How Long Does It Take?

If there is any question I’d rather never hear again, it is “How long did it take you to make that?” Or its variation, “How long does it take you to make a quilt?” These are the questions more likely to be asked than any other. (A close second is “Do you sell those?” I’ve discussed this issue at length, too.)

Why do you ask? Would you like to buy a quilt from me and wonder if you can afford it? Are you considering taking up quilting as a hobby, but won’t if it takes too long? Will you value the quilt I just gave you differently depending on the hours involved? Will you value me differently — higher or lower — based on how much time I put in? Is the question a proxy for something else? Maybe the question really means, “How do you decide what design to use?” or even “Wow, this is really intricate! I’d never know how to do this and it would take me forever!”

Whatever the reason for the question, one thing is true: people who have not made quilts (or watched carefully from the sidelines, such as an involved spouse) have no idea what goes into the process. They literally have no idea if it takes 20 hours or 100 hours, or what factors might make either time reasonable.

They don’t know that making a quilt starts with acquiring and preparing the fabric for it. Both of those might even happen before a quilt’s conception, before any plan is in place. Once a plan exists (which also takes time,) specific fabrics are selected, and cutting and stitching begins. Along the way parts are assembled and pressed. Ultimately a back is needed, batting must be prepped, quilting is done, and binding is made and attached. This, of course, is the quick summary and skips dozens of steps.

In the past, I’ve dealt with the question of time in a couple of different ways. For most of my years as a quilter, I said I didn’t know how long as I don’t keep track of my time. Over the last couple of years, however, I’ve thought more deeply about the time that goes into different parts of the process. I’ve tried to answer the question with an estimate.

Consider this quilt:

Marquetry. 85" x 85" with 15" center block. 2015.

Marquetry. 85″ x 85″ with 15″ center block. 2015.

It has a center block and 10 borders. All of the borders are “simple,” unpieced strips, half-square triangles, hourglasses, bars. There are pieced corner blocks, unpieced corner blocks, and borders with no corner blocks. The center block is a variable star with an economy block center. There is nothing here that is technically difficult.

Now take a look at the border of bars. What variables would affect how much time it takes to make it? The two most important might be the number of patches and the number of different fabrics. The number of patches determines how many cuts are made, the number of seams to stitch, and the number of seams to press. The number of different fabrics also affects how long cutting takes. More variety in the fabrics means more time arranging pieces on the cutting mat, and typically requires more, shorter cuts. In addition, more fabrics means more search time to decide which ones to use. If the bars border were made of one light fabric and one dark red fabric, that would have taken little time compared to the variety that were actually used (including some dark greens.)

So how much time did that one simple border take? It’s a good question and there is no easy answer.

What I do know is that each border usually takes between 5 and 20 hours, depending on its size and complexity. And yes, that includes all the steps outlined above, from acquisition through binding. I estimate a 10-border quilt with “easy” borders will take at least 80 hours.

“How long did it take you to make that?”

Recently I’ve decided not to answer this question anymore. In my world no one is intending to be rude (though I understand some quilters occasionally hear this question posed with a sneer.) Depending on who asks, I might ignore it altogether, or I might describe my process, or I might ask them something to clarify their curiosity.

But the question does represent some curiosity. I can recognize that and engage the questioner by telling them some other things that might be more meaningful. If it is a gift for them, they might find it fun to see some of the fabrics I chose especially for them, or symbolism in parts of the design. Perhaps I can show them how I used half-square triangles in the wide red and cream border, as well as in the narrower green and cream border, but having turned the values different ways creates a different look. Or maybe I can tell them about the trip to Hoover Dam that led me to buy one of the special fabrics used in it.

“How long did it take you to make that?” The question is so easy to ask, but so hard to answer.

How do you answer this question? I’d love to hear from you in comments. 



28 thoughts on “How Long Does It Take?

