Scrappy Backgrounds: What I’ve Learned
When I started making scrap quilts, that is, quilts with lots and lots of different fabrics, I thought that I still needed one big chunk of background fabric. I’d see the materials list and it would look something like this:
Sometimes it would require even more background fabric. Think 3 or 4 or 5 yards. I’d scurry off to the quilt store (which in my case means driving almost an hour) to buy the background.
Then the light came on.
Why couldn’t I do scrappy backgrounds the same way I was doing units, blocks, borders and binding? I started to play with this idea. I’ve evolved to a firm belief that a scrappy background is the most interesting background. Let me show you a few quilts that illustrate what I’ve learned.
I designed Petit Patchwork for a retreat at Wagner’s Quilts and Conversations in Arapahoe, Nebraska. I included lots of techniques so I could use it as a teaching tool. But take a closer look at the background.
It’s not just one fabric. It’s many different prints that all read in a similar way. When we talk about how something “reads,” we just mean how it looks when it’s actually in the quilt. You can see how something reads by putting it on a vertical surface (like a design wall) and standing back. I stand across the room for the most realistic perspective.
The background fabrics in Petit Patchwork are all pale gray. As I chose each one, I put it up against the others and stood back in order to judge them. They needed to look very similar, like they were siblings.
Not all of the blocks in the photo above made it into the quilt but I’ve learned to be okay with that. Sometimes you can’t tell if something is going to work until you see it with the other elements.
1. Audition, audition, audition.
This is the most important thing I’ve learned about scrappy backgrounds. You have to put the candidates up on a design wall and stand back to see if they’re doing what you want them to do.
I do this often as I’m making the quilt. I make fewer mistakes now than when I first tried scrappy backgrounds, but I still try, retry, adjust, fix and try again.
2. Value is more important than color.
This discovery happened as I made a quilt called Spinster.
Spinster is a large quilt at about 80″ x 80″. At first glance, you might see the background as a variety of whites. But it’s actually a variety of lights, which is an entirely different thing.
I completely ignored the color of the fabrics as well as the motifs. I didn’t care if it had gorillas on it as long as it was light enough to contrast with the pinks and aquas of the windmills. This background was incredibly fun to sew!
A fun fact about Spinster is that every patch in the quilt is cut at exactly the same size. I’d like to design 25 quilts that all have only one patch—wouldn’t that make an amazing trunk show?!
3. Think “similar”
Recently I’ve been making a quilt designed by Wendy Sheppard of Ivory Spring called Butterfly Collection. The pattern is in the Spring 2021 edition of Quilter’s World. Here is Wendy’s original, beautifully styled by Quilter’s World:
I really liked the soft mint color of the background so when I made my first block, I grabbed something halfway similar from my stash.
This was my test block, and I liked how easily it went together. I made one tweak: I decided to use wool for the bodies instead of piecing them as Wendy did. I found a more aqua print and made the first few blocks. I still hadn’t wrapped my head around making a large quilt so I didn’t think much about how much background fabric I would need.
The more blocks I made, the more I liked what was happening. To keep myself from going completely off the rails, I decided that the butterflies would be limited to blue, red, orange and yellow or variations of those colors.
I ran out of that aqua fabric after about nine blocks. But I was in love with the project and I knew I had many similarly aqua fabrics in small pieces of a fat quarter to a half yard. I decided to go for a scrappy background.
I pulled everything from my stash that was a candidate and chose those closest in value to the first background. As I made blocks, I’d use up one and move on to the next.
I didn’t stress over it because I knew they’d be close enough to look fine together. You want scrappy background fabrics to look like a family, as if they all came from the same gene pool.
A few times I wondered if I’d gone too far, but I think it worked out okay in the end.
The more I made, the better it looked. Believe it or not, I had to exercise a lot of restraint with these blocks.
I wanted to add in more colors but I forced myself to stick with the plan. All of the fabrics came from my stash.
You can see how I arranged and rearranged them over time. Mostly it was because I had other projects that had to go on the design wall to be photographed or visualized.
I thought I was finished when I had made 30 blocks, only to realize that I needed five more.
I had saved one aqua that I had plenty of to use for sashing. And I had some big polka dots that I wanted to use in the borders.
So this is where we landed as of 9 am on May 6, 2021. I love it and am so anxious to start quilting it!
Next time you’re making a scrap quilt, remember that you don’t need to buy yards of fabric for the background. You can scrap it up by using the fabric you already own, just like a Stash Bandit.
Want more scrap quilt tips? Sign up for my emails. 😊