How to Choose Quilting Designs

Whether you use a walking foot, free motion, free motion quilting with rulers, hand quilting, or a combination of more than one of these techniques when you quilt your quilt, there are a lot of factors that can come into play when choosing designs. This is why "How do I Quilt This?" type classes are so popular and why this question can cause even the most experienced quilter to cringe (especially if asked in an email without any photos!).

I divide quilting designs into 4 major types:

Overall Designs- These are designs that do not pay attention to the piecing. Similar to a pantograph used by a longarmer, these are great designs for utility, bed and comfort quilts.

Block and piecing designs- These are designs that are based on the piecing. Designs for blocks, squares, triangles, borders and sashing.

The piecing here determined the quilting.
Fills- These smaller designs are for filling in spaces between other types of quilting, adding texture and interest along the way, sometimes they are even used as larger design elements in the quilting.

The Celtic Square design used here is both a motif and a block and piecing design and is surrounded by dense fills to make it pop.
Motif Designs- These are the ones we love to see in fancier quilts; the scrolls, feathers, floral motifs and more that are major parts of the design of a quilt in of themselves.

Don't confuse the types of designs with the type of quilting. There are designs in any of these four categories that can be done with a variety of methods of quilting. Tiny fills are usually free motion, much of what I do with rulers could be classified as block and piecing designs, and large swaths of straight line quilting all the way across a quilt could be done several different ways, but would still be considered an overall design no matter the method used.

Sometimes the design chosen decides the method of quilting. For example, a tiny, curvy, dense design is not likely a good candidate for walking foot quilting.

There are other times that the type of quilting (hand quilting, walking foot, free motion) the quilter wants to do, will help the quilter choose designs that work better for those methods.

Sometimes a design works well for several types of quilting and the quilter will determine which method to use. I could do straight line square spiral design with a walking foot, but since I love using my rulers, and especially if it's a big quilt, I'd choose to use free motion ruler work. You might choose differently.

Someone might choose big stitch quilting to add interest to a quilt and do it by hand, while another quilter, maybe with less time to spare, would set her machine up with some monofilament thread in the top of the machine and use a "hand-look quilting" stitch. Can you guess which method I'd choose? Leave your guess in the comments below.

The four types are not overly segregated and mix and mingle quite often. While overall designs are usually loners, typically, motif and fill designs work together and are pretty much mutually necessary. Block and piecing designs are good mixers in a quilt, and I think are the unsung heroes of quilting.

Overall Designs- Also called edge-to-edge designs. These are some of the easiest designs to begin with, but not all overall designs are simple. They can be large stippling, other larger meandering designs, or even feathers  as an overall design. You can get ideas for these types of designs by looking at quilts done by longarmers with pantographs. Some can even be quite complex, featuring horses, bears, flowers, stars, etc.

This design could be a filler , fit into a block, or made large as an overall design. You choose!

Block and Piecing Designs- This includes the tedious but many times necessary "Stitch in the Ditch" which can also be done with a walking foot without using FMQ. Once you have a good grasp of FMQ, doing stitch in  the ditch with the darning or free motion foot means no turning of the quilt as you stitch. Block and piecing designs can really enhance the piecing in a quilt.

Here's an easy sashing design.

Fills- Pebbles, smaller stipples, even closely spaced lines of stitching are in this category. Leah Day's site does a great job of categorizing and teaching many, many fills at the Free Motion Quilting Project. She's also produced three books of designs, one of which is From Daisy to Paisley: 50 Beginner Level Free Motion Quilting Designs. Keep in  mind that because of the scope of the project and the stitched samples, these designs are shown quite small. At the small size these are great for filling in around larger motif designs or in conjunction with block and piecing designs. It is up to you to decide at what size you want to quilt these for your quilt! Make them bigger and many can even be overall designs.

Motif Designs- Many of these designs benefit from good planning and marking. There's the classic feather wreath and all of its variations, feathered swags and borders. Some motifs are suitable for block and piecing designs too. Traditional whole cloth quilts are fabulous examples of motif designs coupled with fills. Two wonderful books by Karen McTavish (I have most of her books; they're great) The Secrets of Elemental Quilting  and Whitework Quilting: Creative Techniques for Designing Wholecloth and Adding Trapunto to Your Quilts give great examples of using motifs in quilts along with some great tips.

