There’s kind of an ongoing joke among folks who have quilted for a while: Which came first, the pattern or the fabric? Yes, it’s kind of corny and yes, it’s a direct derivative of the old chicken and egg joke, but it’s still valid. Do you buy fabric for a pattern, or do you buy a pattern to use up the fabric you bought weeks ago? Or do you do a bit of both? I would like to push the boundaries a bit further by asking, do you know what kind of pattern to buy? I mean do you know what kind of quilter you are, so you’ll know what type of pattern to toss in your cart before you check out? Let me explain.
You see, most patterns have some kind of label on them indicating what skill level is needed to successfully deal with the quilt pattern. Usually these labels fall into the categories of beginner, intermediate, advanced, and the ubiquitous “for all levels.” However most quilt patterns don’t define these labels, which makes it difficult to determine if you’ve purchased a pattern which falls within your skill set. What I’d like to do first is loosely define what each label means.
- Can sew a seam in a straight line (more or less…somedays I have a hard time sewing a straight seam).
- Can follow basic pattern instructions and recognizes basic quilting terms.
- Familiar with the most frequently used quilting jargon.
- Can measure and cut fabric in a straight line with a ruler, mat, and rotary cutter.
- Can press fabric and knows the difference between pressing and ironing.
- Is familiar with the basic functions of their sewing machine: move the needle, wind a bobbin, vary stitch length and width, sew a straight stitch and a zig zag stitch, and can clean and oil their machine.
- Has completed (more or less successfully) several projects.
- Is proficient in multiple quilting techniques.
- Has taken classes (either in person or via internet) and/or has read numerous books on quilting to improve their skill set.
- Can sew amazingly straight lines.
- Knows how to handle curves, paper piecing, and applique.
- Very familiar with quilting terms and jargon.
- Knows how to cut in the most efficient manner.
- Has a repertoire of tips and tricks on various quilting topics.
- Is becoming comfortable working with color.
- Can balance a range of print sizes within a design.
- Knows a great deal about threads and needles.
- Has sewn with a variety of fabric textures.
- Has many years of sewing experience.
- Has mastered many techniques.
- May be designing their own patterns.
- Have taken classes (either in person or via the internet) from experts.
- Has quilted many, many years and has tried almost every quilt block out there.
- Sews with precision, expertise and near perfection.
- Knows most quilting terms and jargon.
- Discovers and shares quilting tips and tricks.
- Takes only advanced classes (Meh – I’ve been known to take a class simply because I like the teacher or the folks taking the class).
- Has years of experience combining color palettes and scaled prints.
- Knows how to work with all types of fabric and may even be designing their own.
- Completes some or all of their quilt tops from start to finish – including the quilting.
- Fluent in all characteristics of threads and needles.
If you’ve read through these characteristics and can definitely place yourself in one of these categories, that’s awesome! With other quilters, there may be some definite gray areas. For instance, in the intermediate quilter category, applique is mentioned as one of the techniques to master. I was introduced to applique as a beginner and by the time I hit the intermediate stage, I was already fluent in it. And if you’ve sewn other projects before quilting, don’t put yourself in the beginner category. You may not have made quilts, but you know how to read a pattern and are familiar with your machine and different fabrics. I would put folks like this in an advanced beginner group. Maybe construct your first quilt from a beginner pattern, but if it bores you to tears, next time reach for an intermediate one.
All of the above information is important, but what about the labels on the patterns? Do the beginner, intermediate, and advanced labels on quilt patterns match the labels put on quilters? The answer is “Yes, — for the most part.” Beginner patterns are very detailed, have lots of pictures, and are generally straight line sewing. Intermediate patterns are not as detailed. For instance, these patterns may tell you to make 48 four-patch units, measuring 2 ½-inches unfinished, but not tell you how to make them. They assume you have a favorite construction method and will use that to complete the four patch units. Intermediate patterns may use multiple techniques (such as piecing and applique) and include curved piecing. They use complex color palettes and advanced blocks and block units. Or they may take a basic block and put a new twist on it.
Advanced patterns assume you have several quilts under your belt and are familiar with lots of techniques. They may employ a super complex skill set, such as intricate and realistic paper piecing. This category of quilt patterns includes miniature quilts – the scaled down version of the larger original. The applique may use many, many small and detailed pieces. The piecing may take a basic unit and break it down into multiple, complex pieces. For instance, a pattern may call for six side-setting triangles for an on-point quilt, but each triangle could be made from 20 smaller triangles. Often the directions are brief and there are fewer pictures than even in an intermediate quilt pattern. These patterns are detailed, but so rewarding.
The last category of quilt pattern is the All-Skill Level pattern. These patterns assume someone who has never quilted before can follow the directions and successfully make the quilt top. These types of patterns are frequently offered as a free bonus when you purchase pre-cut fabrics. I admit, I have issues with these patterns. Some of them are very well-written and are fun to make. Others…not so much.
