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Molly's Sketchbook: Watercolor Quilt

Several years ago I visited the Dia Beacon, a sprawling modern art museum just outside of New York City. It was a gray winter day, and my friend and I were practically the only people there. As we wandered around, I was stopped in my tracks by two spare, grid-like drawings. They were tentative and minimal but somehow conveyed so much power. I couldn’t stop looking at them. I learned that they were by the artist Agnes Martin, and since that time I’ve come to love her work, much of which uses hand-drawn, repetitive lines and soft, tonal washes of color.  (If you’d like to see more of her work you can click here.)

Since Martin’s drawings and paintings use so many straight lines, they make for perfect quilt inspiration, and this Watercolor Quilt is my humble homage. I chose subdued lilac gray and peach to closely match some of my favorite Agnes Martin paintings. And to make the project more my own, I widened the color range a bit and finished the quilt off with a luminescent (premade!) neon bias tape. The neon might seem weird at first, but it kind of makes the whole quilt glow!

Despite its highbrow origins, this project couldn’t be simpler or more fun to sew. You cut a bunch of strips and then sew them together. That’s it, no corners to match up or tricky angles! And all of these cotton fabrics are soft and lovely to work with, bringing their own intrinsic beauty to the picture. This utter simplicity somehow leads to an engaging and sophisticated piece of work, much like the simplicity of Agnes Martin’s paintings belies so much more.

To begin your own special quilt pick up our Materials for Watercolor Quilt kit right here, and get ready to make some art! --Molly

The Materials

Our Materials for Watercolor Quilt kit includes… 

You will also need… 

The Pattern

Finished Measurements: 50 inches square


Note: if you have limited experience using a rotary cutter you might want to download the PDF of this very old Purl Bee story about rotary cutting. We are planning on doing an updated version soon with better photos but the information is still very good! 

You will piece the quilt top from lots of long 2-inch strips. Here’s how to cut the strips…

Cut a 2-inch wide strip from selvage to selvage and then trim off the selvages so that each piece is approximately 2 inches by 42 inches. The exact length of each strip will vary slightly from fabric to fabric. 

From Fabric A, cut 20 strips.

From Fabric B, cut 10 strips.

From Fabric C, cut 4 strips.

From Fabric D, cut 5 strips.

From Fabric E, cut 2 strips.

From Fabric F, cut 2 strips.


Note: You will piece the entire quilt top using the color 1040 cotton thread with right sides together and a precise ¼-inch seam allowance. Use your machine’s ¼-inch foot if you have one.

Sew one Fabric A strip to a second Fabric A strip, seaming across one of the 2-inch sides so that you have one very long strip. Cut one side of this strip down so that the whole thing is 50 inches long and press the seam allowances open. Put the leftover portion of the second strip aside; you’ll be using it again soon.

Now do the same thing to create a 50-inch strip of Fabric D: Piece one Fabric D strip to another across one of the 2-inch sides so that you have a very long strip. Cut this strip down to 50 inches, press the seam allowances open, and put the leftover portion of the strip aside.

Pin and piece the long sides of  the 50-inch Fabric A strip to the 50-inch Fabric D strip. Press the seam allowances towards the colored strip (Fabric D). This is the beginning of the Quilt Top. 

Now, using the leftover portion of the Fabric A strip, piece it to another Fabric A strip along a 2-inch side. Cut the resulting strip to 50 inches (and put the leftover portion of the strip aside). Press the seam allowances open, and then piece this strip to the bottom long edge of the Quilt Top. Press the seam allowances towards the colored strip.

You will be constructing the entire quilt top in this manner:  Piece the strips together to make a long strip; cut it to 50 inches; piece it to the bottom long edge of the Quilt Top; and press the seam allowance towards the colored strip. 

To make the piecing manageable, sew the Quilt Top together in three sections of 11 strips each in the following fabric order…. (Note that there is always a white Fabric A strip in between each colored strip except for the second and third strips of Section 3. Press the seam between these two strips in the opposite direction of the previous seam.)

Section 1:

Section 2:

Section 3:

Now piece the bottom of Section 1 to the top of Section 2 and the bottom of Section 2 to the top of Section 3. 

Press the entire Quilt Top flat, making sure all of the long seams are neatly pressed towards the colored strips. 

Quilt and Bind

Cut the Backing Fabric into a 60-inch square and press it flat. Tape this piece onto a smooth surface (like a clean floor) so that it is taut. 

Lay the Batting on top of the Backing. Then center the Quilt Top, right side facing up, on top of the previous two layers. These three layers together are now the Quilt Sandwich. 

