Alright ya’ll. This is the post where I dish all of my little tips and secrets about how I write a quilt pattern from beginning to end. This is not necessarily the best or the right way to do it, but it’s the way I do it. As I learn and grow, this process will most likely change, and as it does I’ll try to update this post, but currently, this is it.
A quick disclaimer: I am a graphic designer by trade, and thus use Adobe Creative Cloud. If you are unfamiliar with Adobe CC, parts of this step-by-step guide will be confusing. Rather than counting yourself out, consider downloading a free 30 day trial and testing out the software. It helps me immensely in every aspect of writing and publishing a pattern. It may be the perfect tool for you too.
An Outline Of The Process
In my blog post about my Lake Michigan In Denim Quilt, I briefly outline my design process. In a nutshell, I break designing down into three equal parts: Research, Planning and Execution. For the sake of organization, I’m going to use those three points to outline my steps.
There are two kinds of research. One is something you do unintentionally every day. Probably every hour you are awake you are making decisions about what you like and don’t like, what you think looks good and what looks bad. I had an art teacher who called this an “artist’s layering of experiences.” It’s these layers that define our aesthetic and help us make design decisions. Most of this is occurring on a subconscious level.
The second kind of research is intentional fact finding and observation. In addition to basic daily observation, part of this step is researching other artists, designers, quilters, pattern writers, surface designers, textile artists, ANYONE who is making interesting things. Anything that has inspired you lately, dive in deeper. Notice the subtleties of WHY you like it. What are the elements that make it “beautiful?”
This step is especially important when designing for a client. A little bit ago I wrote a pattern for a client who had a specific aesthetic in mind. She sent me a few images, but it was up to me to wrap my head around the concept enough that I could put my own personal spin on it. Below are the images that the client provided. She said that she was looking for an Aztec patchwork design.
I had never done anything like that before, so I knew research was going to be vital.
I mostly Googled variations of the keywords “Aztec Pattern” and “Tribal Design.” I spent at least 45 minutes to an hour familiarizing myself with this style.
Now that I was confident I knew what shapes, colors and patterns fell under the chosen aesthetic, it was time for me to plan out the quilt. I always do this in Adobe Illustrator. I never sketch designs out on paper. I find that starting on the computer alleviates a lot of the early mess ups and frustrations. If I make a mistake, I just hit Command + Z. If I like a quilt block, then within seconds I can copy, paste and repeat it. If I’m not sure about a color, I can quickly scroll through 10 different color options until I find the perfect combination.
Some people find paper and colored pencils relaxing. I’m not one of those people.
For each quilt that I actually make, I most likely designed 3 to 5 completely different variations of that quilt. That’s not including color and scale changes, that’s 3 to 5 completely different quilt designs. I’ve found that my first design is usually not my best. Sometimes it is, but that’s always a surprise when it happens. Usually around sketch 3 and 4 I start hitting the mark and getting excited about how the composition is coming together.
Below are three completely different designs I submitted to my client. In addition to the three I dubbed as my best, I also designed 2 others that failed to make the cut.
The client liked “Aztec Warrior” the best, so from there I tested multiple color schemes and presented the top three again.
From there, we chose to use color option 3.
Now quilty peeps, this is the not-so-fun part – figuring out the quilt math and fabric measurements. Sadly this part of the process is inevitable, and sometimes it’s not sooo bad, but...sigh...I’m not going to sugar coat it, it can be TOUGH. This specific design hurt my brain a little...OK a lot.
If you’re on snapchat, you saw all of the crazy nonsense that went into piecing this together. There were times when I ripped a single section apart four times. That was a low point. BUT the high points of pieces fitting together perfectly tooootally outweighed the low times.
I’m jumping ahead of myself. This is how a non-mathy quilter calculates her quilts….
True confession: occasionally when I’m on the verge of figuring out the math, but just not quite getting it...I use trial and error. I know I know...I’m not proud of it, but sometimes, it’s all my brain can handle. I just cut out what I think will work and then slice off a ¼” at a time or recut larger pieces. It ain't pretty, but it gets the job done.
Because my client wanted to provide the fabric for this quilt, I needed to provide yardage estimates. So before calculating exact piece and block measurements, I figured out roughly how much of each fabric I would need by laying out and counting the shapes. Sometimes I even create an art board in Illustrator that is 42” x 36” (the size of a yard of quilting cotton) and place the shapes in that for a visual idea of what I need.
I also use this online fabric calculator to help me figure out binding and backing requirements.
Since the math is not exact at this point, I requested a little more fabric than I needed so I would have wiggle room for mistakes.
Once I was ready to figure out exact math, I created an art board in Illustrator that was the size of my finished quilt. In this case, I knew that I wanted the center part of my quilt, the half square triangles, to be 3.5” finished blocks...because that’s easy and I like easy.
From there I concluded that the full width of this quilt would be 56” finished (16 half square triangles across at 3.5” = 56”). I created an art board that was 56” x 62” (the 62” was a total estimate. I knew the quilt was going to be slightly longer than it was wide.). I then proportionately stretched my vector quilt design to fit the art board’s width (since that was the measurement I knew to be correct) and realized that an art board of 56” x 65” was going to be more accurate.
I could then click on each vector shape I had made and get a fairly accurate estimate of how large the finished size of the shape should be. Because this was a moderately complex pattern, as I figured out the math, I cut and sewed pieces together. I found this to be easier and also much more rewarding than trying to figure ALL of the math all at once and then cutting and sewing the pieces together.
For most of my patterns, however, I do figure out the math before cutting and sewing anything. Based on the design, every pattern will need to be treated a little differently.
Writing The Final Quilt Pattern
If you are attempting to write your first pattern, it’s helpful to look at other patterns to see how they are laid out. I use Photoshop to edit all of my images and InDesign to layout the actual PDF pattern. Basic things you need to include are:
- A full picture/sketch of the finished quilt top
- Fabric requirements
- Cutting measurements
- Step-by-step sewing instructions
- Include illustrations or photos of potentially difficult steps
Optional things you may want to include:
- Based on your audience you may want to walk through standard quilting supplies and the basics of basting and machine quilting
- Different color options for your quilt
- Video tutorials
Once you have all of your math figured out and your steps written down, have at least one and preferably two people read through the pattern. Sometimes things will make sense in your head and then make zero sense to others when read on paper. I also triple check my math and have a second person figure out the math using a different technique than I used.
Writing quilt patterns is challenging, so be patient and start slowly with a simple design. Here's the link to my FREE Warrior Quilt pattern. Enjoy! xo