Negative and Positive Space — the Ying and Yang of Quilting

When you ask a quilter if they are an artist, a hobbyist, or a sewer, generally you’ll find a good chunk of us will fall into all three categories.  Some definitely consider fabric their medium for creating works of art.  Some consider quilting a hobby and others quilt along with sewing garments or other crafty things.   However, in one aspect all of us fall into the artist category because we deal with both positive and negative space. 

The word negative is the key to a lot of ideas – those black and white images produced on a strip of film way back in the day when the camera was a separate piece of technology not on your phone, a bad attitude, or a bank account in serious trouble.  However, for quilters the terms negative and positive can be broken down into two simple ideas:

Positive space is the area of interest.

Negative space is the background. 

What I want to try to do with this blog is define both spaces in the realms of traditional quilts and modern quilters.  This blog is by no means the definitive work on either.  I just hope it proves to be a “jumping off” place to spark your interest and get you thinking.  There are lots of articles and books on this subject by artists who have studied negative and positive space a lot more thoroughly than I have. 

First, let’s take a look at a “traditional quilt” and its use of negative space.  With a traditional quilt, the background is considered the negative.  It doesn’t matter what color the background is – ecru, gray, black, red, pink, purple or any other color – the negative space is the background fabric.  The background can be solid, a micro-print, tone-on-tone, etc. 

The above image is a “traditional” quilt – it has pieced blocks, sashing, and borders.  In this quilt you can see the background fabric is a mottled fabric and it enhances the block in several ways:

  1.  It’s used as a buffer between the blocks.  Used as the sashing between the blocks, rows, and borders, it separates each block and each row.
  2. It allows the viewer to have the time to view each block and gives the eyes a resting space before moving onto the next block.
  3. It creates a framework around each block, each row, and then the quilt center.
  4. It enhances the positive images of the quilt – the areas of interest – the blocks and borders. 

Let’s see what happens when we take away the negative space in a traditional quilt.

This is still a nice quilt.  However, in keeping with my Zone of Truth caveat, it makes me just a bit jumpy on the inside.  There is nowhere for my eyes to take a break and “catch a breath” before moving onto the next block (although I seriously like the secondary design this quilt has going on).  I am one of those folks who liken viewing a quilt to taking a long, slow stroll. I like to look at a block or two or a specific   area on the quilt, think about it, and then move onto the next section.  When the negative space is removed, there’s nowhere for my eyes to do that.  I feel I must take in the entire quilt at one time.

This quilt is the same.  The 1718 Coverlet is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever, but it’s a struggle to look at because there is literally no negative space.  It was English paper pieced and owned by the Brown family of the United Kingdom.  The Coverlet was purchased at a 2002 auction by the British Quilters Guild.  I think it’s remarkable the Coverlet has held up as well as it has because most of the fabric used is silk.  Despite its “peerage” I still think it’s difficult to look at.  I have to force myself to pause at each block and look at it closely. 

However,  there is one group of quilters who are absolutely own the use of negative space – the Modern Quilters.  This particular group of quilters uses bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, and alternate grid work. 

Quilt by Karen Abraham

These quilts embrace negative space and use it to its best advantage.  It surrounds the pieced blocks and can serve to bring calm to the brightest color scheme.  Personally, I find modern quilts thought-provoking and soothing all at the same time. 

Quilt by Jennifer Meakins

The aspect I find so different between modern quilts and traditional quilts is the actual quilting.  Traditional quilts use quilting to enhance the pieced blocks and fill in the negative areas.  Modern quilts use the quilting as part of the overall quilt design.  Skeptical about this?  Okay, think about your own quilting.  When you chose a pattern and piece the quilt, at what point do you consider the actual quilting?  You may be careful with the piecing process so that the quilting process is easy, but when do you actually think about the quilting design?  Once the quilt is finished and you must consider how to quilt it?  When you talk with your long arm artist to decide if an edge-to-edge or some custom quilting will enhance the quilt?  Or do you consider how you will quilt the quilt before you make the first cut into the fabric?

Quilters who are accustomed to working with lots of negative space often already have the quilting planned in their minds before they start piecing because the negative space works in tandem with the piecing for an overall effect. 

In both kinds of quilts – both modern and traditional – negative space plays as much an important role as the positive does.  Negative space offers balance, symmetry and is the Ying to the Yang of design.  And the ways to work with negative space offer so many quilting options. 

