How to design quilt patterns: quilt settings

Do you know how to design quilt patterns? You may think it’s a simple yes or no question, but if you answered no, think again. It’s something many quilters do, once they feel daring enough to jump off the pages of a step-by-step pattern. A quilter with a stack of freshly pieced blocks is much like a collage artist—you’ve got your artistic elements at the ready. But how will you put it all together?

Churn Dash quilt-block patternIt’s amazing how many different things you can do with a single block design. Take the humble Churn Dash quilt-block pattern as an example. It’s a simple, classic block. But once you learn the fundamentals of creating quilt settings, Churn Dash can convey most any look, mood, or sentiment you can dream up.

Traditional Churn Dash quilts
Traditional Churn Dash: “Churned-Up Geese” and “Zigzag” by Lynn Roddy Brown, from Simple Strategies for Block-Swap Quilts

Churn Dash goes country
Churn Dash goes country: “Chocolate-Covered Churn Dashes” and “Over, Under, Around, and Through” by Cheryl Wall, from Country Comforts

Churn Dash gets wonky
Churn Dash gets wonky: “Power to the People” by Cheryl Brown, from Quilt Batik!; “The Tester Girls” by Linda Pederson, from Out of the Box

Kim Diehl's Churn Dash quilt
Churn Dash a-la Kim Diehl: “All in a Row” from Simple Comforts

Turning a stack of blocks into a showstopping quilt might seem a little intimidating, but it’s an important first step when learning how to design quilt patterns. And having a few tricks up your sleeve—basic quilt settings to match up with the quilt-block patterns you choose to make—can be a great creativity starter. Below are just a few ideas for quilt settings that will help you jump off that pattern page and start creating your own designs. Plug in your favorite quilt-block patterns and start playing!

QUILT SETTINGS: excerpted from The Quilter’s Quick Reference Guide by Candace Eisner Strick

Straight Quilt Settings

Straight quilt settings
In the traditional settings above, blocks are set side by side. The blocks are sewn into rows, and then the rows are sewn together. Here are some ideas to consider when working with a straight set.

  • Alternate the main block with plain blocks. This is an easy way to expand the size of your finished quilt.
  • Using the same fabric for the plain blocks as you used for the background of the pieced blocks will make the design blocks appear to float on the surface of the quilt.
  • Secondary designs may become prominent at the intersections of the blocks. Blocks with strong diagonal elements are often good candidates for this look (as in the Pinwheel quilt above).

Alternating two different pieced blocks can make your quilt more interesting. An easy way to give a straight set the look of a diagonal one is to use large Hourglass blocks or Triangle Square blocks as alternate blocks. By careful placement of light and dark triangles, the eye will travel along the diagonal lines made by these triangle blocks.

Alternating quilt blocks in a straight setting
Left: alternating Churn Dash blocks with Hourglass blocks. Right: alternating Eight-Pointed Star and Triangle Square blocks.

Quilt Settings with Sashing

Whether you plan to use a straight set or a diagonal set for your quilt, you can add an additional element to your design by incorporating sashing. Sashing is made up of strips of fabric, plain or pieced, that are sewn between blocks to separate them. Sashing is a good option when you have blocks that aren’t all quite the same size, when blocks have many seam intersections along their outer edges that need to be matched or aligned, or when setting blocks side by side simply makes the design look muddled. Here are a few other things to keep in mind about sashing.

Quilt settings with sashing
Simple sashing (left) and sashing with cornerstones (right)

  • Sashing can become a unifying factor in a very scrappy quilt, helping to calm down the large mix of fabrics. Just remember that whatever color you choose for the sashing is the color the quilt will become. Even if you use dozens of fabrics in every color of the rainbow, the sashing will be the one constant fabric that sets the tone for your quilt.
  • Sashing can be scrappy. For instance, if you want to use red sashing, you can cut strips from a variety of red prints. You will still have the overall look of a red sashing but it will appear more interesting.
  • A popular guideline for determining sashing width is to make it one-quarter the size of your finished blocks. Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, so try cutting a few different widths to audition.

Bar Sets

Beauty often comes from simplicity. Vertical rows of blocks alternating with strips of fabric creates a bar setting. The bars may be single strips of fabric, composed of several different strips of fabric sewn together, or even a patchwork strip such as Flying Geese bars. A wide center strip flanked by narrower ones on each side is a common option.

Examples of bar settings for quilts
From left: Flying Geese bars, Amish bars, and bars made of large-scale prints

For tips about on-point quilt settings—including how to calculate sizes of on-point blocks, corner-setting triangles, and side-setting triangles—refer to the post “1.414: every quilter’s magic number.”

Now you’ve got some quilt-setting ideas to rely on—what’s next? Choosing which blocks get to grace your original quilts, of course! Find oodles of quilt-block patterns in the collections below.

