Work in Progress Wednesday Tips for managing large projects

Work in Progress Wednesday Tips for managing large projects

lace crazy quilt block Last week I was asked how I manage large projects. I thought I would share a few tips alongside my latest block for the lace quilt. This block 24.

If you click on the image you will see a large photo.

Ok so here are my tips to manage large projects. What are yours?

Tip 1 Recognise hand crafted takes time 

I think it is is important to recognise that hand made things take time. In a world in which things are made quickly cheaply and sometimes without care, there is value in slowing down and simply understanding that with hand work the process is slow and often done out of choice.

I recognise when somethings going to take time complete. I don’t waste energy beating myself up over not getting it done I just enjoy the process of doing. I also think and talk about them in a way that recognises this aspect of time. I refer to projects as WISPs (Work in Slow Progress) as the making of them is steady and slow.

Many people call slow projects UFO’s (un-Finished Objects) I think it is a mistake as the term does not recognise that some worthwhile projects are large, ambitious and take time. Projects like this I don’t call UFO’s as they are gradually growing rather than being whipped up quickly. I received another email through the week in which the correspondent conflated the two terms. To me they are quite different. A project is a UFO when I have not touched it for 12- 18 months. Any other project is just taking its time.

Tip 2 Plan the time it will take.

If I know something is going to be a large project I always work little samples and diagram it out in my studio journal. By the time I have done this I am clear that I really want to make what ever it is and I am not just getting carried away with an idea. A studio journal helps me sort this out. I work out how long it is likely to take to make and then figure out if the idea appeals enough for me to spend so much time on it. For instance if a crazy quilt block takes me about 10 hours to make then if I want to make a quilt of 20 blocks I know it is going to take about 200 hours to make the quilt before assembly.  If I spend 5 hours a week on it the quilt is likely to take just under a year. I then decide if I really want to spend that amount of my time on the project.

Tip 3 Cost the project and have the required materials in one place 

I gather all the materials I need for the project together. I cost out what I will need to complete it.  I have seen projects stalled because either the budget ran out and some particular threads or item was needed to complete it.  For instance if you knit it is common to buy all the wool required at one time so that you have the same dyelot. For some reason some stitchers do not do this.

Or sometimes things are planned such as using a particular item and it gets lost. I once saw a crazy quilt project stall because the person concerned could not find a  lace hankie of her mothers that she wanted to include. Since the quilt was about her mother, she was stuck until she found it. The problem is that by the time the hankie was uncovered in her stash the quilt blocks had long gone to the back of the cupboard. So the project stalled and other things caught her interest.

I always recommend that everything is gathered together at the start of project and kept together for the duration of the project.

Tip 4 Recognise projects have cycles  

Often we start a large project with loads of enthusiasm but after a few months it starts to wane. This is common particularly with tasks that are repetitive. The trick is to stay on track and set a small block of time aside to work on it each week. It depends on how busy your life is but working on something steadily will progress things along.

That said there is often a stage in large projects where you have to push yourself to get it done. I find I always have a bit of hump about two thirds or three quarters of the way through the process of making something. This stage is very difficult and is often the point when a project gets put tot the back of the cupboard and becomes a UFO. I see it for what it is, a hump to work through. This is where I just keep on plodding as I know it is a phase that will pass.   One of the methods I use to get me past this phase is a blog! Writing about it keeps me on track , keep me focused and helps me over the hump. of course this Work in Progress Wednesdays is supposed to help and prevent projects form languishing in the cupboard.

Tip 5 Rotate projects

One way I get over this hump phase is to rotate projects. For instance at the moment I am working on the lace quilt blocks, the Crazy Quilt Journal Project 2012 and while I am developing the stitchers worksheets I also work on my long band sampler. I am switching back and forth between them so that one does not bore me.

But, there is a limit to this technique. I have found that if I have too many projects on the go the whole scheme falls in a heap. It seems that if it is too long between picking up a project because I have too much on the go the whole bundle of projects becomes dull and uninteresting. The maximum number of largish things on the go for me is about 4. I try and keep it under control and am dying to start another CQ project that I am thinking about but until I finnish one I will have the idea on hold.

Tip 6 Don’t allow projects to grow 

One thing that can happen is in the early stage of a project it can creep to something larger. For instance at the moment the lace quilt will have 49 blocks in it. I have planned to have them set 7 blocks across and 7 down producing a square quilt. I am enjoying these blocks they are 7 inches square and a very nice size to work. I am very tempted to make instead of a square quilt an oblong quilt of of 7 x 9 blocks. That however means I would have to work 63 blocks. That is 14 blocks more. Allowing the project to grow can mean that it does not get done. Although I am flexible with my planning and do allow for change I try to keep the scope of the project from growing too much.

Tip 7 Don’t stop 

I don’t stop when I get stuck somewhere. I often have a block where I am not sure quite what to do with it next. I have it roughly planned out but nothing I try on it seems to sit right. If I am in this situation I set it to one side and work on another block. Usually as I am working the solution pops into my mind.

