January 29, 2016

Which Comes First; the Fabric or the Design?

Toward the end of 2015, I went through most of my stash sorting and trying to purge. To say the least, it was therapeutic to actually handle all my fabric. It made me realize just how many quilts I should get started on. But where to begin. Should I start with the fabric and come up with a design specific to that fabric? Or should I come up with a design first and then choose fabric that works? I've been considering this 'fabric first vs design first' question for awhile now.

Then Cheryl of Meadow Mist Designs asked the same question as part of her Pattern Writing Series. Today I'd like to look at the question more closely to analyze how I work and why. I'll also share what the other designers in the series have to say. Here's the question Cheryl asked us:
  • Do you tend to start with a design and then find fabrics and colors that work or do you tend to start with a color scheme or fabric collection in mind and design a pattern for the fabric?

I'll start with my thoughts . . .
I buy fabrics because I love them. I love the colors. I love the prints. I just love fabric. Cleaning my stash helped me realize a few things. I've always thought of myself as a color person, but in reality I now realize I'm a colorful print person. When I go into a quilt shop, I'm drawn to the prints more than the solids, especially large scale prints like Kaffe Fassett and Amy Butler. In this photo of my studio, only one of the five cubbies is for solids. Two have mostly modern tonal prints. One has neutral prints and one is stuffed with Kaffe Fassett, Amy Butler, and Tula Pink. That's my favorite!!

As you can see, I have a wonderful, colorful stash of fabrics from which to begin a design. And yet when I am creating a pattern I rarely start with the fabric. Why is that? You would think I'd be pulling fabrics right and left. I certainly have enough to play with.

What it comes down to is this. Intention. If my intention is to create a pattern for sale, I want the design to be the primary factor rather than the fabric. I want the quilter to have the freedom to make it with fabrics they love rather than simply copy the fabrics I've used. I want them to 'make it their own' as I say in my patterns.

For this reason, a new pattern usually begins with the design first. I start by exploring composition and structure. I might play with a graphic element like line or a shape. I might play with a traditional block. I might translate something non-quilty I've seen into a design. But the bottom line is the design. It establishes the foundation and structure for the quilt.

As the design takes shape, I introduce color and value and really start playing. How color and value are applied can have an huge effect on the final look of a design. That's the part I like the most . . . exploring all the options and looking at how even small changes in color placement or value can completely change the feel of a design. That's one big reason I share optional ideas in the patterns. Here's an example from my Matrix pattern.

As I'm playing with color, I start to consider the fabrics. Does the design work best with solids? Will it work well with prints? What scale or type of prints work best? Fabric is chosen based on color and value rather than any particular print. Even with a design that uses large scale prints, like the Kaffe prints in my Cascade pattern, it's more about the color, value, and scale than the specific prints.

Sometimes I might have a color scheme in mind. Sometimes I might even have a type of fabric like a large scale print in mind. These things simply influence my choices as I design. For example, if I'm wanting to try a larger scale print, I'll evaluate the size of the pieces used in the blocks. If it's a color scheme, I'll still consider how alternative color schemes will work. In other words, the design still comes first.

Here's what the other designers in the series had to say:

Yvonne of Quilting Jetgirl
80% of the time I start with a design and then find colors / fabrics, but I have also worked to create a design based on fabric bundles or with a particular color scheme in mind.

Christa of ChristaQuilts
I usually start by designing the pattern first. Early in my quiltmaking career I remember hearing “a great pattern works well with any fabrics” and that idea has really stuck with me. I usually design in solid colors to get the basic idea down first, then add print fabrics, or change colors later. When designing, I am always aware of where the lights, mediums, and darks will go to create contrast in the design. I (Anne) might add that I usually start with solids too. I work in Illustrator, so importing actual fabric swatches isn't something I regularly do but it would certainly be helpful. The visual texture of a print can read quite differently than a solid. Having the option of importing fabric swatches is something to consider if you'll be choosing a computer quilting program to design.

