Custom-Designed Fabrics for a Nature Quilt

So my younger daughter is having a baby (YAY!) and she requested a quilt with a “Forest Friends” theme, something with cute owls and foxes and raccoons.  She sent me about eight pictures of the kind of thing she had in mind, but then she added comments like “But the animals don’t look happy in this one,”  “These look like animal mug shots,” “This one is too bright, I would like muted gray and tan,” etc. 

I checked to see if any of them were available as a kit, or a panel, but if they were, I couldn’t find them. 

Then, this guy kept popping into my head.

He definitely fit the “muted gray and tan” specification.

A gray fox, August 2017, after a rain.

This picture was taken by a wildlife camera, placed by my daughter and son-in-law down in the creek bed of our central Texas property.  I loved the way the fox was looking right at the camera, and the way his reflection was caught in the unusually high water.  (I have posted some of the other animals here.)

My first thought was to simplify his form and create an appliqué, but I have never done appliqué or paper piecing; so I decided to design my own panel, get it printed, and then cleverly quilt it to make it look like I had appliquéd it.

I couldn’t use the photo just as it was.  The fox needed to be moved up in the picture, to where his beautiful silver fur would contrast with the background and make him the focal point.  The background of scrawny branches needed to be filled in and blurred out, to recede.  And of course the fox needed some friends. 

Since we had hundreds of photos with the exact same background, it was relatively easy to cut an animal from one picture and paste it into a group photo.  I did have to play with color and lighting to get them to look a little more natural, but the hardest part was limiting the number of animals!

Just a fraction of the animals I could have included, but too many for a strong image.

The final image.

About this time, it occurred to me that finding matching fabrics to complete the quilt might be difficult, so I just kept playing around in Photoshop® to create my own related fabrics.  Here are some helpful hints I discovered:

1. Creativity Within Bounds — Obviously I could have spent weeks designing fun fabrics, but with limited time, I couldn’t afford to wander too far among all the alternatives.  I kept in mind how I like to format quilts — with a large central image, set off by some narrow solid strips, a stripe, and some pieced blocks of related fabrics.  So with my central image taken care of, I designed some accompanying prints in large, medium, and small scale, as well as a stripe (more details below).   I was able to make use of more of our animal images here.  If I have counted right, I think there are eleven species represented here, and 20 individual animals.

The related fabrics with the central panel.

2.  Motif Placement – I wanted to create tossed designs, with the animals “randomly” placed in different directions.  I did not try to work this out from scratch.  I looked at a commercial fabric I liked, and roughly sketched out the size and direction of the motifs in it, and used it as a starting point for the arrangement of my animals.

Rough sketch to help with motif placement.

3.  Backgrounds — I didn’t want a dull solid background in some of these fabrics; I wanted the movement and depth of a tone-on-tone fabric.  But it had to be something that would repeat without breaks across the final design.  What worked was setting the bottom layer of my Photoshop creation∗ to a solid color, and then using the “sponge” filter on only that bottom layer.  It gave me the beautiful mottled look I was after, and I hoped that by using that trick on two of the fabrics, they will look more related.   You can see the mottling in the photo on the left.  (The animals on the left have the “oil paint” filter applied, and the ones on the right have the “stamp” filter applied.)

The medium-scale fabric with a mottled background, the small-scale fabric with a plain background.

This large scale pattern for the quilt back also has a mottled background. The large brown creature is an axis deer, not a baby giraffe.

4. My favorite thing was designing the matching stripe.  There may be easier ways to do this, but this is what I came up with:  I cut thin stripes from the main picture, stripes that I thought captured all the colors in the proportions I wanted, and I rotated that strip 90 degrees.  Then I used the “mosaic” filter, cut a strip out of that and placed it in a new image, and dragged it down.

This is not the exact cropped strip I used, but you get the idea.

The mosaic filter breaks the colors into blocks.

Further cropping and then extending the colors, gives a stripe pattern that matches the main design colors perfectly.

5.  Resources — At first I didn’t worry about creating a design that would repeat properly, I just had fun.  When I got to the point of adjusting for a truly repeatable design, I consulted my surface design books.  I used A Field Guide to Fabric Design by Kimberly Kight, and followed her step-by-step instructions.  I would have NEVER figured this process out, in Photoshop anyway, on my own.  (I also own Mastering the Art of Fabric Printing and Design by Laurie Wisbrun, and her directions look clear as well.)

Here is a tutorial at Skillshare that shows the principles behind creating a fabric repeat by hand.

Fortunately for me since I was pressed for time, Joanna the Snarky Quilter has written posts comparing the different digital print companies out there.  I followed her links, and relied on her information, and sent my order off to Spoonflower.

Results — the order came back on time, and the fabrics looked the way I had hoped. 

The fox fabric, close up so you can see the texture. I planned for the image to be somewhat blurry, as a base for interesting (and so far uncompleted) quilting lines.

Of course there are things I should have done/could have done differently, and I will write about that next time.

But this is something I have told myself I was going to try for years, so I am glad I finally followed through!

*If you’re not familiar with Photoshop, you are able to work on layers of the design independently — you can compare it to setting a beautiful holiday table, with tablecloth, placemats, china, napkins folded on top of the plates, glass ware with icy drinks poured in them, vases of flowers, and candles in candlesticks.  If that table was a Photoshop creation, you would be able to change out the tablecloth without moving any of the china, or swap out goblets while the icy drinks stayed suspended in air.  Once you get used to thinking that way, it is so much fun!