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What’s in a Quilt Pattern?

by Jessica

August 7, 2020

Quilt Pattern Design

What's in a quilt pattern? A pattern is essential for most quilting projects. Unless you’re a total rebel who makes everything up as you go. You could reach some interesting results that way but it's not recommended if you want to make a specific quilt. 

So what does it include and what should you expect from it? What are its essential parts and how did it come into existence?

The quilt pattern fairy? Flying in while we sleep with fraying wings of cotton, gently tucking carefully calculated and conceived instructions beneath the pillows of dreaming quilters around the world?

I see you rolling your eyes! The tooth fairy exists, right?!? Why can't the quilt pattern fairy?

Perhaps some inspiration is born this way. Each pattern more likely comes from a dedicated quilter who took the time to harness their vision and break it down into a series of diagrams, calculations, and instructions to show others the way to quilting glory. You know, so the rest of us don't have to do it! Unless you're into that sort of thing. (Nerd! Yes. Yes I am.)

What a Pattern Is and Isn't

What should you and shouldn’t you expect from a well-written pattern?

First, there is an important distinction to make in understanding and framing these expectations: piecing vs. quilting

Here are the definitions as given by Quitinghub.com in their article “Terminology”: 

  • Piecing: The process of assembling quilt blocks from pieces of fabric sewn along their edges to form a whole.  
  • Quilting: In general, the process of making a quilt. Specifically, the small running stitches that hold the three layers of a quilt together.
  • Quilting gets used as a catch-all term for the entire act of creating a quilt but is more specifically the layering and securing of the layers with stitches. Piecing is sewing all the small fabric pieces together that make up the top layer (sometimes the back if you like to make pieced backs) of the quilt.

    Ironically, many quilters don’t actually enjoy quilting. Rather, they prefer piecing and leave the quilting to a long-armer (can’t say that I blame them, especially with larger-scale projects).

    So this brings us back to what to expect from a pattern:

    It is a set of instructions detailing how to piece a specific quilt top. Include cutting instructions, assembly of subunits to make blocks and joining of blocks together to make the quilt top. May include options in regards to size, color scheme, borders, and layout. Basic knowledge needed for piecing is assumed (e.g., how to sew a quarter inch seam, press, rotary cut, etc. More on this in a minute!)

    It isn't a guide to "finishing" said quilt or “assumed” skills. Most patterns will indicate how much binding fabric, batting, and backing fabric are required for the "finishing steps" but now how to do those steps.

    There may be exceptions to this, such as if a specific technique will make the the project easier. Or if the pattern uses a novel skill that is not “assumed” to be common knowledge in the quilting community.

    A note about “assumed” knowledge and skills in regards to quilting: there are differences between brands and authors on how much detail is used in patterns. There can be wide variation regarding what is viewed as “assumed” knowledge or skills.

    One author might view making half-square triangles (HST) as an “assumed” skill and another might break down how to make them.

    One author might give detailed pressing instructions while another might say little to nothing of pressing in the pattern at all. (Warning: this is a pet peeve of mine! I LOVE when pressing instructions are given. I like to know which direction to press in each step so things properly nest later on for tidy blocks).

    Too little information can confuse, especially for a beginning quilter. On the other hand, a seasoned quilter might be annoyed if there is too much “clutter” in a pattern discussing techniques they could do in their sleep.

    I do not recommend sleep-quilting. Needles sharp. Rotary cutters sharp. Just don't do it, ok?

    The good news is we live in a world with the internet! There is so much information literally at our fingertips that if you come across a term you don’t know, just look it up!

    Or even better, ask me! I’m here to help and the further along we get, the more information will be available on Journiblocks!

    Fun Fact: 

    A pieced quilt top (that is not yet quilted, with no batting or backing) is sometimes referred to as a “flimsy”!

    Essential Components of a Pattern

    For your project to go smoothly with minimal confusion, there are essential components that need to be included in each pattern.

