Handmade Conversations — Making a Pictorial Quilt with Betty Alofs

Posted by on Jan 15, 2013

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Pictorial quilts, otherwise known as fabric representations of actual photographs, are a unique branch of quilting, and Betty Alofs, author of "Quilt Your Favorite Photographs," is an expert teacher. She has appeared on PBS's "America Quilts Creatively," "Simply Quilts" on HGTV and, most notably of all, was nominated as Teacher of the Year for Professional Quilter Magazine.

Many of Betty's quilts feature city landmarks. Her process generally begins with a photograph. After enlarging the image, Betty traces the shapes onto clear acetate and numbers them, with large silhouettes getting larger numbers. With the pattern established, she then traces each piece onto freezer paper, and then the freezer paper is ironed onto the right side of roughly cut fabric, followed by fusible web on the fabric's wrong side. According to her numbering, she then begins placing and sewing the piece, starting with the larger numbers and finishing with the lower numbers. Betty shares more tips on this intricate form of quilting, including how to avoid common mistakes and her favorite ways to embellish pictorial quilts.

pictorial quilt
What are some common mistakes when turning a photo into a quilt? Any ways to overcome?

The most common mistake is trying to use a whole bunch of pictures when you haven’t decided on a layout. With the pictorials I’ve created, I drew an overall layout on graph paper so that I knew where I was going to put each block. I knew from the layout which size each block had to be. I prefer a little different size and shape rather than 10-inch blocks in rows — some square, some triangular, some bigger, some smaller.

Also, if you don’t have overlaps where they need to be, the applique will fall apart. If your pieces are cut out and don’t fit, turn each piece over and put a piece of fabric on the back where a joint would be and sew around to cover the joint. Just don’t cover all your joints this way because you'll see that line.
pictorial quilt from Betty Alofs
What are your favorite ways to embellish a photo quilt?

There are a lot off different ways to embellish a block and make it realistic. One thing I like to use is angela fibers and hot glue crystals. I try to use differently shaped tulles to create shadows. Threadwork also helps to get a lot of detail and I recommend using free-motion threadwork to create things like grass and trees.

Could a beginner seamstress or quilter be successful making a photo quilt?

Yes, I teach classes on the technique, and I encourage students to bring a picture they like and want to reproduce. I advise the beginner to not use a photograph with many tiny details or pieces. One of the most successful images are of lighthouses because they are plain — a slender building with one or two windows.

All images from Betty Alofs.

cover of "Quilt Your Favorite Quilt"
Betty Alofs is hosting her bi-yearly quilting class this January at Quilt University. She is the author of "Quilt Your Favorite Photographs," published by Krause Publications.

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(1 comment)
  • by marytabar
    User profile

    Very nice article about Betty, she is a real sweetie and great quilter!