Some general tips for choosing designs:

Quilt Density: the denser the quilting, the stiffer the quilt. And of course, dense quilting takes longer and uses more thread. Save really dense quilting for wall quilts, fancy quilts, and yes, show quilts. No one wants to snuggle down with a stiff quilt, so for comfy quilts, choose an overall design or fairly simple block and piecing designs.

Abbie is happy I didn't quilt her quilt to death.
One of the big differences between what we can quilt with our domestic sewing machines versus those of the longarm machines has to do with our range of motion. We can only quilt in the space between our hands before we have to reposition our hands and quilt. Those using longarm machines, have a range of motion for stitching that is pretty much the range of their upper body motion. This means the designs we choose either have smaller shapes, well-planned changes of direction, or we have to be really good with our stops and starts when repositioning our hands. Usually, it's a mix of all three factors.

Many quilts benefit from "Stitch in the Ditch", stitching along piecing lines to stabilize the seams, keep things square and subdivide the quilt to keep shifting of batting and backing to a minimum. For the most part this type of quilting is done first and many choose to use a walking foot with the feed dogs up. But, again, once you become proficient at FMQ, doing it in free motion can be a lot faster with little or no rotation of the quilt needed.

Applique quilts can also benefit from stitching around the applique shapes. Ann Fahl's book, Dancing With Thread: Your Guide to Free-Motion Quilting, describes this type of quilting and regular stitch in the ditch quilting as stabilizing the quilt and recommends using clear monofilament for this type of stitching in case the stitches wiggle from one side of the seam or applique to the other.

This applique was carefully SID'd to make it pop.

Large motif designs with inadequate fills around them lose their impact. When properly surrounded with fills, motifs can really pop, making a faux trapunto effect. Couple motifs and small fills with a lofty batting and you've got some great dimension and texture. Larger areas of "white space" are prime real estate for motifs.

Much of this article came from a post I did years ago on "How to Free Motion Quilt: the Designs." You may want to see the line drawings there I did to show examples of various types of designs.


  1. Wow Amy, thanks for a great post! I do all of these things but have never thought of the quilting styles in these categories.

  2. You would do it on your machine with a mono-filament thread, you're way to busy to sit and do it by hand and I think you love your machines.

  3. Question: I've read the recommendation for SITD so often. Please clarify for me, does that mean every single HST inside a block (if you plan to FMQ inside the block) OR just the block border to stabilize it?

    Love this post - printed & on my wall as I type!! Thank you!!

    1. It largely depends on the project. Your piecing will really pop when SID'ed as will applique. Structurally, SID around blocks/sashing is probably all it needs, not every piece. If you pieced two or more pieces of the same fabric to make a unit and want them to be perceived as a single unit, definitely SID just the outline of the unit.

  4. Oh, girl, no way would you have time to do that by hand! ;0

  5. Great information on quilting designs. Thank you!

  6. Excellent post Amy! And thanks for the link back to your previous post :-) I always seem to take forever deciding how to quilt something!

  7. Great post Amy, thank you. I just finished your Craftsy class, totally enjoyed it and looking forward to practicing a lot so maybe I can get the hang of this free motion quilting. You have been a blessing in my learning adventure :)

  8. Excellent post. I am between SITD and fmq with the ruler. Very new at the ruler and I have a practice piece w using the ruler. I will try the SITD and see which looks better before doing my quilt. Working w straight lines. Your post help to encourage me to try.

  9. Excellent post. I am between SITD and fmq with the ruler. Very new at the ruler and I have a practice piece w using the ruler. I will try the SITD and see which looks better before doing my quilt. Working w straight lines. Your post help to encourage me to try.

  10. You are my FMQ heroine. I love your quilting.

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  13. You have done a very nice job of explaining when and what techniques work best for different situations. When FMQ caught my eye and I knew taking a class was essential to understand the process. That class turned into many. My quilting evolved from straight lines, to works of art over time and practice (still practicing). It was necessary to learn how to do the designs and when each are best used for the outcome desired. Most instructors emphasized how essential it is to do the SITD on every quilt. One instructor's words still echo in my ear... if there is a seam SITD. However, over time I found areas where a straight stitch distracted from the intended design. By incorporating simple parts of a design anchors the fabric and becomes part of the overall design.

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