The Cure for “Stupid Fingers”

Not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve been really sick.  How sick?  Ten days away from any stitching, drafting, piecing, knitting or cutting sick.  This is highly unusual for me, I often spend at least three or four hours a day performing delicate work with my hands.  After so long at rest, I knew I would have a case of “stupid fingers” the moment I picked up my work.  “Stupid fingers” happens when I know in my brain what the fabric should do but my hands can’t quite make it happen.  I fumble, the fabric slips around, I get grouchy and the sewing takes much longer than it should.   I have also seen this in beginners, it’s a great cause of frustration.

But there’s a cure!  Quilting helps me overcome “stupid fingers.”  I can’t have “stupid fingers,” especially since I’m teaching full knit fabrics masterclass at Piece Together this next weekend.  I’m the teacher, my fingers must be nimble and sure!

On Sunday, my husband spent the day out with the boys deep sea fishing (I was still feeling too delicate for that) and my daughter went to visit her grandmother.  I took the opportunity to dig up these fabric swatches I bought over a year ago to see where my inspiration would take me.

With the exception of the Panda fabric (which I since decided I’ll use in a Lila-dress-fabrics-quilt at a later date), all of these are swatches from a designer quilt fabric book.  When fabric merchants visited the quilting store where I worked, they brought all the latest designs stapled into a cardboard bound book.  “Ranges” of fabrics are grouped together to show the effect of the many prints together.  The Boss and more experienced staff would leaf through the swatches and place an order for meterage with the merchant.

At some point, I picked up these old swatches from a discontinued range for about $20, thinking I’d turn them into a “scrap” quilt at some point.  I like the prints and the colors.  Each piece of fabric is a slightly different size, from roughly a fat quarter down to dainty handkerchief size.

Click for Six White Horses- Source- Lonestar Burst block

Then, once again proving to myself how useful it is to have a huge pictorial database of good ideas, I leafed through my Quilting Pinboard for some good paper-pieced blocks.  I like paper piecing.  It’s easy to use small scraps and I can create marvelous designs without much pre-cutting.  I tend to hoard both scraps and quilt blocks, and every so often I stitch some blocks together for a quilt.

Also, paper piecing is the most satisfying way I can think of to cure “stupid fingers.”  It’s easy once you get the hang of it, but paper piecing relies on accuracy in sewing, trimming and pressing.  Otherwise, the blocks come out all ugly.  The repetition and the accuracy required, as well as the small size of a quilt block make paper piecing perfect for training or re-training sewing fingers.

My sewing room still looks like someone let a Niffler loose in it, so I took advantage of the empty house and set myself up at the dinner table.  The ironing board is roughly the same height as the table, I have the iron and the self-heal mat to one side, and my sewing machine on the table.  This is fantastic because it means I can build up some good sewing momentum without moving about.

Sigh.  Cracked or not, the self heal mat is still useful.  I’m not a serious enough quilter to justify replacing this just yet.  I used my piping trimmer to guide my seam allowance trimmings because I couldn’t find my proper 1/4″ ruler.  It worked well.

My “stupid fingers” made a little mistake with the white along the bottom edge, but I sort of faked it when I stitched the sections of the star block together and it will be fine once it’s quilted.  (Shhh!)  Once I hit my stride, each of these star sections took me about 15 minutes to make.  Each block has 8 sections.

I made the first one very scrappy with white (spotted!) background fabric, just like the one that I pinned.  When I read Anna’s post about this block at Six White Horses (she very generously posts the paper piecing template, too!) and saw more colorful variations of this block at The Undercover Crafter, I knew I couldn’t stick to the scrappy/white variation only.  It’s too much fun to mix things up!  Besides, I figure I’ll run out of fabric for squares and then put them together as seems best.  This is not a carefully planned quilt, and I’m fine with that.

Next, I played with blues!  “Stupid fingers” tripped me up a little bit while I made this block, but not much.

