Quilting Designs

. quilt design
.'Lollipop Series #4' by Melody Johnson

Conceiving of a design for your art quilt can be one of the most difficult but rewarding aspects of the artistic process. Considerations include fabrics and other materials, color, size, and composition. Inspiration for design can stem from a wide variety of sources, from nature to the work of other artists.

Some fiber artists like to plan their quilt designs out on paper or on the computer. Others prefer a more improvisational approach. There is no right or wrong way, as long as the end result is pleasing to you.

In this video, self-described "rebel quilter" Jamie Fingal shows how she designs her fused appliqué quilts, combining her own sense of color and design with standard design principles.

Source: Quilting Arts WorkshopTM video "Rebel Quilting: Thinking Outside the Block" with Jamie Fingal, Interweave, 2011

The Importance of Keeping a Sketchbook

quilt design .
.Doodles by Melody Johnson

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Great quilt design ideas rarely spring forth full blown from our heads at the moment we are ready to start a quilt. More often they come to us as hints and ideas we're going about our day. That's why it's so important to keep a sketchbook. It's a place where you can keep these random bits of inspiration to play with at another time.

Quilt artist Melody Johnson takes her sketchbook everywhere, in the car, on the plane, on vacation, or to work, for whenever she has waiting time. One never knows when an idea will reveal itself. If you have a sleepless night, get up and draw. When you visit museums, galleries, or art shows, be sure to collect postcards and brochures, or take photos, if allowed; keep these in your sketchbook for future reference. Analyze the art and grow your own ideas.

Here are some of Melody's tips for using your sketchbook to create the basis for a quilt design.

Make yourself doodle

Your subconscious holds ideas that you are unaware of in your conscious mind, and doodling brings them to the surface. Try this, for example: Draw a shape and then divide the space within that shape. Make all your lines uneven or curved, breaking free from rigid thoughts. Don't be concerned with the difficulties of construction. Simplify, and solutions will be found.

In my sketchbook, my un-square block is composed of a distorted rectangle cut in half, with an oval shape in the middle (Figure 1). In Figure 2, my rectangle-with-oval is paired with simple strips of multiple colors. The center line is thickened into a shape.

Draw variations

Variations in size and repeated shapes offer more possibilities. I refer to this as a compound block set.

Vary the size, direction, and number of blocks.

Add a simple connecting element or trace a mirror image. Make a big major block and support it with related shapes or mini versions of the same block.

Shade for value

Using your pencil, darken the shapes that need definition. The lines in your drawing can be strengthened and turned into shapes themselves. Trace your original sketch and try alternate versions. Remember that contrast can bring out the best in your quilt. Try to use at least five values, from very light to very dark. Create drama with contrast.

Choose your color scheme

Break out of your routine and use that fabric that you have been saving for something important. Delicious fabric makes the quilt much more exciting. Let the fabric do the work for you.

Source: The Best of Quilting Arts by Pokey Bolton, Interweave, 2011

Design Details That Bring Landscape Quilts to Life

. quilt design sunflowers
.Detail of 'Sunflower' quilt,
by Judith Trager

Fiber artist Judith Trager is well known as an expert on quilt design, especially when it comes to landscapes. She often bases her designs on simplified versions of photos she has taken. Her final step is to bring the landscape to life by adding details. Thread, stitch, and fabric choice are key to making the quilt design jump off the wall. Here are some of her tips.

When stitching over dark shapes, like leaves, use a slightly lighter shade of thread to add definition.

Know which way the sun is shining. When placing your foreground motifs, be sure to position them so that the light source is coming from the same direction on all. For example, sunflowers literally turn toward the sun as the day progresses, so they would all be facing the same way.

Use a variegated thread and stipple quilt the motifs, such as in the center of a flower, to yield a lot of variation in a small area. This will lend realism and depth to your design.

Stipple quilt on the background around the foreground motifs to push the former down and make the latter stand out.

Attract light and create movement on your piece with a little shimmer. Judith prints squares of gold metallic paint here and there on her quilt using the square end of a makeup sponge. She also fuses slivers of glistening sheer organza, emulating grass, to the foreground.

Source: Quilting Arts WorkshopTM video Designing Landscape Quilts: Quilt Art Techniques Simplified, with Judith Trager, Interweave, 2011

Make Your Own Quilt Design Wall

.Pokey Bolton's Design Wall

If there was just one tip I could give a designer of wall art looking to improve her compositions, it would be: use a design wall. Experienced art quilters wouldn't live without one.

I can't explain exactly how it works, but there's something about seeing your design up on the wall that makes what's working (or not working) jump out. A yellow fabric that looks fine on your worktable suddenly seems jarring when you put your design up on the wall. Or you notice how the embellishing that appears subtle when you're looking down on it completely disappears when the piece is vertical and viewed from a few feet away.

In practical terms, a design wall can save you time and money. Because you can audition fabrics and their placement, you won't waste fabric or have to rip out stitches.  

Some quilters like to simply cover a piece of foam core with felt to make a basic design wall, but I wanted to add a little patchwork interest to mine to decorate my quilt studio. When I'm not using it as a design wall, it can serve double duty as a bulletin board!


  • Large frame without the glass (I went to the frame section of my craft store and bought the biggest one they had.)
  • White and light-colored fabric (Patterned fabric adds interest, but make sure the patterns are low contrast.)
  • Piece of foam core cut to size to fit inside the frame
  • Gesso
  • Black rubber-stamping ink
  • Rubber stamps with bold, chunky designs
  • Brayer
  • PVA glue (such as Aleene's Tacky Glue® or Sobo® glue)


1. Cut 2 1/2"-wide by the width of your fabric strips.

2. Strip piece the long pieces together using a 1/4" seam allowance. Continue to piece until your finished piece is larger than your foam core piece. Press the seam allowances open.

3. Lay your strip-pieced fabric onto your cutting mat so that the lengths are horizontally oriented and rotary cut crosswise into new 2-1/2" strips.

4. Reposition the newly cut strips so different fabrics are next to each other.

5. Piece these new long strips together.

6. Stamp randomly all over.

7. Saturate your brayer with gesso and roll the brayer over various parts of the pieced fabric. Do not cover it entirely, but do roll over the stamped areas to tone down the black ink. Allow to dry.

8. Cover the foam core with the finished patchwork and glue into place so it is taut. Allow the glue to dry.

9. Insert into frame and hang.

That's all there is to it!

Source: 101 Patchwork Projects + Quilts, by Pokey Bolton, Interweave, 2011

Art Quilt Design

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Art Quilt Design or order the DVD now to enhance your design skills.

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