The Designer in You

This week I’d like to discuss a couple of words that are bandied about quite a bit with quilters – design and consistency.  Those are a couple of words you hear about in quilt judging.  The word “design” comes into play even more often when quilters talk about quilt designers, those designers’ designs, and how to design their own quilt.  We’re discussing design first, as that’s probably the word that most folks are familiar with.

When we throw out the word design, what comes to your mind?  Is it patterns?  A quilt design program?  Is it a sketch on graph paper?  Or do you automatically think to yourself, “I use quilt patterns – I could never design my own quilt!  I don’t even know how to begin!” 

Then let me stop right here and blow another quilting gasket in your brain:  Every time you make a quilt, you design.  Yes, you do.  Let me explain.  When we typically think about design, we embrace the concept of a quilt pattern.  Design is much more than that.  Quilt design embraces color and impact.  It consists of workmanship.  Design begins the minute you decide to make a quilt – whether it’s a pattern that you’re drawn to (or may have drawn yourself), or simply a lovely piece of fabric you’ve got to take home with you.  From that moment on, you – as a quilter – have begun the design process.  You’ve either decided on a pattern and have to make fabric decisions, or you’ve decided on the focus fabric and now have to find a pattern.  Whichever comes first in your quilting process, the design decisions are now beginning

When you have your pattern and your focus fabric, the next step in the process is picking out the supporting fabrics – the neutral, the lights, and the darks.  I’m not going into too much detail here, as I’ve really written ad nauseum about this in the past.  If you need to refresh your memory, re-read my 2019 blogs on the subject.  Even if you’re copying the fabrics on a pattern as closely as you can, you’re still designing.  Chances are the exact fabrics needed may not be available and substitutions will have to be made.  However, it’s very important to remember all the fabrics chosen should be picked with the idea that the greatest visual impact is needed for a truly wonderful quilt.  Make sure your darks are true darks and not mediums and the lights are true lights.  Great color combinations coupled with wonderfully pieced blocks or stunning applique all make for great visual impact. 

The next design concept that comes into play is workmanship.  Here’s where quilt experience comes into play.  The longer you quilt and the more quilts you make, the better your workmanship becomes. Quilting is like a lot of other art forms in this concept – the longer you work at it, the techniques evolve into something truly wonderful.  For instance, if your quilt pattern has lots of flying geese, and you’ve quilted for several years, you may know a great way to make those geese that’s not in the pattern directions.  Use the technique that works best for you and embraces your best piecing.  I’ve said the following until I’m nearly blue in the face, but I’m repeating it once again:  The quilt pattern and its directions are suggestions in moving from the beginning to the finished product.  The quilt pattern designer often will use either the standard directions in making a unit or the procedure that works best for him or her.  And neither of those may not work best for you. 

And here is where the word consistency comes into play. Make sure your units/blocks have uniform appearance.  For instance, let’s look back at those aforementioned flying geese.  If you struggle with this unit and tend to cut the tips off of the beaks of the geese, just go ahead and cut all the tips off the beaks.  That way it looks like this plan was part of the design, and not just a struggle with workmanship.  No one is going to know but you. 

Workmanship also includes making sure intersections meet and the points are sharp.  It means that the piecing thread either matches the fabric or blends in with it. 

If the quilt is hand appliqued it means that the stitches are so small they aren’t seen, the curves are smooth, and the points are sharp.  If you have trouble attaining points on leaves or petals (or anything else in your applique), round those suckers off.  Do that for all the pointy pieces of your applique so that it will look consistent.  If your quilt is raw-edge machine applique, make sure the stitch used is right for the size of the applique piece and the thread matches the applique fabric as closely as possible.  If it’s machine applique with a finished edge, make sure the stitches are small and are as near as possible invisible to the eye. 

Now let’s discuss the actual quilting in a quilt.  I have reached the point where this is one of my very favorite parts of the quilt-making process.  I love seeing the texture come into play.  To me, good quilting just adds another layer of personality to the quilt top.  When considering design and workmanship in the quilting, a couple of things are obvious.  First is the size of the quilt stitch.  If you’re hand quilting, this means that all of your stitches are consistent in size – it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of your stitches are tiny.  I know we’ve all heard the great quilt history stories of the past where those women could hand quilt up to 10 stitches an inch.  As long as your hand quilting stitches are pretty much the same size both on front and on back of your quilt, that’s true consistency.  The same holds true for machine quilting – either on a stationary or moveable machine.  This gets a little tough when moving the needle around curves, but it’s something to strive for.  That’s why if you have a long arm or mid arm with a stitch regulator it’s a good idea to learn how to work with that option turned on.  It’s the sure way to make all the stitches uniform length. 

Finally let’s talk about the quilting itself.  Most quilts require some “stitch-in-the-ditch” quilting.  This stitching is done along the seams and stabilizes the quilt layers so they don’t shift any during the quilting process.  It’s a good idea to make this stitching as invisible as possible, so use a thread that matches the fabric.  If there are lots of color changes in your top, you may want to give monofilament thread a try, as it blends with anything.  Keep the stitches in the seam.  After the stabilization is finished, then the actual quilt design needs to be considered.  My “go-to” quilt design is a large, all-over, edge-to-edge meander – which works if it’s a play quilt or a charity quilt or some quilt I’ve pieced together just for fun.  However, I will be the first to admit it lacks complete creativity.  The meander works great to hold the quilt layers together, but on the whole, it really adds nothing valuable to the quilt (however it can be very effective as tight meander background stitch).

Try to find a design that goes with the theme of the quilt.  If you’ve made a quilt top with lots of flowery fabric, quilting flowers over it is completely appropriate.  If you’ve made a Christmas quilt, holly leaves would be perfect. However, I’ve seen quilts where I’ve really struggled to understand the reasoning behind the quilt design.  For instance if you make a quilt with the Maple Leaf block, why would you want to quilt flowers across the top?  In my mind, these two don’t go together, but maybe it’s just me…

In closing, what I’ve tried to say in this blog is:  Pay attention to the details and do the best work that you can.  You’ll never regret the time and effort put into making a quilt the best it can be.  I may moan and groan about being faced with more work, but I’ve never looked back at a quilt and considered any of that extra labor a waste of time.  I love looking at that quilt and knowing it was done as precisely and correctly as I could make it.  While I will always believe a finished quilt is better than a perfect quilt, I do get a buzz out of knowing that I completed that quilt to the very best of my ability. 

Until next week, Quilt with Passion!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

2 replies on “The Designer in You”

I LOVED this blog. Thank you . I have been quilting for too many years and sometimes I just start with a quilt in my head and then times I use a pattern. Now I will look at my process as design. Maybe I won’t be so afraid to try “designing” my own designs. You also make the quilting process make more sense. I usually stress over this for a while before trying it. Thank you again.


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