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Quilt it Freehand

The patchworks seamlines were the only quilting guide for this freehand quilt.
The quilts title, The Perfect Existential Object, is handwritten on the tan block.
A classic quilting frame allows the author to see the whole quilt at one time.
The patchworks seamlines were the only quilting guide for this freehand quilt.

The patchwork's seamlines were the only quilting guide for this freehand quilt.

Finally fearless, freehand
Dispensing with markings altogether, I finally got up the courage to put a quilt in the frame, with no patterns and no plan. All I had in mind was the idea of an abstract, Amish-style quilt with large areas of solid color that needed close quilting. Working from the edges into the middle, I started with the loosely arranged, large zigzags on the purple borders, then decided to try the basket weave in the navy area. Once I accepted the inevitable variations as part of the effect in the basket weave, the rest was easy.

Freehand effects 1 Freehand effects 2 Freehand effects 3
Irregularities in complex, geometric quilting designs aren't noticeable at first glance, as can be seen in the quilted "basket weave" set on point in the navy area. "Pumpkin seeds" in the small red squares and wide echo stitching in the turquoise squares serve as traditional Amish-style block fillers.   Two horizontal parallel lines stitched first down the center of the feather pattern were the only "markings" for quilting. Freehand clamshells "grow" as they progress sideways on the quilt.   The quilt's title, "The Perfect Existential Object," is handwritten on the tan block.

Next, I quilted a row of fans in the plum border area, "hanging diamonds" in the brown area and a row of unmarked feathers below the hanging diamonds. I decided to treat the diamond strip up the middle with classic Amish-style "pumpkin seed" shapes in the red diamonds and wide double-outline quilting in the turquoise triangles. The clamshells, which I worked from the quilt's right side inward, appear to expand uniformly, which would have been quite a feat if I'd done it on purpose, but the truth is that the shells just grew naturally with each row of half-circles I stitched. The medium-sized blocks throughout the top ended up with an assortment of odd designs as I started to run out of ideas for block fillers. (For a book with abundant filler ideas and other quilting designs, see Resources.)

What to expect
Try as you will, freehand quilting will never be as precise as marked stitches, but that's part of its charm. Having tried a fair amount of freehand quilting, I've come to see some of the underlying principles of this approach: First, the larger and more interconnected the stitching design, the more irregularities it will have. Second, the more your quilting designs are related to the seamline intersections and angles they create in the quilt, the easier it is to control the direction of your stitches. In turn, this means you can quilt freehand and still respect the symmetry of the piecework design since you always have checkpoints for your eye and needle. Third, if you truly want to keep lines as straight and parallel as possible, use pins to mark strategic starting and ending points.

Finally, the less geometric the shape of the quilted design, the more accepting your eye will be. Flowers, feathers, leaves, and any pictorial designs or organic shapes will look as elegant or polished freehand as they would carefully marked on the quilt top.

To mark or not to mark?- One advantage of marking a quilt is predictability and visual order, so when these factors are important, or when precise symmetry is desirable, marking is the way to go. But whenever I want a looser, more spontaneous visual impact, I freehand-quilt everything I can.

To me the appeal of freehand quilting is that it prolongs the fun part-designing and figuring out what you're going to do next. Thus the moment of creation lasts throughout the entire quilting process. Whether you enjoy sustaining the tension and surprises of creating as you go, or would simply like to eliminate the tedium of marking a quilt top, you might want to try setting out across an unmarked quilt, needle in hand, and see where it leads.

Resources for classic quilting patterns

For design inspiration and information on creating classic quilting patterns and variations, see:

Quilting with Style
by Gwen Marston and Joe Cunningham (1993)

All-cotton ticking for a classic quilting frame is available by mail in 58-in. widths and several colors for $8.98/yd. (no minimum purchase) plus variable S&H from:

G Street Mail Order Service
12240 Wilkins Ave.
Rockville, MD 20852

Joe Cunningham of San Francisco, CA, has been a quiltmaker since 1979 and is currently at work on his eighth book about quilting. Prices were current at the time of publication (November 1997).

Photos, except where noted: Scott Phillips; drawings: Bob La Pointe

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Comments (10)

SteveGolden SteveGolden writes: lovely designs
Posted: 9:51 am on March 8th

KathJ KathJ writes: I've always had troubles hurting my fingers when trying to make something complicated. Now I am ready to quilt with no wounds at all!
Posted: 5:21 am on February 25th

MonetViera MonetViera writes: I love this patchwork technique
Posted: 12:53 am on December 7th

WillowMchenry WillowMchenry writes: Nice designs!!!!
Posted: 6:17 am on November 13th

ErinGoodwin ErinGoodwin writes: These look lovely!
Posted: 7:58 am on September 11th

GutterCleaner GutterCleaner writes: Wow, some of the quilt designs were completely new to me. Thanks for teaching me new stuff I guess.
Posted: 8:35 am on August 3rd

GutterCleaner GutterCleaner writes: Wow, some of the quilt designs were completely new to me. Thanks for teaching me new stuff I guess.
Posted: 8:35 am on August 3rd

EdwardJenkins EdwardJenkins writes: Great display .. Really good work
Posted: 2:14 am on July 31st

MollieJ MollieJ writes: Thanks for the tips!
Posted: 9:57 am on July 9th

AWriterInFact AWriterInFact writes: As is so often the case, this was just what I was looking for - I just didn't know I would find it here! Thanks.
Posted: 9:31 am on January 15th

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