    Size of Quilt

    Basic dimensions of the quilt. Patterns will often provide multiple size options. Keep in mind a quilt doesn't have to be a blanket either! It may be a pot holder, bag, table runner, etc. 

    Fabric Requirements

    A table, list or chart indicating the amount of fabric needed for the quilt. This should be broken down by type/color for ease of selecting fabric. Generally batting, backing, and binding requirements are also provided (even though as we discussed, there will not be instruction for those portions).

    There should be breakdowns for each size quilt if options are give.

    The fabric might be indicated as precuts, yardage, or a combination of the two (e.g., 1 layer cake with yardage for background). If yardage is required, the assumed usable width of fabric (WOF) should be indicated (usually 40-42").  

    Whether the pattern is a digital or printed copy, the fabric requirements should be visible to potential buyers before purchase to aid their decision and allow them to buy supplies in the same trip.

    Cutting Instructions

    How to cut the yardage (or precuts) indicated in the fabric requirements. A well-written pattern should include a series of steps on how to cut and then subcut to get all of the units needed. If a special tool or ruler is needed, it should be included here as well. 

    Sometimes there is a chart or diagram with this but either way it should be clear and easy to follow. Subunits are often given labels for ease of reference throughout the pattern. I find this very helpful in staying organized.

    Block Assembly

    How to assemble sub-units, how to attach subunits together, and the final assembly of blocks. If pressing instructions are given, they will be with assembly instructions. Trimming and squaring up instructions may also be provided here. Dimensions for the subunits and final block are helpful when provided.

    Final Layout Assembly

    How to put all of the blocks together. If multiple sizes and/or layouts are provided for the pattern, there should be diagrams showing how to arrange the blocks for each version. If borders are used on the quilt, instructions for adding those will be here as well.

    Some patterns provide coloring pages which are basically final assembly diagrams with no color fill. This allows you to play with your color scheme and layout ahead of time.

    Patterns may include additional or more elaborate information but should at a minimum include the above. Some patterns will indicate on the cover what the recommended “skill” level is for the pattern, which can be very helpful.

    How to Use a Quilt Pattern

    Here is my basic workflow for using a pattern for the first time. 

    • Read the Entire Pattern. Once you have selected your pattern and purchased the materials, take a few minutes to read through the entire pattern. This is important because it gives you a framework of how the process will go. If you're a visual learner like me, this lets you envision how each subunit fits into the grand scheme of things. You'll feel more confident in your progress as you move through the pattern. You're more likely to catch a mistake this way, too.
    • Mise En Place. The step echoes the culinary phrase which means to have all of your ingredients prepped and ready before you start cooking (put things in their place). In this case, the prep work is ironing and cutting your fabric before sewing. Cut everything and put into labeled piles to stay organized, according the the cutting instructions in the pattern. Post it notes, or scraps of paper secured with pins works well for labeling. If you're taking it to class, zip top bags are a great solution!
    • Make One Full Block. Before you start chain piecing subunits, make one full block from start to finish according to the pattern. This provides an opportunity to work out any kinks. Make notes on your pattern if you found something confusing or you found a different (better) way to do a step. (Shh... It's ok to break a few rules as long as it gets you to the same check point!) If there is more than one type of block in the pattern, make one of each.

    A completed block is handy to have as a reference during chain-piecing incase you start getting your directions mixed up. Better to make a mistake on one block first, than to repeat it potentially hundreds of times before realizing it!

    • Assembly Line the Process. Now that you've grasped the process of making the full blocks, make all subunits of each type, one at a time in their entirety before moving to the next type. This is efficient regarding time and thread, and keeps things organized. Refer to the notes you made on your pattern. When you have completed one type, move to the next. Continue until you have completed blocks. If the pattern advises you to trim the blocks, do that at this point.
    • Assemble the Full Quilt Top. Using the diagram in your pattern, arrange your blocks into rows and columns. If multiple layout options are given, play around to see which you prefer.  
    • Take a Picture! Once the blocks are arranged and you like the distribution of color in your quilt (more on that in a future post) take a picture! That way if you get mixed up, you can refer back to your picture to get back on track. Double check the pattern to see if you should assemble rows or columns first. 

