A Peek into the Design Process

How do you design your quilts?

Or more accurately, how do you go from an idea to a design to a pattern?

I’ve been designing 3 and 5 yard quilts for almost a year now, and we just added in 4 yard patterns. These tend to work a little differently from typical pattern designing – I draw a quilt, fill in fabrics, tally up the yardage.

With a 3 or 4 or 5 yard pattern it works a little bit differently. I still draw designs and fill in the fabrics, but instead of tallying the yardage and leaving it as it is, there’s usually a lot more tweaking that goes on.

Since I’m designing these quilts for The Quilted Cow, I always send mock ups to Jennifer to get her approval. These are usually rough versions.

For this blog post example, this was the design that got Jennifer’s initial approval.

My initial design submission

I drew it in EQ8, my Electric Quilt design software, checked the fabric requirements, knowing that borders and block sizes can get tweaked later, but I want to get close to the 1 yard requirement for each fabric initially. EQ can also have some issues with miscalculating fabric requirements, so I always go back afterwards and tally for myself, but it gives me a good jumping off point.

Next, I sit down with a pencil and paper, old-school style, and start working on the pattern. I work on the cutting requirements first. I break down blocks and their components and figure out how many of each unit I need. I add up all the cutting for the units, see what’s leftover, and then calculate out how much fabric is left, if any, for borders.

The first thing that struck me in this quilt was tallying up the little 9-patch blocks – there were 112 of them that finish at 3”. That’s a whole lot of 1.5” squares to cut! A ton of fabric would be lost in the seam allowances. I double checked the finished size given to me by EQ and it was only 48” x 60” – that seemed pretty small to me for a 4 yard kit.

I knew I needed to make some changes. I made the blocks bigger, double sized actually. That meant I’d be able to make fewer blocks, but I’d end up with a bigger quilt. (Fewer seams = less fabric eaten up in seam allowances). I ran these changes by Jennifer and she agreed that most people might not want to sew 112 3” 9-patch blocks and approved the change in design.

My second version

Once I tallied up the new requirements for the blocks and sashings, I went to work trying to design the borders. Let me tell you, I drove myself crazy on this one. For 4 yard patterns (or 3 yard or 5 yard), I want to use close to the full yard of each fabric, but not so much that someone couldn’t square fabric. I usually try to keep the requirements between 32” and 34” used from each fabric.

Another attempt
…and another…
…and another.

This quilt was tricky because most layouts needed over 36” (one yard of fabric) of some fabrics or less than 28” of others. Obviously, a quilt pattern could use less, but I want to make good use of these bundles, and still give the most bang for the buck. I spent a lot of time in EQ playing with options, and then more time scribbling calculations on my paper, trying to find that sweet spot for fabric usage.

Once all that is done, the easy part is sewing the quilt. These big blocks go together quickly – much faster than 112 blocks would! Even though the pieced border was a little tricky for me to calculate, I think it really frames the quilt beautifully.

After the quilt is finished, I send it off to The Quilted Cow. I still need to write the pattern. I’ve gotten much better at this part thanks to a lot of practice over the past year as I’ve designed more and more 3 and 5 yard quilts.

I have my pattern template saved, and there’s generally some copy and pasted information that stays the same – the finishing information for example. I have to draw up the illustrations to show how units and blocks go together. Sometimes, it’s tricky trying to get everything to fit on a pattern page. That’s another difference between traditional patterns and these 3-, 4-, and 5-yard patterns.

In a traditional pattern, the pattern takes as many pages as it takes. I may try to tweak the layout a bit to make it fit better for printing or downloads, but I don’t tend to limit myself to two pages or six pages or one page.

Unfortunately, sometimes I make mistakes in my calculations and corrections are needed. It turns my stomach to realize I’ve made a mistake. I absolutely agonize over it. Maybe one day, I’ll learn to not beat myself up – but I do hold myself to a high standard (former gifted kid here). I hate feeling that I’ve frustrated anyone or disappointed a maker.

To try to avoid mistakes, I write up a rough draft first. Usually I have all the cutting instructions, and very basic instructions – “Make the 9 patches. Make the big blocks. Sew pieced borders. Put it all together.” I check my math and cutting again, add more details, and proofread.

The hardest part of this entire endeavor? Naming the quilt! In discussions with other designers, they also find this is the trickiest part. I tend to be very literal with my first draft of names – “Patriotic 9-patch” is how I thought of this pattern at first. But I know many people will be making this pattern and not everyone will use the same fabrics, so I don’t want to tie it to a patriotic theme. Eventually, I settled on something that hints to the pattern – 9-patch blocks – but isn’t a literal description. And so, “To The Nines” was born.

I hope you all enjoyed this little peek behind the curtains of my design process. If you have any other questions, feel free to leave them below in the comments and I’ll respond as soon as I can.

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