Best Design Tip for an Eye-Catching Quilt

How do you get people to stop in their tracks for your quilt? Because whether it’s at home on your own wall, or hanging in a quilt show – it’s nice when people notice and appreciate your art!

Large quilt exhibitions are busy spaces. They are busy with wandering people, information stands, demonstrators  and most likely, raffle competitions. Then there are the multitudes of quilts, all vying for attention. If you stand back and watch the visitors, they are mostly scanning….. looking to see what there is to see. If a quilt doesn’t grab their attention in the first few seconds they move on to the next. They naturally gravitate to the next eye-catching quilt.

Do you want people to pause at your quilt and take a closer look? Of course you do – you put a lot of effort into it and you found the courage to enter it into a show (or decorate your home with it).! Here’s the good news! Your quilt doesn’t have to get the blue ribbon (or any ribbon) to be a people-stopper. It doesn’t have to be an amazing pictorial quilt or brightly coloured to be an eye-catching quilt. It doesn’t even need to have a ridiculously complicated design. The one most important feature of a quilt that will make people pause in that first crucial moment is Contrast.

People taking a selfie with eye-catching quilt
I enjoy seeing people posing with my quilts. It’s a pretty big endorsement!

The first and foremost trick to producing an eye-catching quilt is to get the Contrast right.

Double check that you are alone and say it out loud for me… “Contrast”……. It really is that important!

Before I go any further, I want to digress just a little. Just in case you are thinking……. 

“But I don’t want to show my quilts, I just want to make fantastic quilts for myself and the people I love. I’m trawling the internet because I don’t want to be that quilter who is always complaining that people don’t appreciate my really expensive, really time-consuming gifts!”

If this is you, then contrast is still your friend and you are in the right place. There are certainly other factors at play when designing a quilt as a gift, but let’s just concentrate on this one thing for now….. Getting the contrast right.

Back to basics – planning an eye-catching quilt from the very beginning

Fabric bolts on a shelf
These days there are so many wonderful fabrics available! It’s great, but it can get a bit daunting when you have to choose just a few.

Let’s be honest. Most of us quilters do not start a quilt by thinking about contrast. We usually get bogged down in choosing colours – unless we are still deliberating over the pattern. The colour and quilt pattern choices available seem overwhelmingly endless and it often matters greatly to us which pattern and colours we choose because we have a certain destination  or recipient in mind. 

Yet, while there is probably little point making a red quilt for someone who adores teal, or a dog quilt for a cat person, this still leaves us with a problem.  And that is: the teal or cat quilt that lacks some sort of additional appeal is probably still going to end up in the cupboard or worse when your back is turned. The lacklustre quilt at the show gets ignored. And you miss out on a whole world of pleasure and satisfaction. despite all that effort. So what’s a thinking, caring quilter like you to do then?!

Treat quilting as the art form that we know  it is, and brush up on some art basics! 

Contrast is the foundation of a good quilt

Bowl of mixed colour pepper corns
Variety is the spice of life! This “mixed medley” of peppercorns is visually far more interesting than just black peppercorns. Think of contrast as the variety in your quilt.

I believe that a lack of contrast is one of the most common design decisions that lets down otherwise brilliant quilts. Once you understand the concept of contrast, you can evaluate your patterns and colour choices much more easily and change ordinary quilts into something special. If you think about contrast at each design step you will always end up with a better quilt than if you don’t. So the best thing for you to do is to become so familiar with this concept that it becomes second nature. Contrast provides interest. Contrast provides excitement and drama. Contrast provides depth and focal points. Fascinating contrasts are often visual, but they can also be emotional or tactile. Are you getting a sense of how integral this concept is to a great quilt?! Yes? Fantastic!

How to Use Contrast to create an Eye-Catching Quilt

There are five main types of contrast I can think of that really matter for quilts. Contrast in colour value, Contrast in form, Contrast in scale, Contrast in placement and Contrast in texture. Use them wisely and sparingly (too much of a good thing is Too Much), and you are a long way towards creating a great quilt. So let’s explore each briefly in turn today and I will expand further on each as my blog grows.

Contrast using colour value

Fabrics lined up in a row.
Once you have found the quilting fabric section in your local store or online, the colour of the fabrics  is likely the next thing to grab your attention. Ignore the colours for a moment and think about values.

Contrast is most easily achieved in a quilt by using fabrics that cover a range of colour values. Colour value is defined as the relative lightness or darkness of a colour. So to have a range of values in your design means that your quilt will use light, medium and dark fabrics, regardless of their colour. In the photo of fabrics above there is a range of colours (yellow, green, brown, blue). There is also a range of values (light and dark). 

