Introduction: Make a Photo Quilt

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Photographic images can be printed onto fabric without having to buy expensive commercial inkjet fabric sheets.  The resulting fabric can be cut up and pieced into a quilt in a variety of ways.  The images can be used very literally--portraits of family members, for instance, for a family tree quilt--or in a more abstract way.  The resulting quilt can be like a fabric photo album, or simply referential, evoking a sense of time or place that might not be otherwise possible with store-bought fabrics.

Step 1: Materials

100% cotton fabric: white for printing, fat quarters for squares, 2 yards for backing and binding.

Batting 36 x 48

Bubble Jet Set 2000

Bubble Jet Rinse

Large lasagna pan for soaking tray

Cardboard to make a template(s)

Paper and pencil to draw diagram

Freezer paper

Large piece of thick felt

Computer, inkjet printer, printer paper

Digital camera

Disappearing ink pen

Sewing supplies such as scissors, thread, rotary cutter, healing mat, cutting guide, seam ripper, iron, ironing board, sewing machine, pins

Quilt thread

Step 2: Choose Your Photos, Then Your Fabrics

I wanted my quilt to be about the desert--specifically where my parents live.  So I took a walk around their neighborhood with my camera and photographed shapes, colors and textures that said something about their desert community, including cactus, palm trees, mountains and sky.  Back at home, I also went through my photo files from past visits to find images that were important to my parents, included them, or that added to my collection of desert shapes, colors and textures.  I then printed my favorite photos onto paper (about 9 per page) and took the pages to the fabric store, to select fabrics that would complement and enhance the photo images.

Step 3: Prepare Fabric and Print Images

Once you have  have created the photos and purchased fabric for your own quilt theme, wash and iron all purchased fabric.  Cut pieces of freezer paper (found in waxed paper section of grocery store) into 8 1/2 x 11 sheets.  Cut the white cotton fabric just slightly larger than the freezer paper.  Soak the white fabric in a tray of Bubble Jet Set 2000 (purchased online) for 5 minutes.  Place fabric pieces on a towel to dry.

Place the freezer paper, shiny side up, on your ironing board and place the dry, treated fabric on top.  Press well with a hot iron until the fabric is bonded all the way to the edges of the freezer paper.  Trim the excess fabric, and then print immediately, running the fabric/freezer paper sheets through your inkjet printer just as you would photo paper.  Make some test prints first to see if you want to bump up the saturation levels in your photo program to increase the vividness of the colors.

Allow the printed fabric to dry for 30 minutes or more.  Rinse each piece separately in diluted Bubble Jet Rinse (or hand wash in mild detergent) to seal the colors and prevent bleeding.

Step 4: Draw a Diagram, Then Cut the Pieces

The quilt pattern I chose is called Drunkard's Path, which combines circles and squares in a somewhat haphazard way.  Before cutting, draw a diagram of the exact placement of all the block shapes, which will help guide you when sewing everything together.  Cut all pieces, adding a 1/4 inch seem allowance, using the photo-printed fabric for the circles (unless the image needs to stand out) and the fat quarters for the squares.  For added interest, combine dark circles with light squares in the center of the quilt and light circles with dark squares on the outside of the quilt.

For cutting the squares, use a rotary cutter, self-healing mat and clear cutting guide with 1/2-inch notches.  For cutting the circles, trace around a round shape slightly larger than a CD with a disappearing ink pen (found in fabric shops) and then cut out the round shapes with scissors.  Cut a guide from cardboard, to press under a 1/4-inch allowance on all the curved edge.  Then machine appliqué the curved shapes to the top of the squares using a small zigzag stitch.  

Step 5: Use Wall Felt to Get the Big Picture

Cotton fabric will stick to felt (or you can use pins), and if the felt can be attached to the wall, you will be able to stand back and really see how your quilt is progressing.  Feel free to swap circles and squares if adjacent colors or patterns aren't working, until you like the overall look of the quilt.

Step 6: Stack Squares to Sew Rows

When all the blocks have been assembled and adhered to the wall felt, stack them up in rows for sewing.  Start in the top left corner and stack Block 1 on top of Block 2, on top of Block 3, and so forth until all the Row 1 blocks are in one stack.  Pin the stack together at the top of the block to remind you which way is "up."  Repeat for the remaining rows.

Place the stacks to the right of your sewing machine, laying them out in rows and in order. Remove the pins, begin sewing the blocks together in 1/4-inch seams.  Sew the first two blocks in stack one together, then sew the first two blocks in stack 2 together without cutting the threads between blocks, and proceed until all the first two blocks are sewn together in one long chain.  Repeat with the next two blocks in each stack, and continue until you have three long chains.  Press the seams away from the greater thickness, toward squares without the appliquéd circles.

Once you've sewn the six lateral blocks together, you should be able to sew the rows together.  The Drunkard's Path pattern you've chosen may be a little more difficult than simply sewing rows together, but create long rows as much as possible.

Step 7: Add Batting and Backing

Cut the batting and backing fabric slightly larger than the quilt top.  Pin and then baste the three layers together starting in the center of the quilt and working out towards the edges.  Rows of basting should be spaced about 4-inches apart and should run horizontally and vertically.

Step 8: Machine Quilt

For machine quilting, start in the center and work outwards.  Lines can be marked with disappearing ink before sewing.  Use a #2 stitch, which will keep the stitch length short enough not to unravel, but large enough to remove if you make an error.  To make a large quilt more manageable, roll up the edges around the area you are working on and secure the rolls with clips (bicycle or quilt clips work best).

Step 9: Bind and Finish

Cut 2-inch wide strips of binding widthways (along the weft) from the straight grain of the fabric, enough to cover all four sides of the quilt.  Make one continuous strip, by sewing all strips together in diagonal seams.   On one end of the strip, cut diagonally and press a 1/4-inch seam allowance.  Fold the strips in half lengthways and press.  At the top of the quilt, position binding raw edges even with the raw edge of the quilt top and pin in place.  Stitch a 1/4-seam, following the photos for the mitered corners.  When you get back to the top, tuck the end inside the beginning of the strip and finish sewing.

Blindstitch the binding by hand to the back of the quilt using quilting thread and creating mitered corners.  To make a hanging tube, sew a 4-inch-wide strip of fabric into a tube, turn right side out, finish the raw edges on the ends, and then hand sew to the top of quilt, just under the binding.  The finished hanging tube should be slightly shorter than the width of the quilt, so that the ends of the inserted dowel will be exposed for hanging on a nail.

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