Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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15 Minutes with Needle & Thread


During the school year – and especially during the school week! – I find that dedicated stitching time on big embroidery projects isn’t always a possibility. This is when I revert to my “15 Minute Stitching Philosophy” (if you want to call it a philosophy!). The gist of it is this: during the work week, if I can grab 15 minutes here or there to stitch, that’s a good thing! I find that if I plan to grab 15 minutes before I head out the door in the morning, then I actually get more done before going to work and might even get in more than 15 minutes of stitching, because I used that 15 minute stitching possibility as a carrot. I do the same thing on lunch breaks and longer breaks between classes – as long as I get done what I need to get done, then I can squeeze in a little bit of time stitching.

And those little bits of time add up! For these types of projects, I don’t always embroider on things that I’m featuring regularly on the website. The work I put into website features is usually a little more intensive and requires photography and note-taking along the way. Short bursts of stitching don’t quite work for that. Instead, I work on things I can stitch on quickly, without interruption for the camera – projects I can pick up, drop some stitches on, and put down again without any preparation.

My current 15 Minute Embroidery Project is this:

Miniature Cluny Tapestry Embroidered on Silk Gauze

This is a miniature Cluny Tapestry look-alike, from microStitchery. It is a counted thread project, on 40 count silk gauze, worked in DMC stranded cotton. I’ve mounted the silk gauze on muslin, and then cut away the muslin and mounted the whole piece to an Evertite stretcher bar frame. The threads, of course, are all color-coded according to the charted design, and I’ve got them hanging on thread drops, ready to go whenever I get a chance to do some stitching.

The project is itsy-bitsy, but not as itsy-bitsy as some miniature work – after all, this is only on 40 count gauze…. it could be 72… or 118! Hahahahaha!!!

40 count silk gauze is slow enough going. The photo above shows about a 1.25″ x 2.25″ strip of finished stitching, and I’ve probably got about 15 hours of stitching in that little area – maybe even more. All of those hours, total, were snatched from the day in small bits of time.

Right now, you can see that I have several threads going – they’re hanging off the photo to the left and to the top. At some points, I’ve had as many as 8 threads in different colors going at a time. It’s a complex little project, but easy enough to add a goodly little chunk of stitches in a 15 or 20 minute session. Well, “chunk” is a relative term!

I like to have a project like this going. And it’s satisfying to see it develop, even if it is just in little increments.

But the Weekend!! Ahhh – the Weekend!! When all goes well on the weekend, I can devote more time to other projects! Again, it’s the carrot notion – “If I do this and get it done, then I will spend this much time working on that project this afternoon.” This morning, it’s “If I get laundry and housework done, and write up next week’s lecture notes for an education class, then I will spend a couple hours in the workroom on the wool Pomegranate design.”

For me, the great thing about having a good hobby is the fact that it serves as a source of motivation to get things done! And when I get things done, there’s nothing better than to finally dedicate a larger span of time to stitching without major things hanging over my head.

What about you? Do you use needlework as a carrot? Does it help you focus and stay organized on other things, so that you can really enjoy your stitching time? Do you grab bits of time during the day to stitch, or do you need to stitch in larger spans of time? How do you organize your stitching time? Feel free to leave a comment and share your approach – it may help the rest of us get into a better routine!

Have a terrific Saturday!

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(42) Comments

  1. Hi Mary,
    I love the fifteen minute theory. I sent you info on Flylady.net. She is my de-cluttering guru and her method is based on a timer and
    fifteen minutes. Its surprising how much one
    can get done in 15. And the carrot and stick
    idea works really well especially if a reward
    is the carrot after a 15min effort. I tend to go gung ho and work or play too long, get really cranky and chuck the whole project.
    Thanks for sharing you way of dealing with life
    You give so much.

  2. I do the 15 minute thing to an extent. I am a knitter as well as a stitcher, and I usually have a knitting ‘no-brainer’ on the needles so I can pick it up and do a few rows in spare moments. I’ll do a few rows while waiting for water to boil or coffee to brew.

    Like you, I reward myself with stitching time. I am working on a needlepoint piece now which has some large hours of basketweave. So I will probably need to have a movie to watch during my stitching time. I’ll see if there is going to be anything on TV, and if there is, I’ll set my schedule according to that, making sure I get all my house things done before that movie comes on. Sometimes I tell myself I have to use one thread on the basketweave before I can work on a more fun area of the canvas.

    I can come up with all kinds of little stitchy rewards during the day. Laundry is a good chore because I feel like I am accomplishing something while stitching, and only have to interrupt my stitching time periodically to switch loads. Multitasking at its best!

  3. Like Marcia in comment #1, I tend to go to the extreme in either work or play. In my case, I took on a cross-stitch project that was way too large for my ability level (I’m still very new at this!)

