What Makes It Interesting?

Not just beautiful, not just well-crafted. What makes a quilt interesting, one you want to look at for a long time? One that keeps bringing you back to it?

In these questions, I am not thinking of “art” quilts or wall-hangings. Rather, I’m thinking of quilts, whatever their style, that might be used as a bed or lap quilt.

What design characteristics make a quilt interesting? Is it easier to answer if asked what makes a quilt boring?

What makes a quilt uninteresting (to me):

  1. nothing unexpected
  2. perfect symmetry including all use of placement, shape, color, value, pattern, texture
  3. no sense of movement, nothing to direct the eye
  4. too much repetition — same shapes in same colors with same placement
  5. no repetition, too much movement, chaos — if there is too much going on, I shut down
  6. “perfection”

Things that can make a quilt interesting to me:

  1. something unexpected
  2. balance with asymmetry of placement, shape, color, value, pattern, or texture
  3. movement, a sense of direction
  4. rhythmic repetition
  5. imperfection

Here are two quilts I made in 2017, for comparison. In some ways they are the same, with solid white backgrounds and lots of open space. They are both “pretty,” I think. But one is more interesting (to me) to look at than the other.

Dizzy. 60″ x 60″. 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Fire & Ice. 68″ x 68″. 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

So what’s the difference? In some ways, Dizzy is more interesting than Fire & Ice. Dizzy has more colors. It’s kind of fun to track the block colors back into the floral print border. There’s more value differentiation in Dizzy than in Fire & Ice.

But to me, Fire & Ice keeps my eye for longer. There is more to it that is unexpected, or requires more time to consider. There are more shapes and different angles in it, while Dizzy has only two basic blocks, the pinwheels and the variable (sawtooth) stars. In Dizzy, the blocks’ colors are also symmetrically arranged. If you see one quadrant of the quilt, you don’t need to see the rest. While that is essentially true for Fire & Ice, the repetition alludes to other shapes, rather than directly repeating. The outside corner blocks use a “wing” shape from the center block, but they frame different shapes. The solid red lines are various widths. The center block suggests some puzzles to its construction. The positive/negative space use of alternating hourglass blocks creates the main movement.

Besides, that, the design of Fire & Ice is far from perfection. The proportions of shapes are not quite right. The border of alternating bars has an even number, meaning the line is not symmetrical. There’s a lot of white space in the final wide border, especially as compared to the hourglass border. Some shapes are big and some are small. The lack of perfection is exactly what makes it most interesting.

To me, it’s useful to consider what makes an interesting quilt, because I want to make quilts that are interesting. I want to make quilts that someone might linger over for a long time, taking in the details. Ones that have a story to tell through their design. Ones that carry little surprises. Ones that pose some challenges in the making.

What characteristics make you linger over a quilt? Why do you keep looking? When you think of your own quilts, which ones do you still enjoy looking at, and why? When you think of “interesting,” what do you think of?

21 thoughts on “What Makes It Interesting?

  1. TextileRanger

    I always thought I preferred an odd number of alternating blocks so that the outside corners would both be the same. So if I had made a border with alternating rectangles as you did, I’m sure I would have placed red at the same spot in all the outside corners. But as you pointed out, your borders have an equal number of alternating rectangles, and now I see how that can provide movement around the quilt — the eye just naturally moves around all four of those borders!
    But it was a genius choice to use those borders where you did. I think when I have seen equal numbers of blocks being used before, it has been in big 1-block quilts, and it leads my eye right off the quilt to search for the landing spot I expect. Your proportion and placement made the most of that choice, I think!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, Gwen, in a block quilt, I would always use an odd number of blocks across for just the reason you say. And thanks for the compliments on the quilt — genius might be going too far, but it’s fun to hear! 🙂 If you remember, the Fire & Ice quilt was based on a historical quilt held by the IQSCM. I did make some changes, of course. Those little rectangles in the border were arranged a little differently in the original. If I remember, there actually was about a half-sized rectangle on one end of each border. I sized them so they were all whole. But other than that, I hadn’t noticed the movement created by the sequence! Thanks for pointing it out and taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.

  2. KerryCan

    I find Fire and Ice much more interesting. I like the other but it’s a little too sweet for my taste. I find bold, contrasting colors and values interesting, and I guess I’m drawn to solids and all that can be created in that narrow range of possibilities. I also like, in Fire and Ice, the lack of distinct edges where I would expect them–it’s almost like looking at a photographic negative. Am I making any sense?

