Quilt As Desired Article 5: Quilting Negative Space

The following article was originally written as part of my Quilt As Desired column for the National Quilting Association’s Quilting Quarterly magazine. The association was disbanded after nearly 46 years, so this article was never published. Scroll to the end for links to all of my previously written articles.

Quilting Negative Space by Christa Watson

Negative space, also known as “the background” or “white space,” can include any color of fabric and is not relegated to solids only. Negative space creates contrast in your quilt, allowing the main design to shine. In many modern quilts, there can often be more negative space than design or “positive space,” leading to a conundrum of how to quilt it.
Here are four suggestions on how to quilt negative space:photo1 Photo 1 – Abacus Quilt by Christa Watson

(1) Quilt an allover linear design such as the continuous wavy lines in Abacus (see photo 1). This type of quilting works well regardless of block layout. It can help emphasize the textural quality of the quilt, rather than the absence of design. Continuous wavy lines can be quilted easily with a walking foot and a straight stitch by turning the quilt from side to side, or using a decorative machine stitch. Confident free-motion quilters can comfortably quilt continuous wavy lines back and forth across the entire surface of the quilt.

Photo 2 – Me and My Shadow by Vicki Ruebel of Orchid Owl Quilts

(2) Create a secondary composition in the negative space. Vicki Ruebel quilted a near-mirror image of her whimsical bird in her award winning quilt, Me and My Shadow (see photo 2). She sketched the outline of the bird and feathers, and used the same drawing to create both the quilted and appliqued birds. She used two layers of batting to create definition, filling in the areas around both birds with free-motion swirls on her long-arm machine.

Photo 3 – Wholecloth by Ida Ewing of Ida Rather Be Quilting

(3) Divide and conquer if the negative space is too much to tackle at once. Ida Ewing created her negative space design by marking an “E” and echoing around the letter. She then subdivided each section of the quilt and filled it in with a different free-motion motif (see photo 3). This filler technique looks stunning on any size quilt from a small wholecloth piece to a bed-size quilt with vast amounts of negative space.


Photo 4 – Ida shows what a difference the quilting can make!

(4) Repeat elements from the block into the negative space. For Ida’s Little Guppy quilt (see photo 4), she created a diamond in a square motif with her quilting, emphasizing the square block design. The pebble quilting relates to the circles in the print, unifying the piece.
The next time you are stumped on how to quilt negative space, grab a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and just start doodling. You never know when inspiration will strike!

Further Reading

Click the links below to read all the articles I wrote for NQA:

QuiltCon 2015 (co-authored with Jacquie Gering)
Modern Machine Quilting
Embrace the Line
Filler Designs Add Texture
Handwork Makes a Comeback

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