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  • Writer's picturePola Quilting

Magic numbers in memory quilt designs


Magic numbers can be really magic in quilting. Especially when you have to work with random pieces of fabric. If you work with scraps, most of the time you can follow general rule and sizes you decided to go with. I have covered this subject in my previous article. You can read about it here.

But what if you need to complete a project using precious clothes? What if what you received (saved) is not the same shape or just purely not enough to create the size of the desired quilt?

Let me tell you a story of a memory quilt I have made some time ago….


Once upon a time, a customer asked for a memory quilt. His wife passed away and he wanted a quilt for his mother-in-law. I don’t do commissions often, but his story really touched me and so I agreed. He said he didn’t have much of the clothes left, but he would bring it and I can decide what to do with it. He requested a single bed size quilt.

He was right. He only brought 5 tops and 2 of them were pure black. They were not cotton, or even t-shirt fabrics. Mix of poly and Lycra. Not something you work with everyday as a quilter but I accepted the challenge knowing the designing part may be tricky.


First, I cut the tops into the pieces on the seams to gather as many usable flat pieces as possible. I used all parts: front, back, sleeves. This wasn’t different to cutting button up shirts. If you need more details, you can check this video.

Second, I have stabilised them using interfacing. I don’t use branded ones. My local store has nice range and I choose the ultra-light non-woven, so it is not adding much to the thickness but helps with keeping shapes “in shape”. I ironed the interfacing onto all areas of the shapes I had from deconstructing stage.

Third step was to decide to how to cut it up into blocks. At this stage I still didn’t have any design in view. Lots of dark fabric was not very inspiring. However, I find that if I carry on with simple steps, these will lead to a next stage somehow. The issue was I had really limited amount of fabric and the smaller the shapes you will cut, the more will be used up by the seams. I decided to use magic numbers to help in arranging the layout.

I decided to turn the process around. Instead of designing first and cut fabric to fit design, I cut the fabric first. Keeping in mind the amount of fabric issue, I started cutting the biggest squares first: 10.5 inch. There were only few a of these but it was a good start. I then followed with 8.5 inch, 6.5, 4.5 inch squares, 4.5 and 2.5 inch strips in “magic number” lengths. Every scrap there was available I cut into 2.5 squares. I even stitched some scraps together to cut crumbs in one of the sizes.

I knew it will still not be enough for a desired quilt size. I had to accommodate in the pattern that I will be adding fabric from my own stash but I needed to preserve the “original” fabric look. For the top up fabric, I choose to add T-shirts fabrics. Backed with the same interfacing it blended thickness wise nicely.

So, to the design stage…

This is an actual picture of my design process I created at the time. I divided my quilt into 4 sections. Not even rectangles, just sections so I could focus on one area at a time. I then divided my fabric shapes into 4 piles. Again, piles were not even as the sizes of the area I needed to make were different. But I made sure in each pile I have at least one large square which I wanted to use as a centre piece of each section. Please note, I design in “finished” dimensions, and then and half an inch when cutting the fabric.

I decided I will frame each section with added fabrics. I choose more colourful ones since the original pieces were so dark. Since I had quite a lot of large black squares, I cut some applique leaves from t-shirt fabric to add on top of these. I wanted to add a little bit of colour. Using the same shapes for applique also added cohesion.

I used graph paper for each section to decide on the actual layout: I cut it to the size of the section and started drawing shapes I had in a pile for this part. Once I “laid” out the squares I had available, I was able to check how many and what sizes of add on fabric I need to cut for it.



Once all pieces for the section were prepared, I laid the pieces on the floor and started sewing them together. As you can see from the picture, the seams sometimes were not ending at the same spot as the next section. I had to use a technique I called “puzzle piecing” to sew these types of the sections together. I have recorded detailed video on how it works here.


It may look complicated but really isn’t once you get into it. I had a lot of fun putting it together. Also, I didn’t mind that the same fabric was laid next to each other. When you have such a small selection of designs, it will be hard to separate each type. Some fabrics were directional, so I was able to use direction to add the movement of shapes from the same fabric were next to each other. Otherwise, the size would make a difference. I find it adds a modern feel when you use less fabric designs but you play with the size instead.


Here is a finished project. Quilt has been collected and delivered to the recipient as a Christmas present.



You can use this design method for your orphan blocks as well. You may need to add a sashing to certain elements to bring their size to more cohesive one (either the one you can divide by 2 like my system or perhaps by 3) depending on what you have in your stack. You can also divide quilt size into sections and use different magic number stack for each of them. This is a very versatile approach and can be used if various scenarios, from helping you using up scraps, using up orphan blocks or when you work with limited number of fabric designs and amount.

Happy sewing!






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