  1.  It can create movement.  Quilted lines, waves, arrows, etc., can draw the eye across the movement.  Curvy designs can soften hard angles and lines.
  2. It can showcase blocks.  This is especially true with traditionally pieced quilts. 
  3. Negative space can be used to create optical illusions, such as in this quilt:

Quilt here and above by Steph Skardal

For me, negative space is used most optimally when it serves to deconstruct the traditional.  This can be done with both applique and pieced quilts.  All it takes is for the principle of subtraction to be applied to a pattern.  For instance, take this traditionally pieced quilt:

Now let’s subtract a few blocks and see how it looks:

You’ve got more negative space and more places for your eyes to rest.  There are also lots of opportunities for quilting.  The deliberate subtraction (or deconstruction) of a traditionally pieced quilt completely changes the look. 

Applique quilts go through a similar process when they’re deconstructed.  Below is a pretty traditional Rose of Sharon Quilt.

Look what happens when we subtract some of the blocks.  The entire “mood” of the quilt changes.  Alter the fabric from the traditional red, green, and yellow to some of the brighter, new fabric lines, and it’s almost unrecognizable as a Rose of Sharon. 

With most quilts, some negative space is needed to assure symmetry and balance.  Which raises the question, do all quilts need negative space?  Well, no.  The 1718 Coverlet answers that question.   However, if you’re like me and feel just a bit anxious as you view the quilt, you may tend to believe quilts need the negative space to balance the busy-ness in the other areas of the quilt.  Most  do have blocks or parts of blocks which serve this purpose.  For instance, consider Log Cabin Quilts. One side of the blocks is usually constructed out of a light-colored fabric (at least lighter than the other fabrics). 

It’s this lighter color which allows the eyes to rest as they travel across the quilt.  Look what happens when half the block doesn’t contrast as much.

It’s difficult to really see what’s happening with this quilt.  The contrasting logs don’t have to be light-colored fabrics, but they do need to be in sharp contrast to the other fabrics. 

Then there are quilts such as this

The Snowball block is the joiner block for this quilt.

Which use “joiner” blocks instead of sashing to separate the blocks.  Generally they help the quilt form a secondary pattern, but they also tend to have more negative space than the primary blocks, giving your eyes a place to rest. 

So now that you may have decided to construct a quilt with lots of negative space, how are you planning to quilt it?  I have a few favorite techniques I use.  My list is by no means exhaustive, but these are generally my “go-to” quilting formulas for large areas of blank space.

  •  Echo the shape of the block – After the inside of the block is quilted, outline outside of the block a few times, with each line of quilting about ¼-inch away from the other.  Then use some filler loops, meanders, or swirls to move to the next block.
  • “Wallpaper” the quilt – Simply use horizontal or vertical rows of straight line quilting to cover the quilt.  Wavy lines can also be used, as well as grids.  It really doesn’t matter, chose one and cover the quilt with it.
  • Break the background into shapes and quilt each shape – This one is a lot of fun.  Before you put the quilt on the long arm or sandwich it up for your domestic machine, divide the negative spaces into shapes.  Mark the spaces with a water-soluble pen (or your preferred marking tool) and then quilt the outline of the shape.  For instance, if you’ve divided your background into rectangles, stitch around the outline of the rectangles once or twice.  Then fill the center with tiny meanders, loops, or whatever you like.  Then move to the next shape, outline, and repeat.  When you’re finished, you will find some really interesting texture has emerged. 
  • “Ghost” in the blocks – This one may require a little ruler work unless you can freehand some perfectly straight lines.  This technique works like this – let’s say you just quilted an Ohio Star, and there’s enough negative space to quilt another Ohio Star – just without an actual pieced block there…

Wallpaper Quilting

Squares with different quilting motifs

Quilt and “Ghost Quilting” by Beth Sellars

This certainly makes for remarkable texture and a great deal of eye candy.

Personally, I think all my quilts need a least a little negative space.  This “empty” area  gives the eyes somewhere to take a breather and it adds symmetry and balance to a quilt.  Without negative space, I feel almost anxious when I look at a quilt.  I hope this blog has explained some of the options negative space holds for you as a quilter, and it’s given you some ideas on how to handle it.

Until Next Week, remember the Difference is in the Details!

Love and Stitches,


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