Now that I’ve defined the beginner, intermediate, and advanced labels for both patterns and quilters, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what really makes a great quilt pattern. In a world where we all can self-publish either on paper or electronically, the market is flooded with quilt patterns. There is so much to choose from and so many of the designs are simply lovely – but just because the final product is breathtaking, doesn’t mean the designer knows how to write a good pattern. Here are the characteristics of what I think makes a great quilt pattern:
- The unfinished sizes of each block unit are given. Take a look at this quilt block
This block is called Birds in the Air and it’s made up of half-square triangles, small triangles, and one large triangle. Let’s say the quilt directions tell us the unfinished block measures 6 ½-inches. That’s great, but it would be even better if the pattern would say exactly how large those HSTs should be once they’re sewn together. If the initial directions tell us to cut two 3-inch squares of fabric and make the HSTs by sewing ¼-inch away from a diagonal line drawn on the square and cutting it apart on the drawn line, there is a chance – simply because we’re dealing with bias once the squares are cut in half – the HSTs could end up in several slightly different sizes and a bit wonky. I prefer to make my HST’s a bit larger and then cut them down to the correct unfinished size. Unless that size is given by the pattern, I’m working with trial, error, and a great deal of “hope this works out.” When dealing with any block unit which has some bias (such as HSTs, Square-in-a-Square, and Flying Geese) I always would rather make those unit’s just a tad larger and then trim them down to the required unfinished size. This also is super helpful in making sure all your unfinished blocks come out the right size, too.
2. More than one quilter has made the quilt before the pattern was published. Taking for granted the designer has at least made one of the quilts by the pattern, it’s always good to see if they asked other quilters to make the quilt by their directions. And here’s where I am going to turn into a pattern snob – remember what I told you about it’s super easy to self-publish now? I have absolutely nothing against self-publishing. Nothing at all. However, because it’s so easy to do this, it’s also easy to get in too much of a hurry and publish before enough testing is done. Take for instance this book, Simple Double-Dipped Quilts: Scrappy Quilts Built from Blocks with a Unique Twist.
Kim Diehl wrote this book and designed the patterns. As you flip through the book, it’s easy to see she employed several other quilters to piece these quilts. By doing this, Kim was assured her patterns were clear and understandable. Sure, Kim could make the quilt, but if someone else could also successfully make this quilt by her directions, Kim knew (for the most part), her directions were good.
Even if you’re not using a book, check to see who made the quilt on the pattern front.
If it’s not the designer, you’re assured at least one other person made the quilt according to the directions given.
3. Google the quilt pattern. You don’t necessarily have to do this for every pattern. Those from well-known quilt designers will have a track record of accuracy. However, before you purchase a pattern from a designer you’re unaware of or unsure of, take a couple of minutes to whip out your cell phone and Google the pattern. More than likely, the designer and bits of information about them will pop up. Move past this and hit the image tab. If no other images appear except for the quilt made by the designer, you may want to back away from the pattern. A couple of issues may have occurred, the first being the age of the pattern. If it’s a relatively new pattern, no one may have had the time to make the quilt. You may want to wait a little while before you commit to it. Give it some time and see if others can successfully make the quilt.
The second issue may have to do with the directions. Go back and read what Google says about the designer. If you read several negative reviews about the directions, you definitely want to back away.
Ask me how I know.
4. Corrections are given. No matter how careful pattern designers are, mistakes are made. These aren’t made deliberately, but people are human, so errors happen. Most pattern designers – even the new, obscure ones – have a web page or blog. The good designers post corrections on their web site or blog. Quite often these corrections will come up in your Google search of the pattern and designer.
One last word about patterns before we call it a week. I consider myself an advanced quilter. After 33 years, numerous quilts, an eagerness to try any technique, and an impressive quilting library, I think I can label myself as advanced. However, I do keep some beginner quilt patterns in my studio. I have these hanging around for several reasons. First, these are really fun quilts to make. I enjoy constructing them and quilting them. Second, if I’m involved with an advance quilt which really requires some concentration and determination, there will come a point when I need a break. An easy quilt is a great way to have some mindless, productive sewing and still have a good time. Third, there always seems to come a time when I need a baby gift, a chemo quilt, or some occasion when a quilt is just the thing to give. By having a simple quilt pattern tucked back, I can quickly put a quilt together and get it bound and quilted. On a side note, I’ve used one of these patterns so often, I know by heart how cut and sub-cut the fabric for the blocks. If I have scrappage left over from cutting out a quilt, I will cut it into the required sizes and tuck them away to make a quick, scrappy version of the quilt.
Quilting is fun. It’s supposed to be a stress-release. Making sure you’ve picked the right pattern keeps it tension-free. Be aware of what kind of quilter you are and what kind of pattern you need. If you’re getting kind of bored, move up to the next level and try a more challenging pattern. But above everything else, enjoy your time quilting!
Until next week, remember The Details Make the Difference!
Love and Stitches,