Monday, February 1, 2016

PWS - How to Write a Quilt Pattern - Topic 3 - Turning a Quilt Design into a Pattern

Topic III – Turning a Quilt Design into a Pattern

Once you have your design idea in your mind, it is time to get it onto paper (or the computer).  I tend to start drawing out at least a few blocks on graph paper just to more clearly visualize the design and then I use a quilt design program such as Electric Quilt (EQ7) to play with color, scale, and block repeats.  I tend to go to the computer quicker than some other designers as I really like the ease of being about to quickly change the block (and my drawing skills leave more than a little to the imagination). 

Do not feel that you need to go to the computer at all, nor that you have to have EQ7 to design quilt patterns because you absolutely do not.  You can do all of the quilt design rendering using paper and pencil or a computer program you might already have such as Microsoft PowerPoint™ or Paint™.

A.    Breaking the Design into Blocks

Take a look at your quilt design and find the repeating elements that form the block (or blocks if you quilt contains more than one type of block).  Most of the time, figuring out the blocks will be pretty simple, but if you have a complex design, it might be more challenging.  If you are designing an improvisational or very modern design this might be even more challenging. 

These blocks will form the building blocks for your quilt and pattern.  In Ninja Bears (our example quilt pattern that I am showing the development of throughout the series), the building block of the quilt is the Friendship Star block.  

B.    Even and Odd Numbers of Blocks

If your block is rotated or mirrored within the quilt top like On a “Jelly” Roll (one of my published patterns), then the design typically looks best when the blocks are in even numbers.  See how the same quilt pattern looks when there is an odd number of blocks?  It looks a little as though part of the quilt is missing.

If your blocks are symmetric like our sample quilt Ninja Bears, then you can have an even or odd number of blocks and the design will look cohesive and balanced.

If you have 2 different block types like the design below, the quilt top will most likely (there are a few exceptions) look better with the an odd number of blocks so that the design is book-ended with the same block (such as A - B - A - B - A).

C.    Multiple Quilt Sizes within a Pattern

Should your quilt pattern have more than one size?  There is no right answer to this question, the answer will be determined by block size, complexity, and your personal preference.  (Our guest designers are also going to be weighing in on this question in the Round Table discussion on Wednesday.)

In my opinion, for a free pattern all that is expected is one size.  In a for sale pattern, it is definitely not required, but is looked upon favorably for a pattern to have more than one size.  When I polled pattern purchasers, most said that having multiple sizes increased the value of the pattern for them and made the pattern more useful. 

Some of my own patterns are available in 5 sizes and some are only available in a single size or two.  The size options provided in my patterns depend on the pattern and whether the designs lend themselves to alternative sizes. 

To keep our quilt pattern for this series more simple, the Ninja Bears quilt pattern will contain instructions for only a baby sized quilt.  However, if this was a "real" for-sale pattern, I would probably offer this pattern in 5 sizes, baby, lap, twin, queen, and king (and probably additional fabric options too).

D.    Two Ways to Make Multiple Sized Quilts

There are two main methods to scale your patterns for different sized quilts.  The first is the more common where you simply make more blocks to increase the size of the quilt. 

For example, if you had a 12” square (finished) block, you might design a 4 block x 4 block baby quilt which would measure 48” x 48”.  If you wanted to also include a lap sized quilt you might go with a 5 block x 6 block design for a 60” x 72”.  To include both of these sizes, your quilt pattern would contain instructions for 16 blocks (for the baby quilt) and 30 blocks (for the lap quilt).

The second method to scale your patterns for different sized quilts is to scale the block.  Starting with the same baby quilt as before (4 block x 4 block arrangement of 12” square blocks for a 48” x 48” baby quilt), you could increase the size of the block 1.5 times.  This would result in an 18” square block which would make a 72” x 72” lap sized quilt.

Which method you use to scale you patterns depends on the pattern and your personal preference.  I would recommend that within a pattern you only use one of the methods.  If you try to change the size of the pattern by changing number of blocks for some sizes and block size for other quilt sizes, your pattern is going to get lengthy and complicated very quickly.

E.    Borders or Not?

Borders can be added to a quilt for a variety of reasons.  It could be that the quilt design looked better with framing or extra space to breathe, or needed to be enlarged to a particular size.  You can play around with your design by adding a narrow or wide border, or even multiple borders.

