Monday, February 8, 2016

PWS - How to Write a Quilt Pattern - Topic 4 - General Pattern Guidelines

Section IV – General Pattern Guidelines

When you have the quilt design, including the block sizes and quilt size(s), set, you next need to start putting the instructions into words.

As you write and edit, and write and edit some more, you will start to develop your pattern writing “voice”.  This is not something that can be forced, but will naturally evolve over time.  Here are some ideas to start thinking about as you begin drafting your pattern.  

A.      Audience

When drafting a pattern, you need to decide who is your audience; is your pattern for a new quilter that needs more explanation for each step or a more advanced quilter that may not need as much detail?  This decision will affect how much explanation, tips, and illustrations you will need to include in the pattern.

B.     Basic Instructions

Most patterns do not contain instructions for basic quilting techniques (such as basting, quilting, and binding) but will contain detailed instructions for less common techniques such as curved piecing or binding corners that are not 90 degrees if the pattern utilizes them.  

If you like, you could add YouTube videos or tutorials on your blog that show how to do basic quilting techniques and reference them in your patterns.  If you start putting too many basic instructions into your patterns, they risk becoming more like books than individual patterns.

C.     Assumptions / Pattern Notes

In the beginning of your quilt pattern, I suggest that you write any assumptions and/or standards you have about the pattern or materials.  The following are some of the assumptions I put in the Notes section at the beginning of each of my patterns:
  • Seam allowance to sew with (for example ¼” or scant ¼”).
  • The assumed width of fabric.
  • Any abbreviations that you are going to use in the pattern (such as WOF = width of fabric).
  • Assumed number of fabric pieces per pre-cut packs or bundles. (Ex. Each charm pack is assumed to contain 42 pieces.)
  • Any specialty tools (such as specialty rulers or notions) that are needed or helpful for the pattern.
  • Size of templates (need to copy and/or enlarge the templates).

Pattern Piece Library
Your first pattern will most likely be pretty difficult and fairly time consuming to write (I know that it was for me).  However, once you have a few quilt patterns written, you will you will find that you will be able to re-use many pieces of your previous patterns.  Creating a pattern piece library of typical construction techniques, such as directions to make half square triangles (HST), flying geese, sashing, etc., will save you time and make subsequent patterns much quicker to draft.  

E.     Term Consistency

For my day job, I write patent applications and in patents the terminology is very important.  If you refer to a particular layer as a fabric, you must be very careful to always refer to the layer as a fabric (versus a textile, textile layer, fabric layer, etc.) or else you might not be granted patent or a court might not uphold your patent.

I bring this philosophy to quilt pattern writing.  I suggest that you pick certain terms for the parts of your quilt top and use them consistently throughout the pattern.  For example, if your pattern has instructions to create sub-blocks and then combine the sub-blocks into a block, make sure whenever you refer to the sub-blocks they are sub-blocks, and not components, not pieces, and not intermediates throughout the entire pattern. 

You will also have to decide how to write and format your numbers.  Will you use fractions or decimals and how will you format them: 2 ½” or 2 1/2” or 2.5”?  All are correct, but you should pick one, stick with it and use that labeling method throughout the pattern in the fabric requirements, pattern instructions, and any dimension labels in the illustrations.

In addition to general terms, you should also try to keeping the action and verb terminology consistent as well.  Are the actions in past, present, or future tense?  Do all of your sentences start with a noun or an action verb?  Keeping the action and sentence structure consistent will made your pattern clearer and easier to read.

F.       Naming Conventions

Another thing you will have to decide for your patterns is how you are going to name your fabrics.  Will they be Fabric A, Fabric B, Fabric C or Light, Medium, Dark, or Focal, Print, and Background, or will you use the names of the colors from the cover quilt.  There is no right answer and your naming convention will probably vary by pattern so use the names that fit  best for that pattern.  The most important thing is to pick a naming convention and use it consistently throughout the pattern.

G.     Pressing

Will you be putting pressing instructions into the pattern?  This is totally optional and personal preference, but can help out the quilter especially if some seams can be made to mesh or if there is a good way of pressing to reduce bulk.  You will have to decide whether to not have any at all, have blanket instructions for the quilt, “For this quilt, I recommend pressing all seams open” (or something to that effect), or have pressing instructions included with each step.

