The Eyes Have It

I’ve written prior blogs about balance in a quilt.  Colors should be balanced, and quilting should be equally distributed throughout.  This sounds intimidating, but fortunately, most quilters do this intuitively. And while the intuition may need some fine tuning, it’s not an instinct you have to start from scratch and build on.  Negative space is another aspect of a quilt top that must be balanced.  It’s no secret that quilts like this:

1718 Coverlet

Make me just a little bit crazy.  I know this is the 1718 Coverlet, and it was made literally hundreds of years ago, and styles were different back then.  However, I have two major issues with quilts like this:  First, there is nowhere for your eyes to take a breather, and second, I don’t know where to look first.  Truly this quilt is a thing of beauty and a joy forever (it was done in silk, and English Paper Pieced), but I can’t look at it very long because I have no idea where to look first.  It’s like my entire brain just shuts down.

I have no idea where to look first on this Crazy Quilt.

I have the same issue with most Crazy Quilts. 

I need a roadmap and rest stops when I look at a quilt.  I need to have some direction on where to look and some space where my eyes can rest while my brain processes what it’s just taken in.  And that’s really the topic of this week’s post – how you can design your quilt to help the viewer take in the entire quilt top and have a great time when they do this.  We’ve already hit on this topic in two ways:  The use of negative space in a quilt and connector blocks.  Both of those subconsciously help the viewer really take in the quilt and visionally digest it.  For those of us who love quilts that are set on point, the setting triangles and/or squares do the same thing.  And for some quilts, the blocks themselves, when set together without any sashing or setting squares/triangles, help our eyes move across the quilt top because the blocks give you visual cues where to let your eyes move.  Take for instance, this block:

Jacob’s Ladder Block

This block is Jacob’s Ladder and it’s one of my favorite “old” blocks.  When set either in rows:

Or on-point:

The triangles and four-patches seem to march across the top of the quilt and your eyes follow those paths.  Granted, there is little negative space, but these blocks are usually set with a limited color scheme and that makes up for the lack of open space. 

But what if you have a block like this? Most of the triangles are pointed inward.

If you set them together either on-point or in rows, this is what it looks like.

Horizontal Rows
On-Point — although I am digging the secondary design in this.

Not quite the same effect as Jacob’s Ladder, is it?  The outside triangles of the design block point inward towards the center of the block.  Your eyes aren’t quite sure where to look except for the center of the block.  This is where some well-designed sashing can come into play that will not only give direction to the quilt top, but will also supply a bit of negative space.

I’ve spent a great deal of time and blog space on triangles for a couple of reasons.  First, they are a basic unit in hundreds of quilt blocks and it’s important to know how to make them well.  It’s also important to be aware of what construction technique works best for you.  The second reason triangles are having a lot of play time in my blogs is they give direction to the quilt top.  Think about it.  Arrows are used to give direction.  At the tip of an arrow is a triangle.  We are used to triangles pointing in the direction we should go, and they serve the same purpose with a quilt block and sashing.  Just like this block

Prompts our eyes to look inward…

This block triggers our eyes to look outward.  When paired as part of the sashing with the design block, instead of your eyes being locked into the center of the block, they are prompted to look outward towards the rest of the quilt.  This takes a little planning and a little extra fabric, but it’s worth the effort. 

Why is forcing the viewer’s eyes outwards to the rest of the quilt important?  The first obvious reason is that it empowers the viewer to take in the rest of the quilt.  For as much dedication and detail you’ve put into those squares, you want the viewers to take in the entire quilt, not just the block(s).  Most quilters spend a lot of time on their blocks, whether those are appliqued or pieced.  But you’ve also spent a lot of time on the borders and quilting.  Those should have equal viewing time.  Any type of sashing that gives visual direction helps the viewer to look at the entire quilt.  There are other blocks that lend themselves to sashing cornerstone configurations that do the same thing.

Friendship stars:

Lattice Work:

And other pieced sashing:

Right now, some of you may be asking about on-point quilts.  With these, we’ve abandoned the structure of vertical and horizontal rows.  Everything is diamonds and triangles with these.  Do these quilts need visual cues?  Yup.