    My answer to not getting bogged down by this project is to work 15 minutes at a time. It’s sort of like your carrot approach, except that my carrot is that if I work consistently, I only have to do 15 minutes in each stretch. This has given me freedom to work on other pursuits while still seeing steady progress on my huge cross-stitch project.

    It may seem silly, saying I only “have” to work 15 minutes on a hobby, but it’s very freeing to my “black and white, all or nothing” mind.

    Amanda Roby, Louisville KY

  4. Hi Mary
    I find this so interesting because I do exactly what you do – give myself little goals. I quite often spend more time on these things than planned and we have had burnt supper many a time…..!! I also get the kids to bed and then sit up for a bit late into the night or get up really early in the morning before the house awakes, this is a good time to fit in another hour of stitching. We don’t find time we make it. Have a great weekend and enjoy your stitching. I think your 15 piece is lovely.

  5. Wow! How beautiful!
    Question: You have your threads hanging by thread drops. Is this just a term for hanging threads or are the drops an actual tool?
    Also thanks for the tip of mounting the piece on muslin in order for the muslin to take the stress of the stretcher bars. Very useful information. As always!

    1. Hi, All! Thank you for your comments! Time is a funny thing, isn’t it? Well… I spend a lot of time thinking about time, anyway… wishing I had more of it!

      Beth – Sorry about that, I should have linked up “thread drops” in the article (I meant to!) Here’s the link to what they are: http://www.needlenthread.com/2010/06/thread-drops-organization.html I use the teardrop shaped ones predominantly. I find them very convenient, when kept on a ring. My floor lamp has a little knob on it, so I hang the ring on the lamp nob. Works out well!

      Louanne – Well, that’s a good question. What next?! I’d play around with some surface embroidery stitches, and then see where that takes you. What about doing a small project (like a towel or something like that) using a variety of stitches, instead of just backstitch? Another technique that teaches a lot of stitches at a time is crewel work. Even if you don’t want to work with wool thread, you could do a crewel work design and use cottons. Just some thoughts….

      Trish – I think the “little goal” plan is the only thing that gets me through. Late night stitching is the best, though – and early morning, before the day starts. I love stitching when it is quiet and the rest of the fam is still in bed, or has gone to bed. There are nights when I think about staying up all night and stitching, just to see if I can do it. But I usually give out completely before midnight! 🙂

      Amanda & Marcia – yes, the “work in spurts” thing works well, too! But for me, if I don’t get what I have to get done, done, then it nags me, and I can’t concentrate as well on stitching. I end up making mistakes, getting frustrated, feeling rushed, and so forth. Except laundry! Like Nannette, laundry time is perfect for stitching in between loads and folding.

      I’m off to stitch! More later~

  6. Thanks for the suggestions everyone! I am new at embroidery-VERY NEW! Is it good to start by mastering one basic technique at a time or practise a few? I have learned the backstitch well and my last few projects have been using backstitch. I’m ready to move on! So what do you experts think I should go to next?

  7. mary,i love your idea of short stitching times and then you don’t seem to overwhelmed.I also usually start 5-7 different things at about the same time so I can work on different items during the week and never get bored.

  8. Thanks Mary!
    Yesterday I watched your tutorial video on chain stitch–I think I will practise that next. I have done a few pillow cases. One for my grandbaby and a set for my oldest daughter and son-in-law. They recently spend two weeks in scotland, two weeks in Paris and two weeks in Ireland. So I picked your pattern “fleur de Lys border”, transfered on to a set of pillow cases-turned out great!

  9. I recently found these beautiful pillow covers! All white with white embroidery that looks like chain stitch-is this called white work? I told myself–“I will try that next!”

  10. Wow – you do mean little projects, litterally! It’s beautiful! I “allow” myself to have stitching time when I get other stuff done. Unfortunatly, I don’t make enough stitching time. I don’t like to exercise either. If I could figure out how to ride the bike or treadmill while stitching, that would be my ideal carrot for both!

  11. I L-O-V-E that tiny needlework project you are working on! It is beautiful. I think it would look pretty in any format. A larger canvas and persian wool for a special chair seat and back. I cannot stop looking at it!

  12. Ooh, microStitchery! I have a tiny Cluny pillow kit from them that I have been putting off for years. Need to get up the nerve to start it. I love their projects!

  13. Mary,
    I use this little time game for cleaning the house. I will set a timer and clean for 1 hour and that is all. What ever I get done in that hour of time is…what I get done. Then I sit and stitch, blog, read, or whatever I WANT to do as a reward. I also take 10 minutes before I go to bed at night to pick up. In those 10 minutes I can get quite a bit done! I would rather spend the limited time with the chores I really don’t enjoy and have the longer amount of time doing something I love, stitching. I do see your point about working in 15 minutes here and there to stitch. Everyone can work a little stitching time into each day this way!

