The Challenge of Quilt Designs

Have you ever seen a quilt design, whether in a magazine or in person, and fallen head over heels?

More often than I’d like to admit, I see a modern quilt that captures my heart and all of a sudden my imagination goes into overdrive. I start by scrolling through the mental Rolodex of fabrics in my stash and then I deliberate over how the quilt design would change by using these alternative fabrics or making slight modifications to the design. For many quilts, I don’t quite make it to the final step of creating the quilt I’ve dreamed up based on that beloved quilt pattern.

The first time I set my eyes on the Forest Daybreak Quilt designed by Brenda M. Ratliff and quilted by Kathy Koch, it captured my heart. I was charmed by the overall flow of the quilt and its promise of simple piecing. As a woman who wears turquoise glasses, I can’t deny the fabric choices in ranges of gray, teal, and pops of chartreuse fueled my desire to make this quilt.

Not only did I start dreaming up what my version would look like, I started showing it to anyone and everyone in the office who quilts.  Wouldn’t it be great to see a variety of interpretations for this one improvisational quilt? What colors would other quilters choose? Would everyone follow the cutting requirements of the pattern, or would they deviate with wider or narrower strips?

In reality, I could only talk one person into making the quilt with me. She is in the final stages of binding, while I am still in the throes of quilt design decisions. My persistent indecisiveness paired with my questionable fabric choices, featuring a rainbow color palette and polka dot prints, make figuring out what to do with my strips so much more difficult than I anticipated.

Right now, I’m calling it my Polka Dot Disaster Quilt, but I’m hoping you all can help me remove Disaster from the title.

In my head, it seemed like a brilliant idea to use various polka dot fabrics with light and dark backgrounds and a mix of solids, some pastel and some bright. Apparently, outside of my head, this wasn’t such a stellar idea…or maybe my approach to this improv quilt is the culprit.

I began my version by pairing one light strip with one dark strip and sewing them together. Here’s where I may have created a problem for myself: I always matched a polka dot print with a solid, I didn’t sub-cut my strips so the pieces are all roughly the same size, and almost all of the diagonal seams are going in the same direction. So, it turns out I didn’t really allow myself to improvise at all.

I’m not sure how to resolve this quilt design issue so I took it to the handy dandy design wall looking for answers.

Here the black polka dot pieces create a bold line with a horizon of pastels (and maybe light polka dots) fading into the background?

Or, perhaps the polka dots meet in the middle with solids on either side? In this version of that idea, the large polka dot prints create columns within that section breaking up the zig zag of light and dark.

Here the darks, mostly polka dot prints with a few solids, create the diagonal horizon line.

I even roped our Social Media Manager, Carrie Sisk into the room to see if she could unravel this design disaster! We started talking about the possibility of adding narrow black strips in between the columns of color. Or maybe I need to make sub-cuts so I have smaller pieces to wield during the design process. I think diagonal seams going in the opposite direction is a must, but that’s the only thing I feel sure about.

Instead of recreating the quilt exactly as pictured, I decided to try to expand my horizons by choosing different fabrics and using Brenda’s directions as guidelines. I’m wishing I would have chosen a medley of fabrics in a limited color range or a fat quarter pack of coordinating fabrics. Or better still, the creativity within boundaries a quilt kit has to offer would have been helpful in preventing this design dilemma.

I walked away from the design wall, my strips in tow, feeling heartbroken and defeated by the Polka Dot Disaster Quilt. I am afraid to cut the strips down without a plan and I certainly don’t want to seam rip the little sewing I’ve done. What would you do if this quilt was yours?

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12 thoughts on “The Challenge of Quilt Designs

  1. I love polka dots! The strips might work better if they were thinner. The pastel colors seem blah, how about throwing in some jewel tones? Not good at design myself but thought I would throw in my two cents. Would a subtle pattern against the polka dots work better than solids?

  2. Take out the pastels. They are too stark of a difference. There are too many polka dots. There isn’t a balance. Try grays. If you want a pop color add just one solid, though a tone on tone would be a better option. You also need to have angles not squared off ends. It’s all about what is pleasing to the eye…

  3. I had a similar experience. Strips of fabric making one big chevron pattern. All solid material. I selected fabrics I saw in my minds eye but on execution it was ick ick ick. Stopped and I am using strips as I can in other projects. Big fail, but I moved on. Sometimes things just don’t work out.

  4. The large expanses of pastels or solids, for me anyway, overwhelm the polka dots. I think you’ve got too much going on–enough for a couple of quilts. Years ago I learned from Nancy Lee Chong what she calls “the heap method.” Take all the fabrics you think you want and drop them on the floor in a heap. If something shrieks out at you, remove it—it’s too loud for the grouping.