  1. norma

    I say something like “oh, quite a long time” then I break down the process a bit to give them an idea of what it entails to make that quilt. The most difficult is my king size tumbling blocks – even experienced quilters ask about that – and I just say it’s the hand project I carry around with me and maybe I’ve been doing that for 5 years. Actually, I’m not sure but it feels like 5 years.

  2. cjh

    When I was a 4-H leader for 10 (!) years, our 60+ members, kids age 8-18, would invariably ask this as the FIRST question after each and every project demonstration in a club meeting. Each member was responsible for doing a demonstration (project “show and tell”) each year. That means these kids asked and answered this question 600 times while I was a leader! I took it to mean – I’m impressed! That was a great effort! I’m amazed that you achieved that! Being in awe of how long something took was the other kids’ recognition of the presenter’s efforts, dedication and end product.

    So I would agree there is no way to answer in many cases, but it usually means, in my experience, the asker is being complimentary. (Maybe people who ask you that were in 4-H? :-))

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh yes, I believe it’s usually — probably almost always — intended as a compliment. But it’s a frustrating question to field for all the reasons discussed above. As you know, making “a quilt” is a different project each time, even if using the same design. We aren’t machines, so there is never a good answer.

  3. Cathy H

    “A long time” is my general response. Sometimes I say, “I didn’t keep track.” More often than not, people are just curious.

    It really is difficult to say how long a quilt takes. How long did you think about it. I have been collecting indigo fabrics for a quilt for myself. I still don’t know what I’m going to make but I’m collecting the fabric. Do I count the years I have been collecting the fabric?

    Then again, sometimes I break down approximate sew time, quilt time and binding. It depends upon who you are taking to. Some just want confirmation that it did take a long time while others are really interested in the details.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      That’s the real point: the question doesn’t necessarily mean what it says. Depending on who is asking, the answer might be completely different. Thanks.

  4. jmn111

    I just shrug. It’s like my hand knit socks – people are aghast when asked what I charge and I say $50. Why? Well, these days the variegated yarn costs around $20 (CAD) per ball – that’s before I knit a single stitch. I knit almost every evening for a couple of hours and it still takes me 25-30 hours to knit a pair of socks (ladies socks to fit a size 8 shoe – 25 hours; men’s socks to fit size 11 shoe – 30 hours). I’ve decided I won’t work for less than $1/hour! (I don’t sell many pairs of socks – but I have some thankful friends and family who love getting them as gifts.)
    The quilting is the same. I make mostly lap size quilts ~ 50″ wide/65″ long. Some are quite simple, others more complicated. Like you I have no idea how long it takes me – because after going through the stash picking out fabrics (I did that today and I spend at least 1 1/2 hours choosing) I will still want to visit the fabric store to fill in some blanks (another hour or two to get there, browse through the fabrics with swatches of what I have in my hand, and return home) – and that doesn’t include backing or binding!
    I’ve a design percolating in my head – it’s an improvisation so I can’t calculate the time because a lot of the working out happens when I’m sleeping or thinking about other stuff. Nowhere close to cutting although I know I’m going to have 5-6 16″ (finished) blocks, a bunch of 8″ blocks, a greater number of 4″ blocks and a whole lot of 2″ blocks sewn in small groupings to go with the 4″ and 8″ blocks…
    After all that, why would I bother calculating the time I put into making a quilt – I quilt because the planning and executing give me great pleasure and satisfaction when I’m done. I put a price on my quilts – NOBODY has been willing to pay me what my creativity is worth. That’s OK. Today I had a friend over admiring my collection of finished quilts (there were 21 of them hanging in my closet). I handed her one for herself – now I have 20 and I thanked her for helping me out – her accepting one of my quilts gives me room for one more new quilt! Yeah – I think that’s what drove me to start picking fabrics from the stash…

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, knitting is another time-realm completely, darn near a another dimension! (And you see what I did there…) Yeah, some of my medallions are relatively “designed” when I start them. Some take a very long time to get from one stage to another, because design has its own timeline.