Join in and leave a comment!

How do you motivate yourself to complete a large project? What are your tips to finish a project? How do you avoid UFOs? Do you have a clear distinction in your mind between a WISP (work in slow progress) a WIP (work in progress) and a UFO (Un-Finished Object)?

Feel free to leave a comment here. Or, if you have a blog write about your thoughts and leave a comment here with a link to your post, so people can go and read what you think. I am sure everyone will enjoy reading them.

Have you made progress this week?

If you have made progress on a large project leave a comment with a link to your site. (If you include the http bit it will become a link and folks can visit) Need more information about this? Take a look at the  Work in Progress Wednesdays FAQ

All my Work in Progress Wednesday reports are under that category.


  1. I loved your tips. To me, now, a UFO is garbage. I hate it, won’t finish it, and within a month it will be in the trash. WISPs on the other hand, will be finished. Whenever. (I love this.) How cathartic. Thank you!

    Gram Cracker Judy
  2. Those are some great tips for managing WISPs. I agree that UFO’s, WIPs and WISPs are different things. I have several items in each category and probably need a couple of other categories to describe things.

    I think of a UFO as something that I have completed the embroidery but have not made into a finished item. I have quite a few of those stuffed in boxes.

    I usually have 2 or 3 WIPs on the go. Small projects that I expect to complete in say less than 30 hours.

    I currently have 4 WISPs but I don’t tend to rotate them. I will probably focus on one until it is completed, and then move onto another. Perhaps they are not technically WISPs while they are parked but I certainly don’t think of them as UFOs.

    Then I have things that I have begun, possibly at a workshop or class, which I have every intention of finishing but they have not bubbled up to the top of my list yet. How should I describe those WIPIWs (work in progress in waiting)?

    Things that I have begun but am never likely to complete could be a PSP – Permanently Stall Project.

    I have just posted a blog about the start of my latest WISP, a gold work sampler that I am doing as part of an online course.

    The post can be found here http://threadsacrosstheweb.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/one-stitch-does-not-motif-make.html

  3. One simple tip I would suggest is when I’m tried and want to do what I term as ‘mindless work’ I sew on my laces or beads. They don’t require alot of concentration. I will do my silk ribbon work or my embriodery work when I am fresh and I am in a creative mood.

    One thing that motivates me to finish a project is a design wall. I place all the finished blocks on the wall. When I see them all together they make me want to finish the project.
    Another suggestion for a true UFO is to let the project go if you have truely lost interest. Take it to your local quilt club and see if someone wants it. Almost always someone will pick it up and finish it. But only do this with something you have truely lost interest in. Get rid of some of the old to make room for the new. 🙂

  4. Sharon, I really needed to read your article about planning projects long term and analysing projects of any kind or time length. I have never thought of any of my projects with these questions and thoughts in mind and your article has helped me to take a different view. Now I can sit down and plan my projects and try to fulfill my goals. Thank you very much for a helpful article. Kind Regards Mandy Currie

    Mandy Currie
  5. Love the tips and I agree with (and have been using) all of them, or variations of them, for the past 9 years. My UFOs (and they are true UFOs) came about because, in the process of moving internationally three times, they were packed up and put in storage — the expat equivalent of going to the back of the cupboard. By the time they were unpacked, I had moved on and they no longer appealed so I need to “force” myself to stitch on them, one at a time. I’ve broughtthe embroidery ones down to only 4 from nearly 14 using the tips you gave above! Now to tackle the needlepoint ones!

    My BAP is finished and framed and ready to take to the fair! http://thatyankstitches.multiply.com/journal/item/327/2012-A-Year-of-Challenges-week-25 So I’ve a new WIP — not so big, maybe, but it will take time, given that my rotation is FULL of small things like Crazy Quilt Journal, Bead Journal and three of Janet Perry’s needlepoint online classes to say nothing of “Kimono-Revisited” (the latter, by the way, is clearly a WISP as it was planned to take 13 months!).

  6. In my house a UFO is something that has been put away, in some cases for years or even decades. As long as I am working on it, it isn’t a UFO. And going back and pulling a UFO out and finishing it isn’t all that unusual around here. It sort of depends on why I put it away in the first place.

  7. Thanks for these great suggestions. I agree that UFO sounds so negative and will use WISP in the future. My problem is I waste too much time looking for the special thread or that particular charm or whatever. I spend more time getting ready for stitching than I do stitching. Even if I get everything ready for a project before I start, some where along the line I decide I ‘need’ something I forgot and go and look for it.
    Having said that here is my progress for this week.
    Thanks for your suggestions.

    Maureen in Maryland, USA
  8. These pointers are great–and I could have used them before I accumulated so many true UFOs. I’ve found varations of these rules helpful in transforming my UFOs into WISPs. I tried working only on them and no new ideas, hoping to make rapid progress. I found that I wouldn’t work on anything at all with only finishing old stuff on the horizon. So I revised and adopted a plan to finish one UFO a month.

