Phoebe Moon Quilt Designs

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How to make a Scrappy or Controlled Scrappy Quilt

I love old quilts. I love to feel their texture and try to imagine what they have seen. You just have to know that a quilt in ratty condition has lived an exciting life. Where did the fabric come from? Who did the piecing? Who did the quilting? How long did it take them? What was going on at the time?

It’s a bit of a myth that early scrap quilts were made from cast off clothing. They were more likely to have been made from left over dress fabrics or cut-aways. The fabric left from cutting out a sleeve, for example. But there are quilts that have a fabric with a known history and those are the treasures.

All quilts have a story, even new ones. A scrap quilt is a great way to tell your story. As you go through your stash and pull out fabrics for a scrap quilt, keep those memories in mind. If the fabric makes you smile, find a way to include it. Don’t restrict yourself to old fabrics, though. If you need to buy more, those fabrics will have stories too.

So how do you make a scrappy quilt that doesn’t look like a mishmash of memories? (Let me step back for a moment and say that if you WANT a quilt that is a complete jumble of fabrics, go for it! It’s your quilt. If it makes you happy, do it. It’s your story, after all, tell it the way you want.)

Generally, a scrappy quilt has a few rules that give it a more cohesive look. There are also controlled scrappy quilts, which are scrappy in an organized way. A scrappy quilt uses a variety of different fabrics that may or may not use a consistent theme. A controlled scrappy definitely has a theme or a focus. For example, it may contain all purple fabrics, or it may only contain reproduction fabrics.

Scrappy Quilts

Scrappy quilts should contain a variety of fabrics which are similar to each other in some way. For example, they might all have a cream background. They have to look good next to each other no matter how you place them. Now, “looking good” is a subjective term. If you feel a fabric is not playing well with its buddies, even though it really should, don’t use it. Life is too short to argue with a quilt fabric.

Fabrics in a scrappy quilt don’t have to be a exact match in color, value or even type. In fact, a variety of fabrics and a variety of intensities will improve your quilt. A quilt that encourages the viewer to look it over is more exciting than one where everything matches precisely.

When you are gathering the fabrics for a scrappy quilt, try to keep the number of darks and lights equal. If you can do it, keep the number of large prints and small prints equal, too. The more fabrics, the better. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” Don’t worry about “ugly” fabric. You will find that they often break up an overly matchy block and create some interest. Ugly fabric cut up small enough becomes beautiful!

When planning a block for a pure scrappy, try to include a variety of textures in each block. You want some contrast between the fabrics. Yes, you can choose fabrics randomly from a paper bag but you may not always get the best fabric for the block you are working on. Put it back or set it aside if it doesn’t feel right.

Truthfully, a wonky block will probably get lost in the overall quilt. But if your eye will always see that particular problem block every time you look at the quilt, it won’t make you happy. If you are making a rule with yourself that you must use each fabric as it comes out of the bag, at least give yourself permission not to use all the blocks you have made in a quilt. Make a couple extra and use them as the label, or in the hanging sleeve.

Controlled Scrappy Quilts

A controlled scrappy quilt is a scrap quilt with a theme or a focus. For example, all the fabrics could be shades of one color or they could all be childrens fabrics.

In some ways, a controlled scrappy quilt is easier to plan and execute. You have some idea how you want to the quilt to look, and know which fabrics will most likely work and which ones won’t.

To make a controlled scrappy quilt, choose fabrics that are friends of your theme or focus prints. You don’t want it to be too matchy-uppy, though. For example, if you decide that your controlled scrappy should be done in shades of blue, throw in some teals and some greens as well as the occasional orange. The color wheel can help here.

Audition your fabrics first. If one doesn’t seem to work, set it aside for another project. Fat quarter bundles are usually great for controlled scrappy quilts. A controlled scrappy often benefits from a background color or fabric used as sashing or border.

Here are some block ideas.  You can find others in the books shown above and below.

Positive and Negative blocks
From No Quilt Left Behind

Rail Fence.  Use as many fence posts as you like

You can also make some short and some long, for a quilt that mimics a library shelf of books.

Shoeboxes (a free pattern)


Blocks that alternate with a solid block.  Lots of possibilites here!

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Have you made a scrappy quilt or a controlled scrappy quilt that you would like to share?  Send me a picture, and I will add it here. 

More tips, tutorials and techniques are available at
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