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

Pattern-J:  Pattern collage1-Giveaway IconHey, 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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85 Responses to Quilt Pattern Writing 101: Hints from a Semi-Pro With Knowledgeable Friends + Giveaway Today!

  1. Phyllis Finger says:

    I don’t think I’ll be developing patterns until I make more quilts. I need the good instructions

  2. Very much enjoyed this post. I have nearly completed my first quilt pattern that I plan to sell. I plan on giving away a few free copies to folks to use as “testers”. That saves me from having to make them and it also helps with marketing as the “testers” are also bloggers who will blog about the experience and share their quilt with their network.

  3. There are so many quilt patterns and designs available, I’m not certain I could come up with anything “original”. Then, even if I did come up with something extra special, the minute attention to detail it takes to write out the directions so others can create their own originals without stress is rather daunting. I stick to quilt coaching for now.

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  5. I love following patterns. Reading this post makes me realise the work that goes into it. I am still too new to quilting and so designing a pattern is a dream!

  6. Toya says:

    Yes. I have made a pattern for my own use. Never dawned on me someone else might like it. I’ve jotted notes here and there, but now you’ve got me thinking!!

  7. Veronica says:

    I have written a couple patterns for projects that friends and fellow quilters have seen and wanted to make. Your post on pattern writing is right on! It’s a lot of work but can be rewarding when it all comes together.

  8. I have never written my own pattern, but I have thought about taking that step. I do believe that I would love to be a pattern tester. Thank you so much for a chance to win!

  9. Joan Bauer says:

    No I would not want to or even try. I sometimes think that a pattern could use a good short cut or two, or I find information missing that I need. Thanks for the giveaway Joan

  10. Debbie says:

    I have never designed a quilt pattern, but do have a lovely Amish quilt that my dog chewed. With big, bold blocks this could be a good place to start!

  11. Linda S says:

    I recently made two different quilts that had errors in the patterns! One error was an omission by the editor and the other error was “just a measurement” error. I appreciate your comment about checking your pattern twice to avoid errors. Fortunately, I looked upon it as an “creative opportunity”. As I tell my friends, there are no mistakes in quilting…. only opportunities!

    • Jennifer says:

      Exactly, a variation on the “when life gives you lemons . . . ” Mistakes are creative opportunities when WE make them on our quilt-making road, but in a pattern . . . it’s annoying + a chance to improvise.

  12. Kim M says:

    I’m new to quilting so I certainly haven’t imagined tackling something like this yet. But who knows what the future will hold!

  13. Sharon says:

    Ive never thought of doing a quilt pattern for sale- but hey, maybe that’s a great thought for the future!

  14. Julie says:

    I am new to quilting, so I would probably not design a quilt, but you never know. The quilting bug is contagious. :)

  15. Kathie L says:

    I have recently been a pattern tester for a friend that wrote a pattern that she intends to publish.

  16. Carol Broughton says:

    No, I will leave the pattern writing to the pros! I do enjoy their efforts!

  17. Jen says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve actually made patterns for MYSELF of quilts I have made before. It’s amazing how I have confused myself because the instructions I wrote out were confusing to read a year later! This is great advice :-)

    • Jennifer says:

      I hear ya AND I’ve been down that road as well with patterns! It’s funny (sort of) that even in my day-to-day writing I’ll reread things that I wrote ages ago and I don’t even remember writing them . . . is that pathetic?

  18. Susan Melgaard says:

    I agree with you. Simple, as short as possible and pictures turned in the proper direction. I have helped many times by editing to make patterns easier to understand. Sometimes the person writing the pattern just doesn’t realize when they are skipping something. We so many times are thinking thoughts and not writing them down. Love reading all your comments.

    • Jennifer says:

      Yes, Susan, the comments are terrific on the pattern-writing topic. Thanks readers for your thoughtful comments!

      I’ll keep that pictures turned in the right direction suggestion in mind too. I’m about to take out my camera for some detail shots of tree skirt 2.0, but I’m not all that sure what end is up. I guess I’ll have to select the direction.

  19. Linda says:

    Don’t think I would design or write a pattern for a quilt. I love looking at all the great patterns that are available to me.

  20. neena simmons says:

    I’ve been making Quilts for a long time and have thought it would be neat to make my own pattern , but there are so many great patterns already and so little time. I’ll stick with the talented folks who already make patterns.

  21. My longarm quilter has suggested that I write patterns, as I design them for myself, but I’m not sure that I’d be able to accurately describe how to set about cutting and sewing clearly for someone else. I work through a lot of trial and error! Maybe with the help of your article, I can try to do it.

    • Jennifer says:

      I hope you do Joann. The best suggestion is really to study quilting books and patterns to see what works. I hope you do try your hand at pattern design!

  22. Debbie says:

    I have made up patterns for myself but would never do in commercially. There are a lot of great ones out there. I do like when they add pressing suggestions. Carrie from Miss Rosie’s Quilt Co. does that and it is very helpful.

