The Free Motion Quilting Project: How to Quilt a Sampler Quilt

Monday, November 16, 2009

How to Quilt a Sampler Quilt

Last week, Randi L emailed me with this gorgeous sampler quilt designed and taught by Annie Smith.

It may be exhibiting my quilting ignorance, but before Randi's email, I'd never heard of Annie Smith or her wonderful quilting podcasts.

I immediately hopped, skipped and jumped over to her website and found an amazing quilting kindred spirit! Annie's been publishing podcasts for years (she's on #178) and is just starting to get into video casts.

Annie also teaches her quilting designs, including this quilt which is called the Quilter's Pallet because it teaches a wide range of techniques over the 10 weeks of the class.

When I saw this quilt, I started getting super excited. This is a SHOW QUILT if ever I've seen one!

Randi professed to not knowing how to quilt it and was even considering doing an all over meandering.

That would have been a disastrous mistake as this quilt, with a little extra time and attention, is sure to become a show winner.

So first off, why do I think so? What makes me so sure this quilt could ribbon in a show?

Well, part of it is a gut feeling. I see quilts every day and all of them are beautiful, but some stand out from the crowd.

Randi's piecing is obviously top notch. Look at all those perfect points!

Another reason I think this is a potential show winner is the color choices. The quilt simply goes together.

The arrangement is very pleasing to the eye, but it's not overly busy or distracting. You have the space to see and appreciate each block by itself, but together they look like they were meant for each other, even though there's a nice mix of sharp angles and curves.

I've seen a lot of sampler style quilts, but most of them are busy, overly complicated, and full of blocks that don't look like they should ever be placed together in a quilt.

I have to admit that the Quilter's Pallet is the first sampler quilt I've seen that I will actually consider making. It's beautiful!

But samplers are tricky to quilt aren't they?

I think we can all agree that an all-over meander would have ruined this quilt, but what in the world would work instead?

Looking at the quilts in the background of Annie's videos, it looks to me like she stitches in the ditch around the blocks and then fills the background with medium density stippling.

That's a perfectly fine way to quilt this quilt and like Guilitta's complex patchwork quilt, one of the few times I'd say stitching in the ditch is warranted.

But what if Randi wanted to enter and ribbon in a show with this quilt?

I know this may not be a focus for most quilters. Show quilting may seem impractical and overly complicated, but it's my love and passion, so you're all going to have to bear with me!

I printed out Randi's quilt rather than try to illustrate my quilting lines in paint and instead hand drew my quilting ideas over her quilt.

For comparison, here is the original, unmarked quilt:

And here is my show quilting design drawn over it:

I had to use a black pen for my drawing and I'm sorry if this isn't very clear. Please click on the image to see the full sized version that you can print out to see clearer.

As you can tell, the background is completely filled with very dense stitching (I just used squiggles to represent the fillers). Yes, if you quilt this densely, your quilt will be stiff, but it will also be gorgeous!

Now, I'm going to go block by block and how and why I've made the decisions I have on this quilt. Once you read through each block and compare the pieced, unmarked version to the marked version, I thing you will be able to "see" beyond the piecing and into a new world of quilting design.

This is a quilt that could definitely benefit from trapunto. This is where you make some areas and motifs puffier so they stand out more in comparison to the background.

Randi said she'd already based and stitched in the ditch around most of the sashing, so she can't apply trapunto to the quilt now unless she's willing to do a lot of seam ripping. The quilt will look just fine without it, but when you can plan ahead and utilize this technique, it really can add a whole new dimension to the design.

Because each block is fairly complex, I'm going to cover 3 blocks each with part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and then finish up with the mariner's compass blocks and sashing in part 5.

To actually quilt this quilt on a domestic machine, I would start in the center block, quilt the 4 blocks surrounding it, then the 8 remaining blocks, always working from the center to the outside of your top.

Now let's look at each block in turn and I'll explain why I choose these particular quilting designs:

1st row, Upper Left block - In this block, the larger blue triangles immediately jumped out at me.

I wanted them to really stand out over the rest of the pieces and colors in this block, so if possible, I'd make sure to trapunto them and the sawtooth star in the center.

To quilt it, you would first stitch in the ditch the center sawtooth star and blue triangles then fill in the background with any filler stitch. The inner background around the sawtooth needs a dense, independent filler, like Tree Roots or Wandering Clover.

The outer background is not as tight a space and can be quilted with most of the fillers from this project.

I hope you can see in the photo that I drew over some of the colored pieces. This was intentional.

I would have the fillers cover those pieces just as completely as the background, making them recede so that the blue triangles are more visible. In essence, I'm ignoring the piecing in favor of drawing out a slightly different design with the quilting.

For thread, I would be quilting in the ditch and the background areas with white thread to match the white background, so the thread will contrast over these colored portions.