    Make “finish” flexible enough to be doable without being onerous or unrealistic. I.e., one of my UFOs, now a WISP, is a full-size Cathedral Window that I set aside because, before beginning, I didn’t do the valuable time estimate Sharon has described. When I realized the amount of time required, it was so daunting I just bagged it all up and didn’t work on it again for years (though I did carry it around with me with good intentions.)

    With the 1-a-month appproach, one month’s “finish” was to get all the white windows folded and stitched. Another 1-a-month was to stitch them all into blocks of four. I am now working on inserting the colored “panes” into one 4-block unit daily so will have several months of 1-a-months with this part of the job.

    My 1-a-month program might have to go on for a number of years…so another consideration in working on real UFOs, that is, transforming them into WISPS, is to decide about the value of continuing any specific project. Time and money have already gone into them–but don’t even let things take up space if you will hate working on them so much that you will never work on them. If you decide to keep them, then make them into WISPs.

    I put all my UFO kits (fabric, thread, design, buttons, trims, etc.) on one set of shelves. When I finish one, I can easily select the next to work on in part or in full, see what additional items are required for the kit (thread? embellishments? learning a new technique?) before I can get on with the next step and and eventually finish, or just be reminded that it IS a WIP- or WISP-in waiting. This helps me to know what items to look for on sales, too, even if I am not going to be working on the item immediately.

    I don’t make a list of the projects as, whether they have a little or lots of work, seeing the length of the list might be so overwhelming that I just close the door on all of them. I do write the finished items on a list–in Janauary I had five of them–but in June? Nothing, unfortunately. Overall for the year, the 1-a-month approach means UFOs as a group becomes a WISP, 12 or more units actually are finished, and I don’t feel at all guilty when starting new projects. And, my long long time Cathedral Window UFO is now a WISP– with an end in sight! At very long last I’ll actually have it in fact, not in my imagination or hope.

  9. Thanks for sharing your tips on WISP they are most useful. I also like to have a couple of projects that are straight forward and wont take long to complete alongside slower projects. This way I get to feel good about moving slower projects forward but also enjoy the feeling of success as I complete a quick project.

  10. I agree with you 1000% about the definitions, Sharon.

    WIP – something I am working on and that will be done in a fairly short period of time.

    WISP – either your def. of a long-project, (which are not common for me), or something that I pick at here and there, but it still being worked on.

    UFO – something that is totally stalled, set aside/stuffed away and with no intention of finishing any time soon. I have only one of these, although even that doesn’t really qualify as I have every intention of finishing it, and doing so this year!

    I don’t usually do large/long projects, but I do think your tips are realistic and practical. Having said that I don’t do them, setting up my own creative business will pass as one, I think!!=)

  11. Sharon,
    Your article is a tremendous help. I had never “analyzed” a project before from the standpoint of 1) the realization of the slow time element as a built in, 2) blocking it out with notes and a design (journal) first.
    I do rotate projects (and the style of embroidery) when my interest flags, or there is a block of some kind.
    Ii’m printing this article and keeping it handy to refer to in future. Excellent points that help put a project in perspective.

    Sharon Brodeuse
  12. Hi, Sharon. I like the idea of a WISP instead of a UFO. To me, a UFO is a negative label, as if I know it will stay unfinished. WISP could also be a Work In Suspended Progress. All my projects are now WISPs!
    I have learned that just working up a design may be the only work I need to do on a project. Once I have worked up a design I may let it sit for awhile to see if the interest is still there. If I have moved on to something else I let it go.
    I also know that 3-4 projects is a nice rotation for me. I had quite a few projects in rotation until recently, when I decided to set several aside for now, and concentrate on the ones that are important to me. The others became Works In Suspended Progress because I plan to return to them when I have completed a couple of my current projects.
    I appreciate the guideline about considering how much time a project will take, and I also consider the cost. These both help me to realize the importance, or lack thereof, a given project. Knowing these things up front helps to keep projects from becoming UFOs, because when I start them, I know the commitments involved and have made the decision to continue.
    When you wrote about setting goals a couple of years ago, it really helped me to look at the direction I was going and realized it was easy to start a project because of the excitement, but it was also too easy to get stuck into that rut, continually starting but never finishing. Since then I have learned to enjoy the time spent on my current project, to enjoy the slow progress.
    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I hope others benefit from them, too.

    Sandi Hersh
  13. Hi Sharon!

    I somehow missed these posts. Excellent post. Very nice and followable tips.
    I am very much in need of these tips, advice and motivation.
    My problem is slightly different. I have many UFOs on my hand which are at various stages of finishing. They may take more than 20 hrs or less I don’t know. That is some are big some or small.
    I hope I can join this group, because I need these tips and advices and also the motivation.
    I am sure I can learn many things from the posts and comments and also feel motivated to complete my own projects.

    So I am into this challenge, if I am allowed to join this

    Thank you

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