How to Read A Quilt Pattern

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Last Updated January 02, 2018

If you are new to making quilts, you might be mystified by instructions in a quilt pattern. There is no standard way to write a quilt pattern. Publishers might have their own publishing guidelines. From what I can tell, the designer is the person who decides what to include in pattern instructions.

Some quilt pattern instructions assume the person reading them has made a quilt before or is familiar with the process. When instructions are vague or not included, beginners must find other resources to “fill in the blanks”. Even patterns described as “beginner” often don't include basic information.

This article describes the basic information you might find in a quilt pattern. We also discuss the information often left out.

how to read a quilt patternThe packaging for many quilt patterns is a plastic, zip top envelop. Inside the envelop are the cover sheet and instruction sheet(s). Applique patterns might have separate sheets of drawings to trace the applique pieces. Additionally, paper piecing patterns often include the foundation papers as well.

Today many quilt patterns are downloadable PDF files. This saves on printing, packaging and shipping charges. Downloadable patterns might have a different layout than printed and packaged patterns.

Ponder This – a well-known pattern designer/publisher once told me patterns are made to sell fabric.

The first thing to remember is, quilt patterns are instructions for completing a quilt top. Once the quilt top is complete, it is layered with batting and backing. The layers are quilted together and the binding and label are attached.  Very few quilt patterns include detailed instructions for layering, quilting or finishing the entire quilt. The basic sections of a quilt pattern include the cover sheet, supply list and instructions. Let's look at each of these and more.

Cover Sheet

First we start with the cover sheet. Almost every commercially sold or downloadable quilt pattern will have a cover sheet featuring an image of the quilt. This image could be a picture taken of the quilt draped over something. Often the picture is of the entire quilt shown flat. Some patterns will have a computer image or drawing of the quilt.

The cover sheet generally includes the quilt name and the designer's name. Also shown on the cover sheet you might find the approximate finished size or sizes of the quilt. Some patterns include the finished block size as well. Finally, the cover sheet might include information about the quilt, the fabric or maybe the techniques used to make the quilt.

Publishing Information

Publishing information, such as designer name and contact information, are included somewhere at the beginning, the end or in the footer. If there is a problem or you have a question you can contact the designer or publisher. Don't hesitate to contact someone if you need clarification or to give feedback. The overwhelming majority of companies and people in the quilting industry are happy to hear from you.

Supply List

After the cover sheet, you'll want to look at the supply list and fabric requirements. Unless you're taking a class, most patterns don't include a list of basic quiltmaking supplies. If the pattern is for machine piecing, then you know you'll need a sewing machine. When you use a sewing machine you need everything that goes with it such as needles, thread, scissors, foot pedal, etc. See the article, Basic Quiltmaking Supplies, for more information.

Tip – Many quiltmakers who travel to classes or retreats will often have an extra set of basic supplies just for traveling. This extra set saves packing time and prevents supplies from being left at home or lost between destinations. I keep my traveling supplies in my Tutto Machine on Wheels.

Patterns may be published to sell products. If the pattern uses a special tool, ruler or template, these items will be listed somewhere at the beginning of the instructions.

Fabric Requirements

Next is the section for listing the various fabrics used in the quilt. Fabric are often listed in different sections for blocks, background, borders, etc. Sometimes the sections are divided into light, medium, dark fabrics. Additionally, this section might include requirements for binding, batting and backing.

Tip – Don't forget the binding! The time between purchasing fabric to attaching the binding can be months or years. If you want the binding to coordinate with the quilt top, remember to purchase binding fabric when you purchase all the other fabrics.

Pre-cut strips or squares are listed in this section. Some patterns will give you alternatives to pre-cuts. The wording will be something like “1 package of Name Brand strips or 38 strips of fabric cut 2-1/2″ x WOF”. Let's take a look at that sentence.

  • Nearly all fabric manufacturers have their own brand of pre-cut fabrics. Sets of 2-1/2″ strips of fabric are called Jelly Rolls (Moda Fabrics), Bali Pops (Hoffman Fabrics), Essential Gems (Wilmington Batiks), etc.
  • Instead of purchasing these products you can cut your own strips. In this case you will need 38 strips of fabric. Each strip should be cut 2-1/2″ wide x WOF (Width Of Fabric). See the article – Quilting Fabric Terms for information and videos about WOF.

Cutting Instructions

The cutting instructions are next. Generally each fabric has its own section. The background fabric, for example, you might see something like:

“Cut two (2) strips 5-1/2″ wide x WOF. Sub-cut each strip into seven (7) 5-1/2″ x 5-1/2″ squares.”

There may or may not be a diagram for this. Here is the diagram for the cutting instruction above:

quilt pattern cutting instructions

After cutting, you will have 14 pieces of background fabric that are 5-1/2″ square and some left over fabric for your stash.

Piecing Instructions

One important piece of information often not included in patterns is the seam allowance. If you are coming to quilting from a garment sewing background, you are familiar with the 5/8″ seam allowance. If there is one standard in quiltmaking, the 1/4″ seam allowance is probably it. Unless otherwise instructed in the pattern, use a 1/4″ seam allowance.

The instructions are separated into steps or paragraphs. Sometimes instructions are separated into different units or parts of the quilt. Blocks or parts of blocks are usually pieced first. Next the blocks are pieced together then borders added.

Depending on the skill level required, these instructions can be a paragraph or two, up to many pages. These instructions often have diagrams to help you understand the steps.

Pressing Instructions

Some patterns may include pressing instructions at the beginning of or within the piecing instructions. I press seams toward the dark fabric most of the time.

Other Quilt Pattern Items

Additionally, if the pattern calls for special techniques, materials or tools, most often there will be instructions for those.  Product packaging might include instructions. Resources might include links to videos or tutorials. If the technique, tool or material is new to you, you will probably want to research a little more on those subjects.

Quilt As Desired

Near the end, many patterns end with something like “Layer the top, batting and backing. Quilt as desired.” Remember, the quilt pattern contains instructions for completing the quilt top.

Errors and Corrections

Finally we get to errors and corrections. It happens. If you are following instructions and something is wrong, contact the publisher. Start by checking the designer's or publisher's website. Look for a section on pattern errors or corrections. This is often the only way companies can communicate with customers about particular patterns.

ArticleHow to Store Quilt Patterns

Recommendations

In conclusion I would like to add some recommendations.

  1. Before purchasing a pattern, read the description to be sure the pattern fits your needs.
  2. Read through the entire pattern before purchasing fabric or supplies.
  3. Check for errors or corrections before starting the project.
  4. If something isn't clear in the instructions, don't hesitate to contact the designer or publisher via the contact information printed on the pattern.
  5. Read the article – Basic Quiltmaking Supplies – A Beginner's Guide.
  6. Read the article – Recommended Quilting Supplies.

Credits

Image of owl on book provided by My Cute Graphics

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