June 28, 2011

In the recent Call for Topics, Marcia wrote, “Inspirational shapes… I see your wonderful designs, and the beautiful shapes you appliqué, and I am inspired to try to draw some designs myself (isn’t everyone). But then you begin to draw and you realize your shapes aren’t perfect… so you stop. Where do you come up with your perfect shapes? How do they become perfect? Do you have a collection of shapes? What is the process of drawing a design? Are you drawing by hand, computer… help us create new designs please!”

Christy chimed in as well. “I’d like to join Marcia in asking for more information on how/what you use to design your projects. There are so many appliqué quilts that I’ve tried to draft on my own and I get so frustrated with my lack of drawing ability.”

Marcia and Christy, thank you so much for your nice words about the appearance of my designs. You’re going to laugh when I tell you the honest truth… I can’t draw worth two cents!!!

With my HAND that is.

Several years ago I sent in a pattern for the newsletter of The Appliqué Society, and when the editor saw that I use the computer to render my designs, she asked me to write an article about it. I’m reprinting that article here. It’ll gives you some insight into how this particular designer goes about it.


Designing on the Computer
by Kay Mackenzie

I cannot draw. That’s the truth… put a piece of paper and a pencil in my hands and I can’t draw a stick figure as well as a first grader! Yet I’m an appliqué designer. How can this be?

Computer illustration came to my aid. Somehow, being able to use the drawing and modifying tools on the computer circumvents the hole in my brain where sketching ability is supposed to be. Computer illustration handed me a career.

edna-broke broke

You certainly don’t have to be a professional designer to use computer programs to draw appliqué patterns. Anybody who’s computer-friendly can give it a whirl!

Here are some of the things that I can do with ease on the computer.

• I can draw perfect circles, ovals, spirals, squares, rectangles, and triangles, and move them around. I can align shapes just right. I can make shapes bigger or smaller, with thicker lines or thinner lines, or tweak a shape any way I want to.

• I can play, experiment, mess around to my heart’s content until I’m satisfied. Thank goodness for the heavenly “undo” feature! If I don’t like something I’ve done, I can make it go away instantly.

• I can take my own photo and use it as a template.

• I can drag and drop, duplicate, rotate my shapes, or turn them mirror-image – even keep the original the way it is and make a copy that’s bigger or smaller, rotated or reflected.

• I can easily add text to a drawing.

• Once I get a block drawn, I can make it an 8” block, a 9” block, or any size block with just a couple of clicks.

• And, most importantly for appliqué, I can create graceful curved lines! This last feature is the key to appliqué design on the computer. With this ability I can render any curvy motif.

scotty little-scotty

If all this sounds fun and intriguing to you, then maybe you’d like to take up computer illustration too!

In considering a computer program to use for appliqué design, what you want to look for is one that includes vector drawing tools. Vector graphics create smooth controlled curved lines, which are what you want for appliqué. Another term that’s used in vector graphics is “Bézier curves”… that’s the name of the curves that the vectors are defining. The great thing about vector shapes is that they do not “pixelate” or become blurry, no matter how much bigger or smaller you make them.

The program I use is Adobe Illustrator®, a high-end professional program with a steep price and a steep learning curve. In Illustrator, the Bézier tool is called the pen tool. It’s the hardest but most important tool in the whole toolbox. The freehand drawing tool is called the pencil tool. That one gives you less graceful shapes right off the bat, but they can be edited.

There are several other programs that include vector drawing. CorelDraw is a very good program, and from what I understand, more affordable than Illustrator.

The quilting-dedicated programs Quilt-Pro and Electric Quilt also have vector drawing tools, equivalent to the ones I use in Illustrator. These programs designed for the quilter also have some handy features that a general illustration program doesn’t include.

I contacted Quilt-Pro to ask about appliqué features. Their answer gal Linda responded with the following information: “Quilt-Pro has both the freehand curve and the Bézier curve. Quilt-Pro also features the Patch Stamp tool, which has over 50 predesigned appliqué motifs including flowers, leaves, stems, flower pots, hearts, stars, fruit, grape & leaves, birds and butterflies. You can also add your own motifs to the patch stamp tool to use over again.

