How to Make a Quilt: Trial, Error, and Playing with Fabrics

When anyone asks me how to make quilts with free-form, contemporary designs, I often want tell them I can sum it up in two words: trial and error.

urban landscape rayna gillman how to quilt
‘Urban Storefront,’ and example of how to make a quilt with improvisation techniques, by Rayna Gillman.

That’s not entirely true, of course. Most fiber artists can benefit from quilting instructions on how to cut, piece, and stitch fabric components. And basic principles of design (such as color theory) are good to know. (The old “know the rules so you can break them” trick.)

But often, the design for contemporary quilt projects evolves through a process of trying different color and pattern combinations over and over again until you get something that pleases you and fits the overall scheme you have in mind.

Rayna Gillman is a perfect example of a quilt artist who works this way. To make a quilt with a free-form design, she gathers pre-stitched blocks of fabric and a camera and takes them to her design wall. She starts with a large block that has the vibe she wants for the quilt and then auditions other fabric elements with it until she finds a combination she likes.

Often she’ll get one side of the section the way she likes it but then adds fabric to the other side and finds the first combo isn’t working anymore.

Rayna has the following tips for making a quilt top this way, from her Quilting Arts WorkshopTM video, Free-form Fabric Art: Cut, Piece, & Create without Rules.

how to quilt with improvisation
Rayna shows how to make a quilt top using trial and error
and a design wall.

1. Have a design wall where you can audition your fabric combinations. Some quilters have a permanent wall in their studios, but it’s easy to make a portable one.

2. Keep a camera handy. When you find a combination you like, snap a photo. That way you can feel free to remove that combination and start again without losing the potential winner. Later, you can go through your photos and re-examine your possibilities.

3. Ask “What if?” Rather than assume that two colors or patterns won’t work, ask yourself, “What if I put these together?” “What if I used more blue?” “What if I folded this section in half so only a bit of it shows?”

4. Ask for other opinions. When Rayna began this quilt-making process, she would put photos of two fabric combinations on her blog and ask for feedback.

5. Let it sit. Once you have a combo you like, leave it on the design wall for a while. It could be two hours or two months, but when you come back to it, you will see it with new eyes.

When Rayna’s ready to make a quilt out of these components, she gets out the fusible web, background and backing fabrics, and batting, fuses a fabric sandwich, and raw-edge stitches her quilt together.

Rayna is one of many well-known fiber artists who designs a quilt this way and teaches her methods, too. In fact, for a limited time we have the Contemporary Quilting Made Easy Premium Collection available. In it, you get quilting lessons from Rayna and three other expert quilt artists who use free-form cutting and piecing methods, fusible web, and free-motion stitching to make a quilt.

Rayna, Jane LaFazio, Laura Wasilowski, and Frieda Anderson all offer their quilting tips in a warm and friendly style, encouraging you to apply their tried-and-true methods in your own unique way. Contemporary Quilting Made Easy is an information-rich, economical way to make a quilt the contemporary improvisational way.

P.S. Do you use a design wall? Why or why not? Leave your comment below.

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3 thoughts on “How to Make a Quilt: Trial, Error, and Playing with Fabrics

  1. Can’t live without my design wall! In fact, I have two. A large 1 1/2 metre by 3 metre sheet of polystyrene that I covered with cream flannel and then a little sheet that I covered and it sits propped up on a table next to my machine. My only gripe is that I put the big design wall up too high so I have to stand on a chair to reach the top.

    I whack designs up there all the time and stand back and snap pics. It keeps the kids and cat from trampling them. Sometimes it acts as a ‘storage’ board for odd bits and blocks so I have to clear it off and start again periodically!

  2. I do have a design wall. And now I couldn’t make a quilt without it. I mostly like to do ‘modern’ type quilts with no regular blocks but with irregular blocks and irregular placement. Once I get the colors chosen, then it’s the placement of the blocks that fills my mind. I change and change the placement, the amount of a block showing, the color combinations, etc. The design allows the arrangement of the quilt components and rearrangement until it sings to me. It helps me be objective with a very subjective result.

  3. I used to use the bed as my “design wall”, but there are times when I would step out of the room and my Border Collie, Barney, would hop up into the middle of my design. Hmmm was he trying to give a design critique? But on the less, I now have a design wall that helps me to create, and re-direct my quilting patterns and designs. Sometimes I just leave different color fabric there so that I can be inspired to think of new ideas. I’ll call my husband in to get his view on placement and symetry, or snap a photo and send it to my quilting buddy for complimentary help.

    Since I don’t have a large home, my design wall is small but large enough for a 50″x50″ quilt. Since it hangs in my bedroom, Barney can view it from a comfortable position and doesn’t get offended when I shoo him off the bed.