  23. saoirise says:

    I have written Crochet patterns for years, but have only sketched out quilt patterns for private use, as it’s hard to determine just how much one can safely assume of another’s quilting knowledge &/or Experience.
    Plus most quilt professionals state that they design & publish their designs using computer software for text & graphics – I can’t afford that expense for an occasional design for sale.k

    • Jennifer says:

      Sure, you’ve got a point, but technology has really driven down the costs of pattern writing. The biggest expenses come from making prototypes and testing the pattern.

  24. Terry says:

    Enjoyed reading your post, but I’m too new to quilting to even think about developing a pattern (I do, however, enjoy buying those I like!)

  25. Cecilia says:

    I have never developed a pattern for sale nor do I think I ever will. :-)

  26. Deb Anderson says:

    I have designed my own pattern for myself, but that was years ago before we had so many available. Nowadays I really think that I will leave it up to others to develop a pattern. I enjoy picking out a pattern and knowing it will work out ( if I follow the directions correctly ). I am very busy and enjoy collecting others patterns.
    I have no intention of doing this as long as we have such talented designers out there. For the price of a pattern it is well worth the cost to have someone do all the work for me.

    • Jennifer says:

      Yeah! Hope you’re in the market for a Christmas tree skirt pattern. (Imagine I’ve finished my comment with a winking emoticon–don’t know how to add that to my comment.)

  27. Sandy Allen says:

    I have never developed a pattern for sale but I have designed a couple for friends and for myself.

  28. Sandy says:

    I’ve never considered designing and publishing patterns to sell. Quilting is my hobby and I don’t wanted to change it into a business. I just do it for fun!

  29. Sandy says:

    I have recognized over the years that I have developed designs and techniques I could have patterned, but I never realized that anyone would be interested. I watched a friend in my guild build up a successful pattern line, over the years, but the marketing, distribution, etc. seemed time consuming. it’s a different flaying field with online sales, sites like Etsy, and blogging, so I guess it is not too late!

  30. Melissa G. says:

    I have never written a pattern and I probably wouldn’t because my math skills are not very good. I have rewritten patterns that I have bought because the instructions were either poorly written and just unclear. I always make notes along the way.

  31. Heather J says:

    I think I would develop a pattern if and when I have a quilt that I think would appeal to many. Based on your posting, it would be wiser to wait until I am more adept at the math and have the time for multiple tests of the pattern. Thanks for the helpful information. :)

  32. Jane says:

    I would be totally amazed if I ever developed a pattern for sale!

  33. yes I would develop a pattern. I make quilts that are custom, one of a kind all the time. Usually for a grandson or friend. I pick a focus fabric and go from there!!

  34. Sandy K says:

    I admire those that can create patterns and am happy to buy them.

  35. Vicki H says:

    I’ve never written a pattern and don’t think I have the creativity to do so.

  36. lcheever98292 says:

    Oh MY No I haven’t and I wouldn’t think of it. there are so many beautiful patterns others have done I am overwhelmed by wanting to make them all. Thanks for the chance at the give away.

  37. mellonquilts says:

    I would develop a pattern and include pressing instructions. Pressing to the dark doesn’t “always” work.

    • Jennifer says:

      You’re right. Pressing has an “artistic” element too. Sometimes you press so elements in your design recede or come forward and that has nothing to do with dark/light. It’s true of my pattern-in-the-making and that makes the paper-piecing process very challenging.

  38. gussek says:

    I’m new to quilting so I haven’t designed any patterns yet. There are so many good ones for sale now that I would not know where to start! Thanks for the giveaway.

  39. I have written plenty of quilting tutorials on my blog, but never one that could be marketed in paper form. My problem isn’t the writing portion, it’s the graphic part! I don’t know what computer program would be the best to design the graphics for a pattern. Any suggestions on that end of the process would be GREAT!

    • Jennifer says:

      I’ll get back to you on that Julie. I’m a little Byzantine in my approach–I do things in Microsoft Publisher, but Apple’s program isn’t too bad to work with. Graphic designers use InDesign and the like.

  40. A friend, Helen Hardesty, and I put together an entire book of patterns for pieced blocks with Irish names which was published by American School of Needlework as “Irish Quilts” in 1987. We never received any complaints about the instructions or the math, so I guess they were okay, and it sold well.

  41. Rosemary says:

    As a retired Home Economics teacher, I feel confident that I could write the directions clearly for a pattern, but why when there are so many good ones out there already? I do have a few unique things that I have done over the years, but not interested in selling them. As I have read through the comments posted before reading this I would like to suggest that you post some suggestions for those who are writing as to how they can protect their ideas as evidenced by Quiltknit. Thanks

    • Jennifer says:

      Indeed. As a freelance writer/publicist, I do know the potential for copyright infringement is very high nowadays in this connected world. I’ll mull over your suggestion and ask around for suggestions. Thank you.

  42. Ssgirl says:

    I have considered doing a pattern, just haven’t designed anything worth sharing. After reading your post, it looks like a lot of work! And if truth be told,Ii think I would rather be sewing…..but thank you for giving a really good framework in case I decide to do this.

  43. Martie says:

    I would love to try making a pattern. Thanks for all of the tips you’ve given me!