      And yay for your friend who wanted one of your quilts. One of the great pleasures is finding the right quilt for the right person.

  5. katechiconi

    I usually respond by saying that I started it in Month X and finished it in Month Y, but the design process started much earlier while I thought about it and tinkered with it and auditioned and acquired fabrics. For me, this clarifies and separates the processes of design and construction, which is how I tend to work. Get it all clear in my head (as far as possible, anyway), get everything ready and then away we go with cutter and sewing machine and iron. It’s a curious question, though, isn’t it? I believe painters and sculptors get it a fair bit too. It’s like looking at a baby and asking how long it took to make (although of course there, the answer is much more consistent)!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, other makers do hear that a lot. One essay I read was from an artist who said you should — as a working, selling artist — never tell the customer how long it takes. Instead you should discuss process, because usually that’s what they really care about. Time is just a clumsy way to ask that for many people.

  6. Paula Hedges

    I could never begin to even venture a close guess of how much time each quilt has consumed since there are so many variables. However, my most frequent response to the question is “I really don’t know, but I enjoyed the process most of the time!” If they continue to inquire, I believe it is because they are curious perhaps what the “process” is, and then I don’t mind talking about how a new quilt top generally buzzes around in my head for days as I mentally envision what colors/prints would make it special, then find I am throwing out anything I spent time considering because when fabric shopping a completely different fabric caught my eye! When I have finally spun my tale to the last stitch in the binding, they get a pretty good picture of how much mental and physical work, and emotional, too, goes into the “process”.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I like your answer, and especially because you add “most of the time!” Not all parts of it are fun, but you have to get through all parts to get it done, and that has rewards of its own. Thanks.

  7. Thread crazy

    Usually I’ll make a similar statement that the quilt took a long time, then sometimes I’ll say longer than I intended for it to take. Most people who inquire I believe are curious, as they can’t comprehend the process. Then again you have those individuals who have no earthly idea of the time it took to “collect” your fabrics, designing the quilt, then cutting, sewing and quilting. Sometimes I think people must think there’s a magical fairy somewhere that waves a magic wand and here’s a quilt!! BTW, I’ve been collecting “cat” fabric for some 15+ years; I consider myself as a rescuer…I rescue fabric from the store!!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I spent a couple of hours this evening pulling fabrics from my scrap drawer. That is just a first step at design for whatever this one will become. And if it is a medallion quilt, that much time might only get me through the center block with stuff left to incorporate into borders. Fabric selection can take as long as any other step!

      Cat fabric: I have a few myself… 🙂

      1. Thread crazy

        I’ve just pieced a small baby quilt top for our new great grandbaby. Took me almost 3 weeks to pull and select fabrics! The quilt too less than 3-4 hours to to quilt.

  8. zippyquilts

    I don’t recall being asked that question, though I guess now that you’ve mentioned it I may start recognizing that it was asked and I misunderstood. I think I might say, “Why do you ask?” which I find is often a good response to puzzling questions.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It IS a very good response! I was telling my daughter today that she could ask that when people ask her very personal questions. (She’s moving from a tiny town soon, and that is one of the reasons why…) 🙂

  9. Shasta

    It may be that it is a stock question for when they can’t think of how to add to the conversation. I do find that there are people who are curious because they want to know. Maybe they are thinking they might like to try something like that. But once they know, many do think it is outrageous to spend that much time to make something when you can go to the store and buy it rather quickly. A lot of people think it is a waste of time. I don’t remind them that they waste time watching TV and other things that don’t give them an end result like I do.

    My answer: “It takes me a minimum of eight hours to make the simplest of quilts. This quilt is not a simple one.” I think they would be floored if I told them about the maximum, although I might be too. Better I don’t know that number.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I do believe people ask without necessarily wanting the answer, that the question stands in for something else.

      As to 8 hours, yeah, that’s possible, but as you say, “simplest.” 🙂


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