In our sample quilt, I did not want the points of the stars to be chopped off by the binding so I added a small border (2” finished) on all sides of the quilt.

F.    Determining the Size of the Block

Most traditional quilt blocks tend to be between 6” and 18” (finished), as these blocks have been found to be big enough to not have tiny piecing and yet are not too large to be unwieldy.  Blocks do not have to be square, but could be rectangular, or even triangular or other shapes.  

One factor in considering the block dimensions is the size of the smallest piece within the block.  If your block is made up of half square triangles, you probably do not want them finishing at 1”square, but maybe 2” to 4” square.  Figuring out the size of the smallest feature of the block will sometimes help determine the size of the full block.

G.    My Design Process for Ninja Bears

I made the Ninja Bears quilt a couple of years ago for friend's new baby.  I had a charm pack of Bernstein Bears I wanted to use, was on a tight timeline so I wanted a quick finish, and knew it had to be a baby size.  With those parameters, I started to brainstorm quilt designs.

I looked through one of my favorite quilt block book's, "The Quilter's Album of Patchwork Patterns" (non-affiliate link) for some inspiration and came across the Friendship Star block which looked like it fit the bill.

To figure out the block sizes, I looked at the layout of the block.  Each block is made of 9 squares, a 3 x 3 grid containing 5 square fabric pieces and 4 HST (half square triangles).  By changing the size of the squares within the grid I can quickly scale the design:

Size of each square within the block
Finished size of block
(square size x 3)

I decided to go with a 12" (finished) block so that each of the pieces within the block were 4" (finished) so I could make them with my charm pack (and the HST are a decent size (4” x 4”)).  

I settled on making my quilt in a 3 block by 4 block layout for a total of 12 blocks.  I added a small border to the quilt so that the points of the stars would not be cut off by the binding.   As an added bonus, the width of the quilt was about 40” (3 x 12” block + 2” border + 2” border) so I could use a single width of fabric for the backing (because I really dislike piecing backings). 

12” is a very popular size for a quilt block and a nice balance between a small and large block.  I could have also made the quilt using 4 blocks finishing at 9” across the quilt which would result in the same width as the 3 blocks finishing at 12”.  I went with the 12” because there were less blocks to piece and the ability to use my charm pack precut to make the quilt.

And that was how I decided on the block and quilt size for Ninja Bears.  As you can see, you can create an almost endless number of quilts just by varying the size and number of blocks.  

C.    Fabric Options

One question to consider when planning out your block size is are your blocks or any component of your blocks able to be made with precuts, like in Ninja Bears? (Precuts being fabric of a single color or a fabric collection that is sold already cut down to a certain size like 5” squares or 2 ½” x width of fabric strips).  You might consider amending your quilt block size to accommodate these popular quilting fabrics as precut friendly tend to be very popular.

I hope that this post helps you start to take your quilt design, break it down into blocks, and start figuring out block and quilt sizes!  The series will be back on Wednesday with a guest designer round table discussion around multiple sizes in quilt patterns and the difference between free and for sale quilt patterns.  All of the posts are linked in the Pattern Writing Series Tab above.


  1. I love designing in EQ7! I try to include multiple setting of the Blocks with a line drawing included for coloring, to change the color placement in my patterns.

    1. I read on EQ site that you can’t sell patterns you make with it, is that right? I decided not to buy it when I read that…

  2. Very informative and helpful! I like have at least two size options when I buy quilt patterns. But it isn't a deal breaker. I've been known to make it whatever size I want!!

    I am going to assume you don't make every size of quilt you offer in a pattern for fabric requirements. And I am sure you will touch on how you calculate yardage ... please?!!

  3. This is a fantastic and informative post, Cheryl! I really like your description of how to make multiple sizes of a design, choose a block size, and add borders. The number one reason I add a border to a quilt is to keep points in tact when I add binding. :)

  4. You have given us quite a bit to think about. I like to have sizing options when I purchase a pattern, it is helpful for figuring out yardage needed.

  5. This is a very timely post for me, since I'm starting to try to draw up some of my designs. Though I suspect EQ7 might be more efficient than line drawings in Illustrator. ;-)

  6. Great information about the two different methods for sizing - opens up other options!

  7. Great post. You covered at a lot of good information. I especially like the two sizing methods and the examples you shared. It's good to see the visuals. I think the hardest part about offering multiple sizes can be the complexity it adds to the pattern in terms of concise yardage and cutting instructions. I've seen patterns where they tried to include too much and in the end it just looks overwhelming.