And then green with a rim of brown!  I like that these second two blocks use “modern” style fabrics with a very restrained and traditional block.

Each block is 12″ finished (because I square off my edges, which is not cheating…) and I figure I should have enough blue, green, brown and white fabric for 9 blocks total.  That should make a decent sized throw, but not pose such a quilting conundrum that I don’t finish it.  These three blocks took quite a while to complete, and I was utterly exhausted at the end of the day.  But my fingers felt smarter, and I knew I could get back to drafting and sewing other things without making a big mess.

Do you ever get “stupid fingers”?  How do you fix them up?  Have you ever paper-pieced?  I’d LOVE to see links to your work…

Also- If you’re interested in perspectives on body image and sewing, check out this humorous and sensible post on Sew You Said.  As a pattern maker, I definitely believe that “the body is always right.”


  1. First, glad to see you are feeling well enough to sit at a sewing machine. Nothing like sewing again to make you fell like your old self.

    So funny that you coined this term. My famous line is that sometimes I just “wake up stupid!” Anything and everything can be relegated to that condition and therefore excusing my fumbles! I do totally agree that different disciplines such as sewing vs. knitting vs quilting do require a retraining of the hand. I recently started making some french knots, I used to make absolutely amazing french knots, these most recent ones looked liked birds nests! And so the “training” begins. Your quilting squares are beautiful, your fingers appear to be not stupid at all!

    • Yeah, it’s great to be sewing *anything*. I like quilt blocks for beginners’ sewing sometimes, especially beginners who have an OCD-like need to make everything perfect, but their fingers haven’t caught on yet… Definitely good training!

      I had a similar problem with French Knots once… But it’ll come back quite quickly if you used to do them well. :) The muscle memory is there.

  2. My worst case was this past week— Gracie’s first ever day of school is here, and I was making her a new dress for it. I accidentally hit the pedal at the wrong time and managed to sew completely through my right pointer finger. So much so that I was attached to the dress and had to cut my finger free, remove the needle, and then pull out the thread. I took a break. A long break, for me. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I didn’t touch it for five or six hours. Later that night, I even managed to clip myself with my shears. That was my worst case ever of stupid clumsiness.that led to me being injured.

    • oh wow! That’s horrible. Be careful!! Usually if I’m doing that kind of thing (though I’ve never slammed the needle through my finger!) I stop and step away and go to sleep… Because it’s usually 1 am when that kind of silly happens to me… ;) Hope you’re feeling better and not traumatized!!

  3. I didn’t know there was a term for it! ;-) Now I feel much better about my lack of fine motor skills when I have gaps between sewing.
    I have to add that your piecing skills are amazing. I cannot get my piecing that sharp for love nor money. They are lovely blocks.

    • I just made it up. But it works….

      Aw thanks! I can see where some of the points don’t match up well, etc, but there’s an old quilter’s proverb about a blind man would be happy to see it…

      Anyway, do you ever paper piece? It really, really, really opens up the field of possibilities, and it’s relatively simple once you get the hang of it… One of these days I’ll make a few Mariner’s Compass blocks… They’re just beautiful, and very sharp and pointy….

      • I’ve not done paper piecing on the machine. I’ve discovered that I actually don’t like quilting on the machine because I’d rather use my machine time to sew garments. However I love piecing by hand and find that quite I could get quite obsessive about that. I have a hexie quilt on the go, but have run out of fabric . Am planning a quilt shop visit very soon to stock up with the necessary. Surprisingly I have nothing in the stash that works.

  4. What a great description! I definitely feel this way about dance, but funny, I’d never really thought about it with regards to sewing—though it makes perfect (maybe even greater) sense. Your blocks look gorgeous.

    And that post on Sew You Said—actually the whole blog—is great. Just what I need, more stuff to read. ;)

    • It completely makes sense for dance, too! :)

      Well… You have a bit of time to read lately, don’t you? I refuse to feel guilty! :P

  5. Holy Moley, Steph….even on a bad day you turn out gorgeous things! The colors are amazing and the precision exquisite…this from a non-quilter. Sounds like your body has taken quite a battering! But in the end we sewers cannot be kept down very long….good going on battling back!

