What Makes A Really Great Quilt Pattern

As one of the first “official” blogs of 2021, I want to talk about quilt patterns.  We’ve approached this subject before, kind of in a round-about way – we’ve talked about understanding what level of quilter you are and that you need to read the directions through before you make the first cut on your fabric.  I’ve emphasized (and want to do so again right now) it’s a good idea to Google a pattern and quilt designer.  If you Google either or both, and nothing comes up but the designer’s quilt, put the pattern down and walk away.  Chances are, no one else has made it and there’s probably a very good reason:  Either it’s a difficult quilt, the directions are incomplete, or the designer is new to the field.  With any of these considerations, it’s best to step away from the project for a while if not forever. 

To begin, let’s take a deep dive into the history of quilt patterns.  For hundreds of years (actually thousands, if you hold to the fact the first quilts were made in ancient Egypt), there were no real patterns.  The simplest quilt blocks consisted of the four-patch, nine-patch, and log cabins.  These and their variations were passed down either in verbal form or rudimentary written form.  Here’s where quilt pattern history becomes kind of vague.  It’s nearly impossible to find an accurate date or name of a published quilt pattern anywhere except here – in America.  In 1835 Godey’s Ladies Book published this pattern:

We know this block as Grandmother’s Flower Garden and it reached the height of its popularity in 1925 (although with the current hexie and English Paper Piecing craze, it’s enjoying a resurgence of fame).  However, it was known during the Colonial Period, too, under the names of Mosaic, Honeycomb, and French Bouquet.  During the Depression it was a cheerful quilt for dark times and an economical one:  It was scrap friendly. 

Quilt patterns continued to be published in Godey’s and a few other publications.  It reached a peak with The Kansas City Star newspaper, which published patterns for blocks from 1928-1961.  By the end of the pattern run, the Star had published 1,001 quilt block patterns.  Also during this time period, we find the rise in applique quilt kits and patterns from designers such as Marie Webster (If you love applique and have never looked at her patterns, do yourself a favor and spend some time researching them online – they’re beautiful), and the Mountain Mist Batting patterns. 

What may bother you with these patterns are the instructions.  They’re brief.  There are a few line drawings.  The instructions assume you already know how to sew, how to keep a consistent seam allowance, and are comfortable with hand piecing.  And for this era, these direction were adequate – most women and girls were taught how to sew and had been sewing since they were young.  If you decide to make a quilt from one of these patterns, and don’t have several years of quilting behind you, you may run into some problems.  Even quilters I consider “experts” in the field are used to having just a little more detail in the instructions than what’s offered with the Kansas City Star Quilts*. 

Around the time of America’s bicentennial, quilting enjoyed a resurgence in interest.  Magazines came out with patterns.  Books were written.  And along with these, the opportunity to actually walk into a fabric store and purchase only a pattern became a reality.  All three of these quilt pattern options are still available today, along with the alternative of purchasing a pattern online and ready to download.  This is what I really want to focus on – what makes a good quilt pattern?  How do you do you know if it is a good pattern?  What do you do if it isn’t?  And how do you know if you’ve downloaded and printed a pattern correctly

First, we will look at some common characteristics of a good quilt pattern, regardless of how it’s obtained.  For me, really good quilt patterns:

  1.  Give you the unfinished measurements of each block unit, as well as the unfinished measurements of the entire block.  For instance, take a look at this block:

This is a type of Ohio Star and its finished measurements are 6-inches x 6-inches.  It’s has block units consisting of squares and quarter-square triangles which are 2 ½-inches, unfinished.  Why is this information so important?  It allows me to measure as I go, and honestly, it’s much easier to take a unit apart than a whole block.    After I make my quarter square units, I can measure them.  If they don’t measure 2 ½- inches square, I can correct those units then – which is so much better than finding out something’s a little wonky after I get several blocks made.  If each block unit is the correct measurement, I stand a much better chance the blocks will have the correct unfinished measurement before I begin to join them together into rows. 

  •  The pattern will give me several sizes to choose from.  It will offer me several options as far as how big or how small I can make the quilt.
  • There are either really great illustrations, line drawings, or pictures in the pattern.  Good pattern designers know quilters (as a whole) are visual learners.  The designer will not only have a great picture of the finished product (because this is what lures you into purchasing the pattern in the first place), but he or she will also have clear illustrations of some of the trickier parts of the quilt.  Beginner quilt patterns should have lots of graphics.  Those for intermediate or advanced quilters may only highlight the really difficult parts. 
  • The fabric requirements have a little “oops” room and the list of notions is complete and concise.  Good quilt patterns will have room for cutting mistakes – they will give you a few more inches of fabric than you really need.  They will also list other notions (such as fusible web, specialty threads, etc.) needed.  Great quilting patterns will tell you where to get them – such as websites.  I will also be completely honest and tell you this is something you learn by experience.  The longer you quilt, the more knowledge you gain about quilt patterns and their creators.  Some of these folks are excellent.  Some are really good.  And frankly, some are horrid.
  • It gives me a good starting point as far as color is concerned.  I may not like the fabric the designer has picked out for his or her quilt, but it should give me enough differentiation that if I take a picture of the pattern, use the app on my phone to flip it to black and white, I can tell how many darks, lights, and mediums I need. 
  • It plainly indicates in some way if it’s a beginner, intermediate, or advanced pattern.
  • If it’s an applique pattern, it tells you if the image pattern pieces are already reversed or if you need to reverse them.
  • If the designer has a website, they update the patterns and any mistakes found in the pattern regularly.  Pattern designers are people.  People make mistakes.  Good designers admit their mistakes and offer (free of charge) the pattern corrections.  One of the best designers out there who has a dogged dedication to this is Judy Neimeyer.  She updates any changes or corrections for her patterns on her website post haste.

