Negative Space Can Be A Positive Thing

I like negative space in a quilt.


Overall, there is a lot of negativity in this old world – negative news, negative people, negative thoughts, negative bank accounts – and I am not a fan of any of those.  However negative space in a quilt is something I can get behind.  Let me explain what I mean.

Every image has the potential of having a positive and a negative.  Since it’s still fairly close to Valentines Day, let’s think about paper hearts – you know, the kind we used to cut out of construction paper.  The paper is folded in half and one half of the heart shape is drawn, intersecting with the fold of the paper.  When you cut out around the drawn shape, a heart is produced.  This is the “positive” of the heart.  The “negative” is the space left on the construction paper where the heart was.  It’s still the shape of a heart, but it’s empty – a negative.

That’s what negative space is in quilts – it’s empty space that a quilter can use for all kinds of positive things.  And that’s pretty simple, but it’s pretty close to the truth.  Let’s take a look at a “traditional” quilt.

Quilt with sashing

This little quilt has a lot going for it.  The blocks are set on-point – which to me automatically makes a quilt more interesting than straight across horizontal and vertical rows.  It has a nice double border.  It has nine-patch cornerstones.  For me, anytime cornerstones are pieced or appliqued, that’s a lot more interesting than plain squares of fabric.  And since this little quilt is about 68-inches square, that means that the nine-patches are small, and it takes some skill to make them turn out well.  But this quilt also has some great negative space going for it.

Notice the sashing (the white fabric strips around each blocks).  These are plain strips, about 3-inches wide.  Also notice there are some nice, non-pieced setting triangles in this quilt (the light blue triangles). There is absolutely nothing going on in the sashing or the setting triangles.

Now let’s take a look at this quilt.  Again, this is a “traditional” quilt.

Quilt with pieced sashing

The first thing that probably jumps out at you is how different the sashing is in this one.  The sashing is pieced – three strips of fabric sewn together to make each sashing.  The cornerstones are mixed.  Some are nine-patches, and some are plain squares.  It’s set on-point and the setting triangles are not pieced and neither are the cornerstones in the borders.  Again, this is a wall-hanging, so none of the blocks are large – so again, some skill is shown in matching the corners of the tiny pieces.

In both quilts, there is a good balance of pieced blocks and “negative” (plain) pieces.  Why is that important?  Those negative spaces allow your eyes to travel across the quilt at a leisurely pace and take in the quilt without feeling rushed.  You don’t think so?  Then let’s look at this quilt:


This is the 1718 Coverlet.  It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.  It’s amazing, since a great deal of the fabric used was silk, that it’s held together this long.  It is English paper pieced and it is astonishing.

It also gives me a headache when I look at it.  Not that I don’t appreciate it or the skill and art that was involved to make it – it’s simply that I don’t know where to look first and the whole thing makes me kind of edgy because there is nowhere for my eyes to rest as I try to take it in.

Go back up a few paragraphs in this blog and compare the 1718 Coverlet to the two earlier quilt images.  This gives you an idea of how negative space – those patches of fabric that have nothing going on in them – makes a quilt work.  Instead of giving the viewer a feeling of unrest, it allows he or she to rest between blocks and take in the quilt a bit at the time.

Let’s twist the definition we’ve given to negative space just a bit and now let’s think of it in context of applique.  Look at these two tulip blocks.

In reality, these are two different sized blocks.  One is a 10-inch finished block and one is a 6-inch finished block.  However, what is striking with both of these blocks is the balanced blank space around each group of flowers.  The blocks allow enough negative space to let the eyes rest and to allow the flowers to have enough room to show off and not be too crowded.

Balance, my friend.  It’s all about balance.


Now I know what some of you are saying – there are some quilts out there that don’t have negative space and they work just fine.  Like log cabin quilts.

Okay, let’s take a close look at these.  I love log cabin quilts and have amassed enough soft yellows and blues to make one soon.  Log cabin quilts are quilts made from strips of fabric that form border around a center square.  Take a look at these images of log cabin quilts.


While there is no negative space as we’ve discussed above – no plain sashing or cornerstones – the designers have given the illusion of negative space by arranging the colors of the fabric to form seemingly non-pieced triangles.  These allow not only the eyes to rest, but also to travel safely across the quilt.

See, you gotta love negative space.  It really works well with a quilt.  It’s necessary and essential for any good, balanced quilt.  Even if it’s only the illusion of negative space.  Now…what do you do with all that negative space?

Well, quilt it, of course.  That negative space is an opportunity to let your quilt artist or yourself show off some serious quilting chops.  I think the Modern Quilters really do it best.  They’re not afraid of negative space.  As a matter of fact, they relish it and use the opportunity to do some great straight-line quilting.


Straight-line quilting not your thing?  Well, there are always feathers and wreaths and all other kinds of quilting motifs.

feathers - Copy

If the block is appliqued, you can always echo-quilt around the design in the negative space in the background or meander around it.

applique block

So, in summing all this up, there are several things to remember about incorporating negative space in your quilt:

  1. Don’t be afraid of negative space in your quilts.  It’s necessary for balance.
  2. That negative space can be a great place to showcase your focus fabric.
  3. It can also be a great place to show off yours or someone else’s quilting talent.
  4. Plan that negative space with as much skill and attention as you do your pieced or your appliqued blocks.
  5. If you’re still a little hesitant about using negative space to your advantage – after all, it does take some time – avoid using white or black in that space. Those tend to make the negative space pop out at the viewer.  Let your focus fabric or another quilt fabric fill those empty spots.


Until next week, Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam




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