How to Design a Simple Art Quilt

Can you see it? I designed a quaint lake-view appliqué style quilt made of fabric scraps, fused onto fabric and machine embroidered. Let me share how to design a simple Art Quilt and get it done quite quickly.

Method to the Madness:

Well, you can imagine; I have fabric… lots of it! But it has so much potential; so many colours, designs that I just can’t bear to get rid of even the scraps. Indigo dyed, ice dyed, tie-dyed, shibori dyed, and eco printed, make for quite unique choices. It just seemed perfect to create a water-themed art quilt!

This is not the type of quilt making where seams are important, it more of a appliqué type of quilt that makes use of a fusible webbing to hold thins down. That means it’s forgiving, quick and simple to design and make. It’s great as a start and doesn’t need fancy sewing skills

When using fabrics to create an image there are a few things to think of. Colour is important but I would not get too obsessed with having it ‘match’ too perfectly, design gets more interesting when there is a bit of ‘tension’ or variety of hues.

Value; how light or dark a given colour or hue is seen. Values are best understood when visualized as a scale or gradient, from light to dark. To see past the small details in a print squint your eyes and you will see ‘value’ more so.

Tips for Designing an Art Quilt:

I wanted to keep this simple, similar to a a graphic painting. You can use a photo as reference but simplify to major areas of value. If that is difficult for you then using some photo editing software (like Photoshop) can make it into a posterized image.

Planning the basic values is a good idea before choosing the fabric. Often; the distant areas (background) are somewhat faded/lighter compared to the darker/richer (foreground). The sky is darker close than further near the horizon. The challenges are much like painting but here you are painting with fabrics.

Making the Puzzle:

Once the pattern was decided it is traced onto the unbleached cotton with an erasable gel pen. (heat will erase later) The master pattern is also retraced onto the back of the paper so that I have reverse image.

I used the reverse image to trace each of the sections/shapes onto Fusible web. Fusible web is a paper backed heat sensitive layer that is ironed onto fabric to give it the ability to iron on to other fabric. I rough cut each pattern piece first and then ironed the webbing piece onto the back side of each of fabric choices. Once it is ironed and cooled the exact shape is then cut out.

The paper peels off the fabric and that piece will now fit into the design. The pieces can have overlap if desired or careful exact edges. It is a matter of style in my opinion. It is like painters; some have a loose style some not.

I place the iron-ready pieces in place but wait to attach and iron down once I see them all together.

Design Coming together:

Maybe as you see it all together you may add another shape or swap out a value for something lighter or darker. It’s a process as most art is! It was fun to see the odd patterns in these fabric scraps; some were so much like water or rock.

Since these pieces are only raw cut-edge pieces there is no frustration of seams! I love that since traditional quilting always aggravated me when seams did not line up; that is why this style is called ‘Art Quilt’.

I was pleasantly surprised how quickly this came together. It is a very heart-felt gift for some special family. These art quilts make great meaningful gifts since you can completely customize them for the recipient.

Once each piece was to my liking I ironed them all down one by one. If you are concerned about your iron these mats can help protect it.

Added Touch:

I added a thin fleece as a mid layer and cotton backing since I did not want too much ‘loft’. I always look forward to the free-motion embroidery step even though it did look pretty finished once all pieces were attached. Every sewing machine likely has an attachment (often a darning foot) available to allow moving the fabric freely under the foot, sometimes even no foot at all. It goes quickly as you can really speed along without stopping to turn.

If you want a very controlled embroidery it will be more difficult. Try some scraps until you are more confident. In my mind it is like doodling without taking the ‘line’ off the paper.

The choices of thread colour and shapes is endless. I used white as I wanted it subtle and also kept it quite unstructured so any odd lines did not look out of place.

Finishing Edges:

The art quilt has become very stable with all the embroidery and can now be finished at the edges. Carefully cut the final rectangle and make sure it is ‘square’ (90º corners)

Bias edging is easy to make and attach with just one line of sewing.

After and the corners pre-finished. Yes, all the sewing is visible from the back…

Since I wanted to keep with the rustic cottage theme, a piece of wood is added through the loops.

I added a centre nail loop is screwed into the back and it’s ready to hang! Vertical pieces are my favourite since they hang nicely and do not take a whole wall.

Is it perfection; no, but I like this way of creating art with scraps!

The sky reminds me of ‘Group of Seven’ artists in Canada. I’m happy how it turned out and hope the receiver also enjoys it!

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  1. This is a brilliant idea and so clearly detailed and illustrated. I recently returned from N. Ireland and have lots of photos of the Giants Causeway on the Antrim coast. I have been wondering how I should artistically interpret the geological strata and the sea. So your blog is very timely and inspiring. Thanks Barb for your inspirational blogs.

  2. Great tutorial! Clear complete instruction and the “Barb” can-do encouragement. I like to pick out tips to use elsewhere. That the sky is lighter near the horizon – there’s a detail often gotten wrong. A new tip for me is the thin light line in the water between the bluff and their reflection. These tiny things make it look like we know what we are doing. Ha!

  3. I am planning to make a wall hanging. It will be a night time scene with loons on the water part. How can I make th eloons a little darker, as they would look at night in the moonlight? I have read about how to make the water fabric look reflective, but not how to darken an applique (the loons). Love your quilt!

    1. Since I also am a painter/illustrator I do notice that the finish (amount of sheen) has an effect on how dark a colour is. Here’s a thing to try; apply some acrylic polymer finish to the dark loons and it may look darker since it shinier. Test on a scrap to see how you like it… I know it’s unconventional but who’s to say it’s not acceptable. Many quilts are multimedia. Hope that helps!

  4. Very nice tutorial with easy to understand instructions. I have started making lap size quilts with a similar process but still struggle to find a product to attach my cut pieces that will withstand many machine washings. Do you have any suggestions?

    1. Raw edge applique and many washings seems like a reason to test. I would try the wonder-under products on a scrap and then just keep throwing it in with the laundry. I remember many ions ago doing the sweatshirt art of iron on fabric and outlining the edges with rubbery t-shirt paint. Some lasted the laundry quite well. I am cautious about the way a machine is tough on the fabrics. Art quilts usually are just ornamental. The other thing is to accept the possible fraying and perhaps it can be part of the design.

  5. What size needle do you use? And how do you keep it from gumming up from the seam a steam glue? I have a problem when I do this it keeps gumming up the needle. Any tips for me ? Your project came out beautiful.

    1. I use a pretty standard needle, I find that sometimes a thinner needle will pass through the fabric easier than a thick one. I did not have any of the gumming problem. Maybe you could try rubbing some bar soap on the needle. Maybe it depends on the brand of iron-on. Once mine is cool it isn’t sticky at all, only when it is in the melting stage. I hope that helps!