For me, these eight factors are important no matter if the pattern is purchased in a store, found in a magazine or book, or is downloaded.  If a quilt pattern has most of these, it’s a good one.  If it has all of these, it’s a great pattern.    And there’s only one way to find out if a pattern has any or all of these components:  Read it. 

Read every word completely.

Until you get to the end.

I’m completely serious.

No matter if it’s a download or a print version, before you make the first cut in your beautiful fabric, read the pattern completely.  I consider myself an advanced quilter, and I still stop and do this before I do anything else.  I read it through, mark it up, and write down my questions.  If there are questions, usually you’ll find the answers somewhere in the pattern.

But what if you don’t?  Well, this is when you employ Google.  Type the name of the pattern in the search bar and see what comes up.  If you get no substantial information from this, type the designer’s name into the search bar.  Most of the time (especially if the creator has several patterns under their belt), the designer’s web page or Facebook page will pop up.  From there you can search for additional information about the pattern or find out how to email the designer.  There may even be corrections listed.  However, if nothing comes up in the search, you seriously want to re-think making the pattern.  Ask me how I know.

Now let’s look at how the types of patterns are different from each other.  Most of the time when someone mentions a quilt pattern, this is what I picture:

A single pattern, in a resealable, plastic envelope.  To be honest, this is my favorite way to obtain a pattern.  Normally, I only want this particular pattern and either A – Don’t want additional patterns cluttering up the process or B – Don’t want the additional expense or space a book or magazine takes up.  These patterns will generally have a nice, color picture of the final product, fabric requirements, notion needs, and instructions.  Depending the level quilter it’s produced for, it may or may not have additional illustrations.  If it’s an applique pattern, it will also have all the graphics you need to prep your pieces, including letting you know if you need to reverse the drawings or if they’re already reversed. All-in-all, these are pretty complete patterns and usually includes contact information for the designer.  The front page contains the color photo, then inside the pattern are step-by-step instructions, and the fabric and notion needs are on the back. 

Patterns found in magazines work a little differently.  Where you find the pattern in a magazine depends on how the publication is laid out.   Some magazines have all the pictures and descriptions of the quilts in one section and then puts all the directions for all of the quilts in the back.  Others will have the picture of the quilt, fabric requirements, and then the directions (my favorite way).  They may offer a few different color ways and several different sizes.  They may or may not have information about where to locate the fabrics and notions used.  However, most (if not all magazines) will have the designer and contact information with the pattern.  One great characteristic about magazine quilt patterns is they will publish any needed corrections in a following issue or on their website.  If you decide you want to make a quilt from a magazine, I urge you to take a good look at the publication and understand not only the directions, but also where the directions are.  One word of caution:  If you’re using a magazine which is several years old, note any corrections may not be accessible.  It’s a good idea to Google the pattern and see if any corrections or problems pop up. 

Books of patterns work similarly.  Some books have all the pictures in one section and the directions in another. Others will have the quilt picture followed by fabric requirements and directions.  And I will be honest here:  I don’t purchase a lot of books with patterns in them.  My quilt book library consists primarily of quilt history books.  The pattern books which are on my shelves tend to be of one primary designer (such as Kim Diehl or Marie Webster) or one type of quilt (such as jelly roll, scrap, or table topper). Just as you did with a quilt magazine, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the layout of the publication.  What you won’t find readily available are corrections.  While magazines tend to have at least one other person make the quilt according to the designer’s directions, book publishers may not – they may have left this as the responsibility of the writer.  Sometimes this becomes glaringly apparent all too late ask me how I know. With magazines, at least one other person makes the quilt by following the designer’s directions, so there is a  safeguard in place which (for the most part) prevents mistakes from becoming published.  My advice is once again, consult Google.  If you’re purchasing the book on a site such as Amazon (or go to Amazon before purchasing directly from the author or publishing site), you can read reviews to see if others find the book understandable and the patterns are accurate.  And I’ll also be completely honest with this point:  I’ve had far more trouble with patterns found in books than any other type of pattern.  As a matter of fact, I’ve had consistent issues with a couple of publishing houses to the point I will no longer purchase any of their books.

