Making a Quilt Without a Pattern

It’s almost 2022…

We’ve covered quite a few topics this year, and with this blog, I’d like to tie a few of the concepts together and show you how some of the formulas work together to help you make the quilt you want to make.

To begin with, let’s take a look at this quilt:

And let’s decide, for whatever reason, you just have to make this quilt.  But there’s no pattern, you have no way to get in touch with the designer, but you really, really, want to make this quilt.  Where do you even start?  This is what I want to cover in my blog. I’ll also be upfront with you:  This is the way I work.  Other quilters may work through the process differently and still come up with the same results I will.  As with nearly all things quilty, there’s more than one way to do things, and you have to find out (mostly by trial and error) which method works best for you.  So, let’s take my process step by step. 

Step One – Check Your Resources

If you know the name of the quilt, you can use Google or Duck, Duck Go to see if you can find the pattern.  If you are viewing the quilt at a quilt show, sometimes the maker will list the designer or pattern on the label of the quilt, or it may be printed in the quilt catalogue or the information which is sometimes posted beside the quilt.  With this information in hand, quite often you can track down the quilt pattern on the internet.  If this is possible, go ahead and purchase the pattern from the designer.  I realize with some quilts it’s fairly easy to determine how to make them without pattern in hand, but keep in mind quilt designers make their livelihood from their patterns.  Help them keep their expenses covered by buying the pattern.  This will allow them to continue to design patterns for us.

Step Two – Where to Start

If you can’t find the pattern anywhere, now you have to decide whether to proceed or not.  If possible, take pictures of the quilt, or make screen shot of it on a tablet, phone, or laptop.  However you grab the image, it’s helpful to have the ability to enlarge the entire quilt and/or certain parts of it.  Once the image is procured, look closely at two areas:  The largest quilt block and the block which you believe will give you the biggest challenge when constructing it.  Sometimes this will be the same block.  For me with this quilt, the most difficult blocks are those pieced cornerstones.  These are small and I will need to be careful with accurate cutting and handling the bias.  The largest blocks aren’t complicated at all.  They are a nine patch, which I can make without any problems.  So, why do we look at the largest square? 

They take up the most quilt space and the smaller blocks and sashing play off of it.  It’s important to know exactly how big to make it.  If you’re copying a quilt you can actually get your hands on, this is easy. You can measure the block and keep moving.  However, if all you have is an image, an estimated guess will have to work.  With the quilt above, I know the largest block is 14 1/8-inch finished.  Now I must add a half-inch seam allowance.  So, 14 1/8 + ½ = 14 5/8-inches.  Once the nine-patch blocks are constructed, they should measure 14 5/8-inches, unfinished.

Next the measurements of the block unit must be determined.  Since I have this quilt in my possession, I can actually measure the units and add ½-inch seam allowance.  If you’re making an educated guess with a block, I suggest graphing the block out on paper or with a computer program to get your unit measurements.  With my 14 5/8-inch unfinished block, I know the small squares 3 ½-inches, finished.  Adding the ½-inch seam allowance makes my cutting directions to read 4-inch squares.  I will cut four 4-inch squares.  The large center square measures 7-inches square, so I simply need to add the ½-inch seam allowance and cut these squares at 7 ½-inches. The side rectangles measure 7-inches by 3 ½-inches. I will need to a half inch to each of these measurements to have the seam allowances.  They will be cut at 7 ½ by 4-inches.

If you’re a regular reader, you know adding the seam allowances follows the information I gave you in this blog: Which you may want to keep handy as we work through this quilt. 

Step Three – Construct the Remaining Blocks

With this quilt, that means the pieced cornerstones.  And if you look at the quilt, you will observe it has not only square pieced cornerstones, but also triangular pieced cornerstones.  We’ll work with the square ones first.

There are four 4-patches, a center square and four rectangles.  All of the squares – from the one in the middle to every one of the squares in the four-patch – are ¾-inch finished.  When the ½-inch seam allowance is tacked on, this means the squares will be cut out at 1 ¼-inches.  The finished rectangle is 1 5/8-inches x ¾-inches.  When the ½-inch seam allowance is added, they will be cut out at 2 1/8-inches x 1 ¼-inches.  After they’re assembled, the pieced cornerstones should measure 6 1/8-inches, unfinished and 5 2/3-inches finished.

The triangular pieced cornerstones work differently.  If you’re like me, my first inclination is to make a square pieced cornerstone and then slice it on the diagonal.  This can work, if on the diagonal cut, you allow for the ¼-inch seam allowance (in other words, don’t cut it directly on the diagonal, but slightly off center).  However, this wastes fabric and if you don’t get that diagonal cut exact, you may have a difficult time getting the pieced triangle to fit exactly the way it should in the sashing.  It’s easier (and more accurate) to piece this cornerstone in a triangle.  Some of the initial measurements are the same as the square pieced corner stones, but you’ll cut fewer.  You’ll need six 1 ¼-inch squares plus two 2 1/8-inch x 1 ¼-inch rectangles.  However, if you look along the long, diagonal side of the rectangle, you can see we need five triangles.  Here’s where the HST formula comes into play.  We know by looking at the whole pieced cornerstone and the triangular pieced cornerstone that they are symmetrical – in other words, we could take two of the triangular cornerstones and join them along the diagonal and it would be a perfect matched for the pieced square.  So, from this, we can safely assume the triangles at the edge would be half of the finished ¾-inch square.  Knowing this, we can use the HST formula I introduced in my blog :  We take the finished size of the square, add a 7/8-inch and this gives us the measurement of the square needed to cut in half – ¾-inch + 7/8-inch = 1 5/8-inch.  We need to cut three 1 5/8-inch squares and then cut them in half on the diagonal. 

