November 16, 2019

Night Into Day; A Negative Space Quilt Using Notan

Last night was the opening of Unoccupied: The Importance of Negative Space, a show of modern quilts made by the Boulder Modern Quilt Guild. It was a lovely evening full of quilty friends and wonderful quilts. The show runs November 15 through January 6, 2020 at the Collective - Community Arts Center in Lafayette, CO. If you're in the Denver area be sure to stop by. I have two quilts in the show. Circling the Square and Night Into Day. Night Into Day even made the cover of the show postcards.

When the show was first announced I knew I wanted to explore something new using negative space.
I started with a lot of different ideas and struggled at first to narrow down the choices. Then, when a couple of guild members gave two separate presentations, the first on negative space in quilting, including the concept of Notan, and the second on improv, I was inspired to try incorporating both into my show quilt.

So what exactly is Notan? Notan is a Japanese concept of using dark and light shapes to create harmonious compositions often thought of as figure/ground reversal. In other words, positive and negative space. Think of the Yin and Yang symbol. Or paper designs that cut away a section and reverse it as a mirror image.

I decided to create black and white shapes using improv techniques to make my quilt blocks. To create the shapes, I paired one black and one white square of fabric and cut the stack into shapes by making straight cuts. The cuts were not planned other than being straight. I chose not to use angles, but they would work just as well. Then I interchanged the cut pieces and sewed them back together. The result was two blocks that were essentially the opposite of each other. Quilters may know this technique as stack and whack which generally involves 3 - 4 pieces of fabric per stack. 

Each pair I made was different and I had no idea how they would come together until they were all done and I could play with arrangements. Both the cutting and the layout was done improvisationally.  

Here's the process I used to make 12 pairs of blocks that finish at 6" x 6" for a total of 24 blocks. 

1.  Cut 12 squares each of black and white fabric approximately 8.5" x 8.5".  Blocks will be trimmed to 6.5" x 6.5" but the larger size is needed to account for seam allowances when the squares are cut into smaller pieces and then re-sewn together. I suggest you cut at least 2" bigger than your intended final size.

2.  Layer one black square with one white square and make one or two cuts horizontally and vertically through both fabrics. Sub-cut some of the larger shapes into smaller pieces similar to what's shown below.

3.  Shuffle the black and white pieces to create new blocks that combine both black and white pieces. This can be done by directly interchanging every other piece to create blocks that are direct opposites. The cuts above made the blocks below.

The pieces can also be arranged so the blocks are mirror images of each other as shown below. These blocks are from a different stack of cut pieces. It's a little hard to recognize the mirror image until you look closely.

Another option is to create blocks where one is predominately light and the other is predominately dark by only exchanging a few pieces.

4.  Sew the pieces together starting with the smaller pieces and building outward until all pieces are sewn together. It's easiest to sew one block at a time so as not to get confused about what piece goes where. Repeat the same sewing sequence to make the second block. 

5.  Trim both blocks to 6.5" x 6.5".  OPTION: for added interest block pairs can be trimmed differently. This will reduce the matching appearance between the two blocks. For my purpose I wanted to maintain the matching yet opposite appearance so mine were all trimmed the same.

6.  Continue the process, making different cuts for each pair of blocks. Once all your block pairs are done the fun begins.

There are so many different ways my blocks could have been arranged. The lights and darks could have been clustered concentrically from the center out. Or they could have been positioned on the diagonal. In these arrangements you would probably be hard pressed to find the matching pairs.

I chose to go with a rectangular layout by placing the matching pairs side by side in order to emphasize the figure ground aspect of the matching blocks and play with the positive/negative shapes between the block pairs. A few of the simpler matching pairs where then placed along the outer edge and the solid squares were used to fill out the design. My final quilt finishes at 24" x 48".

The images below show 2 pages of a 3 page document I created in case you'd like to try the Notan concept for yourself. It shows block basics, layout options, plus several block variations. You can download it here. If you use this document to explore your own Notan quilts I'd love to see them. Tag me on Instagram @springleafstudios.

My second quilt in the show, Circling the Square is shown below. I think it plays quite well with Laura's red cross and moon phase quilts. The common colors and the contrasting shapes of the three quilts make a striking combination all together.

You can read about the design process for Circling the Square here. In addition to this show, it has been shown at QuiltCon 2019 in Nashville and the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden. It was also featured in the QuiltCon magazine.

I enjoyed the process of making Night Into Day so much I am planning to experiment with another quilt using a bunch of different colored solids. I have already cut one large and one small square from each solid in my stash. I have about 130 squares in each size. I'll use the large ones for another Notan quilt and the smaller ones for something else.

negative space quilt, notan quilt blocks, modern quilt

There are so many choices I can make with this all solid idea. I could always pair a warm with a cool colored square. I could pair warm on warm or cool on cool colors. I could use stacks of 3 or 4 fabrics instead of just 2. This would give me the choice to have more than 2 colors in a block. I have no idea what the end result will look like, but that's the challenge and the fun. I won't start this until 2020 and will post here and on my Instagram account so follow along if you'd like to see what happens.

Thanks go out to The Collective Community Art Center in Lafayette for hosting the show and to Laura and Katie (and everyone else) of the BoulderMQG for all your hard work putting the show together.
You did a great job!



  1. Oh, Anne, I really love how you approached this. It strongly reminds my husband and I of statistical astronomy image enhancement ( If I were in the Denver area I would be excited to attend, but since I am not I really appreciate that you are sharing about the show here!

  2. Another fascinating post.
    I (again) learned something new, and appreciate the clear directions you provide for trying out this new technique of Notan in quilting. I love your quilt and how it turned out (and of course, it's always good to see Circling the Square again), so thank you for a wonderful quilt show!

  3. Loved hearing about the Notan technique. I'd love to try it some time. Thanks so much for sharing about your quilt.

  4. Wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing. That tiny piece of color in the border makes me smile - it just wouldn't be one of your quilts without at least some bold luscious color!

  5. Wow, this is really super! I never knew there was such a thing as Notan, and now I have step by step directions for creating my own improv version. This is so clearly written and the idea is so interesting to me. I love that you shared so many examples of layouts and block ideas. Your finished piece is really, really cool! Congrats on a successful show and thank you so much for this tutorial, Anne. I know it will be swirling around in my head, looking for ways to jump out into my studio :)

  6. My goodness! I had no idea there was such a planned process for making an improv-looking quilt like this. Notan. It's a new notion for me, and is absolutely fascinating. Your explanation makes it completely understandable though. Both your quilts are fantastic (I have always adored Circling the Square) - as per your usual design-savvy - and I very much appreciate this insight into how you made Unoccupied. You're the bomb!

  7. This is awesome. We had a presentation on Notan at our guild several months ago . Iove what you did here and I'm thinking that in the new year I might try something similar. Maybe in colours.

  8. Congratulations. Wish I lived closer to go visit.

  9. Love the notan look! Thanks for sharing the tutorial. Great job on both quilts!!!

  10. I love the touch of color in your black and white quilt - like a signature. Thank you for sharing the technique and the pictures from the quilt show. I am looking forward to your next project :-)

  11. This is an awesome design, thank you so much for showing your design process step by step. I really liked seeing all of the different looks that would be created using this technique.


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