If you didn't want your thread to show off as much, you could us an invisible nylon thread.

1st row, Middle Block - I didn't like this block as much as the others (sorry Annie and Randi!) It just seemed a bit complex in color in comparison to the other blocks, and I was looking for a way to tone it down a bit.

Rather than follow any of the piecing lines, I instead drew a modified dresden plate quilting motif over the block. It's slightly different from a regular dresden plate because the petals fit into a square shape rather than a circle.

I choose this quilting motif because the quilt also contains a dresden block and I wanted to ease some of the sharp angles within the quilt.

So how would you mark this motif of the quilt top? Well, personally I would draw 1/4 of the design on paper first, then fold the paper in quarters to create the full sized design. It's an easy way to make sure your design is 100% symmetrical.

I use a lightbox to transfer the design to the quilt top. Since most people don't have lightboxes, you could try holding it up in a window or stitching along the lines of the design with no thread in your machine and then marking the holes left in the paper.

Once the dresden was marked, I then saw the placement of the blue triangles. These kind of looked like butterflies to me, and since this quilt also contains one butterfly block, I choose to play off that design as well.

The triangles would be stitched in the ditch, then you can create a little antanea to make them butterflies.

The whole background would then be filled in with a dense background fill. Because this is more complex shapes, your filler needs to be a relatively easy independent or branching design. McTavishing, Lightning bolt, Tree Roots, and Wandering clover would all be good choices.

Notice that I make the same suggestions on fillers for both blocks. With a quilt like this, because every block is different, it might be a good idea to choose 1-2 filler designs to use in a small way on every block so that the quilt is more unified.

Since McTavishing is one of my favorite designs, I'd probably choose it to fit in the larger portions of the background and then use other fillers here and there almost as accents.

There's no right or wrong way to do this though. Choose the fillers you like and which flow well for you so that the quilting goes quickly.

1st Row, Right Block - This is a flower block with 3 big flower shapes. Again, I'm choosing to soften the sharp points of the flowers with a rounded quitling motif, very similar to the ends of the dresden plate blocks.

The flowers are made to stand out even more with small "petals" of dense stitching within the new quilted flower petals.

For the basket, definitely stitch in the ditch around the shape, then go inside with a slightly larger filler design, where the lines of stitching are 1/2" apart and fill it with something funky like Basic Spiral or even Stomach Lining, our most recent design!

When show quilting, you will want to stitch in the ditch around everything, unless of course you're choosing to ignore that piecing shape and fill over it with a background fill.

Stay tuned for the next part of this design where we check out 3 more blocks and get more tips on quilting for show!

Let's Go Quilt!

Leah Day


  1. Absolutely beautiful quilt. I hope to see this quilt on display at an upcoming quilt show. Truly lovely.


  2. How would you start the quilting? Would you stitch in the ditch along the sashing to sort of hold everything together or would you actually start by quilting one corner block?

  3. You are doing an amazing job. I can't wait for the next installment.
    Paula in Omaha

  4. Where do you get all these ideas from Leah?
    1. you give us new filler designs on a regular basis
    2. you give us a quick lesson on how to start considering and designing our quilting
    3. you then challenge us and give us one great quilting design 'how to'
    4. then you come up with this STUNNER
    I agree with you Leah this is one stunning sampler quilt (so, so many are not) - what great work RandiL and Annie, I'm off now to check your site out.
    Thank you all

  5. Wow Leah, I'm working on a sampler quilt at the moment and was considering sending it to a long arm quilter to get it done...I am now inspired to work on it myself, slowly and thoughtfully to make the quilting worthy of the piecing, thank you so much.

  6. Leah thanks so much for your blog!! I am a novice quilter and I follow your blog and am learning tons!! However since I am so new could you please explain how you quilt in the ditch. I'll look maybe I can find it in your archives - Leah thanks again and again - what a huge help you have been to me!!!!!!!

  7. Leah you are a wonder. I would never think of the innovative ways that the quilt can be quilted, you are a true inspiration to me. One of these days I hope to be really proficient in FMQ.
    Thank you.

  8. You've made the quilt look like a beautiful stained glass window. I love it, I'm inspired to have a go at the Annie Smith class. I'm not a quilter as such, but love free machining and find your fillers inspirational. Thank you so much for giving your time and expertise.

  9. Annie shared your blog with us in the class she just finished with us Quilter's Pallet, and I'm so grateful that she did because I feel like I can now talk with the person who will quilt my quilt top with some real information and confidence. You would LOVE Annie and I highly recommend you two get together. Her knowledge base is extensive and she is a remarkable teacher. Your blog makes me believe you two would enjoy knowing each other professionally. She's a delightful person. I enjoy your blog and have now bookmarked it!


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