Quick Tips for Creating Illusion Quilts


When we talk about illusions in quilt designs, we are most often referring to a three-dimensional effect created through a clever use of shape, color or value—or most often a combination of the three.

Creating a sense of dimension through a patchwork design is not a recent innovation. It’s not even an innovation of the 20th century. Quilters have been playing with dimension since at least the mid-1800s when Tumbling Blocks and Attic Windows patterns started showing up in magazines of the day.

While there are numerous eye-popping 3-D patterns available nowadays, you don’t need cutting-edge computer software to start playing with illusion in your own quilts. You just need to learn how to look at a pattern to see its potential for dimension.


The traditional Tumbling Blocks pattern is an easy one to break down into its component shapes: the basic unit is a hexagon consisting of three diamond-shaped patches joined with set-in seams. Through careful color and value placement, the unit looks like a cube viewed from one corner.

There are ways of achieving the traditional look without set-in seams. A New Twist on Tumbling Blocks, designed by Leslie Tallaksen, is constructed with foundation-pieced and strip-pieced units joined into horizontal rows.

A New Twist on Tumbling Blocks by Leslie Tallaksen

A New Twist on Tumbling Blocks by Leslie Tallaksen

Jewel Mine is a Tumbling Blocks variation made with pieced triangles and no set-in seams. Each hexagonal cube shape seems to be nestled into a corner, creating an extra layer of depth.


Experimenting with color placement is one of the easiest ways to create illusion in your quilts. For a striking example of the difference color placement can make, look no further than Rosie Glow and Peachy Keen, both designed and made by Janet Jo Smith. Both quilts were made using the same pattern and fabrics; the only difference is that the fabrics in Peachy Keen are placed in reverse of where they are in Rosie Glow.

Rosie Glow and Peachy Keen by Janet Jo Smith from Quilters Newsletter’s Best Weekend Quilts 2013

Rosie Glow and Peachy Keen by Janet Jo Smith from Quilters Newsletter’s Best Weekend Quilts 2013

Similarly, shifting the fabric placement in Heaven’s Light creates an entirely new look. Whereas Rosie Glow and Peachy Keen are made only with warm colors, Heaven’s Light is made with warm and cool colors. Because cool colors seem to recede and warm colors seem to advance when they are used next to each other, the revised version of Heaven’s Light seems more expansive than the contained structure of the original quilt.

Heaven’s Light by Aby Dolinger from McCall’s Quick Quilts October/November 2018

Heaven’s Light by Aby Dolinger from McCall’s Quick Quilts October/November 2018


Author, designer and instructor Karen Combs specializes in creating illusions in her quilts. She is an expert at using value, which is how light or dark a fabric is, especially when compared to the fabrics it’s placed next to.

One of Karen’s quick tips for creating illusion with value is to use gradated or ombre fabrics that shade from light to dark in one color family across the width of the fabric.

“I love creating illusions and I also love using traditional quilt blocks,” she says. “I’ve found using gradated fabrics creates an illusion within a traditional quilt block. I find, in illusional quilts, it is best to use tone-on-tone fabrics. The term ‘tone-on-tone’ refers to a printed fabric that appears almost solid from a slight distance. Gradated fabrics fit the description perfectly. Tone-on-tone fabrics are important, since they add subtle visual texture to a quilt without being as busy as a multicolor print. Tone-on-tone fabrics allow the dimension of the quilt to really shine.”

To use Karen’s technique, look for a gradated fabric that can easily be separated into light, medium and dark portions. “You may wish to cut the fabrics apart, along the value,” Karen advises. “This will isolate each value. I find this is useful when cutting pieces from each value. It allows me to cut the exact value I need to cut the strips I need.”

The Log Cabin block, with its potential for many different arrangements, is one of Karen’s favorites. In this example, she created a quarter-square log cabin block using different values of blue, then arranged them in larger blocks with the light squares in the centers to create a glowing effect.


In the next example, she rotated some of the blocks to create a design where it seems blocks are floating over one another.


By substituting the lightest blue for the darkest blue around the outside edges of the block, she created yet more potential illusions depending on how the blocks are arranged. “Using gradated or an ombre fabric is a fun trick to know and can help you create some amazing quilts,” Karen says.



Transparency is a technique that takes advantage of both color and value to create the illusion that one fabric is showing through another fabric overlapping it. In X Marks the Spot, Diane Harris was able to make it appear as if transparent square patches are laid on top of pieced X’s. Achieving this affect takes careful attention to how the fabrics interact; as Diane describes it, you need to choose colors that are believable to the eye and stay away from fabrics that appear stark or extreme. For successful transparency effects, experimentation is key.

X Marks the Spot by Diane Harris

X Marks the Spot by Diane Harris

This feature is included in the October/November 2018 issue of McCall’s Quick Quilts.

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