Big Fabrics are Big

by Weeks on 14/01/2007

in Quilting

In the past few years several fabric designers have released lines of fabric featuring large-scale prints in beautiful colors. While these fabrics are fun to use for projects that only require one or two fabrics, quiltmakers are always trying to figure out how they can incorporate these fabrics into their quilts. "I love this fabric but I don't know how to use it," is a comment we hear a lot. We wanted to play around with these fabrics ourselves so we made the quilt shown above to brighten up our bedroom in the grayness of winter. In the process of working with these fabrics, we learned a lot. So here are a few guidelines for making quilts with large-scale prints.

Understanding Figure/Ground

As a general rule, use simple quilt designs for complex fabrics and reserve complex quilt designs for simple fabrics with smaller repeats and less contrast. Using large-scale contrasting prints is harder to make work because of a design principle known as Figure/Ground.



In Figure/Ground, the “figure” refers to a design motif or pattern on the fabric while “ground” refers to the background upon which the figure is placed.


Use fabrics of different scales

When you cut up small-scale fabric, the shape of the piece is larger and more dominant to the eye than the shape of the figure on the ground. When you cut up a large-scale print, the size of the figure often competes with the size of the piece, making it hard for the viewer to see the pattern of the quilt. You can’t see the pattern for the fabric, so to speak.

The human eye understands patterns as a result of visual hierarchies. When the hierarchy is unclear in some places and clear in others, the eye stays in one place trying to make sense of the mess.


The larger-scale prints will always have ambiguous edges when cut up, but placing these pieces next to smaller-scale pieces with clean edges will improve the visual clarity of the quilt.

Consider the contrast

Another thing to keep in mind is the level of contrast in the fabric. The higher the contrast between the figure and the ground, the harder it’s going to be to see the shape of the quilt piece. Use fabrics with higher contrast with those with less contrast to balance the visual impact.

More might be better

With the eye always trying to sort out visual hierarchy, a single large-scale print can look much larger than the same print does when combined with a bunch of other large prints. When we were auditioning fabrics for this quilt, we found that adding lots of other large-scale prints made each individual print seem less dominant.

It’s kind of like a party

In the end, think of a large-scale print as a gregarious friend at a social gathering. One or two really loud people in a room discourages interaction between others. But if you have a whole group of people with various personalities with none dominating, then you really have a party.

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