Let’s look at this quilt.

It’s a nice quilt.  And I’ve never hid the fact that an on-point setting is my favorite.   So, immediately, any on-point setting catches my attention.  However, when some sashing is included that adds some direction:

Or some connecting blocks that do the same thing:

You get an entirely different look, that in my opinion, is better. 

However, at this point, let’s delve into a different type of quilt.  Let’s talk about a Medallion Quilt.  I’ve mentioned these before, but to review a medallion quilt is a quilt whose layout has a central area that often dominates the overall design. Other design elements are sewn around the center, increasing the quilt’s size as new borders are added around the center.  A lot of work and thought can be put into the center block, as shown in my Halo Medallion.  The center block is a star, so the points naturally lead the eye outward to the rest of the quilt and all the detailed piecing. 

My Halo Medallion. Pattern by Sue Garman.

On this quilt, it’s a little different:

This is a quilt I’m making for my DH as part of his Christmas.  The center block is cut from a panel, so the borders I put around it would have to lead the eye outwards towards the rest of the quilt.  The block was also really colorful, and I decided I needed to use narrow, solid borders around it first for two reasons.  First, to calm it down and then to begin to introduce the fabric to be used in the rest of the quilt.  However, after that, I needed a border to push the eyes outward.  A sawtooth border did the trick.  A few more solid, fabric borders later (again to introduce my fabrics), and a star border made from HSTs was added.  More solid borders and then a square-in-a-square border will be added, again pushing the eyes outward towards the final border. 

In some ways, managing a medallion quilt is a bit more challenging than a row quilt or an on-point quilt because you’re balancing motion, careful introduction of materials, and space for the eye to rest.  To pull off an effective medallion quilt really shows your chops as a quilter and an artist. 

Between this talk of movement and visual cues with any of these quilts, what I am really emphasizing is interdependence.  Interdependence is defined as “the dependence of two or more people or things on each other.”  All quilts have interdependence – it’s a natural part of the design concept.  They have an order (rows, on-point, or medallion).  The interdependence comes into play when color, design elements, fabric, and borders are repeated.  As you plan your sashing to add movement, you repeat colors or fabrics you’ve used in the blocks.  If you’ve used triangles in your design blocks, you will want to use those in your connector blocks or sashing pattern.  If you went rogue and introduced circles as a design element, it would look…well, weird…

Unless you made a quilt like this, which uses circles in the design block and in the sashing.

Circle Jubilee

At this point, if you’re like me, you’re asking yourself, “How do I get myself to the point where I know I’m doing this right?  What do I need to do?”  Give yourself time, practice, and study quilts.   To some degree, a lot of this comes intuitively.  But the longer you quilt, the more it becomes second nature.  If you’re just beginning, I’d advise you to use good quilt patterns by designers that have a solid reputation as quilt teachers.  These folks have been around the quilt block (pun intended here) more than a time or two and by making their quilts you can gain a firm grounding on what elements make up a good quilt.  After a while, you can jump in with your own ideas and change up the quilt to make it more “yours” than “theirs.” 

Looking at historical quilts, award-winning quilts, and quilts made by stellar quilt artists (both in your local guild and those nationally/internationally known) will also give you some ideas of interdependence, movement, and good negative space.  It’s always surprises me a bit to acknowledge just how much my brain remembers from what I’ve read and looked at as I work on a quilt.  My brain just kind of files it away and pulls that information out when I need it.  I’m sure my brain isn’t the only one that works that way, so give yourself permission to Google or Pinterest in the name of quilting.  And a few great quilt books are a solid investment for any quilter’s library. 

To sum this up, it’s important to add some kind of design element to a top that helps the viewer move his or her eyes outwards to the edges of the quilt.  While the center of the quilt may be completely fabulous, you want people to look at the entire quilt you’ve spent time, blood, sweat, and tears designing.  You want to give them a chance to let their eyes take a rest (negative space), before moving on.  And you need the interdependence of repetition of colors, fabric, borders, and shape to keep the quilt in balance. 

Until next Week, Level Up That Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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