Quilt Patterns: How to Read Them and What to Look For

Today I want to talk a bit more about quilt patterns.  In a recent blog, we went over what makes a good quilt pattern:

  • It has the unfinished measurements for each block unit
  • It has the unfinished measurements for each block
  • It offers the quilt in several different sizes
  • It has illustrations, line drawings, or pictures to give us a visual boost as we follow the directions

A great quilt pattern will have all of the above and the following:

  • “Oops” room – The pattern’s fabric requirements add a little extra to each measurement to cover any cutting mistakes.  It doesn’t have to be much, as little as 1/8th to ¼ of a yard works just fine.  Even me, for as long as I’ve quilted, can make cutting errors.  That tad of extra fabric can really turn out to be a helpful thing.  How do you know if a pattern allows for a little fabric than the quilt actually requires?  Sometimes this information is in the pattern directions.  Somewhere in all the verbiage the designer may state there isn’t any need to purchase additional fabric because the directions call for more material than actually needed. 

If you can’t find this information anywhere in the pattern, you can always ask Google.  Simply Google the question “Does quilt pattern designer __________ ask for more fabric than needed in their patterns?”  Sometimes Google will return with a definite answer.  Past knowledge is also something to go on.  For instance, I’ve made a few Judy Niemeyer quilts.  I know she always adds a bit more fabric than actually needed in her fabric requirements because I have a history with her patterns.  I don’t purchase any extra (unless I just like the fabric).  However, I have also used EQ 8 for designing several of my own patterns.  I know when I print the EQ fabric requirements, there is a little “oops” room, but not much. 

After researching this question for a bit, I have discovered most  pattern designers do add a bit of extra to their fabric requirements.  Exactly how much depends on the designer.  There are no industry standards. 

  • Gives you a “jumping off” place for color decisions – While pattern designers develop patterns because they love what they do, they also have to sell patterns in order to cover their expenses so they can design more patterns.  A large portion of the sales depends on the visual representation of the pattern.  In other words, the picture on the front of the pattern will be as visually appealing as they can make it.  Which is great for us, because it gives us something to go on as we pick and choose our patterns.  A quilter may decide they like the quilt just the way it appears on the pattern and will find fabric which closely matches what the designer used.  Others (like me) may prefer to shop their stash first and only purchase what is needed.  And still others may make the quilt to match a room or color preference.  If you decide to change the colors up, use your cell phone to take a picture of the quilt on the pattern, change the filter to view it in black and white, and then make your fabric selections based on lights, mediums, and darks.
  • Is clearly labeled – Somewhere in the pattern, it’s really great to have a label indicating if the quilt is for beginners, intermediate, or advanced quilters.  I defined these categories in the earlier blog:  However, let me add if you feel a bit bored in the category you’re in, don’t be afraid to move up to a more difficult pattern.  If the quilt proves a bit too hard for your liking, you can tuck it away for a while longer and bring it back out later.
  • If the pattern includes applique pieces, it states clearly if the applique pattern is already reversed, or you need to reverse it – Depending on the applique technique used, this information is pretty important if you want your applique pattern facing in the correct direction.  If the pattern is congruent (you can draw a line down the center of the pattern and it’s the same on both sides) this doesn’t matter so much.  However, if the figure is like this:
You could draw a line down the center of Sunbonnet Sue and the two sides would be different. So Sue is not congruent and needs to be reversed before cutting out the templates on fusible and the wrong side of the fabric.

And both sides are different, it does.  Techniques such as Apliquik and some freezer paper methods need the image reversed. 

  • Lists the designer’s website – Most designers, even the newest ones, have a Facebook page or a website.  And while most designers work really hard to produce error-free patterns, mistakes do happen.  They use their Facebook or website to list these errors and supply the corrections.  It’s really a good idea to check the website or Facebook page before starting the quilt to see if any mistakes are there.

Okay, so let’s say you have your pattern in hand and are ready to start your quilt.  You find the fabric requirements, pull together your choices, and are ready to begin slicing and dicing your material.  This is the next step, right?

Nope.  Not even close.

