Monday, January 25, 2016

PWS - How to Write a Quilt Pattern - Topic 2 - Quilt Design and Inspiration

Topic II – Quilt Design and Inspiration

While the vast majority of this series will focus on how to get a quilt design from your head into a finished pattern, I would be remiss if I did not also touch on the creation process of the quilt design itself. 

To handle this topic (which in itself could be an entire series), I am going to share some basics on design inspiration and share where I pull inspiration from.  I will also share how I begin to develop the ideas into quilt designs. 

On Wednesday, our round table of pattern designers is going to share some thoughts about design inspirations, on Thursday Yvonne from Quilting Jetgirl will be posting about her inspiration and design process, and then on Friday Anne from Springleaf Studios will be sharing her thoughts on starting a design from a pattern versus a fabric collection.

One thing I am not going to cover in this post is the question of how to tell whether or not your pattern is new, copied, or inspired by others.  There are many different blog posts regarding this important topic and as I am not an attorney, I will refrain from giving any legal advice regarding this issue.

A.    My Design Process

At any one time, I have a ton of quilt ideas going through my head, in notebooks, and saved in my computer.  Some are just a tiny kernel of an idea, like wanting to figure out a way to use some new fabric I picked up, while others are almost fully formed with block designs, sizes, and fabrics already picked out. 

Most times, my ideas take a while to go from ideation to actual design and they take many different twists and turns along the way, coming out very different than my initial idea.  Once in a while though, a quilt design will come to me almost complete and all I have to do is write the pattern and make the quilt as fast as I am able. (This rarely happens but when it does, it is awesome!)

I find design inspiration everywhere, from nature to architecture to even the tile pattern in my office bathroom.  I usually carry a small notebook or graph paper with me for jotting down sketches and ideas as well as my iPhone for snapping pictures.  I am particularly drawn to strong geometric patterns and my sketches, pictures, and ultimately my finished quilt patterns are indicative of this.

B.     Organizing My Designs – Creating a Design Library

As quickly as I can, I try to upload my ideas into my computer by scanning in sketches or redrawing sample block designs using a computer program and save them in a folder I have called "New Patterns".  For me, this seems to be the best way to capture all of the ideas and keep them safe and together as they percolate into quilt designs (I also have a bad habit of losing pieces of paper). 

I very rarely delete any quilt ideas or design beginnings I have, because quite often, I will look through my New Patterns folder, find a design idea I had forgotten about and continue playing with it until it develops into a viable quilt pattern.  My New Patterns folder is my design library and just like a library, I can “check out” an idea, work with a little, and then check it back in. 

I was asked how I keep all of my new pattern ideas organized within the folder, do I have subfolders, how do I name them, and how to I recall an idea I had in the past? 

I use a lot of subfolders within the New Patterns folder to keep the folder more organized and clean looking.  The subfolder names sometimes contain a possible quilt name, type of quilt block, name of the organization I am design for, and are usually pretty long and descriptive (so I can find them more easily in the future).  Another reason subfolders are good is that once an idea gets worked on a little it might have a picture or two, an EQ file, and possible some other files associated with it and being kept together in a single folder ensures no files get jumbled or lost. 

I will also totally admit to having subfolders that are simply called “Inspiring Pictures” and “No Name Ideas” where quilt designs and ideas that have no other place wind up.  There is no perfect organization system and I have found the search function within Windows Explorer very helpful to search for ideas by name, extension, type, and by date edited.  Once I decide that I am actively going to develop the design into a quilt pattern, I simply cut and paste the entire subfolder from my “New Patterns” folder to my “In-Progress Patterns” folder.

I think that the best way to start building your own design library is to just start collecting ideas and designs and then start building an organizational structure around them.  Your ideas do not have to be collected in a computer, having one main notebook or binder where you keep all of your ideas can work great too.  The important thing is collecting all of the ideas into one place and figuring out some way of keeping them organized. 

