Big Fabrics are Big

by Weeks on 14/01/2007

in Quilting



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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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 sooz January 14, 2007 at 8:32 pm

Gorgeously sumptuous quilt! (even the cat thinks that!) – superb explanations too – thanks :)


2 admin January 15, 2007 at 10:58 am

Thank you so much for this info about large print fabrics. I have a couple of questions. When you use a large print floral is is better to try to cut the floral design so that the major element is kept whole.

Also do you have any advice regarding the use of stripes? when cutting stripes into strips is it better to cut them lengthways or cut them short? and does it matter do you think if you have cut them both ways in the same quilt? – ie strips of lengthways stripes and the same stripe fabric cut the other way?


3 Michelle January 15, 2007 at 11:19 am

This is great, Weeks! I have a huge bundle of Kaffe Fasset FQs I just can’t bear to cut up, but I really really want to use them at the same time. They are so pretty. The issue of how many of the FQs had huge designs had also hampered my design plans for them too.

I’ll give your suggestions some serious thought before putting rotary cutter to fabric!


4 Weeks January 16, 2007 at 2:53 am

I wanted to share my answers to Kathreen’s questions with everyone else.

Cutting up a floral: I generally don’t fussy-cut (cut out an isolated motif) without a really good reason. I think it becomes too static, too “look at me!” But there are exceptions. The motif won’t look odd if they are not the only ones cut up. If there are 5 that are cut up it will look fine. The exception would be a pictoral representation of a person or animal. You don’t want to appear to have cut off any heads or limbs, but big florals I think are fine. When in doubt cut up one each way and do the 10-ft test–looking at both from across the room.

Cutting up stripes: Roberta Horton recommends an intentionally off-grain approach to cutting up stripes and plaids. I think that works for a crazy quilt where the whole design is off-kilter, but I think it looks unsettling in a more precise design. I always cut the stripes perpendicular to the longest edge because if you miscut or your seams are inconsistent it looks sloppy and I also think cutting this way shows off the stripiness.

The other totally fun thing to do with stripes is to make your binding from them with the stripes running perpendicular to the edge of the quilt. We just sold a Redwork quilt with a jaunty black and white striped binding that looked so playful and sporty. In general I would use all the stripes the same way unless it’s a crazy quilt. It can get a little dizzying to see stripes going every which way, unless the whole quilt is that way.

Good luck!


5 admin January 16, 2007 at 6:10 am

Thanks Weeks. I have to send you an image of my latest quilt top. not supposed to be crazy but I think it might have turned out that way. stripes going every which way and florals and spots and weird colour combinations. But as my 6 yr old daughter helped and advised on what she thought looked good I let her take the lead. It is a queen size quilt and sort of a not very secret present for my husband – so the colours are a little masculine and Otilija decided what daddy would like best.


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