Let’s take a step back to where you have your pattern in hand.  The very next step to take is reading the pattern.  From the first page to the last page, read the pattern. 

Every word.

Even the parts which are not clear to you.

To the end.

Now go back and read the pattern a second time, this time a little slower.  Keep a pencil, pen, or highlighter handy to make notes.  If the thought of marking up your pattern bothers you, make a copy of it.  Because this copy is only for you, and you’ve purchased the pattern, no copyright laws are violated.  As you read the pattern through this second time, take special consideration of the following:

This pattern is Hope for Tomorrow designed by Rana Heredia. It can be purchased on the
  1.  The pattern cover – This should have a color illustration or picture of the completed pattern.  It has the name of the quilt and usually has the designer’s name.  You can glean a lot of information from the cover.  You can consider if the color scheme used would work for you.  If the quilt has a center medallion, you may want to think about using a panel for it instead of appliqueing or piecing one.  It may also have the publisher listed. 
  2. The pattern back — This part of the pattern may contain the pattern number (showing this pattern isn’t the designer’s first).  It may also have a bar code, which means the designer took the time and applied for one of these.  A QR code like this:

May also be present.  When you scan these with your phone, additional information about the pattern or a video will pop up. Many patterns, like the one featured in this blog, has the fabric requirements on the back.

One feature on the back which doesn’t get a lot of attention but should be noted is the Copyright Statement.  This piece of information can tell you a lot about intended usage – such as can you make this quilt for resale?  Are you permitted to enter a quilt made by this pattern in show?  Good designers spend hundreds hours making patterns and often have quite a chunk of money invested in designing software and fabric.  The Copyright Statement helps protect them.  However, even if you can’t find a Copyright Statement anywhere in the pattern, remember all patterns carry a copyright, even if it’s not stated. 

  •  The “Innards”  — The bulk of information about the quilt and the directions is sandwiched between the cover and the back.  The second time you read through the directions, pay attention to a few things. 
  • Is it logical?  A pattern is like a recipe.  The success of the next step depends on the previous one.  The pattern should follow an understandable order.
  •  Is it well-written or does it have a lot of typos?  Maybe it’s the left-over school teacher in me, but if a pattern has a lot of grammatical errors, I tend to question the designer’s attention to detail.
  • Can you follow the order of the steps?  Most patterns number them.  If the one you’re working with didn’t, read through it a third time to make sure you can follow the pattern and know the procedural order. 
  • Make sure you know what the abbreviations mean.

Now let’s move to the fabric requirements and notions section of the pattern.  I’d like to share with you the way I handle this part.  The first step I take is to make a copy of this part of the pattern because I generally mark it up to within an inch of its life.  I rarely (if ever) will make my quilt identical to the one on the pattern cover.  Therefore, the colors I need will differ from the colors of material listed in the fabric requirements.  For instance, let’s look at the supply list for Hope for Tomorrow:

Center Strings – ½ yard black

Side Strings – Assorted prints, ½ yard

Inner Border – 3/8-yard pink     

Vine – 6 ½ x 10-inches gray

Leaves — (3) 1/8-yard of low-volume black and white prints and pink prints

Bird – 6 x 9-inch black polka dot

Binding – ½ yard black and white print

Backing and Batting – 55” x 70” inches

This is a great color combination, but it couldn’t live at my house because I have nothing pink and black.  When I saw this quilt pattern, I pictured it in Christmas reds and greens to use as a table runner during the holiday season…or maybe as a wall hanging.  This is how I would take those fabric requirements and mark them up.

Center Strings – ½ yard black white-on-white snowflake print

Side Strings – Assorted prints, ½ yard – Various Christmas prints, ½ yard total

Inner Border – 3/8-yard pink  red

Vine – 6 ½ x 10-inches gray green

Leaves — (3) 1/8-yard of low-volume black and white prints and pink prints

               (3) 1/8 yard of greens and Poinsettia reds, equally divided

Bird – 6 x 9-inch black polka dot  Cardinal red

Binding – ½ yard black and white print ½ yard red and white striped print, cut as true bias binding so it looks like a candy cane.