Take a few minutes a day to just doodle, sketch, and observe the world around you in a different manner.  Keep the designs and ideas in a central location and go through them often to see if any inspire you to continue playing with them.  There is a great Facebook group called “Quilt Design a Day” that offers design challenges, support, and community that can help you get started with different challenges and design activities.

Added:  Ruth from Charly and Ben's Crafty Corner has a great post of using OneNote to organize your quilting designs, you can check it out here.

C.    Designing With Limitations

So you are trying to come up with a new design and are staring at a blank sheet of paper.  Sometimes it is difficult to come up with a design when there are just so many different variables to play with such as shape, size, color, block type, value, foreground/background, etc.

When I get stuck, I actually give myself some design limitations such making a quilt using only 6 fat quarters, by using two different half square triangle based blocks, or by using the jelly roll that has been sitting in my stash for way, way too long.  By constraining some of the variables, it actually frees your mind to think outside the box and come up with some new designs.

D.   Starting a Pattern from a Design versus a Fabric Collection

I typically start my design using just a few solid colors (lights, mediums, and darks) and focus on the design elements first.  Once the design elements and blocks are set, I start playing around with colorations and different fabrics.  This route tends to be the easiest and most natural for me. 

Occasionally, when I am designing for a fabric company I start my design process with a fabric collection or precut size.  I find that this tends to be more difficult for me, but it can produce some interesting results (see Designing With Limitations above).  

Having a design and idea library is sometimes very helpful for me when designing around a particular a fabric collection.  I can go “shopping” in my new patterns library to see if I already have a design that might work with some tweaking for the particular fabric collection.

Do not feel that you are stuck going exclusively in one direction.  You could start with a design and then as you add fabrics, you could decide to go back and tweak the design.  My designs very rarely are linear and straight forward, they are usually iterative and go through many changes before I reach the final design.

Anne from Springleaf Studios will be discussing this topic in more depth in her post this Friday (January 29th).

E.     Computer Programs for Quilt Design Ideation

I want to quickly dispel a thought that I have heard over and over again: you do not need Electric Quilt (EQ7) or any other fancy computer design software to develop or create quilt designs.  I will admit that EQ7 does make scaling blocks and trying out different color schemes and fabric in a quilt design quick and easy, but all you need is a pencil and some paper and a good idea.  

If you want to play around with quilt designs digitally, there are computer programs that you probably already have on your computer, like Microsoft Paint or Microsoft PowerPoint, which work surprising well.  There are also numerous web-based quilt design programs that work quite well (some are free and some are for pay).

I hope that I have inspired you to start jotting down some new quilt designs, I will see you back on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for more discussions about quilt design and inspiration!


  1. Thank you, Cheryl. I'm adding to my calendar for this week to spend some time pulling all my inspiration photos into a folder and to do some sketching with limitations because I love that idea.

  2. Some great ideas in this post. I might have to upgrade from a notebook to a notebook and computer for my design ideas. I look forward to reading the scheduled posts for later this week.

  3. So excited about this series! I am super inspired!

  4. Thanks, Cheryl. This is an informative post.

  5. I tend to have ideas floating around everywhere! Paper, computer, iPad...Being organized with designs is a smart plan.

  6. This is a great description of a design process. I definitely want to echo the idea of keeping all your ideas in one place to "shop" for any future projects that might come up. I am definitely keen to read Anne's perspective of pattern designing using a fabric collection as that tends to be more difficult for me, too.

  7. Thank you! The organizational ideas are very helpful.

  8. This series is refreshing and I am already looking forward to future posts. I also want to say THANK YOU for making this a free series. As someone who is on a tight budget, I appreciate that you are sharing your experiences in a no-cost way. Can't wait for the next post - but in the mean time I must start organizing!

  9. I really appreciate how you described your organizational process. I have always done something similar with my computer files. It's the loose sketches that I am only now trying to get a handle on. I recently gathered them into one place (yet again) but this time plan to take the next step and get them into my computer. It's just so much easier to look for things. Love the concept of it being a design library. Perfect descriptive word.