Soma of Whims and Fancies
I mostly design patterns first, then decide on suitable colors and prints.

Lorna of Sew Fresh Quilts
Both. I have been known to start with a backing fabric in mind and design a pattern for the front to match the backing. 

Amy of 13 Spools
I constantly try to start with fabric - and I’m pretty horrible at it! Sometimes things end well, but I find I work best when I start with a pattern. When I see the right fabric, I just know it.

Cheryl of Meadow Mist Designs 
I typically start my design using just a few solid colors (lights, mediums, and darks) and focus on the design elements first.  Once the design elements and blocks are set, I start playing around with colorations and different fabrics.  This route tends to be the easiest and most natural for me.  

Occasionally, when I am designing for a fabric company, I start my design process with a fabric collection or precut size.  I find this tends to be more difficult for me, but it can produce some interesting results.  Having a design and idea library is sometimes very helpful for me when starting a design based on a fabric collection.  I can go “shopping” in my library to see if I already have a design that might work with some tweaking for the particular fabric collection.

You don’t have to start exclusively going only one direction.  You could start with a design and then as you add fabrics, you could decide to go back and change the design.  My designs very rarely are linear and straight forward, they are usually iterative and go through many changes before I reach the final design.


As you can see from the designers answers, most start with the design and then choose fabric. As I think about the various ways I design, I can summarize my approach into three different strategies.
  1. Design first, then fabrics based on color, value, and scale of print that will best support and enhance the design.
  2. Fabrics and design worked simultaneously. This is similar to what Cheryl refers to when shopping her design library for something that works with a given fabric grouping. I will be using this approach a lot as I try to use my stash this year. 
  3. Fabric first where the design is dependent upon a particular fabric. For me, quilts that fall into this category are usually because one specific fabric sparked a very specific idea. 

So what about the fabric first approach?
I agree with Cheryl that beginning with the fabric can be more challenging. It seems counterintuitive not to start with the fabric. We're quilters after all. We love fabric. I'm sure we've all fallen hard over a certain line of fabric or perhaps one particular print. Probably more than once . . . maybe even on an ongoing basis. That's why we have the ever growing stash right?

Starting from a fabric first approach just means a different set of criteria. If you're designing a pattern for a fabric manufacturer, then the objective is to sell that fabric line. You will have a specific set colors, values and scales to work with. You'll also have the same limitations if you're working with a bundle or precuts. These limitations can be challenging but they can also produce interesting designs that have a lot of potential as patterns. Think jelly roll or charm pack patterns.  If you're curating a bundle from your stash, you have more control over these variables. You can select a certain color scheme, value range, or use of scale.

Here are a few things I would consider when starting with fabric first.
  • Does the design require specific fabrics in order to work?
  • If so, will these fabrics still be readily available to the quilter by the time the pattern is published?
  • Is the design flexible enough that different fabrics can easily be substituted while still maintaining the integrity of the design?
  • Can I demonstrate alternative fabric choices?
These questions are also good to ask if you are submitting a design for publication in a magazine.

Now that I am trying to sew from my stash for 2016, I will definitely be trying to start with the fabric more often so I can use it. In reality though it will be more like the fabric/design simultaneously strategy. I will probably 'shop' my pattern library like Cheryl suggests to see what might work with these groups and branch off from there.

The two photos below are a couple of fabric groupings I recorded while cleaning my stash. I love them but will they become patterns? Both have possibilities but I will need to consider a few of things.

First, both groups include larger scale prints. Nothing wrong with that. I would just find a way to demonstrate that alternative prints can also work. The biggest problem with both these groups is that the primary print is older and therefore not readily available any longer. If I were to design a quilt with these I'd probably not make it into a pattern without considering more current fabrics for the final pattern cover. That might lead to a great variation, another quilt, and a whole new pattern idea.