  14. Hi, Mary,
    This piece is lovely. I think I’d get headaches working on it away from a light and magnification, though. Do the tiny stitches give you eyestrain?

  15. Hello all. Wow that is a lovely piece for your “15 minuter” 🙂
    Im like Nanette. I usually have a “no Brainer” needlepoint on the go. I keep it in a ziplock bag ready to go at any time. Fits in my handbag and I stitch it whenever I have a few moments to spare.Its amazing how all those “moments” will finally get a piece finished. I need wheels on my handbag, which is a large tote as it also contains my camera and sketch book.Inspiration strikes willy-nilly 🙂
    Mind you I also have a whole heap of works waiting to be blocked and made into something..lol.
    Regards Phillipa from NZ

  16. Stitching motivates me to get other things done. I feel guilty if I gave choirs waiting so I get all my work done quickly so I can sit and needlework Guilt free.

  17. When the children were young, I too found that if I didn’t stitch when I had a few minutes, I just didn’t get any stitching done! Now that I’m retired, I have more time to devote to my passion – designing and cross-stitching.

  18. I tend to always have several projects on the go at any given time and the ‘carrot’ approach works for me. I tell myself that if I work on the project I like the least for 15 minutes, then I can go on to the one that’s my current favourite.

  19. I’m amazed at how quickly I finish projects by just stitching a few minutes at a time. When I try to arrange large chunks of time I end up letting chores go and feeling guilty and then I don’t stitch for a long time. Grabbing small bits of time I get chores done and projects finished. Those little bits add up.

  20. Someone suggest (a long time ago) that you should always leave a needle threaded so all you have to do is pick up your project and stitch. That is what I try to do. A “needle park” is prefect for that! There is always a needle threaded in several different colors and I can just select 1 and stitch. I always have a project ready at hand, and you’d be surprised just how much you can complete by doing 1, 2 or 15 minutes, when you are prepared.

  21. My hubby is currently an invalid, therefore I spend a lot of time just sitting with him, which has given me invaluable time to be hand stitching and learning new embroidery stitches. Ironically, I am enjoying my time and he is in a certain amount of pain. However, the togetherness is also important. Interesting how sometimes everything falls into place.

  22. There is never enough time to stitch and I am retired. My problem is my eyes get tired during the evening but that seems to be the only time I have to stitch. Oh! did I mention my husband just retired so he is easily bored and always wants to go someplace and with me to boot. Just sayin’ Adjustments coming after 48 years.

  23. My main trick is to always carry some work with me so I can use those extra minutes that pop up during the day. I do miniature knitting which is easy to carry along but I’m wondering if you use a magnifying device that you can easily take with you to do your tiny stitches. Or even at home – what is your favorite way to see those little stitches? And, I would have to say that with all that you do, we should all be taking lessons in time management from you!

  24. Mary,

    That Cluny piece is beautiful. I’ve never done someting that tiny. No guilt from me for using my time. I can turn on my tv and stitch all day some days and not even realize I have spent all day. I try to do at least one major household project in the morning and stitch only in the afternoons, but I also always stitch during Saturday and Sunday afternoon sports. I check scores between threads or color changes. I need longer than 15 minutes, but will stitch during those long drawn out meetings that mean nothing after the first 10 minutes of announcements. I can focus my ears by keeping my hands and eyes busy. On a good day, I will pick up my needle in the morning as I drink my coffee and will not remember that I was supposed to clean until I have sititched until noon.

  25. Hi Mary, love your philosophy! My kids are 3 years and 6 months, I really have just 10 minutes but it works! In Italy we say “volere e’ potere”, almost the same as Trish says, we don’t find time we make it (Trish I love your books!)! Ciao, Manuela

  26. I work,I have 2 kids 7 years and 3 years.I live with my step-mother and step-father ,qith all this mess ( which i live living in)I love crochet and other crafts. Anyway, however I feel, for my mental health, i do some stches ( or crochet ) every night at least 15 mn And i sleep just after that. I not only addicted but it’s for my own mental health.

  27. Love the little project. I notice you start at the bottom and most of the instructions I’ve seen tell me to start in the middle. It always seems counter intuitive to start in the middle, so I’m glad to see it doesn’t have to be that way.

    I try to stitch a little every day myself. Then I get ‘into it’ and spend hours.