The last type of pattern – and the most recent – are the patterns which can be immediately downloaded after purchase or log-in.  And these downloadables fall into two categories – those you pay for and those you don’t.  I want to be really careful  how I discuss this category.  There are designers, such as Esther Aliu, Bonnie Hunter and others, who at various times offer free patterns for download.  And these patterns are wonderful and accurate, and I love them and the designers.  They don’t have to do this wonderful thing, but they do, and should be commended and adored because of their generosity.  Fabric houses (such as Moda, Henry Glass, etc.,) also offer free downloadables, too.  This number has increased as the number of types of available precuts have increased.  It’s these patterns which should be double-checked for accuracy. Often the folks designing these patterns are not as knowledgeable as other designers and there is a risk for mistakes.   I will say the quality (as well as the quantity) of these downloadables has gotten much, much better over the past several years.  Still – read the pattern through before making that first cut. 

Regardless of whether you pay for the pattern or it’s free, there are nearly always downloading issues.  Well….not so much with the download itself, but with the printing.  So, let’s say we want to download this pattern:

I’ll walk you through how I do this step-by-step and hope this helps you.  These steps can also be used if you’re downloading a pattern or block from a CD.  Some quilt pattern books, such as Farmer’s Wife 1930’s Sampler Quilt, comes with a CD which has the block patterns you can download.  Please note some tricks may be specific to your computer or operating system or your ability to remember your own passwords (my personal downfall), which will be up to you to sort out.

Generally, there are two ways to receive a PDF pattern file.  Sometimes, if you’re downloading a free pattern file from a website, it goes through the same process as when you download a picture or document file from an email.  Once you click on the pattern you want, the download appears as a little box at the bottom of your screen.  You click this on, and one of your computer programs (usually Windows Photo) will open the file up. 

However, some free patterns go through the same process as purchased ones do.  That process goes a little like this:

  1.  The company will either email you a link for your pattern or after purchase, there will be something like a “My Patterns” tab on the website which will permanently house your PDF patterns in your account.  You can click the tab or link and your pattern will download.
  2. At this point, there’s a choice you need to make.  You can open the pattern, print it, and not choose to download it into your hard drive or onto a thumb drive – or you can download it into your hard drive.

Personally, I download mine into my hard drive.  I just find it’s convenient and I don’t have to remember where I purchased the pattern from nor do I have to worry about the company closing up shop and pulling their website (and my patterns) off the internet.  However, I do file my pattern downloads in a manner which makes it easy for me to find them.  I have a file in the documents section of my computer labeled “Quilting.”

The patterns which have multiple files (such as blocks of the month, mystery quilts, or very large patterns) are downloaded into a sub-file under Quilting which carries the name of the pattern.  However, I also purchase single-downloadable patterns.  For those I make a sub-file with the designer’s name on it and file those patterns under that.  If you find yourself downloading a lot of patterns, it’s a good idea to find a system which works for you.  You can print the patterns out or set up some kind of filing system on your hard drive.  If you decide to keep them on your computer, be sure to back them up on a spare drive or on the cloud. 

Okay, moving on to printing these patterns – and this is where real problems kick in.  If you’re only printing cutting directions, you’re good to go.  But if you’re printing a paper-piecing pattern or applique pieces, it’s vital the pattern print to the correct size, or you’ll run into all kinds of issues.  Let’s look at how this works:

Here’s the print screen for the pattern Bed of Roses by Esther Aliu.  Everything looks pretty good at this point.  The paper is 8 ½ x 11.  There are 52-sheets loaded in the printer.  The print is set to go to my HP8600 (the only printer on my home network).  But if you notice as part of the print dialog, the box is checked beside Shrink Oversized Pages.  If you see this phrase or the phrase Fit/Fit to Page, make sure those boxes are unchecked.  You want to be sure Actual Size or Print at 100% or No Scaling is checked.  Any of those checked boxes will assure you your pattern will print to the correct size. 

In addition to making sure the correct print box is checked, I also like to verify the size with one more step.  Most downloadable PDF patterns have one of these somewhere in the document. 

With this Esther Aliu pattern, it’s on page 18.  Before I print the entire 52-page pattern, I print only page 18 and then I measure the 1-inch box.  If that box is exactly 1-inch square, I’m good to go.  But if it’s off any – even as little as 1/16-inch, it can throw the entire block off.  In this case, the square is exactly 1-inch, so I know my printed pattern is correct.  If your test square isn’t the required measurement, check your print dialog box to make sure the settings are correct and try again. 

One additional word about magazine patterns.  If I find a pattern I want to make in a quilt magazine, but don’t need anything else in the publication, I’ll scan the pattern and add it to my computer files.  This way I don’t have to keep up with another paper pattern and try to remember where on earth I put it.

If nothing else, I hope this blog takes the guess work and headache out of printing PDF files.  I also hope it helps you recognize what makes a pattern a really good one – or a really great one.  There are so many choices out there for quilters now.  And the number of patterns seems to only be limited by the designers’ imaginations.

Until Next Week, Keep Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

*There are several current publications, such as The Kansas City Star Quilt Sampler by Barbara Brackman, which feature the Star’s quilt blocks with clearer directions.  If you want to try some of these blocks, this is the initial direction I’d go before trying to interpret the original published patterns.

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