Guest series :: Creative process for designing a quilt

by contributor on June 27, 2012

in Guest series 2012, Quilting

Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at whipup.net over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Alissa Haight Carlton lives in Los Angeles and is one of the founders and president of the Modern Quilt Guild.  She has written two books, Modern Minimal: 20 Bold and Graphic Quilts and Block Party: The Modern Quilting Bee. She blogs at handmade by alissa.

My creative process for designing and making a quilt is something that I’ve consciously worked at developing. I’ve come to realize that if you don’t have a process, how do you know where to start and where to go from there? I’ve also realized that my process changes, depending on the purpose of the quilt. If a pattern is going to be written up for the quilt, I always start by sitting down and designing the quilt. I use Illustrator for this. My abilities with the program are limited, but I love that I can design everything to scale, so I know my numbers will all add up. Once the quilt is designed, I get down to the leg work of following my own pattern and making the quilt. I often find this tedious as it feels purely like labor, but I’m driven by my desire to see my vision become reality.

If I’m not going to write a pattern for the quilt, I work in a completely different (and, for me, a much more fulfilling) way. I tend to keep my design process going throughout the making of the quilt, which makes the construction feel less like labor and more like part of the creative process. I thought that I’d show this process through the designing and making of a specific quilt (the one pictured above).

Let me begin by saying that the single most important tool for me with this process is a design wall. I simply tacked some cotton batting to my wall that fabric sticks to. This way, I can put things up, step away, hem and haw and just generally look at it a lot. Getting a design wall was transformative for my quilt design and I’d recommend it to any quilter out there. You can see it here on the left side of this photo of my (never this tidy) studio space. It takes up a whole wall and is 100% worth it.

The first thing that starts me thinking about a quilt is usually the colors and fabrics. For this quilt, which was a commission, I was given some guidelines in terms of the colors requested, so I pulled all of my fabrics that I thought could work.


From there, I didn’t know what direction I was headed, but I knew I wanted to do some improvisational piecing, so I cut a whole bunch of the fabrics up into strips and started piecing.

I love improv piecing. I never worry about where the quilt is headed – I just enjoy the process and working with the different colors and fabrics.  I also tend to focus on shape and color placement quite a bit since I usually work with solids. I  have turned to solids more and more as I’ve progressed in my quilting. I personally find a lot of patterned fabrics placed together to be busy and that takes away from the graphic feel that I to go for in my quilt designs.

Once I’d pieced a fair number of the improv blocks, it was time to start thinking about where I was going to go with them. Now try as you might to avoid it, at some point you have to decide where you’re going with a design… Unless the quilt is going to be improv from corner to corner and then squared up at the end, you eventually have to do some planning and dreaded math. When I reach this point, I turn to Illustrator. I’d been thinking that I wanted to create stripes with the improv piecing (I like the idea of improv within a structured context) so I took a photo of the blocks lined up and cropped it to be a strip. From there, I put the photo in Illustrator and messed around until I came up with a plan of this simple woven effect.


You can see that I just stretched and squeezed the one photo as needed to fill in the stripes. I wasn’t concerned with getting it to look just right since the only goal here was to sort out placement of the stripes within the negative space. Since I work to scale in Illustrator, I can also establish sizes of all of my piecing and negative space portions this way.

So from there, I kept on improv piecing until I had enough to fill in all of the strips, and I cut out all of the pieces of fabric to fill in the negative space – placing it all up on my design wall as I went along.

Here’s where I made a mistake – one that happens to me semi-regularly. I didn’t go with my gut. The pale yellow was the only fabric that was almost right that I had in my stash, so even though my instincts were telling me it wasn’t completely right, I kept on going because I was eager to make progress with the quilt. After walking away from my design wall and coming back to it a day later, I knew I had to make a change. A pale tan was in order, not a pale yellow.

A trip to the fabric store later, I had the right fabric and I got down to business finishing the quilt top.

Once I finish a top, I always make the back using up fabrics I have left from the front. To be honest, I pay very little attention to designing these backs and tend to just put them together as the fabric I have allows.


When it’s time to quilt, I think long and hard about how to best compliment the design of the quilt. I tend to not think about quilting before it’s time to do it. I’ll think it through while I’m basting, and I take my time making the decision. Here I quilted the negative space with very dense straight lines that echo the piecing design and then I filled in the improv stripes with less dense lines. I stopped and started so that the quilting followed the “weaving” effect of the piecing.

From there, all that’s left is the binding! Again, this is something that I don’t think about until it’s time to do it and my instincts usually point me in a direction. I like to use the binding as a frame of sorts, so I’m usually drawn to one of the darker colors in the quilt top. Here I went with one of the darker yellows.

And there you have it, how I design a quilt, from start to finish. As I mentioned earlier, I love to keep the design process going through as much of the construction as I can. I get very bored by the labor of making quilts (yup. I’ll admit it.) and I’m not the type who can sit down and make the same block 100 times. I almost never make the same quilt twice. I’m driven by the desire to see what will come next and sometimes my quilts turn out very differently from how I’d first imagined them. I am also not scared of making mistakes. I have started many projects and once I was half way through I realized I simply didn’t like where the quilt was going so I stopped. I put it aside and chalk it up to a learning experience that I can apply to future quilts. Or maybe it can be chopped up and used in a different way? You never know where your ideas, even the bad ones, might lead you!

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lisa June 27, 2012 at 11:09 am

Lovely! I am a novice quilter, but I never use patterns (as a visual learner, I find them hard to make sense of anyway). I usually have a general idea and then I just start piecing… very satisfying to see what comes together.

2 Dace June 27, 2012 at 9:10 pm

I am lost in admiration when gazing at your work space and also the nifty way to hang up a completed quilt using 2 hangers and clips so that you dont have to sew in tags and use a rod, great idea.

3 Liz June 28, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Alissa, your work is genius!! Love your books, love your blog… can’t wait to see what you do next. You have a real generosity of spirit in sharing your passion for this craft and it is contagious!! Sadly I was away traveling when you visited my local Mod Guild and didn’t get to meet you, but you continue to inspire me thanks to the magic of cyberspace and your books!

Thanks to Whipup for your great blog… just learning about it and loving what I see so far!

4 Alice June 29, 2012 at 9:04 am

Thank you for this blog post. It is so very helpful to see how others work. One can never have too many ways to approach one’s art.

5 Rach July 1, 2012 at 6:37 pm

love your honesty about the not so fun bits of the process… I use illustrator for work so nice to see how I could better use it for play – i.e. sewing/quilts. Thanks : )

6 Marianne July 2, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Thanks for sharing your process…I can so relate, I keep myself engaged the same way.

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