How to Use Stripes and Other Directional Fabrics in Quilts

Using Striped Fabrics in Quilts
Janet Wickell

Striped fabrics and other fabrics with a design that flows in one obvious direction can certainly be used in quilts, but it's important to think about how they will be placed in the design before you select fabrics or make that first cut.

Stripes are the most obvious type of directional print, but you will find many other examples when you shop for fabric. It's obvious that the designs in some striped fabrics flow in a specific direction, but many tone on tone fabrics have very subtle directional prints that often aren't noticeable unless they are inspected carefully once the quilt is complete.

How Do Striped Fabrics Affect Quilt Designs?

Directional prints are not always suitable for quilt blocks with patchwork that will be strip pieced because segments cut from that type method are often turned and twisted around, giving directional fabrics a much different appearance from patch to patch.

What about the scale of the striped fabric? Are the combination of stripes in a fabric so large that they will look very different depending on where the fabric is cut?

The differences may not matter to you, especially if you're making a scrap quilt, where uniformity isn't usually desired. Look at vintage quilts and you'll see that our quilting ancestors often didn't depend on the 'perfection' of stripe layout to design their quilts.

Which Directions Are the Stripes Printed on Fabric?

The majority of stripes are printed to run parallel to the lengthwise grain of the fabric. But you will encounter stripes that run across the fabric's crosswise grain, from selvage to selvage. Others, like the right-hand swatch illustrated on this page, are printed at a 45-degree angle to the two straight grains.

  • Compare cutting instructions to your striped fabric. How will the pieces look if cut as directed?
  • Should you reverse the cutting instructions to make a striped fabric work for the quilt you have envisioned?
  • If cutting long borders, do you need extra yardage to get the look you want by cutting striped fabric along the lengthwise grain rather than piecing crosswise grain strips of fabric?
  • How will striped fabrics look when they meet at the corners of a quilt that's made with straight (butted) borders? Would it be better to miter the borders instead, sewing strips to the side of the quilt at exactly the same portion of a stripe and matching the stripes at the mitered corners of the quilt? Another option is to sew borders with cornerstones so that border ends do not meet.

Using Special Border Prints

The two middle swatches of the illustration are examples of border prints. You'll discover many ways to use these prints, which are usually designed with a series of coordinated stripes in different widths.

  • Use a border print as a starting point to select other fabrics for a quilt. The fabrics needn't match, but the print can help you brainstorm color selections.
  • Use one of the borders to separate columns or rows of fabrics in a strippy set quilt
  • Nearly any printed fabric can be cut into sections to create a kaleidoscope look but border prints are perfect for that technique. 

Consider how a directional will look in the quilt but don't discard a fabric for that reason alone because the differences in orientation can be quite charming. It's all about choice, and the choice is always yours.