  8. Great post, Cheryl! I agree with Anne! It is a fine line between including enough information in a pattern and making a pattern too overwhelming by including too much.


  9. Thanks for another informative post, Cheryl.

  10. Cheryl, one of the things (one of many) that so impresses me about your patterns is how many options you have instructions for within each pattern. You seem to strike the right balance in providing just enough choices without it becoming confusing. I am curious about how you know when to quit, LOL.

    1. When to quit is a really good question. I usually try to add in as many options as I can and take some out if they are really just adding more complexity to the pattern than they are worth. Getting feedback is very helpful to gauge the pattern options versus complexity. Reviewers can help you hone in on the most important options to include and which options may not be worth trying to fit in.

      I hope that helps!

  11. I'm really enjoying this series.

    On a completely unrelated note and silly note, based on your spelling of Bernstein Bears you may be from a parallel universe... Don't worry, so am I :)

  12. What a wonderful post Cheryl! What you do when designing a pattern is very clear because you are taking us through an actual design. I'm enjoying this series so very much!

    I really hate to bring this up, but you mentioned sizing a small quilt so you don't have to piece the back and that got me thinking. I think you said that your 40" x 52" quilt would work, but I think perhaps that you've forgotten the 8" overage typically needed for basting and quilting (4" on each side)? I believe you can sometimes get away with a 6" overhang (3" per side), but your example provides only 1" overhang on at least two sides. So my question is this: When designing a quilt, should we assume 4" overhang is needed on all sides? Do we assume 42" or 44" fabric width?

    If we assume fabric is typically only 42” wide and that at least a 3” overhang is needed, then to avoid piecing the back, a quilt cannot be larger than 36" on its shortest side, right? Please help me out here if I've gotten this wrong, especially if my assumptions about the size of the overage needed and about yardage width are wrong.

    In any case, this has given me a lot of food for thought! Great series.

  13. A very thorough post on pattern design considerations! As a consumer of patterns, I can say that everything you covered is what I also look at when buying a pattern (and admittedly what may persuade me not to buy a particular pattern).

    Two other things I look at are: does the block or its units lend itself to being made with a specialty tool (and does doing so limit what size it can be made in) and what are the overall fabric requirements for the blocks or units.

    I know that all patterns should be able to be made without special tools (so that there is no barrier to any quilter to make it) but some tools are real timesavers when it comes to certain designs or units. It can also be an inducement for a consumer to buy a pattern if they know that a tool they already (or want to) own can be used with it. However, not all tools are made to create a particular unit or block in multiple sizes.

    I know that I also consider how much of each fabric I will need for a design and will sometimes decide to make a pattern a different size to accommodate the stash on hand or what I'm willing to buy (and conversely opt out of making a design if the fabric reqs feel like they will "break the budget"). While a designer doesn't have to limit themselves with these considerations, addressing them could also boost the appeal of a particular pattern.

  14. Lots of good information in this post. I love designing in EQ. My freehand drawing skills leave a lot to be desired.

  15. Lovely post and a lot to think about.

    I am currently pondering the idea of what amount of content makes a pattern worth buying. Because I have bought patterns that were quite some pages long and more than worth the money paid, but... The other kind of pattern does exist, too. I have bought patterns that consist of a cover, a block instruction and a general "how to assemble a quilt" page. And sorry, this might just be my humble opinion, but that is not worth something around 10$ for me... So a complicated a pattern or more options is definitely a must for me. Or it has to sell for a lower price or as a free pattern. Everything else I can make on my own and use the money to buy fabric :)

  16. Lots of great info in this post. It also made me realize that I might be limiting myself when I design a block because before I even start, I think in terms of how it will be made/broken down (like using HSTs or flying geese). It might be worth me exploring just drawing a design without construction in mind and THEN looking at it to see how it can be constructed. Definitely an exercise to try. Great point about making a pattern precut friendly.

  17. I grew up with a pencil in my hand so it is much easier for me to start that way but I am learning to use the computer to hurry things along. I have learned a lot from this site. Thank you!.


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