Learning Quilt Design from “What Not to Wear”

Color, Texture, Pattern, Shine — these are the foundation of wardrobe design on TLC’S What Not to Wear, a wardrobe/life make-over show that ran for ten years. Hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly emphasized these, as well as shape, proportion, fit, and appropriateness.

Last Monday while I worked out, I watched a re-run. It occurred to me that quilt design follows many of the same principles as wardrobe design.

Using color, texture, pattern, and shine are simply ways to create contrast and visual interest. Stacy and Clinton pair color with neutrals, for example showing a chartreuse print top with taupe slacks. For accent they might add teal shoes and a textured mustard-colored purse. To add sparkle, a bangle bracelet and dangling necklace. They repeatedly insist that colors don’t have to match, they just have to “go.”

How is this like quilt design? Colors in quilts don’t have to match, and in fact often work better if they don’t quite match. But using strong color with neutrals is the best way to highlight the colors.

The rerun showed a woman who enjoyed dressing in rainbow colors and cow prints. One “before” outfit showed her in rainbow-striped tights and sweater, with bright red corduroy jeans, rolled to the knee. I read a blog post elsewhere recently criticizing “scrap vomit” quilts that feature scores of colors, all the same in size, intensity and value. (Look up the term — I didn’t make it up!) The blogger reasonably commented on the visual confusion that occurs. This is the same effect given by the make-over participant in her clownish rainbow togs.

As she moved through the make-over process, she learned about fit, proportion, and appropriateness. You can have a great outfit in other regards, but if the fit and proportions aren’t right, it won’t look great.

In quilt design, we could compare this to using shape, size, proportion, and balance. Consider a basic block-style quilt with an unpieced border. We can add any size border at all, right? It could be 3″ wide or 30″ wide. And like Goldilocks, we might assess one extreme as too small, and the other extreme as too big. They are out of proportion and out of balance. Somewhere in the middle is the width that is just right! Just right will depend on the total width of the center, as well as the block size, and possibly the size of units in the block.

Color, texture, pattern, shine, shape, proportion, fit, and appropriateness… What about appropriateness? When we design quilts, choosing patterns and fabrics, we choose partly based on appropriateness. We rarely make a baby quilt as a wedding present; if we do, it’s either because a baby is due or we have a poor notion of good taste. In this culture we rarely choose pinks and flowers for a little boy’s quilt, or trucks and footballs for a little girl’s.

Fit? Large quilts are for big beds. Table runners are for tables. I made a table runner a few years ago for a friend. Her home was in the midst of renovation; her kitchen was going to be substantially larger than before. Her kitchen table, without leaves, would be nearly eight feet long. Her table runner, to fit and to look proportional, needed to be large. It was about 76″ long, much too large for a typical kitchen table, but perfect for hers.

You can learn design principles from so many sources. Television shows on decorating or even cooking, blog posts on photography, books about writing, stops at museums or hikes in the wilderness. All have much to offer. Be open. Absorb the lessons around you. Think about how to incorporate what you see into what you quilt. Your work will be richer for it.

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