How to Quilt Negative Space

Kimberlee Tanner

How to Quilt Negative Space

We LOVE modern quilts, but with modern quilts often comes lots of negative space. While this can create a very stunning design, it can also create a headache when trying to decide how to quilt it. It doesn’t have to be that way though! When I’m deciding what to quilt in the negative space of a design, I don’t approach it any differently than I do the rest of the quilt. It’s a large open area, but with a few simple methods, it’s easy to break it down and make the process go smoother and easier, ultimately leading you to a finished quilt faster.


Echo the shapes of the block

Anytime I approach negative space, I first try to break it down into smaller areas. One way of doing that is by echoing the shapes of the blocks that are already there. Sometimes I’ll echo them and fill in the leftover spaces with different designs, and sometimes I’ll just keep echoing. When you do lots of echoes, it’s really going to draw all the attention to that main element, acting as a sort of arrow pointing directly to the shape you are echoing. This technique works really great if there is one part of the quilt that you want to stand out more than others as a main element.

Wallpaper the Background

The second technique I like to use is what I affectionately call wallpapering. Decide on a fill and simply cover all the negative space with that quilting design as if you had wallpapered the background. When I’m doing this, I like to use row designs so it’s easy to move from the top to the bottom and around different elements, especially on my longarm quilting machine. If I’m quilting on a domestic sewing machine, using a row design isn’t as big of a concern as I am not restricted in the ways I can move around the quilt. Often times I’ll use a couple different designs in my wallpaper, alternating them to create smaller spaces that are filled in.

Create New Shapes

I LOVE to create new shapes in the negative space of quilting designs. It is one of my favorite ways to approach it. When I’m doing this, I will grab by print out and a ruler and just start drawing lines across the background and breaking the space down. After I’ve completed this basic pattern to my liking, then all I have to do is go back through and use different fills to fill in the sections I’ve created, it’s really quite similar to a zentangle approach. You don’t have to just use straight lines either! Curves work beautifully with this technique as well. Oftentimes I’ll actually quilt the lines in (I like to use two lines with about 1/4″ space between them to break up the space and create more definition between the fills), but sometimes I won’t worry about actually defining those areas. I’ll mark them out with a marking pen that will erase later and simply quilt the fill designs. This works really well when there is a lot of contrast between the designs so that they still stand out. You can add contrast through density changes, directional changes, and mixing up curved and straight line designs.

Ghost in the Blocks

The last method I talk about is using ghosting. When I have a lot of negative space around definite blocks, I will draw in those shapes with a marking pen and quilt them as if they were actually pieced. This takes a little more prep work, but the results can be stunning. It also takes all the stress out of deciding what to quilt as you just keep going with your previous quilting plan. When using this approach, I do usually have to mark the quilt ahead of time. I’m sharing the ones I use and have had no issues with, but my disclaimer is that before you mark any quilt, ALWAYS test it first. I can’t guarantee these pens/markers will always come out so please test your individual projects first before drawing all over your top.

Some of my favorite marking pens are:

Water Soluble Markers by Clover. I get the blue one and it comes out with water. These markers work well because once I’ve marked, it’s not going anywhere until I remove it, and all it takes is water. If for some reason you have a little leftover, just spritz it again until the mark is actually gone. If in doubt, a quick laundering will remove any stubborn marks. Don’t use these if your project can’t get wet (obviously) and they don’t work well on dark fabrics

Chalk. I will use plain old Crayola washable school chalk if the lines don’t have to be precise. This works great in large areas where you are marking a general area for a fill without worrying about outlining it. I like this as I don’t really have to put effort into removing it, it’s usually gone by the time I’m through quilting that area. It’s not going to stay there if you are moving the quilt around a bunch though, so safe this method for marking right before you quilt.

Air Erase Marker by Dritz. This is a purple marker that simply goes away on it’s own. It says it lasts up to 14 days (less if you have humidity) but I’ve never had it really last more than 24-48 hours. It simply gets lighter and lighter till it is gone. If for some reason you want it gone faster, you can use water. I use these markers if I’m marking small sections, then immediately quilting that area. Don’t plan on marking your quilt well ahead of time as you will simply have to redo it. If that’s what you want, use water soluble or heat erase options.

Heat Erase Pens by Dritz. I know people use different types of heat erase pens with varying degrees of success, I have only used the ones by Dritz that are made for fabric. I haven’t had any issues with it coming out or leaving ghost lines or coming back in cold weather. I like these as they come in 5 different colors, so I can usually find something that will show up on all fabrics and I can get a more precise line as they are pens as opposed to markers.

Hopefully these techniques have given you a different way to approach your quilting plan for negative space and will help take the dread out of those quilt tops. The most important thing is to have fun! Develop your own style and take the opportunity of all that open ground to really let it come out. I can’t wait to see what you’ll create and happy quilting!

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