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Quilt As Desired: How to Design Your Quilting on Your Quilt Top

Updated: Mar 22

Tori McElwain for Quilting with Darla

"Quilt as Desired" - A popular phrase in quilt patterns that means to quilt any way you please!
Does that phrase make you cringe? Let’s look at it like an invitation! Here are 3 ways to help pick your quilting design.

Designing your quilting should be fun! Let me help you break down the process of choosing your favorite overall quilting motifs using harmony and contrast.
Follow the Stars pattern with custom quilting

First, a few things to keep in mind:

A quilting motif is the stitching that binds the 3 layers of a quilt together in a purposeful design, also called top stitching, pantographs, or just quilting. I like to encourage the term "quilting motif" because it's easier to tell the difference rather than referring to both piecing and top-stitching as just "quilting" or "quilting design" (which could also refer to the pattern design).

An edge-to-edge or overall design is a quilting motif that flows over the whole quilt despite the pattern. You may see it most often with straight-line quilting and computerized quilting.

Custom quilting is when each block is quilted differently or with different designs, often incorporating the theme or design of the fabric.

Let's get deeper into it!
Patchwork with Loops and Stars and infinity signs in the border (contrasting overall design)


An overall or edge-to-edge quilting motif that is in harmony with your quilt pattern would do the following:

Echo the Pattern Design -
Whether you are piecing together a friendship star block with a slight turn, or a railroad quilt block that is all lines, a harmonizing quilting motif would model after that effect. For example, the friendship star looks like it's turning, so adding swirls or something swirly would emphasize and harmonize with the movement in the block. In the case of the railroad quilt block, you could harmonize by using lines or straight-line quilting. This is an "echoing" of the pattern - lines with lines, swirls with swirls.

If your quilt pattern consists of squares, using a geometric quilting motif or using lines to echo the lines in the quilt (yay lines!) can complement those squares.

Peppermint Twist Table Runner with straight-line quilting

Blend In -
Meander and straight-line quilting are great examples of harmonious designs that can blend in and disappear into the background, especially when you choose a thread color that blends in with the background of your fabric. If your quilt is extremely colorful, using a neutral color thread can help everything blend in. Try using beiges with warm colors like reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows, and greys with cool colors like blues, greens, and purples to really blend everything together.

Log Cabin Blocks with a harmonizing meander quilting motif

You can see that a meander in the above example really blends in and in person, only shown with a shadow over it (hence the tilting angle of the picture). It is a more curvy design over a log cabin block, but it helped blend in with the swirls in the fabric.


Let's talk about contrast!
Railroad block with loopty-loos (contrasting overall quilting)

Quilting motifs that are in contrast with the quilt pattern often have a different (sometimes opposing) design. Quilting design that is in contrast to the pattern does the following:

Adds Extra Texture -
A contrasting quilting motif can add to the overall look of the quilt, adding texture and bringing your eye in. For example, quilting star blocks with a quilting motif that is flowing/swirly/circular is in contrast to the points in the stars.

Map the Stars Pattern with a curvy quilting motif

Stands Out as Part of the Quilt -
A contrasting quilting motif can add to the overall look of the quilt and even stand out. A lot of modern quilts have negative space, and using a fun quilting motif can fill up the space and add textures to those negative areas. For example, the quilt below has a lot of emptiness around the squares. Adding large swirls adds texture, an extra design element, and fills up that negative space.

Pattern: Unknown, Quilt was pieced by Irene Violette

Let's take a look at another fun way to pick your quilting motifs!

Scrappy Pumpkin Patch Pattern with themed custom quilting

Theme Quilting:

Let's throw in one more!
Theme quilting - is choosing quilting motifs that match the theme of the quilt pattern or fabric!
Have a pumpkin-themed quilt? Vines are fun and harmonizing in this Scrappy Pumpkin Patch Pattern. Have a Halloween-themed quilt? Spiderwebs!
What about Christmas? Poinsettias, ornaments, or perhaps snowflakes!
Scrappy Pumpkin Patch Pattern with custom quilting

I'd like to invite you to have fun with your quilting motifs and enjoy the outcome! Follow your preferences and pick something that lights you up.

Can you Mix Motifs?

Definitely! Go with what you like, just have fun and enjoy the process!

If you enjoyed this blog post, check out "Becoming Fearless in Free Motion Quilting." 

Taking note of Inspiration:

Inspiration is all around us! If you're a quilter, chances are you follow favorite designers/brands/quilty friends/social media influencers/magazines that inspire you. What I would invite you to do is pay attention to your reactions to the quilts you see, pausing just for a moment.

When you see a quilt that you love, I would invite you to ask yourself why do I love this quilt? What stands out? Is the quilting harmonizing or adding contrast?

OR if the quilt is just not your style, ask why? What is repelling me? Is it the quilt motif? Does it blend too much? How does it take away from the quilt?

 It may not be the quilting, it could be something else - the fabric choice, the pattern itself, the border, etc. I would still encourage you to save the quilt, in a digital album on your phone, Pinterest board, a physical cork board with pushpins, or even as a saved post on Instagram, etc., and take note of your answers to refer to when you get ready to start your next quilt!

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