    This is typically where the pattern ends. It may say something like "Quilt and bind as desired" or "Finish as desired".

    General Process of Pattern Creation

    Whew. That’s a lot of stuff and things. So how does all of that end up in one tidy package ready for eager quilters to gobble up?

    Say a quilter is on a stroll with their pup and spots a particularly beautiful flower in bloom. It is catching the sun in just the right way and suddenly they have a moment: that would make a beautiful quilt block!

    Now what? There are so many ways to get from A to B, to C… to Z.

    There are options for designing the actual look of the quilt block, which is obviously very important!

    • Sketch pad and pencil
    • Computer sketch program
    • Graphic illustrator program (e.g. Adobe or Inkscape)
    • Quilt design software (e.g. Electric Quilt 8) 

    You don't need to have a lot of special skills or spend a bunch of money on fancy software to design a quilt block. But, as with most things, having the right tools makes things significatinly easier. I have learned this through trial and error for sure. In the end, you might need to combine a few of these, along with a word processing program like Microsoft Word, to end up with professional and well diagramed results.

    I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of all of this because it would get very long and frankly, I don’t think everyone is interested in reading that. Also, because there happens to be a truly fantastic series of posts on the subject put out by Meadow Mist Designs called Pattern Writing 101.

    If you are seriously interested in pattern design, this is a must-read! Cheryl of Meadow Mist Designs went above and beyond, including interviews with other quilt designers, and an extremely detailed breakdown of the whole process. I went through this entire series and I can’t believe this was *free*. So kudos and thank you Meadow Mist Designs!

    My preferred "suite" of tools: 


    Electric Quilt 8

    Microsoft Word 

    By the way, Inkscape is a *free* vector graphic design program. It's another one of those things that I can't believe is being given away! It has huge capabillity and there's a plethora of amazing tutuorials on YouTube!

    Here are the basic steps as I understand them. The flow may flip-flop and be fluid at times, requiring revisiting, and tweaking as needed.

    • Inspiration
    • Block design
    • Lots of math- Yes, yes I know, math hard. But math necessary for quilt design.
    • Yardage calculations
    • Cutting calculations and measurements
    • Writing- Using text to put together the math and block design.
    • Formatting- Integrating charts with written instruction.
    • Test- Essential for working out awkward wording and/or miscalculations.
    • Publish
    • Cross your fingers and hope people like it!

    A note on testing: I think as a pattern designer it is important to not only have people test your patterns but also have some experiencing with testing patterns yourself.

    I am currently testing this pattern named “Tapestry” by Corinne Sovey. Here is what the quilt should look like and my fabric choices! I will post my final product once I’m done! The tentative release date for the pattern is September 1, 2020.

    Tapestry Quilt Corinne Sovey

    Oooh, pretty!

    Tessellations by Connecting Threads

    "Tessellations" fat quarter bundle by Connecting Threads.

    So you say you don't want to design quilts? That's fine! It's a lot of work. I just wanted to touch on it to tie the whole process together. 

    This also puts into perspective the price tag on patterns. Sometimes, and I am guilty of this myself, one might balk at a price of $10-$20 for a pattern (printed or PDF). Once it's understood how much work goes into one, it's easier to understand. I would venture to say patterns are often underpriced for all they are. The author needs to understand the value of their work, as does the potential buyer. Many hours go into design and testing, and that doesn't even take into consideration possible printing and distribution costs. 

    This is why it is also important not to share or photocopy patterns.

    That being said, not all patterns are created equal. That leads to my next and final topic for this article…

    My Tips for Choosing Patterns

    Hopefully, at this point, you have a general idea of what to expect and not to expect from a quilt pattern.

