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Rules for Making Quilts

August 6, 2002

Notes: I updated yesterday’s entry with another surprise and also added to the glossary as I was writing this entry, because it is very heavy with quiltspeak.


Evaluating the kitty baby quilt, I mentioned I’d violated some rules without remorse, such as “don’t use more than one color of quilting thread” and “don’t use red and pink together”. Calling those “rules” is overstating the case a bit; it’s not as if there’s a Quilting Standards Board that issues pronouncements that must be followed in order to be in compliance with Generally Accepted Quilting Principles. The closest things to official regulations are those that quilt show sponsors impose, and those vary from show to show. Instead of one quilting rulebook, there’s a lot of literature with a lot of people voicing their opinions, and some of those opinions are more widely held and become conventional wisdom.

There is a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to what makes a quilt good. A lot of people focus on construction, how a quilt is put together, I think because that’s easier to evaluate than design. I pay more attention to design, because it was interesting pictures that drew me to quilting in the first place, and I want to make quilts that make interesting pictures, too. (Also my sewing skills are not as good as I’d like, so if I put more weight on technique, I’d be very frustrated, and that’s no good in an activity I do for enjoyment).

I”ve compiled my own list of rules, the things I think result in successful, visually interesting quilts. They are all design rules, because I think that’s the most important part of a quilt. Without a good design, workmanship is irrelevant; perfect piecing cannot improve a dull concept. Weak technique can detract from an engaging design, though, so I do try to do a good job when constructing my quilts. These are the rules I follow:

1) Start with color. Color encompasses not only hue (red, blue, yellow, etc.) but also value (light to dark) and intensity (gray to clear). The goal is to choose colors that go together. It’s easiest to use a multi-colored print fabric as a starting point and pull colors based on that, but there’s also the color wheel and related literature to consult if no suitable print presents itself. Remember that colors that might not seem to coordinate will work if the proportions are changed; for instance, a little lime green instead of great swathes of it.

2) Add variety, but don’t go overboard. Use several variations of the colors in the chosen scheme (the “five purples are better than one” theory). Also incorporate variety in scale (small to large) and visual texture of the fabrics used. Combine fabrics from different manufacturers and designer collections to avoid a flat, overly matched look. Too little variety leads to a static and uninteresting quilt, while too much can be chaotic and confusing, so tread carefully.

3) Use muslin only after carefully considering other options. There is almost always a better, less boring, choice, including white or cream tone-on-tone prints.

4) When deciding which fabrics to put where in a design, value is the key. It’s value rather than color that determines how a pattern will look, especially from a distance.

5) The backs of quilts should have some interest, too (see the “no muslin” rule above). It can be as simple as a print fabric– one used in the top or not– or as complicated as a second pieced top.

I used to have a rule that said, “making a contemporary quilt look like an antique is a waste of effort”, but I’ve dropped this one. I don’t have a great hankering to make an old-looking quilt right now, but I got rid of the rule when I realized that I’d just had the misfortune of seeing too many new quilts inspired by boring old ones. There are interesting antique quilts, too, and I might make something patterned after one of them someday.

I do have one rule for quilt construction, but I break it with some regularity (often to my regret): no sewing after 9 o’clock. That really should be amended to no sewing or cutting after 9 o’clock. The later in the day it is, the more likely I am to make mistakes that I either have to live with or redo. Friday night, when I was making sashing blocks for the group quilt, I had to do both. It was a simple design, just a square surrounded by four triangles to make a bigger square, then surrounded by four more triangles to make the finished square. I had even printed a pattern from Electric Quilt so I knew exactly how big the pieces had to be. “No problem”, I thought, “this is easy enough; I can do it all tonight”. Um, not so much. Cutting the squares went well, but I was almost done cutting the first set of triangles for almost all the blocks when I realized I had the grain running the wrong way on all of them. I decided to leave them be, since the bias edges were not going to end up on the outside of the blocks; I’d just be careful when sewing them. I was doing fine after that, until it got to attaching the last of the outer triangles. I was tired, and therefore not paying as close attention as I should have been when lining up the pieces before sewing. Pressing the final seams, I noticed that many of my squares were not square at all. If I’d cut the triangles bigger than called for by the pattern, I could have just trimmed the blocks to size, but I hadn’t. At that point, I gave up and decided to fix the ones that needed fixing on Saturday. It was just as well, since we ended up changing the design and two of the blocks had to have a different color for the outside triangles; I would have hated to have to redo blocks I’d already redone once. Next time I really need to follow my own rule and put the sewing tools down earlier at night.

The thing about all these rules is that they’re for me and my quilts. I’m not about to say that following them is for everyone, or that they’re the only way to make good quilts. They work for me, letting me make quilts that I enjoy working on and enjoy looking at when they’re done, which is the whole point of quilting for me.

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