    For this, I would first narrow down the fabrics to polka dots and either pastels or jewel tone solids. Then fold down the solid bits so that at most half of that block of color shows. See how that looks. Remember: “Make Visual Decisions VISUALLY.” Don’t try to imagine what it looks like, make the change and look at it.

    Second, if you choose to use both dark and light polka dots (and boy do I love dots!), what about skinny slivers of solid in between the strips or on the diagonals, or both?

    Third option: work with the solids and have smaller bits of the dots (any busy print). If you choose to have both light and jewel tones, don’t have a 50-50 balance: choose either light or dark and use the other value as a “popper.”

    And DO share with us what you decide to do. Personally, since I love dots, I’d go with a preponderance of the dark dots, maybe (?) add some of the light dots, and then use the lighter solids in **random** (not repeated) order. I definitely wouldn’t go with shapes the same as the dots–make them smaller: trapezoids, the same shape but shorter, or even some slivers/small rectangles.


  5. There is a bigger contrast in values in your quilt. Use darker solids with the darker polka dots or just use the lighter polka dots that you have.

    1. I see a few ways you could go.

      One would be to add mid-values/tones. The high-contrast between your two groups of solids is part of what makes the pastels stand out.

      Also, you didn’t show us a setting where light solids and light plains were together, and darks were on the outside (or vice versa). It’s difficult to be sure without the actual fabric in front of me, but I think that would make a better setting.

      But I think you’ve got sidetracked from what drew you to the pattern in the first place – the random changes of diagonal, as to both location and direction. The settings you’ve shown us have very strong unbroken diagonal lines.

      So I suggest you try this:
      Take any six strips. (I think that should be enough to see if this will work.) Fold over the corners diagonally the other way from the existing joins (ie your strips will now be parallelograms, with an opposite diagonal join somewhere in the middle), and press or pin them in place.

      Now lay out those out with some of your other strips. You can move your parallelogram strips up or down, or even fold them shorter. Place some of the lights together and some of the darks together, because part of the beauty of the original design was the vertical length between joins. (There are at most four colour changes in any column.) Your strips seem a bit short, but placing like values together will visually lengthen them.

      Take a photo or use a reducing glass (I use door-peepholes from a hardware store), or look at them through red specs. Now you can see whether your current fabric choices can work. You might decide that only a few outliers need to go. (If so, replace them with mid-values or tones.)

      If you’re still not happy, consider the possibility that it’s not that your fabrics don’t work, but that they don’t work for *this* setting. I think you could get a striking design if you cut opposite diagonals quite close to the existing ones, so that you get a triangle or almost triangle in the middle of each strip. (I’d probably arrange them so that each strip had either a light triangle with two dark ends or a dark triangle with two light ends.) Then turn some of the strips upside down so that the triangles form a row of diamonds, hexagons or irregular “beads”. You could stack a few rows of strips horizontally, or perhaps turn them sideways…

  6. Oh, my, you are getting so many ideas! And everyone is overthinking your choices. Take that option with the dots in the middle swath, except the 2 odd ones up, which adds so much interest, and add those solids below as you were thinking. It will look marvelous. Nothing like the original, but a lot of fun, your ideas and fabric, and a nice balance. There, that wasn’t hard, was it.

  7. I too love the original design! Thought your idea of ‘mixing it up’ was excellent, but then I also got overwhelmed by the strong diagonal depicted on your project wall. As someone else suggested, step back and consider the lines in the original.
    Use all of the colours you love but get the break in the connecting strips by changing the direction of your seams (e.g. shouldn’t flow in a consistent line). Maybe consider lengthening your ‘strip’ perspective, so that you see the full potential of your choices. Have fun – looking forward to seeing the next progression!

  8. First of all, congratulations!!!! The very fact that you are frustrated beyond belief proves that you’re doing creative stuff that’s original! Uniquely YOURS! Hey, you WILL solve this and when you do, you’ll be really proud of the quilt. Don’t quit!!!! I had one once that my entire quilt group’s consensus was: “give it to Good Will and start over!!” I finally DID quiet down my too busy prints, insane quilt with shiny grey blank squares all over. My suggestion for yours is:
    Turn some of the strips upside down! Get some diagonals in the other direction. I liked the one where you had the most pieces–lighter ones– underneath and darker below those. I don’t think you have too many dots at all! Let your eye go to some diagonals in the other direction and I think you can go from there. Maybe vary some widths, too. It’s all too similar in shape and your eye just wants to go down that diagonal stripe. Change THAT and see if you like it better.

  9. I like the colors and the dots. You need to PLAY with those pieces. Move them around, rotate them, flip them. You have such a strong line because you made the strong line with your pieced section placement. can’t wait to see what it looks like.