501 Rotary-Cut Quilt Blocks

Quilt-block patterns from 501 Rotary-Cut Quilt Blocks

A whopping 501 quilt-block patterns are each offered in six different sizes, resulting in more than 3,000 different block possibilities.

Learn more about 501 Rotary-Cut Quilt Blocks.

200 Blocks from Quiltmaker Magazine

Quilt-block patterns from 200 Blocks from Quiltmaker Magazine
Try 12″ blocks ranging from simple patchwork to appliqué, foundation piecing, hand embroidery, and more. Appliqué and foundation-piecing patterns are included on a bonus CD.

Learn more  about 200 Blocks from Quiltmaker Magazine.

Blocks, Borders, Quilts!

From Blocks, Borders, Quilts!
Mix and match blocks and borders to create beautiful, original quilts. Choose from almost 100 quilt blocks, dozens of pieced borders, and seven sample quilt layouts.

Learn more about Blocks, Borders, Quilts! (See the results of our Block, Borders, Quilts! quilt-along on Pinterest!)

Quilter’s Block-a-Day Calendar

Quilt-block patterns from the Quilter's Block-a-Day Calendar
Create 366 traditional, pictorial, seasonal, and holiday blocks with piecing and appliqué. (You didn’t think we’d forget leap year, did you?) Companion CD also available.

Learn more about the Quilter’s Block-a-Day Calendar.

When it comes to designing quilts, what do you say: always, sometimes, never before…or never again? Share your story in the comments!

8 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I have been quilting for almost 30 years amd have used a pattern two times. I feel hemmed-in by someone else’s pattern. I look at all patterns and consider them every chance I get, but just keep them in my mind for ideas, but do not follow them per se. I usually know what I am going to do as soon as I see the fabric and it doesn’t involve a pattern. I have had some super-wonderful quilts, but have also had some super-ugly ones! Live and learn.. 🙂

    —Pat Sell on April 1, 2013
  • I would like to send you a couple of pictures of two quilts that I designed that are out-way out of the box./Users/louisemishler/Pictures/iPhoto Library/Masters/2024/Feb 4, 2024/100_1709.JPG

    Let me know if you can see it. Give me email address I can send it to . I am not on Facebook. thank Louise

    Hi Louise, Sorry, we can’t see it. You can email it to: I’m looking forward to seeing them!

    Louise J. Mishler on April 1, 2013
  • When I was first learning I followed a pattern, but as I acquired more skills, I took off on my own and haven’t been back. That was one great appeal about quilting: it’s your quilt, you can make it any way you want.

    —Claudia on April 1, 2013
  • I like to start with an idea like a particular block pattern and then play off of that with other blocks and motifs. I especially like to use color and design in fabric to get my feeling across to the person I am making the quilt for. I have been quilting since 2001 and have yet to make a quilt completely like one in a magazine or pattern book. I just get ideas from there and then put my own spin on it. I am often asked to use a particular block in a quilt…a person’s favorite usually, and then I make it more personal with their colors and quilting motifs and my ideas of placement and color combination, intensity of movement in pattern combinations, color contrast, etc. I don’t usually know what I am going to do right away. I have to live with the fabrics and design for awhile and then start in and go with what is happening in my brain, walk away, come back, move stuff around until I am satisfied. I am not a fast designer. I have to be thoroughly satisfied with my end product or it doesn’t go out the door. I have taken apart many a quilt and switched out fabrics until it pleases my eye.

    —Pamela Zajicek on April 1, 2013
  • I made a puzzle quilt out of a block of the month club. It was on the design wall for at least 2 years maybe more. I put it together with small blocks, postage stamps, strips and lots of applique. There was even a few paper pieced blocks. I still look at it and wonder how I ever got it finished. I love that quilt. At the time I said, "never again", now I say one day, when I have time. Kind of like having another child. You love em all.

    —Diane Wright on April 1, 2013
  • I’m all for simple and quick quilting in this stage of my life. But I do collect a lot of pictures to look at and enjoy! I like to reverse engineer the quilts you post. Eye candy and brain food!

    Mostly, I’m a dressmaker and I rarely follow the pattern. Well… My daughter would say I never follow the pattern as written. I always have to change something! Once my children are grown, perhaps I will do more quilting and I won’t follow the pattern exactly then either…

    Thank you for sharing!

    —Sheri~mama to eight on April 2, 2013
  • Sometimes I start with a pattern but usually change something to make it my own. Sometimes I start with a picture or an idea for inspiration to see where it takes me. It’s a challenge and so much fun!

    —Mary Ann on April 5, 2013
  • Thanks for sharing these wonderful ideas and quilts. I have been quilting and designing for 30+ years. Enjoy looking at all the colorful designs.

    —Gayle on October 28, 2016

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