Space Travel Quilt: Behind the Design

The Space Travel quilt was the first quilt I ever made a pattern for. For all my previous quilts, I had drown out pictures on graph paper, sized the design up to card-stock, and then cut each card-stock piece out of the fabric. Looking back, I suppose it was some type of laborious paper piecing. But to me, without ever looking for help on the internet, it was the only way I knew to design.


That was, until I bought Elizabeth’s Hartman’s Fancy Forest quilt pattern to make a quick-turn around quilt for a best friend’s wedding. It was the first ever quilt pattern I looked at, and it was life changing. The traditional piecing Elizabeth used meant no curves, no ‘Y’ seams, and quick piecing. I fell in love and needed to try the technique for myself. And I knew exactly what I wanted to make.


The inspiration

NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) produced some amazing travel posters for different locations in space that made quite the splash on the internet a number of years ago. One, in the words of Jane Austen, “bewitched me, body and soul”. The Grand Tour poster was a whorl of color and movement. It was simplistic, yet complicated, and I thought it would be an amazing quilt.


The Grand Tour Poster

There were problems, though. I wanted a traditionally pieced quilt. I wasn’t going to through the pain of drawing out an 80″ x 80″ quilt pattern on card-stock again. But The Grand Tour poster had tons of curves, whereas traditional piecing only used straight and diagonal seams.


There were also way too many colors. Now, I would normally love all the colors. But no one wants to spend all their monies buying 75 different half yards (which is the minimum amount you can buy from online stores). That’s nearly $300 dollars just for the quilt top.


I knew I would have to let my imagination run wild and make a new design. But I didn’t yet know how to design traditional quilt patterns.


Figuring out how to design traditional quilts

When I first started designing, I thought I could make any straight line work with traditional quilting. Whether the line was at a 45° diagonal, 30° diagonal, or 60° diagonal, I thought it was as simple as just putting, two pieces of fabric together and sewing a diagonal line across the overlap.  You can see all the math I did for it below.


Space Travel Quilt: Piece math


I wanted to use these ‘odd’ angles to try to make the shapes of the planets appear more round. Luckily, I tried it out before committing to it in my design, because it was a disaster. What happens when you sew non-45° angle diagonal lines? Chaos–that’s what happens. Actually, the pieces just become angular (check out the pictures below). And I came to realize that I could only work with 45° diagonal lines and straight lines.

Sewing non-45 degree angles
Sewing non-45 degree angles
Sewing non-45 degree angles

Honestly, I was quite devastated when I learned this. My whole idea for the Space Travel quilt was suddenly gone. I tried playing around with my new restrictions, but I wasn’t happy with the look. It was boxy and didn’t have as much flow as I imagined.


Instead of scrapping the idea, I took a little break from designing. When I looked back a couple weeks later, I realized it didn’t look as bad as I had remembered. It actually looked quite cool and geometric. So, I decided to run with it.


The graph paper draft

I started with a small basic square of a design on graph paper, drafting a general idea of how big the planets, rings, and space ships should be. I didn’t worry about color or details. This draft was purely about figuring out if the design was feasible and how things should be proportioned together.



From this little graph, I was able to get a pretty accurate guesstimate of how big the final quilt would be. I taped together some graph paper in the final size of the quilt (with each of the graph paper squares representing 1″) and started the first detailed design.



Knowing I wanted them centered, I started with the planets and the rings. These cemented the size I wanted the quilt. Then I added the details starting with the spaceships and finally the asteroids. The last–the hardest– part was the color.


Again, I started with the planets. Pushing the literal scientist in me to the back of my mind, I went with a ‘rainbow’ flow of colors across the planets, rather than the actual colors of the planets. Coloring the asteroids were the hardest. Adding too many colors made the design look lost, but not having enough colors meant that the same color could over lap between elements.


The computer draft

I know there are a bunch of quilt design software out there, but they all seemed to focus on making repeating blocks. Space Travel is not a repeating block quilt, so I wasn’t sure how the software would work for the design. I wasn’t ready to spend a couple hundred dollars on software I wasn’t sure would work. But I did have Excel.


I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of how I use Excel to make quilt designs (I’ll do that in a later blog). But I redrew the exact design from the graph paper into Excel and then playing around with actual colors I would want the fabric to be. And, as you can see below, I changed my mind a lot.

Space Travel Attempt 1
Space Travel Attempt 2
Space Travel Attempt 3
Space Travel Attempt 4

If you look through the pictures above again, you can also see that some of the elements within the quilt changed, too. The more I changed the colors, the more I realized the quilt was too busy. I tried to ‘thin’ the design out a bit and felt it helped highlight the movement of the space ships, rather than the space around them. I loved it, so I moved on to making a pattern.


Finalizing the design

A quilt’s design is never done until the pattern is written and tested. Making a quilt pattern is a convoluted process (which, again, I’ll go into in another blog). Simplistically, first, I had to draw all of the lines, indicating all the pieces I’d need to make the quilt. This isn’t only where the colors change.


In order for pieces to fit together, you need to break some elements up. During this process of figuring out where to break the quilt up, I found that a design doesn’t always work well in a quilt pattern. You may need to make subtle changes to make piecing cleaner and simpler. One example of the simpler piecing is the large asteroids. I removed the color change in the middle of them. Below is the final design.


Space Travel Quilt Final Design


During the actual piecing process, I learned even more. For example, if five or more pieces come together at one point, it’s a lot harder to line up points and quilt over that area due to all the all the seam allowances meeting in one place. While this didn’t make me change anything to the quilt design this time, it did change my perspective for future quilts.


The Space Travel Quilt

The Space Travel quilt was an adventure I had no idea I was getting myself into. From designing a traditionally pieced quilt, to writing a pattern, and then starting a business to sell it, this has all been a whorl wind. I’ve learned so much about design and just how much work goes into making patterns. It gives the Space Travel quilt a special place in my heart even as I try out new designs.


Rye Bread Quilt Co Modern Quilt Patterns Space Travel Quilt


Sew on!

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