Ask Jo: Quilting Motifs

Every so often blog readers ask questions that I think others might be interested in as well.  I answer them here on them here on the blog.  Today is one of those days….

This question came from Karen E, “Jo, as a new quilter I struggle on which quilting pattern to use (I send them out to be quilted) Can you offer any suggestions on how you pick the pattern once it is ready for the machine. You and Kellie are so awe inspiring and make me want to be brave and tackle projects that I know I am not ready for. Thanks much!”

Initially when I read this, it was all I could do not to bust out laughing…. I HAVE THE SAME PROBLEM!!!!!!!!!  For some reason I really think people think that I know a lot about machine quilting.  In truth….When I work on a project it goes a little like this….

If it’s a charity quilt and I’m in a hurry I doodle a couple standard designs I do on the white board and then pick one and go.  If I have a little more time I look through my current favorite idea book  Step-by-Step Free-Motion Quilting: Turn 9 Simple Shapes into 80+ Distinctive Designs Best-selling author of First Steps to Free-Motion Quilting.  If you don’t have this book and want to free motion, I HIGHLY suggest getting it.  The book is my favorite and most used.  I find something new that I can practice and learn.

This is one that I have practiced a lot now and really love.


I’ve used it several times now…here’s the latest time I tried it.

The design has now become a favorite that I really like.

If I am doing a quilt for Kelli or I, I go through pretty much the same process.  Neither one of us are picky.  We’re just happy with a done quilt.  If it’s Civil War Reproductions, my first inclination is to go with Baptist Fans.  I’ve used them lots on Civil War reproduction print quilts and have loved them every time.

When I got my new APQS Millennium a couple years ago I always dreamed I would do amazing custom work on quilts.  After doing a few custom quilts, I’ve found I hate it.  I just don’t like spending all of that time on one single project.  I don’t like getting out marking tools.  I don’t like the decision making again and again.  First I have to figure out the block design then the border design.  I am just not a detail oriented person and perfection is never my goal.  It took me a few times trying to know that about myself though….occasionally I still dream about it then I look in the mirror and see who I really am and remember, NOPE, I am not that person.

But sometimes I try a little…like with this quilt.


If we have a quilt that needs to go out for publication, I go through all sorts of steps of anxiety…not severe anxiety, but anxiety non the less.  I start envisioning the quilt laid out  in the magazine.  I imagine some photographer who doesn’t know much about quilting zooming in and catching my every error because the truth of it all is…sometimes my thread breaks and I don’t get the next thread lined up perfectly.  Sometimes I try to sneak in one more curve but there isn’t enough room for it and the curve flattens.  Sometimes one of the kids comes home while I’m at the machine and I didn’t know they were coming and I jump (I’m easily surprised and jumpy) and the width between the curves is now completely off.  I’m not a perfectionist so sometimes I rip it out…and sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes I care…sometimes I don’t.

I sometimes imagine the camera zoomed in on the hugest mistake ever and everyone seeing it there in a national magazine.

Then I remember I’m human….I don’t use pantograms.  I don’t want to spend three more hours at the project trying to make it perfect….I end up talking myself off a ledge and remind myself, I am not doing this as a business…I am doing this as a hobby.  If the world discovers that I’m not perfect….that’s a good thing.  Then I don’t have a high standard to live up to.

Seriously though, for me to get a quilt done for publication, it typically sits for a couple days.  I quietly fret.  I call Kelli.  The deadline gets closer.  I fret some more.  Then I load the quilt.  I fret again.  Then I look in mirror and say…IT’S OKAY JO…YOU ARE HUMAN.  The I lay out thread colors.  I call Kelli again.  She says you know that quilt has to be to them in four day and I scream FOUR DAYS!!!  How am I going to do this…then I jump in and go…and it makes it there.  The deadline forces me to fly out of the indecision and just DO IT!!

The bottom line is this…I have all the same anxieties you all have about picking the right quilting design for your quilt.  Experience has told me this….

VERY-VERY-VERY rarely had I ever seen a quilt that I thought to myself- “WHY DID THEY USE THAT DESIGN ON THAT QUILT?!?!?”  When I do think that, it’s typically because it’s one of those that are “over” quilted.  They over quilting just isn’t my preference.  I still to this day love a simple stipple.  Sometimes, working on a busy quilt, that’s what I pick.  I want the design to speak the quilting to be un-noticed.

I will say these few things though….
I don’t always like really floral motifs as they aren’t masculine.  I typically only use them on girly quilts.
On quilts that have lots of points, I like to add a curvy design,
On quilts with lots of open space, I sometimes like to use a darker thread like here.


I actually quilted it with a light brown thread.  The design shows through better but it isn’t really noticeable.  This design I found on Youtube and it’s an all time favorite and really easy for free motion quilters.

It’s the same design I used on our  free pattern, Jimmy John.  You can see that here.

Some people say don’t do boxy designs on boxy quilts….I actually like them combined.

So here’s my final answer Karen….
In the end, JUST DO IT-JUST PICK IT.  I don’t think there is really a wrong choice.

A finished quilt will always, in my mind, be better than a quilt top folded up in a closet.


4 thoughts on “Ask Jo: Quilting Motifs”

  1. Hi Jo,
    I have started quilting for people in my area. I have wanted to for so long I see it in my sleep. DH has cancer so I’m trying to help out and be at home too. You inspire me. I have read your blog for about 3 yrs. I like how you and Kelli are real and that makes me feel like I can do this too. At your suggestion I got Christina’s book, I LOVE it. I don’t do sbow quilting just offer to help people get their UFO’s on the bed. Thanks for sharing with us. Hoping all goes well with your surgery, remember take care of Jo too.

  2. I like your summary at the end. Words that help this perfectionist move on and do something are, “Some days done is better than perfect.” It will keep someone warm the cake will still be a treat and a less than perfect meal will still fill a tummy. The only imperfect hug is one not done!

  3. I never plan to be a “professional” quilter. I make quilts to be donated to babies and children and I use pantos to do an all over design. I enjoy the process and I’ve learned that I’m probably the only one who will notice the mistakes, jumps, bumps, etc. The satisfaction of seeing a stack of finished quilts trumps the need to be perfect everytime!

  4. I have yet to get my confidence up to do free motion quilting. I have a couple of small projects ready to go, a table runner and a baby quilt. I have taken a couple of day classes to help build my confidence, but still too scared. My guild has a small group that is working on free motion quilting, I think I need to make time to go. Your encouragement to not be perfect helps lots. I would rather see these projects done than packed away because I am too scared to finish them. I have a nephew that would love the baby quilt.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top