    But since they are not all created equal, these are the general things I look for and consider when selecting my next project:

    Image of the Quilt

    I know they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but you need to be inspired or you won’t want to make it in the first place. Choose a design that excites you or you won’t enjoy making it, plain and simple.

    Clarity of Fabric Requirements and Size Options

    This information should be easily found, usually on the back of a pattern if you’re looking at a physical printed copy. If you’re online, this should be available in an image before purchase. Otherwise, how will you know what to buy? It should clearly breakdown how much of each color and material is needed for completion.

    This can help you decide if you might have enough material in your “stash” already. Especially helpful if you want to get started right away, or are trying to limit your spending on fabric (ALWAYS a challenge, haha).

    If the pattern indicates a special ruler or tool, consider that as well. Can you afford it? Might you already own it?

    Overall Look of the Pattern

    Does it look professional? Are the text and images clear?

    This is another don’t judge a book by its cover moment, but it's worth considering. If a pattern looks professional and is easy to navigate, the chances of success and enjoyment using it are greater. 

    It’s also more likely that it’s been testing and will have fewer typos (pattern corrections do occur, but it shouldn’t be the norm).

    Additional Resources

    Does this company have a blog with supporting posts? Do they have any online tutorials? Do you know other people who have made this or used the brand whom you could ask if you have questions? Or might you yourself have had success with this company in the past? 

    I'm not saying you shouldn't branch out and try new things (quite the opposite!), but if it's a pattern you know will push you out of your comfort zone, it might be wise to go in knowing support is available.

    Difficulty Level

    Choose an appropriate pattern for your experience level. If the pattern indicates the difficulty level, be realistic with yourself. If you're just starting, you may not want an intermediate or advanced pattern. You will only frustrate yourself. Build up your skills one pattern at a time. You will get far more enjoyment and stronger skills that way.

    If the pattern doesn't give a difficult level, take a look at the blocks. Are there a lot of traingles? This means bias edges which can be fussy. Are there curved pieces? This can be challenging if you haven't done them before. Does it appear there is a lot of seam matching? Some people love this, some hate it! 

    All that being said, it is good to push yourself and venture outside your normal comfort zone. Just don’t overdo it. Like exercising. Build up your skills or you’ll pull something! Maybe your brain in this case. Hahaha. Or you'll just spend some extra time with Jack-the-Ripper.

    I have certain companies I fall back on for patterns because I trust them, but I make a conscious effort to try other brands as well to learn from a different perspective. And you never know, your next favorite brand might be yet undiscovered by you!

    My two favorite brands (at least currently!) are GE Designs and Cozy Quilt Designs. They are reliable, clear, and accurate. 

    I have so many other brands I want to try! Never enough hours in the day!

    Now that the quilt fairy has visited, we can all dream of our next big (or small) quilting endeavor with a better understanding and appreciation of what makes up a pattern and how it got there in the first place.

    Although not all patterns are created equal, certain things can be expected of them all. It is important to consider what type of pattern is most appropriate and enjoyable for you but also to branch out and try new skills and brands. You may encounter a pattern you struggle with (I know I have!) but you'll learn a lot that way and might even surprise yourself with your adaptability.

    As I develop my patterns, I will do my best to abide by what I have outlined here. If at any time you feel that I’ve left out something or made a mistake, please let me know! None of us are perfect.

    We are here to learn, express ourselves, and have fun!

    Please share this post and comment below to let me know what you think! 

    Have you had any horror stories with poorly written patterns, or perhaps a brand you love? Are you yourself a pattern designer?

    I'd love to hear from you! Thanks for reading!

    • Thanks Donna! It has helped me out on many occasions!
      It is also a great way to look at your layout for color balance! If you apply a black and white filter to the picture, it really allows you to see the “value” of the colors and if the light and dark blocks are distributed evenly! I will talk about this more in depth in a future post. I appreciate your feedback!

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