Backing and Batting – 55” x 70” inches

Keep in mind all of this would be in my own dubiously neat handwriting.  So you can see why it’s a good idea to make a copy of this part of the pattern.  Plus, the next time I make the quilt, I may want to change it into an Easter pattern, so there would be different fabric decisions.  If I kept writing and re-writing fabric choices on the supplies section, it would be impossible to keep everything straight. 

If the quilt pattern has lots of moving parts (i.e. it’s got lots of pieces or lots of applique), you may find it will include one of these: 

I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful these are.  You can cut a swatch of the fabric you chose for each needed piece and tape or glue them next to the description.  This really helps keep things crystal clear with more difficult patterns – especially applique.  If your pattern doesn’t have one of these, you can always make your own.  In fact, if the quilt pattern you’re using is complex, making your own swatch sheet can eliminate countless mistakes and headaches! 

The next thing to read back over are the notions.  Some notions are so standard they may not even be listed, such as thread.  But other items may be specifically mentioned, such as a specialty ruler.  Maybe it’s just me, but every time I encounter a pattern which calls for a special ruler, I immediately ask “Why? Why can’t I just use a normal ruler?”  Some of my long-time readers know I don’t like to have anything in my quilt room which can’t multi-task.  The only single-action tool I have is this:

And I hope I don’t ever have to use it.  The problem with some specialty rulers is this:  You can only use them to make one type of block or block unit.  To me, that’s not a good use of my money.  If I have a pattern which calls for a special ruler, I immediately search for any fine print on the pattern.  It’s in this fine print you can often find ways around having to purchase another ruler.  If there’s no fine print, I Google the pattern again to see if there is a tutorial or YouTube video on how to make the quilt.  In those resources are often found alternate construction methods which don’t require the ruler. 

If you take another look at the Hope for Tomorrow pattern, you’ll notice the leaves and bird are appliqued.  I need to find out if the pattern for the bird is reversed. The leaf doesn’t matter since both sides are congruent.  The reason I need the bird reversed is because I plan on using the raw-edge applique technique, which requires the reversed pattern for placement on the fusible web and the wrong side of the fabric (Go here: for additional instruction).  I think the only applique technique which doesn’t require the pattern to be reversed is freezer paper on top). 

Bird on front of applique pattern
The bird template is facing the opposite direction from the bird on the cover

I also need to know if the applique pattern is full-sized or if I need to enlarge it.  For instance, I’m using a cone flower pattern to make a wall hanging. It clearly states it should be enlarged 200%.  However, the applique pattern for Hope for Tomorrow says nothing about it needing to be enlarged, so we will go with the assumption it isn’t required.  But the pattern does not state if the templates are reversed anywhere on the pattern.   We have to compare the template to the picture of the quilt.  Since the birds are facing opposite directions, we know the applique pattern is reversed, even though we not directly told so. 

At this point, we have: 

  • Read the pattern through at least twice.
  • Googled the pattern to see if the designer allows additional fabric for “oops” moments and has issued any corrections to the pattern.
  • We have chosen the colors and fabric for our quilt.
  • We have scanned any QR code for additional information.
  • If there’s applique involved, we have determined if the templates are already reversed or if we need to reverse them ourselves.  We also know if they need to be enlarged.
  • We can logically follow all the construction steps.
  • We know if any special notions – such as particular rulers – are needed.
  • We know if the quilt pattern is a beginner, intermediate, or advanced.
  • We know if our plans for the quilt falls within the designer’s copyright statement.
  • We’ve developed our swatch sheet (if needed).
  • If we’re not using the same fabric as shown on the pattern cover, we’ve made a copy of the fabric requirements and marked them up with our own design ideas.

All of this information, and we haven’t even gotten to the inside of the pattern yet…which we will do next week. So until then….

Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


2 replies on “Quilt Patterns: How to Read Them and What to Look For”

My 48 year old son is terminal with glaucoma brain tumor. Would like to make the hope for tomorrow quilt I do get the pattern and is it free?

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