  10. Thanks for sharing your experience and wonderful ideas, Cheryl! Will have to put your organizing ideas into practice - most of my design ideas are on paper and the file folders are stacking up... need to get them stored digitally for more ease and efficiency. Appreciate the time and help you're giving to guide us in this series. Awesome!

  11. Great to read about your design process. Just like you, I find design inspirations everywhere and keeping is organised is quite important.


  12. Thank you for sharing your ideas. My take away today is gather everything in one place! My designs are mostly in a notebook, but also on my computer and all over my desk in the forms of little notes that often go hiding. Great post. I too look forward to the post on designing within a fabric collection because I find that difficult as well.

  13. Thanks for these organizational ideas. I think this will be really helpful.

  14. You know, I have never thought of organizing my quilt design ideas - they are compiled in tons of different notebooks and sometimes I have to hunt for the one I am thinking of - I can tell you are an engineer! I am more scattered, myself. But I like this idea, that way the ideas are all in one place - may have to do this. Already a great idea - thanks! :)

  15. I thought this was really interesting. It's nice to read about your process and organization. I feel the same way about designing for a collection - it's more challenging than just creating a design, but sometimes it creates really interesting results!

  16. Great ideas, Cheryl. It makes me think, maybe I need to slow down a bit and view the world around me, even places I venture to everyday. Maybe I'm not stopping to appreciate the inspiration that surrounds me.

  17. I can spend as much or more time messing around with my graph paper, protractor(straightedge of choice) and colored pencils as I do at the sewing machine, for sure! (Got all my comments jumbled up...but you get the idea, lol!) I definitely have had luck designing with particular precuts in mind...I just love charm packs and HSTs. Sooner or later, I will likely include other elements as well, lol! I am already loving this series for that aspect! :)

  18. How you go about designing is so interesting Cheryl! I'm going to have to practice doodling and sketching more. You are right, it does seem to go smoother to design in sold colors and then change it up from there. I like what you wrote about your design process rarely being linear.

    Staying organized with computer file folders works best for me too. I hope everyone remembers to keep their files backed up in some way... I lost a lot of work once and so now use Dropbox, which automatically backs up everything as you save it.

    Microsoft Paint was what I used almost exclusively when I first got started... I love that program and am glad you mentioned its use as a design tool here. :)

  19. Thanks for the encouragement that you don't have to have a fancy computer system to get design ideas up and running. I hear so often about people talking about different programs and it scares away a computer-inept person like myself. If I have an idea, I usually just doodle it and stow it in my sewing notebook. Can't wait to hear from the others later this week! Thanks for organizing it!

  20. Really good info here Cheryl, and well-written and organized as well. This is going to be such a great series. SO much time and effort has clearly gone into it and I thank you for doing this so freely for us budding pattern designers. :-) Saving them all in bloglovin'

  21. Great info Cheryl! How you organize your ideas is most helpful. I have never thought about scanning in doodles for future reference, but those little pieces of paper do tend to get lost.

  22. I store most of my ideas in Microsoft OneNote. I can then have the ideas available on my iPad and iPhone. You can link files to the page in OneNote and even those are accessible from your iPad and iPhone. I highly recommend it. Not affiliated in anyway with Microsoft.

  23. I use OneNote too and can't recommend it highly enough - I have a tab for inspiration and one for design board for ideas I am currently working on and I can save screenshots and have a bit of a library on hand without opening files all the time. Great program that's free across all platforms. Thanks for this series - really enjoying it!

  24. Design inspiration is such a great topic and I love all of the organizational tips. Having a design library on your computer is a great idea. I keep mine in a quad notebook and sometimes a few land on napkins if that's not available! I'm going to have to check out OneNote after reading the comments.

  25. Inspiration isn't easy to capture in words, but you did a great job of outlining how it works. Great post.

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  27. Cheryl, thank you for your honesty about this subject. You are honest and you give us all of your knowledge. THank you,


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