The solid cornerstone squares and triangles are next.  These are easy.  They need to be the same unfinished size as the pieced cornerstones – 6 1/8-inches.  To determine the size of the solid triangle cornerstones, take the finished square measurement and use the HST formula again – 5 2/3-inches + 7/8-inches = 6 ½-inches.  Cut these squares once on the diagonal. 

Step Four – Sashing

If per chance the quilt you’re copying doesn’t have sashing, you can skip this step.  However, the quilt used for this blog has some really nice, stripped sashing.  And despite the fact this strip-pieced sashing looks complicated, it’s really not.  To get the length of the sashing, you normally would measure the largest blocks and cut the sashing the same length of the block.  However, this quilt has cornerstones, and you must allow for them.  When we measure the sashing on the quilt, it’s 9 7/8-inches in length.  We know the sashing must be the same height as the cornerstones, so it must measure 5 2/3-inches.  There are five strips all the same width, which means we must divide 5 2/3-inches by 5, and this gives us 1 1/8-inches.  For both the length and width of the strips, we have to add 1/2-inch seam allowance:

9 7/8-inches + ½-inches = 10 3/8-inches long

1 1/8-inches + ½-inch = 1 5/8-inches wide

Step Five – Corner Triangles and Setting Triangles

Here we bring in one of my favorite formulas – Quilting Cake or 1.414.  Let’s work with the four corner triangles first.  These are the smaller of the two types of triangles.  To determine the measurements of the square which will be cut in half on the diagonal, take the size of the largest finished square, divide by 1.414, and 7/8-inch for the seam allowance.  Our largest square is 14 1/8-inches finished.

14 1/8 divided by 1.414 = 10

10 + 7/8 = 10 7/8

We cut two 10 7/8-inch squares and cut each once on the diagonal.

Now for the setting triangles.  Still using the largest block’s measurements, we multiply by Quilter’s Cake and add 1 ¼-inches for the seam allowance.

14 1/8 x 1.414 = 20-inches

20-inches + 1 ¼-inches = 21 ¼-inches.

There are eight setting triangles, and we can get four triangles per square.  We’ll cut two 21 ¼-inch squares and then cut them twice on the diagonal. 

Step Six – Borders and Cornerstones

This is the easiest part.  Even if you’ve copied this quilt down to the closest 1/8-inch you can, the process of putting on borders should be done correctly so you won’t have wavy borders.  It’s not hard.

  1.  Square up the center of your quilt and measure it lengthwise at the edges and middle of the quilt.  Add these three numbers together and divide by three.  Cut your lengthwise borders this measurement.  With this quilt, the side borders are 59 3/8-inches x 4-inches, finished.  When ½-inch seam allowance is added, this brings the cutting measurements to roughly 60-inches x 4 ½-inches.  Pin, sew, and press the seam allowance towards the border.
  2. For the top and bottom border, you measure across the width of the quilt three times:  at either edge and the middle.  Add the three measurements and divide by three.  With this quilt, you should come with 67 3/8.  However, there are cornerstones at all four corners, and these measure 4-inches.  Since there are two on either end of the top and bottom border, we subtract 8-inches (for both 4-inch cornerstones) and we cut the top and bottom borders the same as the side ones – roughly 60-inches (technically, it’s 59 7/8, but I really dislike 1/8-inch measurements).  Cut four 4 ½-inch border cornerstones (4-inches + ½-inch seam allowance), sew to each border end and attach to the quilt center.

Annnndddd you’re done…well, all except for quilting, binding, and putting on a label.  All the measurements I’ve given you can be plugged into almost any quilt you want to copy or any quilt you design yourself.  Even the most complicated ones.  However, before I end this number-heavy blog, let me throw in a few “Sherri-isms” I go through when I copy an antique quilt or work through designing my own. 

  •  Copying antique quilts or quilts made from blocks which have no copyright (because they’ve been around for hundreds of years), is fine.  Copying a designer’s pattern that’s still under copyright is wrong.  As a matter of fact, it’s illegal.  I give myself permission to research the quilt for several days before I commit to copying it.  Yes, I feel this strongly about it.  Designers sell their patterns in order to pay their bills and put food on their table.  If I find the pattern, I buy it.
  •  I do the math, set it aside, then re-do the math a few days later.  If I come up with the same results, I get to cutting the fabric.
  • If the desired look is one which falls into a particular time frame, I use Reproduction Fabrics that fit the era.
  • While these directions are literally step-by-step instructions, if I were making the quilt, there are a few of them I’d change:
  • I would strip set the four patches and sashing.
  • I would definitely use a focus fabric or a fussy cut print for the center squares in the large block.
  • This quilt offers several opportunities for chain piecing.  I’d use that technique as many times as I could.

One last thought before I leave you.  When you’re copying an antique quilt or developing your own design, remember the differences between assembling an on-point quilt (which is what is illustrated in this blog) and a rows-and-columns quilt like this one:

With a rows-and-columns quilt, you sew the sashing on the right side of the block, sew the blocks into rows and sew the rows into the quilt center. 

An on-point quilt is sewn together like this:

I always told my students to tilt their heads to the left when dealing with an on-point quilt.  That small change in your perspective allows you to see how the quilt is put together.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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