Using free software to design a quilt

I am not of the generation who learned to read on tablets, but my dad’s interest in technology meant I did grow up with an AT&T PC 9300, a computer older than I was. I literally learned to use it on his knee, starting with an ancient Paint-style program, and it seems that favourite colour has always been purple, since he tells me that’s what I chose to fill the screen with when he’d change it to another colour. Eventually, I learned to monopolize the phone line — such a stereotypical daughter thing to do! — when I discovered its 2400 baud modem and local BBSes, which is somewhat less stereotypical. When I was finishing elementary school, 14.4 Kbps modems had already been the norm for long enough for public schools to actually get funding for them (!).

Around when I began high school, my dad upgraded the home computer to a Pentium II with a 200 MHz CPU and an Ethernet card, and it was thus that I discovered the newly commercialized World Wide Web, as well as Telnet-based MUDs and other multi-user text-based games. This is also when I started playing with code and created my first webpage on Geocities; the domain has since been taken offline, but not before a self-motivated Web archivist backed it up on Reocities — sadly no longer online. The Internet Archive has my site backed up for the time being, so you can see the nerdy glory of my preteen/teen interests for yourself.

All this prelude is just me saying that computers have always been around as integral tools in my life, so it’s rather silly to fail to consider them as time- and effort-saving tools for other activities. I’m no longer interested in technology just for its own sake, but rather in the ways that it can be used to foster creativity; that’s the reason why this blog exists, and also, to some extent, why commenting is turned off.

In support of my desire to learn to quilt, my fiancé has requested a project of me, so I went looking for quilt design software to plan it out appropriately. Unfortunately, the leading product on the market is $200+ and there aren’t really any ready-made alternatives with the scope I would want. However, some searching on the Quilting Board site got me a tutorial by Michael Holmes on how to use free resources to design quilts. The tutorial was written in 2010 for an older version of GIMP, but the steps look more or less unchanged for the current version, so the only changes I’ve made have been to paraphrase and arrange steps for my personal comfort level and preferred procedural approach. I also prefer this approach to learning how to use a new piece of proprietary software, since the skills acquired would be more applicable to other uses.


  • Comfort with basic computer tasks like installing software, browsing the Internet, saving files from the Web, keyboard shortcuts
  • GIMP installed on your computer
  • Saved PDFs of paper with a grid appropriate to your project
    • I’ve found Incompetech‘s site easy to use, and Michael also recommends it in his tutorial
    • Some good grid types to start with: squares, quartered squares (make sure you have both Verticals and Horizontals checked)


  1. Set up your template; this only needs to be done once per grid style you ever intend to use
    1. Open GIMP
    2. Go to File > Open
    3. Select the PDF file containing the grid style you want for your project
    4. Make no changes and click Import
    5. Go to View > Zoom and select 1:1
    6. Go to File > Save and name your template
  2. Set up your quilt design file
    1. Go to File > Save As and name your quilt
    2. Leave this tab open
  3. Set up your swatches
    1. Find a swatch online of the fabric you plan to use
    2. Right click on the image and select Copy
    3. In GIMP, press SHIFT+CTRL+V
    4. Click the window that appears and press CTRL+C
      • If you only want a specific area of the swatch, first use the Rectangular Select tool in the top left of the main tool palette to select the area you want
    5. Repeat the above steps for every fabric you intend to use; each will appear in its own additional tab
  4. Design the quilt
    1. Click on the quilt design window from Step 2
    2. Click the Paint Bucket icon and choose Pattern Fill
    3. Click the thumbnail under Pattern Fill, then select the top-left Clipboard Image
    4. Click the area in the grid to be filled with that swatch
    5. Repeat the above for every fabric you want to use
  5. Crop (if needed) and save the finished quilt


  • If you use a grid with very large squares as your template, you can design a more complicated quilt by copy-pasting entire quilt blocks the same way as your “fabric swatches,” but scaling of images can be fussy
  • The next things needed to decide on for a fully planned quilt would be:
    • The size of the finished quilt
    • Yardage based on the above

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