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, you make sense. I also like the lack of edges. I’m so used to edging everything, making defined lines. I LIKE line! But I also like that this one has only implied lines in places. Thanks for taking a look.

  3. snarkyquilter

    I definitely find Fire & Ice more interesting. It’s bolder, uses different thicknesses of line, and floats some of the shapes in a way that intrigues me. The shapes in Dizzy seem too regimented, too neatly lined up, for my taste. Plus, it has floral fabric, which isn’t my fave. When I’m at a quilt show I look for work that uses a range of value, that does something different with the pattern, and that rewards closeup and distant viewing.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Joanna. I think we see the two quilts very similarly. I do think Dizzy is a good design, of the kind that would make a good pattern. 🙂 Imagine it in different colors or with batiks, rather than with the floral print. But it would still be very regimented, as you put it. I like your mention of rewards of looking closeup vs distant. I love being drawn in to look at fine details of a quilt. Perhaps that’s why solid fabrics often leave me cold — some of the details I enjoy most are missing.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Movement is a big key for me, and asymmetry so I can figure out where the differences are. “How did she do that?” sometimes works for me, but I’ll admit sometimes turns me off instead.

  4. jmn111

    One factor I try including in all of my quilts is an unexpected colour – when I get that right the quilt comes to life. It doesn’t take much of that colour to have an effect and placement matters (but not always). Most people looking at one of my quilts don’t see what I’ve done, they just feel the effect.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Ah yes, the unexpected color! You’re right, you do use interesting color combinations that are very effective. I think my color combinations are often unexpected, too. When I did a trunk show recently, I noticed that several of the quilts I showed were non-standard color sets! And yes, I find that draws my attention when looking at other people’s quilts. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Karen

    Dizzy is at the same time vibrant,but calming,fun and joyful to look at.
    Fire and ice is blah and makes my head hurt!
    I would choose Dizzy anytime over something like Fire &Ice. My opinion.

  6. allisonreidnem

    I like figuring out how blocks have been constructed and spotting secondary patterns across a quilt. I do find colour is my starting point when looking at quilts. I know I shouldn’t allow my colour preferences to get in the way of examining a quilt but faced with an exhibition hall full of quilts I will be drawn to my favourite or unusual colour combinations before really looking at a quilts design.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I like secondary patterns, too, probably because of the added complexity. I mentioned in comment to Kerry, above, that construction is one of the things that catches my eye, and the secondary patterns sometimes obscure that. Thanks for the comments.

  7. katechiconi

    For me, it’s interesting if the whole first engages me emotionally: “ooh, I LOVE that!”. After that, I look at it more carefully to see how it was made, especially if it’s something advanced or a technique new to me, and then I look at it to see how much work there is in it, especially if it’s a project I’d never take on myself because of the size or complexity or sheer number of weeny bits. Having said that, I still look at a couple of my own quilts and think “wow, how did I ever make that happen…?” (mainly the EPP ones!)

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Do you think that appearance is the most important trigger to your emotional engagement? Or can you get engaged that way because of knowing a story about it, or for some other reason?

      1. katechiconi

        Appearance will always be the strongest and most lasting trigger. History and technique will get me stopping and examining a quilt, but they don’t give me the same visceral response.

  8. Kerry

    Good morning (quick catch up with the mail session and a coffee!).
    Colours always catch my eye. But then so can a whole cloth because of the quilting. I do tend to like the old style blocks – although while I appreciate the work gone into English paper piecing -and some of those are beauties – I’m not keen, probably because I started a project that was my first foray into quilting when I was young and I hate it so much (still have it, look at it and go yuk before putting it away again).
    A lot of work to create a beautiful picture that seems almost like a photo will have me looking and peering to see how it’s put together. At a quilt show I walked past a quilt, but when I looked back – WOW! It was better at a distance so needed a quick march back to see why I’d dismissed it and again to see the workings.
    A Japanese lady made such exquisite teeny tiny quilts that were just amazing.
    Needle turn applique always catches my eye.
    Recently at a quilt show I thought I must be fair to the people exhibiting and start learning to appreciate what is not my cup of tea, and the imagination and work that went into it. I’m ashamed to say I then I think there’s only so much time I have, so I rush off to look at the ones that are pretty to me! Naughty really.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      You may have hit on an important aspect of “interesting” — the characteristic that a quilt (or anything else) may appear different on first glance than it does on second, whether that is from different distances or for some other reason. I think trying to figure out construction (also mentioned by Allison and above by me) is one part of that. But agreed, that I usually need to perceive something as attractive before I worry about whether or not it’s interesting!


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