You can read more about using colour value in quilts by reading Colour Value Contrast for Spectacular Quilt DesignsSix Ways Talented Quilters use Colour Value and Colour Value Theory for Quilters – What you need to know!

Using colour value contrast

There are many ways you can incorporate colour value contrast into a quilt, but let’s start with one of the simplest examples; one that most quilters will be able to relate to. Let’s choose a traditional, pieced quilt block and pretend to create it out of several fabrics of the same colour but of differing values. 

A simple example:

Let’s look at the log cabin block. Below are three diagrams of a log cabin block made in blue fabrics of varying values, with or without white.  Now, there are two things to notice. The first is that how much contrast you choose to use will affect what a block looks like. And the second is that where you choose to use that contrast within the block will also greatly affect how your eye interprets the block. This is because of the  way the fabrics contrast or blend with their neighbouring fabrics.

Log cabin block examples of using colour value
Log cabin blocks, coloured in three different patterns using different values of the colour blue with or without white. The blocks hardly look related.

The contrast structure that you choose for the basic log cabin block then in turn affects how you can use it to create an eye-catching quilt. Here are three simple quilts that you could make using 16 direct repeats of the basic log cabin blocks in the diagrams above.

Examples of eye-catching quilts based on log cabin blocks
Three very different quilts all made from direct repeats of blue log cabin blocks.

Three blue log cabin blocks, three extraordinarily different quilt designs. Try to place aside your personal preferences and think about which quilt you would notice first from across the room……

Chances are you have said B or C. These are high contrast designs, relying on contrasting colour value for their effect. You may not personally like them (or you may) but either way, they are eye-catching. Design A is a low contrast design. Low contrast designs make fantastic backgrounds where you might otherwise be tempted to use a single fabric. To turn design A into an eye-catching quilt, you would need to layer it with another form of contrast, ie contrast in form, scale, placement or texture.

Contrast using shape and form

Pomegranates and Peaches quilt showing scale and form contrast
“Pomegranates and Peaches” Quilt (detail) – this piece shows contrast in both form and scale.

When you are deciding on a quilt design you can introduce contrast by using a variety of  shapes (ie squares, triangles, circles etc). This is known as contrast in form. An example of a high contrast choice in this category would be curved shapes mixed with straight-sided shapes (eg circles vs squares). A low contrast choice of shapes would be circles mixed with irregular but curved blobs of a similar size. 

Have a look at “Pomegranates and Peaches” above. The piecing is very obviously made up of squares and rectangles set in rows and columns. But the featured fruit is a collection of round shapes that I also set on a curve for effect. These juxtapositions encourage you to look at the quilt longer than if it was just a simple convergence quilt of straight lines. Lots of contemporary art quilts and modern quilts use contrast in form to great effect.

Contrast using scale

A quilt that shows contrast in scale by Dione Gardner-Stephen
“Pomegranates and Peaches” has fabrics that have similar shaped subjects of varying scale.

What would you do though, if you decided that you really like quilts with circles and didn’t want lots of straight lines confusing the issue? One type of contrast that would work in this case would be to use circles of different sizes. This is called contrast in scale.

Have another look at “Pomegranates and Peaches”. The round pomegranates are echoed by small and medium circular fruits in three of the pieced fabrics. So this quilt also utilises contrast in scale….. although when I made it I didn’t think about the prints mostly being circles. I simply chose fabrics with a variety of scale in the prints – large fruits and small fruits. 

Secondary designs as sources of contrast:

Sometimes you don’t need to deliberately include contrast in scale into your quilt. Sometimes this occurs naturally as a secondary design of colour value contrast! Look again at the log cabin quilt examples from earlier. From a distance, log cabin quilt B looks like it is made of squares of varying sizes. This is purely because of the colour value and placement choices that I made, and doesn’t occur for the other two designs. 

Contrast using placement

Modern quilt example of contrast in placement.
A mock-up of a very simple modern quilt, showing a cluster of lines that are varied in their orientation.

You can readily find good, simple examples of eye-catching quilts that use contrast in placement by looking at quilts from the modern quilt movement. What you are looking for are quilts with a repeated motif, like a line or a triangle. Now look to see whether these repeated shapes are varied in their spacing relative to each other, or in their direction relative to each other (or both). This is contrast in placement.

Your can also combine contrast of placement with contrast of scale to give a design a sense of movement. This is going to have to be a topic for another day, but it is a very fun design tool.