  44. Ann Dunn says:

    I doubt that I would ever write a pattern. It seems to me that there are enough patterns out there already. Just a change in fabric selection can result in very different quilts. That being said, I would mind winning one of the patterns.

    • quiltknit says:

      I had not quilted in a long time. Then my son in Afghanistan asked for one. I am finishing two for him. I went through all the patterns. Then of course there is the Bible so to speak done years ago by Jinny Beyer. There are so many books. I look at like this: There is nothing New Under The Sun! So, design away. The pattern just needs to catch your imagination and That I think depends on the fabric.

    • Jennifer says:

      Fingers crossed for you Ann.

  45. quiltknit says:

    I have tried to develop patterns for sale. I did a Child’s Quilt for a Quilt store. Did so at invitation of the store. Well, I even printed the patterns for Retail. The Store took the Quilt and the pattern. Supposedly on consignment. Guess I was naive. Never got a dollar for any of the sales. Never got my Quilt back- it disappeared from the store and never got a copy of pattern back. I never purchased another piece of Fabric from that store.
    I also experienced this sadness with my artwork prints.
    So, how you protect yourself- I guess you keep it on ebay and etsy. Just do not know really.
    Mine was before ebay and internet coming of age.
    Yes, i would do it again if I had a solid contract or opened an etsy shop.
    Give away is nice. Thank-you so much.

    • Jennifer says:

      Madame QuiltKnit: That’s an annoying experience. I think you’d have a more successful try now because technology is in your favor and you can set up your own sales venue online. How sad to lose your sample–I’ve lost one of my teaching samples in a store too. Luckily, it was one of a set of three.

  46. M. Martens says:

    I have done a couple to use in kits in a store that I worked at. I was happy when they were done but it was quite a job. Yes it was test and retest. I was told that I should do them to sell but I am not sure that I want to go that far.

  47. Sue Staum says:

    I have never attempted to write a pattern for commercial use. As an elementary teacher I have had abundant experience creating and writing directions for projects so who knows!? Never say never! A well written pattern is a wonderful thing!!

  48. mamaraby says:

    I don’t think so.

  49. Connie says:

    I don’t think I would ever develop a pattern for sale……but I LOVE to buy them! And I do have my favorites. Thanks for the great give-away!

  50. If you don’t love or have time for the quilting aspect, you turn to a professional–long-armer or hand-quilter, right? Similarly, if you’re after clear, accurate, user-friendly step-by-step instructions for your design (or book of designs!), consider farming that out to a professional. Even the best pattern writers among us depend on a qualified, editorial proof-reader. Check me out at http://www.eleanorlevie.com/editor.php.

    • Jennifer says:

      Excellent link Eleanor! Readers and potential pattern designers do visit Eleanor’s website to learn about her writing and editorial services.

  51. It would be fun to sell patterns! I write for my own blog site, but haven’t done so in pattern format. It would be pretty easy to mimic, so yes, I’d consider that. The hard part would be making the same design multiple times! Thanks for the tips, and for the chance to win.

    • Jennifer says:

      Exactly Melanie–the testing phase is a challenge indeed. I’d like to make a new version of my Mandarin Square pattern with new colors, but I KNOW how long it takes me to make the quilt because I’ve made it 3 times already!

  52. Suzanne Cross says:

    Sure, it sounds like quite a challenge.

  53. Pattern writing is not for me. I love testing them and using them, but not developing them.

  54. Mar says:

    If I have made something from a pattern and know that I will make it again, I enjoy rewriting it and making it clearer. I have also written how-to instructions for a few things I’ve made without a pattern and found that it is not easy. A well-written pattern takes time, and that’s after you’ve spent hours sewing and testing it. So, it makes me appreciate the price on those patterns that beckon from those displays in quilt stores!

    • Jennifer says:

      You’re tackling the process like a recipe tester. Do it once and then add your notes for clarity. That’s a good idea.

  55. Jill says:

    I have not considered it but if I came up with something great, I definitely would!

  56. Ellen says:

    I have never and doubt I would ever publish a pattern. I do alter patterns I buy but that is the extent of my creativity

  57. Annette R says:

    Great post! I do have a question – is it okay to develop your pattern in EQ (and make a sample yourself, of course) if that pattern will be for sale? It seems to me that using a program like EQ or Quilt Assistant, etc. would solve the math issue.

    • Jennifer says:

      Sure, Annette, you can develop patterns in a quilt design program. It’s a great way to “do the math.” I’m not to sure about using the illustrations in your written pattern though. I work with a graphic artist to render the illustrations for the pattern or do them myself on my computer.

  58. Sally MB says:

    I would not develop a pattern for sale but have three friends who do. I have had the opportunity to proofread and test them out though. I certainly admire their creativity!

  59. Nancy M says:

    I’ve considered it. Thanks for the write up!

  60. Sherri D says:

    I have never developed a pattern for sale, but I think I would do it, after reading this posting! I never gave any thought to making patterns to sell. How silly is that!
    Thanks for the nice give-a-way!

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