Monday, August 3, 2015

My Top 5 'Musts" for Quilt Patterns

Where would we be without quilt patterns?

We love our quilt patterns, don't we?  (We won't talk about how small a percentage of the stash this is.)

 I like to create my own designs, to be sure, and usually I don't write patterns for those quilts, but I also like to make quilts that others design and make available in patterns.  For a couple of years I've been mainly focused on writing and publishing patterns for my own designs, but over the past few weeks I've had occasion to use others' patterns quite a bit.   In the process, I've been reminded of the characteristics I most appreciate in a pattern--characteristics that I try to build into my patterns--and I want to share those, and invite you to share what YOU like to see in quilt patterns.  (All right, that's a little self-serving, because I'm always looking for ways to make my patterns better, but that is ultimately for YOUR benefit, as I try to improve them for you!)

Remember, these are MY preferences; yours may be completely different!

1. Error-checked

This is at the top of my list.   Mistakes happen, no question. But I appreciate designers/pattern writers who double-check their measurements and construction procedures and, even better, have another pair of eyes (preferably, another quilter's) check them.  (If they're anything like I am, they can look at the same error 15 times and never see the error.  Another person can spot it in an instant!)  Minimizing errors before publication is a much-appreciated step!  

It's also nice when designers publish corrections on their websites, though I confess I usually (with one exception) don't check before I start a pattern.   But, if I'm making a pattern, and something doesn't seem right, I will often check out the website.  

My sister is my technical editor, bless her.  She's a quilter, but she was a computer programmer and systems designer in her professional life, and she's very good with the details, as well as spotting any potentially confusing instructions. Though she doesn't ever say it exactly in that way, there have definitely been some "Huh, Karen?" moments in my pattern-writing career.  Thanks, Mary Kay!  I can't promise that we'll never let a mistake get past us, but we certainly try hard to prevent them.

My sister's, and my, notes on a pattern draft

My process for pattern-writing is to design the quilt visually (usually in EQ, but not always), work out fabric requirements, then write the pattern before I make the blocks and quilt.  Then I follow those instructions as I construct the blocks and quilt, even if I can do it without the instructions.  I catch many errors that way, and am able to find better ways to phrase instructions, to make them more clear.  I take many, many notes as I go, then go back to the computer and make the changes, then send them to Mary Kay for her comments and corrections.

2. Clear text instructions

I'm mostly a kinesthetic learner, but I worked in a profession generally dominated by text-based learners, so I learned (!) to pay attention to text.   My favorite patterns have clear, unambiguous written instructions, especially for those who are text-based learners.   When I'm writing instructions I try to write them such that illustrations are, technically, unnecessary in figuring out the construction.

The font should be a clear, straightforward style--Times New Roman, Calibri, whatever--but NOT a fun or fancy font that is difficult to read.   I prefer a serif font when reading a book but, oddly, a san serif when reading patterns.  Go figure.

Funky fonts are all right for titles, but I'll take Calibri for instructions

Fabric requirements and cutting instructions should match.  :-)   I know this would seem to be a given, but I've worked with patterns that tell me to cut a piece for something, but doesn't tell me from which fabric I should be cutting it.

Text is important on its own, but it should also act as a support to the illustrations, for those who are visual learners.  Which leads us to illustrations...

3. Illustrations

A lot of quilters seem to be visual learners, so illustrations are important.  Because of my professional background, I find myself trying to figure out the text instructions first, then look at the illustrations.  I'm more visual than text, however, so I do rely on the illustrations to help me figure out those steps that I just can't wrap my brain around.

I invited some friends to critique one of my patterns, and one of the questions I asked was whether they preferred photos or diagrams and, though they said it could depend, mostly they thought diagrams were better.  In printed patterns, at least,  I usually prefer diagrams--if they're done well.  If photos are used I find them easier to follow if they're large, clear and in color, without a lot of extraneous distractions in the frame.  I think I like diagrams because they are less likely to have those distracting elements that photos can often have.

It's also useful to have the illustrations WITH the relevant text instructions, so I don't have to fumble for a sheet where the photos or illustrations have been gathered into one sheet.

4. Format

This is pretty subjective, of course.  You can usually tell, when you open the pattern package and take out the instruction sheets, whether or not you're going to want to dive into the pattern, can't you?  Whatever it is about the layout and format, it either invites you in or sends you screaming into the night.

 My preference is for good-sized illustrations, with enough white space that my eyes can easily differentiate between steps, and maybe take a rest now and then, from the block of text.  It doesn't have to waster paper with extra-wide margins, but my eyes are happier with some white space--it seems to help my brain to organize what it's seeing.

I like color diagrams, with relevant text, and enough white space to differentiate steps.

Color illustrations help me, though it isn't always necessary. Atkinson Designs, probably my favorite designer in terms of pattern format and clarity of instructions, have b&w illustrations and they work just fine for me.   If it is clear enough that I can tell the difference between fabrics, and between right and wrong sides, then b&w is fine with me.  

5. Pressing instructions

This may not be on everyone's list of Top 5 Musts, but it's one of the first things I look at in a pattern. (In some cases, it determine whether or not I buy the pattern.)   A block (and a quilt) go together so much better if I know, as I go along, how I should press the seams.  (Those who press seams open probably don't care, though!)   I can guess how to press seams, from looking at where and how blocks intersect, but it's hard to picture it in my head, or even work it out on pencil and paper.   If a designer tells me how to press so that the blocks fit together, with seams butting up against each other, well, I'm a happy camper (quilter).  If it doesn't matter which way I press, I'd like to know that, too, so I'm not wondering.

I've learned over the years that it's best if I make test blocks before I start sewing the actual sample quilt. (Did I mention that it's hard for me to work that out in my head, or on paper?)  Sometimes I have it figured correctly when I do the first draft of a pattern, and sometimes I don't.  I make enough test blocks to work out the pressing scheme, not matter how many different blocks there might be, or how many combinations of rotations of those blocks against each other.

Test blocks, and working out pressing scheme for a new pattern

My test blocks are never much in the way of "lookers" but they are essential to getting the pressing scheme correct, and that's pretty important to me.

(A really smart person would probably choose a color scheme and always make the test blocks from those colors/fabrics, so as to have blocks for a sample quilt some day but, alas, I am apparently not that person!)

YOUR Top 5?

So, those are my Top 5 Musts.  Do you agree?  What are yours?