“The program comes with a manual and what we call the Quilt-Pro Assistant, a help tool built into the program. It’s very useful. We have a message board to pose questions, plus email support and phone support. “

During a Quilt Market trade show, I stopped by the Electric Quilt booth to chat about appliqué drawing. EQ has the same equivalent tools, and also a companion lesson book available called EQ6 Appliqué Drawing by Angie Padilla. Here’s a blurb from EQ advertising about the book: “No prior drawing experience required. Start a beginner – end up an expert! Learn to draw vines and leaves, invent appliqué folk art, import photos to trace… draw a wedding cake with flowers and so much more!”

All of the programs have built-in help functions that explain how each tool works.

I got my start in digital media classes at my local community college. That’s another great way to dip your toes into the exciting world of computer illustration! I didn’t even have to own a copy of the program in order to learn the basics of how to use it.

sm-r-basket little-rose-basket

However you get started in computer drawing, just remember that it takes three things to succeed: Lessons, Practice, and Determination. The lessons could be simply reading and following the print or on-line manual, or purchasing one of the many third-party tutorial books available. The practice part is true of anything new. The determination is something that I pass along to you from Sue Nickels, who gave this advice in a machine quilting class when we were struggling to achieve anything like her masterful work.

It could be that you already have one or more of these drawing programs on your computer. Or maybe now that you’ve read more about computer appliqué drawing, you’re ready to choose the program that’s right for you.

Whatever program you try, learn those vector tools! My best piece of wisdom is this: Strive for the smooth curve afforded by mastery of the pen tool.



Interesting and very geeky, no? I do have a weird combination of interests in my strange brain that makes computer illustration perfect for me. It’s not going to be for everyone, though. At this point I’d like to issue an invitation to anyone out there who draws their own original appliqué designs by hand. Come on down and do a guest post for us! Give us the flip side! Contact me at kay at kaymackenzie dot com.

Until next time,
By Kay Mackenzie


9 Responses to “Drawing appliqué designs”

  1. Jennifer M. on June 28th, 2011 1:51 pm

    There is also a free vector graphics program available called inkscape available at http://www.inkscape.org. This is the program I use for designing my quilts.

  2. Kay on June 28th, 2011 2:43 pm

    Thanks for that good information Jennifer!

  3. Debbie St.Germain on June 28th, 2011 6:44 pm

    I have quilt pro, but haven’t used it much. I have a wacom tablet, but I always end up with a piece of paper and a pencil.


  4. Stephanie on June 29th, 2011 3:52 am

    This is something I intend to play around with more in the future.
    Thanks to Jennifer for the free link which I will try.
    I was looking around the EQ website recently and they have a cute little demo video on the applique package.
    (I’m using template plastic and tracing paper at the moment and however careful, the shapes are always abit ragged!)

  5. CARELI on June 29th, 2011 7:14 am

    Kay this is a post very, very interesting. I will investigate further on this topic, learning to manage these programs is very important for design. I love patchwork, then get to work! Thank you very much you have given us a wonderful guide on the design.


  6. Laurel Anderson on June 29th, 2011 8:46 am

    Kay, I also learned Illustrator at my local junior college. I got a great discount on the software by being a student.
    I use the layer feature to import a drawing and with the pen tool copy it onto another layer.
    Have you ever used the trace feature? You can scan in a drawing and the program will trace it for you.

  7. Kay on June 29th, 2011 8:50 am

    Hi Laurel! How are you? How cool to hear that you went the same route as me!

    Early on I experimented with the trace feature but found that it didn’t interpret the shapes the way I needed them. I think it’s gotten better since then, but now I’ve developed the habit of having at it from scratch and I just go for it! :)

  8. Mona Kuntz on June 29th, 2011 9:25 am

    Kay — Thank you for a great posting. I have some (small) drawing talent so I’ve always just drawn my own appliques or stolen the bits and pieces I want from other applique designs, photos, etc. I like the idea of using Adobe Illustrator or one of the other mentioned packages to develop a more consistent and polished look for my designs. Thanks for the great information.

  9. Misty on July 4th, 2011 4:40 pm

    Thank you for sharing your process and the article you wrote! I found it really interesting and comforting because I can’t draw a straight line to save my life! :) I’ll have to do a bit of research on these programs.