    • Aw shucks… Thanks… I’ve been wanting to do some piecing for a while, anyway.. I don’t think of myself as a quilter, either… I know so many quick, fine, pro quilters that I wouldn’t put myself in the same category…

      I’m doing my best battling back… I wish I could just be better and get back to normal! It’s the lingering sinus ache and fatigue that’s getting me down.

  6. What a gorgeous block! :) I love the variations you have done. I LURVE paper piecing, (or foundation piecing as I think of it), but as I cannae be bothered pulling the paper off the back I tend to do it on calico and leave it in situ.
    It’s generally not my fingers but my brain that gets stupid. I am trying to make some little smocked dresses, and every time I sit down to do some, I do something so monumentally stoopid, I just give up for another week. Reminds me, must blog about little smocked dresses…
    Hope you start to feel better soon. oxoxoxxooxoxoxxoxo

    • Thanks, Mrs C! This is the first time I printed the design on regular scrap paper… Usually I print off one and then “needle trace” it onto newsprint… This time I just went for it with printer paper and it was surprisingly easy to remove the paper. I used a super short stitch length… How do you copy the design onto calico? My quilting guru who taught me to paper piece always uses polytrace as her foundation and sneers at anything else, but I always figured it took as much work to trace the design each time as to peel out the paper… 6 of one, half a dozen of another eh?

  7. I’m so impressed with anyone who does this sort of work. I love the idea of piecing and the end result is always beautiful but I don’t think my patience is there yet. My cure for stupid fingers is knitting. I have a beret pattern that takes one ball of yarn and can be knit in one evening. When I feel the need to create but don’t have the manual or mental dexterity to actually do anything new, a quick knit job helps get me back in the groove. Hope you’re back on top of this sickness soon.

    • It’s funny, I never think of it as a patience thing… More of a very still, quiet, calm space- and I love that about piecing.

      I used to be more into knitting when I lived somewhere chilly… But it doesn’t even freeze here in the winter so I usually look at my wool and think “Geez, what’s the point?” ;)

  8. I’ve never tried quilting. I LOVE the crazy quilts I see in textile museums, but the endless miles of hand quilting stitch makes me look the other way! Your blocks are gorgeous. Glad to hear you’re feeling better. I’ve never really thought about the “stupid fingers” thing before – I’ve always just thought it was a sluggish mind that made the mistakes after a break from sewing. Keep getting better! And don’t feel guilty if you need more rest that you give yourself permission to take. ;)

    • I’ve always been something of a dabbler, but never very serious about my quilting… I guess for me, my brain knows what it is my fingers should do, but it’s just maintaining a high level of motor control… Who knows? :)

  9. Even with “stupid fingers,” these quilt blocks are exceptionally lovely! I love the colors you are using – those green and blue blocks are so very fun. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole project!

    When I take a break and try to return to sewing, I tend to organize first – or cut out patterns and fabric. It helps my mind and hands get back in the game and I am more successful starting at that point rather than jumping right back into sewing.

  10. Welcome back to the land of the living and for banishing those stupid fingers. I have finally realised that my ‘stupid fingers’ (such a good name for them) are usually a reminder to slow down and get back to practicing. I’m not very good at going fast with stitching …. :o)

    I love the colours you’ve picked out – how lovely to have the day to yourself to do something relaxing too.

  11. Yay for quilting! I love your blocks. I cracked up laughing about “stupid fingers.” Alas, I’m all too familiar with this affliction. I’ve been doing tons of paper piecing lately working my way through the Summer Sampler Series in Kate Spain’s Terrain fabrics :-)

  12. Pingback: Feeling S-crappy « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

  13. Pingback: Dressmaker’s Quilt: LoneStar Burst Progress « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

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