The grouping above is based on a Carolyn Friedlander print. I am inspired by the grid in this print and have pulled some possible companion pieces. The idea I have is based very specifically on that center fabric. For that reason, I wouldn't make the design into a pattern because of limited fabric availability now. The concept is too specific to be a viable pattern. But who knows where this idea might lead. I'm always open to one quilt evolving into a second quilt and maybe new pattern ideas.

Be open to where your work leads you.


As Cheryl said, "You don’t have to start exclusively going only one direction."
There is no right or wrong to the process. Hopefully this has given you something to think about. Most likely you'll find that you'll switch back and forth depending on the project. The important thing is to start.

Be sure to check out Cheryl's post this week on Quilt Design and Inspiration.
And Yvonne's post on Design Inspiration.
Both have really good thoughts to help you get started.

Now begin and see where the journey takes you.



  1. Thanks for the information. You've made some great points.

  2. Thanks for you thoughts, it made me think about my own designing process a lot. For me, most of the time I get a design idea first. But I can definitely be inspirited by fabrics, as well. I do think a good design should translate to lots of different looks and that is something to keep in mind. It also matters to me whether I am creating a primarily art quilt or a lap or bed quilt. I do both, so art quilts I think often tend to be more fabric driven, and bed quilts more design driven.

  3. I have some beautiful fabrics and have been looking for patterns to make quilts. I find it much harder to find patterns than the other way around. When I have a pattern I like, then I wonder if I should make it in batiks, or Kaffe prints, or florals. I'd much rather have a pattern first.

  4. I agree that I almost always start a design with solid colors - the computer tools are easier to manipulate with solids than with prints. I do find it hard to make a design with a particular fabric in mind and tend to go "shopping" for the right prints after the fact. I am interested in trying to stretch and purposefully design with a fabric grouping in mind, it should be a fun challenge for the year.

  5. This is a brilliant, in depth look at your design process Anne! Thank you for explaining how you work and also thank you to the other designers as well!
    It makes complete sense to mostly design the pattern first if your intention is to sell it. I too always think about whether the actual fabric or a near equivalent will be available when someone else makes the pattern. Do you find that some collections such as Kafee and Tula, almost always fill that need, even if your original fabric is now hard to find? Especially Kaffe - his colors tend to carry on through design collections. The True Color collections of a few different fabric designers fill that need too.
    Love Love Love your studio! It's Quilter Heaven!

  6. Wonderful article! I also like the pattern design to be independent of the fabric, that way you have so much more possibilities. Of all the patterns I have designed until today, I think only one set of fabrics sparkled a certain design idea :)


  7. What a brilliant post! You captured the thoughts and processes in designing patterns form fabric and design so well! Such a great in depth look into your process, thanks!!

  8. Anne, I'm excited to meet you through this series, and I really like this post of yours. It makes sense to work from the design first to me (though I'd love to see your "working backward" design from that lime/blue/grey second pull - you nailed your choices in both color and texture of the prints!).

  9. I'm also excited to meet you through this series. This is a wonderful post. You explain your process very clearly and share the points of the other designers well.

  10. Lovely analysis--such great ideas about design. Of course, I'm in love with all your photos and your abilities to make everything so beautiful. Your skills inspire me.

  11. Nice post SpringLeaf Studios! Your design process is so complete and thorough... something I have a hard time doing. I love that you really go through a formal art design process to come up with original patterns.

    I think sometimes the materials can be the inspiration and other times it's the graphics. While they're very different approaches I see you do both. I especially love seeing your fabric "idea collections" (and I LOVE the orange/teal/floral one you've got in this post). These would make a great Pinterest board.

    I'm excited for you to show us more of your design lessons; especially how you go through so many different looks from one idea, just by changing values, colors, directions, size, line.


  12. Great food for thought. I am also a crazy-print person, and stash them in preference to solids - but you made me realize that I tend to think of design first. Lots to think about!

  13. Very thoughtful post, thank you for sharing your process with us!

  14. I just found this series, but it's super-helpful. I've excerpted several quotes from you into my newly-established pattern/design/inspiration library on my computer. You have given me so much to think about--thanks!


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