I started in the months from September to June in a big Rubbermaid box. Then in the three summer months I did not allow myself to start any new projects so I could finish the UFO's. Each September I could start fresh. As for staying on task now that I design rulers, I haven't had too many UFO's because I have to finish sewing a quilt or project before I can get a photograph and submit a Cut Loose pattern.


Lisa Calle

In addition to being an award-winning quilter, designer, and instructor, Lisa Calle is the mother of three. She has also longarm-quilted projects for hundreds of clients. "I keep thinking its going to slow down and I’ll be able to relax a little," she told us recently, but "no such luck, especially with two in college this year!" With so much to do, Lisa's approach to controlling UFOs is brilliant in its simplicity:

I don’t like too many projects at one time. I try to limit it to one in piecing, one in appliqué (so I can chose what I feel like doing) and one in the quilting phase. If I have more than that, I tend to feel overwhelmed.

Lisa showed us one of her rare UFOs:

Lisa Calle - UFO


Allison Harris - Cluck Cluck Sew

Allison Harris

Allison Harris runs a beautiful blog Cluck Cluck Sew featuring tutorials, products, and discussion of her lovely quilts. It's a must see! Allison has a similar approach to Lisa Calle - limit the number of works-in-progress (WIPs) as a general approach to avoiding UFOs. Her solution if the UFOs start to accumulate? Finish them in one swoop! And give yourself real deadlines:

I usually have one quilt top in progress all of the time, and I don't start another one until I finish the top I'm working on. If I'm not planning on finishing it right away, I'll hang my quilt tops in my closet and once I get three or four hanging in there I'll finish them all in one swoop! It's easier for me to cut batting for all of them at once, make backings, and either quilt them myself or send them out to be quilted. Even bindings are easier when I have three or four to bind, so I don't have to keep switching out my sewing machine feet and I can cut and sew strips at once. Also I find that giving myself a deadline helps me finish projects. Sometimes it can be a quilt I need to finish for a gift, or to donate, or even just for my blog. Giving myself a real date that I know is coming soon helps give me the extra motivation I need to get them done!

Visit: Cluck Cluck Sew

More Tips to Conquer Your UFOs

We queried the online community for additional tips and received some great feedback.

We were also reminded quickly that most quilters have a wonderful sense of humor! We've grouped some of the best responses into a few essential categories.

Keep 'Em Visible

Angela Palmer Henrie agrees with Scott Murkin, saying, "I like to see my UFOs. If they go in a drawer I forget about them... if they're hanging on a design wall I can't go too long before I have to finish it."

Joyce Ray tells us she has tried the "one at a time" approach and denying herself any new fabric until her UFOs are complete, and "IT DOES NOT WORK!" Fortunately, she has better luck just keeping those unfinished projects visible. "My tip is to package those UFOs in a clear plastic tub (no lecture about plastic, they will be there only a year or so) and to put in the thread you plan to use, batting if the box is big enough, and even the backing. It helps to have everything there."

Kathleen Kitty Jones keeps her UFOs in plain site as well. "I get fed up of them judging me," she says.

The Lottery Approach

Terrie Rein suggests numbering your UFOs on a list, "then each month draw a number and finish that project!"

"I joined a club where you list all of your UFO's on paper," offers Tracy L. Lindsay. "Then you pick your top 25 that you'd like to get done and put them on a Bingo sheet. Each month an admin pulls a number and your goal is to finish that project over the next 30 days. Those who finish post pics on the page and a winner gets a prize and their quilt shown on the top of the page for the next month."

"Some people write down 12 UFO's on slips of paper," says Anne Hersch, "throw in a bag and pull one out and that is the one they work on that month or until done."

The "Right Time or Right Place" Approach

Claudia Swee takes an approach similar to Jean Ann Wright, telling us, "I designate the month of January to work on UFOs. Then if I see it is not going to get done in January, I will put it away and get another UFO out."

Elaine Woudenberg Davis knows how to get the most out of her vacations. "We have a vacation house, so whenever we go there I only take UFO's. Since none of my inspirations - books, fabrics, magazine clippings are there - I'm not tempted or distracted!" Elaine's method might also fit into the next category.

The Deprivation Approach

Andrea Bodmer-Ciavarella says, "My rule is I cannot buy any more fabric until my UFO is finished. It keeps me motivated to finish my projects."

Narelle Godley tells us about tackling UFOs by placing her stash and notions at risk, a method her guild uses. "First year we had to pick 6 projects, take pics of them and email to another guild member, then we had to give her 3 or 4 fat quarters and a sewing necessity. We had 2 months to complete each project - if we behaved and finished each project we were given our stuff back at the end of the year."

Just Pass It On!

Sharon Murphy takes a no-nonsense approach: "I pick one UFO and do at least 15 mins of sewing on it before sewing anything else. If I have to force myself to sew on it, then I box it up and give away as-is."

Judy Stupak is also willing to push those UFOs out the door. "My strategy is to either reduce the size [of the quilt], or give it away if I really don't like it anymore. Our guild has a members' garage sale once a year where your junk becomes someone else's treasure." Judy then spends the first six months of each year finishing the UFOs she still likes, then allows herself to begin new projects during the second half of the year.

One at a Time! Voila... Inspiration!

"One block a day. Or one block a week," Susannah French suggests, "whatever you think you can reasonably manage. Once you sit down to sew you'll probably do more than your goal and you'll feel good about it."

Susan Graves has a method that combines "visibility" with a "one at a time" approach. "I pile all my UFOs up on a table, then choose one project to finish. As I finish each project I place it on a chair. Seeing the first finished project on the chair inspired me to get the next project completed."

The 'No Excuses' Approach

Cindy Vogel knows how to put herself on the spot. "I tell people when I am making them a quilt. I share photos along the way. It keeps me motivated to keep working on their project."

Hedda Pike tells us to push through the less fun parts of quilting. "Honestly, I think it is just plain discipline, unless you ended up hating the project. Once it is sewn, now comes the hard yards, the boring sandwiching and finishing bits - it's like the creativity is finished. So just buckle down and do it!"

And Finally...

Sometimes UFOs can stack up if you're not comfortable with the finishing - the actual quilting of the pieced top - on your domestic machine and you don't own a longarm, which is a considerable investment. Sheer expense is it's own kind of obstacle. Hiring a longarm quilter to finish a queen-sized quilt will likely run a few hundred dollars for custom work. You can keep the cost down with standard edge-to-edge quilting, perhaps 2 cents per square inch. Common sense should prevail here. If hiring longarm services is a financial obstacle, perhaps you can keep most of your projects at a scale that can be handled on your domestic machine, and budget longarm services for those very special quilts.

Our favorite feedback on dealing with UFOs comes from Sherry Cassel, who says, "I need someone with a cattle prod to help me."

Join the Quilt UFO Facebook group!

Oooh... I got inspired and started working on a year-old UFO! - Brenda

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  • I just found you guys! Love the article and YES OF COURSE I HAVE UFOs lol! I’m going to try the lottery idea with my two quilting gals, we have two sit’n’sews each month and maybe we can use the lotto thing to catch up. Nice ideas, thanks!

    Sissy on
  • I’m one of three male quilters I know, and I asked and none of us really have a problem with UFOs. A guy thing maybe? Probably not since I have about 20 unfinished bird house in my workshop! Best of luck to all the UFO fighters out there!

    G. George on
  • I counted recently and have probably 2 UFOs for every ten quilts I finish. It’s a little embarrassing! Thanks for great tips!

    Danni on

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