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Designing an Innovative Quilt

I encourage you to take the leap and design your own quilt combining Sashiko and appliqué. It’s a challenge, but the rewards are so satisfying. You don’t have to be a trained artist to come up with a strong design, especially in this age of digital cameras and copy machines.

 My quilts are strongly influenced by Japanese and Polynesian art since I have lived in Hawaii, the Pacific cultural cross-roads. However, Sashiko can be adapted to any pattern that catches your eye: a southwest Indian blanket weave, Chinese fret designs, even tattoos! Great subjects for appliqué are everywhere in nature, we just need to open our eyes and take a closer look and see how we can capture it’s essence in cloth.  

Polynesian quilts throughout the islands have common design elements: natural motifs, symmetry, contrast, and repetition with variation. Hawaiian quilts are cut snowflake fashion, from whole cloth folded in eighths; in Tahiti and other South Pacific Islands, they fold their quilts in fourths and embellish them with embroidery and lyrical curved borders. I find it easier to design symmetrical quilts with stylized design motifs; the patterns repeat and are predictable.

Orchid Tivaevae                                               Orchid Tivaevae
                                Influenced by Cook Island and Tahitian Quilts

In contrast, Japanese art uses asymmetry to echo the unpredictable qualities of nature by placing designs off-center, over-lapping, or disappearing over the edge of a composition. Negative space is just as important as the design and is called “ma” or aesthetic pause, a place for your eye to rest. These blank spaces are often filled with contrasting geometric patterns, flowing water, clouds, or mist designs, perfect for Sashiko or quilting.

Japanese art will often divide a design diagonally to draw the eye into and out of the composition without bisecting it evenly.

Circles are considered harmonious and peaceful and are one of my favorite shapes to work with because they can stand alone, can be formed first and scattered on a background, or sewn into a pieced geometric quilt.

Try scattering patterns in a random way; the trick is to make them look irregular, yet balanced against the negative space created in between.

Designing with asymmetry requires lots of experimenting , but it is a very gratifying process when your composition finally looks just right.

My favorite design tools are my digital camera, a copy machine and a big roll of tracing paper. Photos are a great way to study plants, second only to sketching out in nature. I also use lots of reference material and haunt the local libraries for ideas. It is tempting to use an artist’s work you admire for inspiration, but don’t rely on it solely as it may influence your design too much and can involve complicated copyright issues. Use your own photos to get started designing, they are original compositions and all yours.
Koi Water & Waves             Koi Water & Wave
          Inspired by Japanese Designs

How to compose with your digital camera

A digital camera in hand, meander through a garden looking for plant forms and combinations that catch your eye. Use your viewfinder and zoom to help isolate your composition. For appliqué flowers, pick an aspect that will translate easily into a simple appliqué shape. For Sashiko foliage, it is possible to capture more complicated aspects and intricate shapes.

Fresh Picked Hibiscus     Designing with Fresh Picked Hibiscus

A fun and effective way to create your own composition is to cut flowers and foliage, arrange them on a dark fabric background and photograph them. I find it easier to envision the design if I can play around with placement with the real plant. You also get a chance to study the true color of the flower and audition backgrounds.

Crop the photo in a photo editing program and print it out on a copier in black and white. This saves ink and it is easier to see the outlines of plants without being distracted by color.

Trace the outline shapes and some details of your photo. If it hard to see the photo through the tracing paper, use a light table, tape it to the window or put a light under a glass coffee table. The tracing will reveal whether the composition works or if you need to eliminate flowers or leaves to simplify the picture. An outline without all the detail of color and shading should make sense to your eye.

 Most copy machines reduce or enlarge and will copy a reversed image of a design drawn on tracing paper. I like to use the same aspect of a flower and reverse it, simplifying the number of template shapes needed. Also, leaf or flower images can be cut from the composition, reduced or enlarged and moved around until it looks right.

Print in color the best photos you want to use for appliqué; they will help you choose appliqué fabrics.

Simplifying shapes for appliqué

Flower shapes are often very frilly or complicated. The trick is to capture the essence of the flower shape and aspect yet make it simple enough to hand appliqué. If you are machine appliquéing, much more complicated shapes can be executed. Remember that shading and dimension will be added when the shape is cut from fabric.

Hibiscus                                              Hibiscus
                                        Fussy cut from "ugly" fabric

Lay another piece of tracing paper over the original tracing of your flower. Trace the flower petals again and smooth out tight curves or serrated edges. Study your drawing and see if it still indicates the aspect of the flower you want to express. If the center of the flower is very complicated, simplify it or leave it to be executed in embroidery embellishment later.

Pin your tracing up on a wall. Darken the lines if necessary so you can really see the design well. Stand back and see if it works from a distance.


Effective Sashiko Shapes

Unlike appliqué, it is possible to outline more complicated shapes with Sashiko. After tracing leaves, trace the veining inside the leaf shape. The central and auxiliary veins are often what give the leaf dimension. Eliminate leaves with awkward aspects and reduce the number of overlapping leaves. Too many parallel Sashiko lines close together are very busy and confusing to the eye. I rarely get the results I want from the first tracing. I tweak, enlarge, reduce, retrace and try again.

Auditioning the design

Loew-Cornell White Transfer PaperAuditioning a traced design using Loew-Cornell White Transfer Paper

When you are satisfied with your design, transfer it to the background fabric and pin the appliqué shapes in place on a design wall.

The white transfer lines give you a very good idea of how the sashiko will look when finished as will the appliqué shapes, especially if pre-formed with the press-over Mylar method. If some aspect of the design doesn’t work, now is the time to fix it! Wash the transfer lines out of the background fabric or simply transfer the design onto the back of the fabric.

Designing is a slow trial and error process that requires lots of patience. I like to let my designs evolve over a period of days, weeks, even months of experimenting. I often go back to photographs or the real plant in my garden to see if there is some missing element  that will capture the essence of it. Enjoy the journey!