  28. I try not to set myself a time limit (because invariably I get carried away and end up stitching longer than I was supposed to, or I will stop and feel really frustrated that I’ve told myself I have to stop, and spend my time doing work or chores around the house in a dream about stitching and when I can get back (which is not very productive!). I find my mind works best when I’m sewing, and it is not unusual for my staff to find bits of thread all over the office, or have a meeting while I’m winding threads. I also have a chronic pain condition which requires a number of doctor visits a week – the perfect time for some stitching fun. My only downside is my age – being 22 is hard when embroidery is your passion, as everyone your age thinks you’re a doddery old woman 🙂

  29. I do snatch 15 min here and there to stitch. I work in the medical field and am chained to a desk and computer all day 🙂 I do love my job but I find that if I walk away from my desk for at least 15 a day, go to another area, usually the break room or an empty conference room, be alone with my stitching, it sure makes for a better more productive day. I walk at lunch with my co worker thru our hospital corridors so that helps to get away from the desk also, but I cherish my few minutes of stitching each day.

  30. Hi Mary, Thanks so much for all your inspiration and tips I love receiving your mail and update on project etc. I find I leave my sewing time to the evening after all the jobs and supper is done. I get to sit under a lamp and while away a few uninterrupted hours focused on my project. Nothing better then to sit and enjoy that cuppa and do what you love so much!

  31. Hi Mary,
    I am just one of the many embroidery enthusiasts that love your sight!
    I want to thank you so much for sharing your skills with all of us…for free…that’s awesome…and very much appeciated!
    I look at your sight almost every day & I’m always learning something new from you!
    Thank you sooo much!
    One of your biggest fans ,
    Tina 🙂

  32. In response to Zara,

    Don’t worry about your age, People thought I was doing little old lady sewing when I was 18-25 as well. Now that my friends are mostly over 50 and own homes of their own, they come to me and tell me they wish they could embelish their own towels, pillow and clothes. They all have to rely on what is available in a store. Your not doing little old lady sewing, you are creating a lifetime of useful art for you ad your home.

  33. To Debbie –
    Thank you for your response; that’s exactly the way I see it too! Also – I’m not going to stop my favourite passtime just because a few people my age don’t understand it. I’m very lucky – my partner supports my habit and accompanies me to craft shows to help carry purchases, help select threads and fabrics when it all gets a bit overwhelming and (the best bit!!) to carry the all-important money!!

    1. LOL! Hi, Zara – We all need one of those! I wouldn’t sweat the age thing, either. I’m 41, and I run into people my age and older more times than I can count, who say, “I wish I had learned….” In fact, I find it very easy to teach “older” people who have at least done some kind of sewing or needlework at some point in their lives, but I find it very difficult to teach “older” people (my age and up) who suddenly want to learn, but have never done anything with a needle and thread before. So don’t sweat the age thing. You’re a lucky duck! Besides, embroidery is becoming increasingly popular with … uh …. younguns. I meet up with college-aged and younger people all the time who are eager and enthusiastic about embroidery. And it’s a lot of fun being around them!

      Ahhhh, youth…. 🙂

  34. Es un trabajo muy lindo,yo pensaba que se empezaba por el centro,trabajare esos 15 minutos con mucha dedicacion.gracias

  35. Hi Mary! Today is 1/26/11 and I just discovered your site during the wee hours of the morning and could not beleive my eyes!!!
    I have been looking for another person to embroider with it seems forever!
    I learned to embroider when I was maybe 6,7 or 8 yrs old when I would get these little kids kits for Christmas,I would finish them then had to wait for the next Christmas for more. Until I got into high school when I started shopping in the 5 & dime stores for embroidery kits. When these stores closed-there went my hobby!
    Now that Im looking again for embroidery, I will do the majority while up doing the night shift with my daughter (she’s special needs) its light work, its quiet (so she can sleep) and it sure makes the time fly by!
    I will be looking forward to each newsletter you send to my box and Im looking forward to learning from your mistakes-thanks for teaching the correct way!

    1. Hi, Roxanne! Thanks for your note – I’m glad you’re getting into embroidery again! Time always flies when I’m stitching, too – I hope you enjoy the website and that you get much pleasure out of your needlework! ~MC

  36. Hello All,
    The question of age!!!!! I am 81 yrs old. I get questioned by
    young people when I knit in public. They
    think they invented it and for them it is all about youth,. I have done “hand” stuff all
    my life, self taught at age 7 and go from one
    to the other at will. I am now doing several projects, crewel, freehand, and needlepoint.
    I wish My eyesight were better, but I know
    that if I just buckledown and get all the
    helpers,(magnifiers, lights, etc ) all will
    be well.
    I have had some experience teaching children
    and adults. The challenge with adults is to
    help them get away from being adults and
    “knowing” everything and escorting them to
    the wonderful world of “new experience.
    Taking things in small pieces is the key
    here, with heaps of aplause for every small
    step accomplished. Alone in my apartment
    I give my self applause and rewards too.
    I am having trouble with needlepoint. I do
    it rather badly, not neat and tidy, but following Mary’s practice I am becoming
    adept at “frogging” (ripit)

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