Ruth B. McDowell's Design Workshop Class Plan

by Ruth B. McDowell

When you teach my books, Ruth B. McDowell's Design Workshop works together with Ruth B. McDowell's Piecing Workshop. Ideally, you will teach them both together.

Planning the Design with the Sewing Process in Mind

It is imperative to take the sewing process into account when planning the design of a PIECED quilt, much more than an appliquéd or fused quilt. The two are intimately related.

Many present-day students have not been introduced to piecing with templates in the traditional way, with the fabric pieces right sides together. Having your students make the sampler wall hanging from Piecing Workshop first, before they attempt to design on their own, will smooth the entire process of learning to design for piecing.

Many traditional pieced blocks are drawn in specific conventional ways. They have many seams coming to a single point, or diagonal seams drawn into a corner, or Upper Case Y seams or matching seams at intersections. Many use ONLY square or triangular shaped pieces. All of these conventions are extremely limiting in terms of design. And many of them make the sewing unnecessarily difficult, especially for machine sewing.

Encourage your students to recognize that none of these conventions are the only way, or usually the best way, visually, to plan a pieced design. Mismatched seams and shifted endpoints often make more dynamic designs, and may allow the artist to place the visual focus on one element or another by the way she handles the piecing design.

As artists, we don't need to bow to the Quilt Police. Encourage your students to make a design to please themselves, not the teacher or the judge.

Once your students have made the sampler from Piecing Workshop, they will have a better understanding of which types of piecing they enjoy. Some will discover they love straight seams but hate curves. Some may greatly enjoy curved piecing, but hate insets. This is part of the process of learning to focus on what style of sewing will best suit each student's individuality.

Block vs. Overall Design

A Block Design

A quilt block is simply a small pieced quilt design. Because it less complicated to plan, it is often a good place to learn to design. If you can, encourage students to start with a simple project with a simple image. Here are some for your students to try:

  • A leaf or simple flower (no layers of overlapping petals)
  • A fruit or vegetable (see Pieced Vegetables for examples of the dynamic simple designs that can come from such a shape)
  • A very simple landscape like the one on page 19 of Design Workshop
  • The two landscapes on page 12

Beware of some landscapes, since finding fabrics for lacy-leaves-against-the-sky can be frustratingly difficult. See page 62 for a discussion on choosing appropriate edges.

Emphasize that the student is making a QUILT, not taking a photograph. She will have, at best, an impressionistic rendering, and will have to leave out many details. There is a real art to figuring out how much you can LEAVE OUT, and still have the essence of the image. The maple leaf series on pages 34 to 37 demonstrate this.

It is a good exercise for students to work on one image, gradually simplifying it like the maple leaf series and comparing the visual results. Many students begin by wanting too much detail. On the other hand, fear of a few little pieces can produce a design that looks much too crude. Many good designs contain some small pieces, some medium-sized pieces and some large pieces (see the discussion on pages 15-17).

Once your students design a small project like one of the blocks suggested above, there are many dynamic ways to use it in a quilt, such as blocks and tessellations (pages 21-27), or the interesting layouts of St. Johns Wort (pages 40-41). See also page 72 of Piecing Workshop. One of the positive things about working in blocks is that the sewing can be done block-by-block, giving some short-term goals that can then be turned into a bigger project.

Turning A Simple Block Design Into An Overall (Blockless) Pattern

Here is a great technique to make a design of several elements. Have students make PAPER copies of their simple "block" design, or make several different simple designs (for instance, several different flowers) and shade them in with colored pencils to make the images easier to see.

On a big piece of paper, have them slide the paper "blocks" around to make a composition they like. ERASE (or cut off) the BLOCK EDGES. The paper designs can overlap if you are careful. You may want to tweak one paper to make a seam line from one paper match a seam line from another.

Maple Leaf. I used five paper copies of the simple maple leaf block pattern with 16 pieces (page 36) to make the design of the maple leaf quilt on pages 65-72 of Piecing Workshop. Notice that the quilt HAS NO BLOCKS any more.

St. Johns Wort. I used the same technique to develop the blockless St. Johns Wort quilt on the lower part of page 41. Key points for teaching this technique:

  1. Notice the straight section line seam joining the center of the flower at the top with the center of the flower to the left. (Sections A, B, C, D, E, F can be joined to make one side of this design.) The piecing will go most easily if the section lines match. Extend the section lines to divide the whole quilt into smaller units (here 15 Sections, labeled A...O). This breaks the whole surface of the quilt into smaller groups of pieces.

  2. Extend the other seams in each section in a pieceable way until they stop at another section line or another seam or the edge of the quilt.

  3. Check to see if there are any puzzle pieces in the sewing (Piecing Workshop, pages 60-62). If you find Puzzles, either eliminate them by redrawing the seam lines (Piecing Workshop, lower part of page 60), or note that you will have to use partial seams (Piecing Workshop, page 62) to sew that area.