Another example:

Just before we move on though, I will show you a more traditional example of using contrast in placement.  In the log cabin example from earlier, I have rotated some of the log cabin blocks of design C to generate a completely different design for you. I think that the original design, with the 16 directly repeated blocks is a very ordered, slightly harsh design. Every block is an independent focal point.  The design to the right however, draws the eye into the middle of the quilt and out to the corners. The blocks work together and the design is easier to look at. This difference is caused by the introduced contrast in placement. Which design you prefer will of course depend on your own personal preferences and what you are trying to achieve.

Log Cabin quilts showing the concept of different contrast in placement
I simply varied the orientation of the log cabin blocks, and the quilt design is significantly changed (left panel vs right panel).

Contrast using texture

Fabric origami flower block
Fabric origami flower – just one of the many fabric manipulations you could use to add texture to a quilt.

One of the fabulous things about quilting is that most of the design happens in 2D but the actual crafting has a lot of the fun of a 3D art form. Many of us, myself included, are much more comfortable designing in two dimensions than three. I can get my head around things in two dimensions and I can represent my ideas accurately on a piece of paper without having a meltdown. But when I get to the quilting and embellishing phase of the quilt process, it has all the lovely tactile qualities of a 3D art form. You can touch and feel a quilt in a way that you just can’t do with a painting or drawing.

To make the most of the 3D aspects of a quilt you can consider adding textures as surface elements or as an integral aspect of quilt construction.

Using contrast in texture

Texture in the fabric of the quilt:

One suggestion for adding texture to quilts is to simply use multiple types of fabrics to piece the quilt sandwich. The quilt police have had their day; a quilt top does not have to be made exclusively  of quilting weight cotton (or any quilting weight cotton at all for that matter)! Anyway, there are loads of fabric types that make great quilts, either for your bed or the wall. Another thing you can do to add texture at the construction phase is add features such as piping, prairie points, fabric origami, cathedral windows, gathers and pleats.

Surface texture:

Examples of surface additions that give texture are beads, buttons, costume jewellery, paper, plastic, recycled and found items…. the options are probably endless, especially if your quilt is intended for the wall.

Detail of Sweet Dreams wall quilt showing jewellery sewn on
“Sweet Dreams” Wall Quilt (detail). I used broken costume jewellery to add surface texture and interest to an abstract art piece.

Adding texture with quilting

Detail of Sunflower Rising Wall Quilt showing use of quilting to add texture and contrast.
“Sunflower Rising” Art Quilt (detail). I depicted the centre of the sunflower purely through concentrated quilting. I quilted the rest of the piece relatively sparsely.

A rule of thumb says “quilts should be quilted evenly all over”. Break the rules, not your thumbs, I say. You do need to have enough quilting all over your quilt to stabilise your quilt and stop the batting moving inside. But you will not ruin your quilt with areas of denser quilting on a quilt with quality batting. What you will do is add contrasts of texture into your quilt. Indeed, this is actually what a good trapunto quilt relies on  – a heavily quilted background with the padded design sparsely quilted. If its good enough for trapunto, then its good enough for other quilts too.

You can add also add colour and scale contrasts to your eye-catching quilt using quilting. Lori Kennedy runs a great blog on free-motion quilting and has recently discussed using quilting to provide contrast at the quilting stage through contrasting threads, contrasting scale and contrasting density. For more ideas, read  Lori’s article here. 

Even the most traditional forms of quilting can lend themselves to contrast. Find out what I discovered about contrast in form, scale and direction while I was learning to quilt feathers recently in this post: Quilting Feathers for Beginners.

A Final Thought on Contrast – specifically for Show Quilts

Here’s a final thought for those of you who do like to show quilts, or would like to show quilts. There is one more layer of contrast to consider to grab your audience’s attention. Will your quilt stand out among the others, or will they all look the same? What can you do to your quilt to make it different to everyone else’s? Think outside the box. Can you tweak your design to add in something unexpected or re-interpret a traditional block perhaps? Call it innovation, uniqueness, or individuality….. at the end of the day, if your quilt is well designed and a bit different to all the others around it – if it tells your quilt story not everyone else’s – people will stop and look. 

And Before I Go, a Word of Caution!

Like most things, contrast can be overdone. To reap the benefits, you must use contrast wisely. If you feature too many contrasts in one quilt, the design will get lost in busyness and will not come together as a single entity. The viewer will not know where to look first! Don’t add lots and lots of contrast at the construction stage if you plan to add lots and lots of contrast at the quilting stage. The different forms of contrast will fight for attention and your quilt will be the worse for it.

Clever Chameleon logoChoose just a few contrasts wisely at each step of your quilt creation process and your quilt will sing. And when your quilts sing, you are Quilting your Own Story.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article or found it helpful please do me and your friends a favour – Like it and share!


Now it's your turn.... what do you think?