These are just some of the general pattern writing tips to start thinking about as you begin to lay out your pattern.  In the following weeks we are going to go into much more detail about the quilt math, illustrations, and pattern text.  This Wednesday, the guest designers will be joining the series for a round table discussion on their thoughts and tips for general pattern writing.


  1. I strongly recommend that the size of each patch / unit be noted at the end of that step. This is especially important for newbies / instruction challenged quilters ( me) There is nothing more depressing to find your block the wrong size because of a mistake in the early steps in sewing the block.

    When and if I ever write a pattern to include in my blog that is one thing I am going to make sure to do and that is include sizes of the patches/ units as I go along.

    1. That is an excellent point Nonnie, thank you for bringing it up here. I will be discussing including intermediate sizes in the piecing sizes when I talk more about the actual pattern text.

  2. In reference to what Nonnie said - I wish more pattern writers would include that information in all patterns, in bold letters! I always go to check and sometimes I'm scrolling or paging through a pattern trying to find the finished block size.\

    Cheryl, this is an excellent post. You made a great point about the actual WRITING of patterns (action verbs, etc.) that would also go hand in hand with a well done blog tutorial. I always get excited to write that last step: quilt and bind as desired (because it really is a preference!). :)

    1. Thanks so much Jessica! I totally agree with the intermediate sizing info, I remember when I was only making my 2nd or 3rd quilt and I was using a pattern and not only did it not have intermediate sizes, it never anywhere said what the block size was! I had to figure it out based on the pieces in the block.

      I have this sizing info mentioned in the text topic of the series (which was originally together with this one but it just was way too long and complicated a post), but I will be sure to add even more emphasis on it when I revise the post before posting.

      Thanks again!

  3. This is a wonderful summary of things to keep in mind and a great reference post, Cheryl. I really don't think you can emphasize enough the value of consistency in a pattern. I know I don't always get that right in the first draft(s) of a pattern, but it is definitely something I strive for in my writing.

  4. Great things to think about! Some of them seem obvious, but so easy to overlook when you're more worried about the 'big' stuff. Looking forward to what the others have to add on Wednesday!

  5. Great information! We're on a snow day in Boston, so I will devote some time to these basic instructions.

  6. These are great points . They are things we might not think about but will make things clear..if and when we make our own patterns. Thanks for doing this series Cheryl.

  7. Thank you again Cheryl! I'm convinced (almost) that I could actually write a successful pattern....I can't wait for more!

  8. An excellent, in depth list Cheryl! And just in time for me too, because I'll be getting the final edit on my book soon and can look through it and use your list to make doubly sure that my pattern instructions were consistent!

  9. As someone who edits scientific journal articles for a living, I'd love to take your advice and hand it to some of my authors! :D I'm really enjoying this series so far because I'm just starting to dip my toes into the waters of pattern design myself, and it's great to have examples and techniques from different designers to consider. :)

    One thing I'd also want to be quite clear about in any pattern is the difference between finished and unfinished sizes - at any point in the pattern.

  10. I like your approach to consistency in language and verbal usage. It really does make for an easier to read/understand pattern.

  11. These posts are really informative. Even if I never write a quilt pattern (which I probably never will), it is really interesting to see what goes into it.

  12. Another great post, Cheryl! Consistency is definitely very important in pattern writing, otherwise it gets very confusing very quickly.


  13. I'm glad you emphasized the consistency issue. It's something that became obvious to me as I worked on my second pattern. I found myself looking back at the first pattern and rethinking everything. There are just so many ways to write instructions. Finding the way that not only works for you, but is also clear, concise and consistent isn't as easy as it seems. I keep meaning to write up my own pattern writing standards to refer to but haven't gotten past the loose notes stage. This is inspiring me to get it done. Thanks for a greta post Cheryl.

  14. You're a genius! I've been planning to write a pattern for months... now I'm going to go do it!

    1. Oh thank you so much! I really hope the series is helpful and if you have any questions along the way, please let me know :)



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