To baste the Quilt Sandwich use bent arm safety pins to pin the three layers together every few inches across its entire area. Once the Quilt Sandwich is entirely basted, un-tape the backing from the floor and you are ready for quilting!

Using your machine’s walking foot and the 100% cotton thread, stitch the three layers together “in the ditch,” meaning right next to every horizontal seam on the side without the seam allowance. In this case, that means you will be sewing on the white side of the seam for all, but one, seam.

When you are done with quilting, trim the batting and backing to match the outer edges of the Quilt Top.

Sew the Neon Binding around all four edges using the Neon Thread. 

For a much more in-depth explanation of quilting and binding, with lots of photos, please check out Corinne’s Denim Pinwheel Quilt project here and scroll down to the “Finishing the Pieced Top” section.

Reader Comments (21)

February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSally
Thanks! Simple design and the result is great! This colour combination is really nice, and the neon bias tape is perfect for it :))
February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSilvia
Your quilt is lovely, so subtle, yet lively and modern with the neon binding, I think that it makes a great combination. xx
February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmy at love made my home
My first thought when I saw this post was Agnes Martin! This is beautiful!
February 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie
Nice color combo Molly!
February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTracey
Simply beautiful!

I'd like to make sure I understand the directions for how to construct this beauty prior to purchasing the kit to make one of my own.

The directions state to sew the 2" ends of the 42" strips together to make one very long strip and then cut that down to 50".

In the pictures posted of the quilt, it doesn't look as though there are seams in the stripes. I'm a little confused here. Should we see the seams? If so should we alternate them in the quilt with each row? (left/right?) Thanks so much!

It's gorgeous and I want one!
February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan
Hi Meghan-

You are correct in how the construction works! There are indeed seams in the stripes. They were much more visible before it was quilted but they are almost unnoticeable on now that it's been quilted unless you really look closely, and they didn't really show up on the photos!

Thanks so much for your nice comments and please let me know if you have any more questions!

February 7, 2014 | Registered Commenterpurl bee
Thank you, Molly! This makes sense now!
February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan
I LOVE THIS! It's so simple and unpretentious--exactly what quilting should be. The neon bias tape is to die for.

The first quilt I ever made was simple stripes like this, though mine were all different shades of purple. I wanted something simple like Gee's Bend quilts, and it was a great beginner quilt. This looks gorgeously cozy.
February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBlaise
Any tips or tricks on how to cut straight 2 in strips? Mine always seem to go haywire!
February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAshley
Hi Ashley!

We actually have an old rotary cutting tutorial that has been moved off of the site because it isn't quite up to our current standards, but it has a lot of great information on how to cut things very straight. Please email me at molly AT purlsoho DOT com if you want me to email you a PDF of it.

Additionally, if you have Joelle's book Last Minute Patchwork and Quilted Gifts, it lays out the same cutting method which yields very straight results.

Thank you!

February 7, 2014 | Registered Commenterpurl bee
Hi Molly!

Just one more, well two maybe, questions!

1. Do you this this is a nice first quilt project?
2. Is this quilted following the horizontal stripe seams, or vertically using wobbly lines?

Thanks so much again :)
February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan
Hi Meghan-

No problem!

1- Yes, but not a first sewing project. You need to make sure you can sew and cut very straight before you get started. If your strips and seams aren't straight your quilt won't lay flat, which is very disappointing.

2- It's quilted along the horizontal seams, "in the ditch" as described in the Quilting and Binding section.

Please let us know if you have any more questions!

February 7, 2014 | Registered Commenterpurl bee
Thank you Molly for turning me on to Agnes Martin. Her work is beautiful and so is your wonderfully inspired quilt. Bravo!
February 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJosie
Beautiful quilt! Thanks for the tutorial!
February 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterfangaroni
A beautiful tribute to one of my heroes. Thank you for sharing! I hope to put together this quilt one day.
February 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmy
So, is it generally considered ok to only quilt lines in one direction?

That is, if my batting requires some kind of quilting/tacking every 8 inches, is it ok that it will not be every 8 inches in all directions? I have been wondering this lately, so this is a timely post for me.
February 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterwendy
Hi Wendy-

Great question! Yes, usually you want to quilt it every 8 inches in all directions but you can do it in just one direction if the quilting is very close together as it is in this project.

Thanks for getting in touch!

February 14, 2014 | Registered Commenterpurl bee
Molly, I love looking at your work. This quilt is so gorgeous! Think of you often.
March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEileen
Thank you Eileen!

That is very sweet. I hope things are great with you!

March 24, 2014 | Registered Commenterpurl bee
Beautiful! I will definitely save this to my quilting file. I've been procrastinating finishing a quilt I started a year ago--this is the perfect motivation!
July 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermeg

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