  4. Label the pieces and sewing order in each section. Then the order of sewing the sections. In this St. Johns Wort quilt:
    • Sew A to B to C, to D to E to F.
    • Then G to H to I to J.
    • Then K to L to M to N to O to GHIJ to ABCDEF.

More Complex Designs

ENCOURAGE YOUR STUDENTS TO FIND SECTION LINES FIRST! For examples, see Fisherboy (Piecing Workshop, page 25) and A Third Muir Woods Plan (Design Workshop, pages 50-51). This is a big help in making a design that goes together well. It is not really too important where the section lines are, but drawing them first to break the overall image into smaller units is tremendously helpful.

Look at some of my art quilts in these books with your students and see if you can identify section lines the way they are shown in the Fisherboy quilt. In some of my art quilts, there are no puzzle pieces, but in others there are puzzles, if they were necessary to the design I was working on. In some of my art quilts there are NO clean sections, a choice I made because of the images I was working with, but which leads to extraordinarily complicated constructions.

The time spent making your students' designs sew in a clean and orderly fashion while in the design process will pay great rewards when putting the quilt together.

Students get frustrated with this. Part of the frustration is working with paper and pencils, not with colorful fabric. Quilters always relax if they can touch fabric, so encourage them to stroll around the shop or play with some fat quarters when the drawing gets too much.


Some students may want to plan a border while they are working on their design. See pages 80-86 in Design Workshop for a discussion of the concept of a border. The Maple Leaf wall quilt in Piecing Workshop has a border incorporated in the piecing diagram. Many of my art quilts use some type of "border" in the design. Have some fun with your students examining them. You will find an interesting discussion on borders in several of the quilts in my book, A Fabric Journey.

Preparing the Template Drawing

After the piecing diagram has been completed, check each student's diagram to see that it sews easily. Then prepare the freezer paper template drawing. Follow the directions in Piecing Workshop exactly (pages 9-16). This is a different method than other teachers use. If you are teaching a Ruth B. McDowell Class, please use Ruth B. McDowell's methods!

You will find that this method has lots of advantages!

Auditioning Fabrics

Fabric choices are only "right" in the context of all the other fabrics. This is a VISUAL decision and is best made with the pieces cut and pinned to a design wall. Encourage students to cut and pin up most of the quilt before fine-tuning their choices--and before beginning to sew.

Make sure they stand at a distance from the quilt they are working on to view their choices (or use a reducing glass).

If you are teaching in a shop, you may have the opportunity to bring bolts of fabric to the classroom to hold up next to the developing quilt. This can be extremely helpful in finding just the right fabric. Don't forget to look at wrong sides, too.

I encourage students to invest in a STASH, not big pieces of a few fabrics, but fat quarters or half-yards of many different ones. Check pages 55 to 69 of Design Workshop for a discussion of fabric choices.

Background Fabrics

The choices in a background can have a huge impact on the finished quilt. See pages 70-76 in Design Workshop for a discussion of many options. I may spend more time choosing the background fabrics in one of my art quilts than I do anywhere else.

Pressing Seams

The direction the seams are pressed has a big impact on the look of the finished quilt. See Control of Seam Allowances (pages 7-8, Piecing Workshop), and Linear Elements (pages 38-44, Piecing Workshop). The extra layers of fabric from the seam allowances can pad one edge of each seam and begin to sculpture the low relief of the completed quilt.


I quilt all of my own quilts. It's part of the design. Pages 88-93 of Design Workshop offer some ideas for your students. But careful examination of the many art quilts in these two books will give more possibilities. The 18 chapters on my art quilts in Fabric Journey contain more discussions on quilting choices for different types of quilts.


I always begin classes talking about learning styles and working styles. The class should be a cooperative learning experience rather than a competition. It's fine that some students are speed queens. It's also fine if some want to work more slowly. And it's true that some students will be much more comfortable absorbing in class, but producing when they are home in their own space.

I have been teaching classes in this kind of quilt design for 20 years all over the world. It's tremendously exciting for the students to develop a confidence in their own abilities to design quilts personal to them. And it's tremendously rewarding for me as a teacher to have opened that possibility for individual expression.

I learn a lot in the process because the design challenges are different with each quilt. Emphasize that this is the STUDENT'S QUILT, not the teacher's. The quilt should reflect the student's preferences, not the teacher's. Offer suggestions and possibilities. Help with problems. But the ultimate decisions should come from the student.

Encourage them with positive feedback. There's always something good to point out. Students looking for negatives are perfectly capable of reading between the lines. Beware of abusing your power as a teacher. There are more different solutions to design than what you personally may choose.

Recognize that learning takes time. Each quilt I make is part of that learning process and I've made more than 400 and helped students with thousands more.