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Quilt Pattern Writing 101: Hints from a Semi-Pro With Knowledgeable Friends + Giveaway Today!

Pattern-J:  Pattern collage

Hey, have you thought about designing and selling your own quilt patterns? It seems like more and more quilters are doing just that if the rising numbers of private label patterns available in quilt shops is any indication. With a digital camera and a bit of computer know-how, it’s becoming easier for us to develop patterns for sale. Distribution? Well, that’s another question altogether–a crucial one, yes, but today I thought I’d focus on Pattern Writing 101. I’ve got two pros at my back, blogging sisters Darra and Laura, for some good advice.

Scroll to the bottom for the giveaway details featuring designers Carolyn Friedlander (Tangelo photographed above); Allison Harris of Cluck Cluck Sew (Chain Reaction photographed above as well); my blogging sister Laura (check her Etsy site) ; and our blogger emeritus Christie Batterman at Artichoke Collection!  

UPDATE:  Swirly Girls are adding 3 patterns to the giveaway opportunity so there will be 9 winners!!!!!

Test and Retest

Before you set to writing, you’ve got to test and retest the quilt project you’re patterning. It took me weeks to complete the first prototype of my Christmas tree skirt (detailed in my recent SHWS post), but it only took me a week to start and finish tree skirt 2.0! Definitely an improvement, but it took a major act of will to commence the new prototype after the first beat me up so soundly. Thank goodness I did it because the math worked (yes!) and I can now write the pattern confident that the measurements will yield a good result. Of course, whether I can guide a quilt-pattern buyer to that end depends on the quality of my instructions.

Working on the first Christmas Tree skirt prototype on the living room floor.

Working on the first Christmas Tree skirt prototype on the living room floor.

Do Your Homework

The best place to start Pattern Writing 101 is to look at quilting books and patterns and learn from those that have worked best for you.  What are the elements that helped you build your quilt?  Are there step-out illustrations and/or photographs that zero in on the construction process? Are they done in black/white or full color? These days, that distinction is less expensive so full-color printing just might be an affordable option.

How does the pattern designer break out the fabric requirements and cutting instructions? Separating these elements into separate boxes is useful for those who are taking the book or printed pattern into a store for shopping guidance. What are the headings commonly used?  Fabric Requirements, Cutting Instructions, Block Assembly, Quilting Assembly, and Finishing are typical for breaking down the instructions into easy-to-follow units. The more you study what is currently available, the better prepared you’ll be to tackle the writing.

Patterns on display at Cotton Patch, Lafayette, California.

Patterns on display at Cotton Patch, Lafayette, California–top row features Cluck Cluck Sew and bottom features SHWS alumnus Christie Batterman of Artichoke Collection.

The Written Word

Ah, here we have the heart of the process. When you write a pattern, you are guiding someone step-by-step to a destination. Action words–verbs–and simple sentences are the way to go:  Cut 5 blocks, 3 1/2″ x 3 1/2″. You’ll be tempted to add color commentary, but don’t. You can use a few text boxes to share your hard-won lessons, but don’t burden your reader with every last thought or nuance because you’ll confuse them and obscure the steps they need to take.

There are pattern-writing conventions and standard terminology that are very helpful to incorporate into your pattern. Recently, I asked Darra how to communicate the idea that the quilter would need to cut two mirror-image pieces of fabric. Simple:  cut one and one reverse. So, rather than tie yourself up in excess words, find the proper phrase and use it. Also, be aware of troublesome words and phrases. The misuse of template versus pattern is common. You use a pattern (paper) to create a template for cutting the fabric shape.

Quilt-book publishers tend to include additional instructions on quilting basics simply to be sure that the reader has the skills to build the quilts featured in their books. Nowadays they are publishing those fundamentals on their websites. Keep that possibility in mind when you write your pattern. You may not have enough space to detail every step, especially if it’s a standard technique, so you could send your pattern buyer to online resources to clarify how-to’s. Your website or blog can also be the place where you share hints and insights about your pattern, such as those fluffy elements you wanted to include in the pattern instructions. If you’ve got a lively bunch of fans, you could ask them to share images of the quilts they’ve made with your pattern on your website. It’s a great way to develop your brand–yeah, let’s use that au courant marketing lingo.

Yet more pattern fare from Cotton Patch--every niche in the store has a display!

Yet more pattern fare from Cotton Patch–every niche in the store has a display!

Live or Die By the Numbers–Grim, Yes, but That’s the Reality

Darra shared her most important insight with me recently. She says even the most-seasoned pattern designers fall prey to this inescapable reality:  base your measurements on the math and not the finished quilt. You can get so mired in the weird little tweaks and compensations you’ve made to test your prototypes that you forget that the quilt needs to work mathematically. The fact that you used a 1/8″ seam in one tiny spot to make your test quilt work is a problem when the pattern buyer expects a consistent seam allowance. Check your math. Recheck your math. Have someone else check your math. You definitely want to avoid coming up short; better to err on the side of a little too much.

That takes me to a related mathematical point. This I got from Gail Abeloe at Back Porch Fabrics. As Gail vets countless patterns for her store, she’s got a great perspective on patterns that tend to work for quilters. Hey, another idea in the research phase:  talk to shop owners about the best features of high-quality patterns. Back to Gail:  she recommends that designers give due consideration to the final sizes of their quilt patterns. It is so much easier for the shops to sell fabric, batting, and backing supplies for patterns that hit the standard sizes of packaged batting. You win when you please both the shop owner and the customer.

The End of the Advice + Giveaway Details

Glory be, I’ve written a treatise so I’m going to stop now.  Let’s hope I follow my own advice as I start writing the Christmas Tree Skirt instructions.

Well, dear readers, 6, make that 9, pattern winners here!  Leave me a comment by Thursday, October 3 and I will announce the winners this Friday.  Here’s your question:  Have you or or would you ever develop a pattern for sale?

Later, sewing gators!

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