By Barbara Olson

The wondrous array of flowers in nature is the inspiration for my Prismatic Flowers technique. It is not meant to replicate a flower petal by petal but to capture its essence in a playful way.

JUST BREATHE, 70″ x 86″, All quilts by Barbara Olson.

Fabric choices:

Explore your fabric collection and look for those that will blend and transition well. Fabrics with light and dark shading, mottled and variegated pieces, those with good veins of color, batiks, hand dyes, and painted fabrics are all good choices. Novelty fabrics add interest to the centers of the flowers. Solid fabrics and calicoes should be saved for another project.


Assemble a variety of decorative threads in colors coordinating with the colors in your flower. Rayon, metallic, and cotton fibers in solid, variegated, twist, blendable, and neon thread varieties will add interest to the project.

Design sources

Let yourself be inspired by the flowers in your garden or a picture. Any flower drawing, abstract or lifelike, can be interpreted and constructed in fabric with this technique.

Fabric for the flower center:

To create a powerful beginning for your flower, choose a strong novelty print for the first three petals in the center of the flower. Choose another powerful novelty print for the fourth petal in the center.

Fabric for the petals:

Look for some fabrics with areas of shading from dark to light and others with visual texture and directional veins of color. Be willing to cut a section out of the middle of a piece of fabric if necessary. You may need to audition several fabric candidates to find just the right piece that works for a particular section.

Start with a collection of at least 15 fabrics which will be narrowed down to 10 or 12 in the design process. If you use too many different fabrics, the flower looks disjointed. Repeat these fabrics throughout the flower.

Make a pattern and stabilizer templates

Begin with a small pencil-line drawing of a flower. This is only a starting point–you can expand or change your drawing as you progress.

To create a pattern, enlarge the drawing to the desired size. Copy stores can usually enlarge a drawing up to 36″ wide. A nice size for this Prismatic Flower block is 18″ x 18″.

To make templates, lay a piece of stabilizer, shiny side up, on the full-sized pattern and trace the entire pattern with an extra-fine point permanent marker.

TIP: I recommend Sulky® Totally Stable™ stabilizer as  template material for machine appliqué. It is soft, pliable, strong, transparent enough for tracing, and its adhesive (on the shiny side) allows for reuse of the template many times. Tracing on the shiny side eliminates working in reverse.

Prismatic Flower pattern (enlarge to desired size).

Flip the traced flower, shiny side down, and add long registration marks in each place where two petals touch. (Registration marks are guidelines added to the lines between petals, and they allow precision placement of two adjoining pieces in the construction process.) Number the petals.

The registration marks and numbers are shown on the Prismatic Flower pattern shown to the right.

Creating the flower center:

Cut out three petals from the center of the traced flower. Press the stabilizer, shiny or adhesive side down, to the wrong side of your novelty fabric.

TIP: Using a fabric with directional veins or lines for the center petals will keep the energy of the flower flowing outward.

Leaving a 1/4” seam allowance all the way around each template, cut out the petals. Pin each petal on the paper pattern on the design wall in its exact position.

Choose a fourth center petal and a different novelty print with a very strong image.

Cut and pin as you did with the first three petals.

Photo 1

These four petals should create a powerful center from which the rest of the flower fabric choices will evolve (photo 1).

Each petal added subsequently should slide under the petal before it.

TIP: The flower’s dimensionality emerges when you alternate light and dark petals. Toss in an occasional petal with different colors to add more zest.

Designing on the wall allows you to stand at a distance from the flower and evaluate whether or not you are achieving the desired depth and texture. Be willing to sacrifice fabric petals that do not work well.

Constructing the flower

Take the first two petals off the wall. Matching the registration marks, determine which piece goes on top. The seam allowance on the top petal will be turned along the connecting edge. The seam allowance of the bottom petal will not be turned under.

Lay the top petal face down. With a repositionable glue stick, use a light touch to apply a thin line of adhesive to the seam allowance along the connecting line. Clip the curves and fold the seam allowance over the template.

TIP: Repositionable glue sticks are water soluble and create a temporary bond. This allows the seam allowance to be repositioned and the template can be easily removed.

Photo 2

Then apply a thin line of adhesive on the underside of the folded edge and position the top petal on the lower petal. Petals should fit together snugly, like a puzzle. Pins should not be necessary except to secure very long edges.

Thread your sewing machine with invisible thread on top and lingerie or bobbin thread in the bobbin.

Using a narrow blanket or blind hem stitch, slowly sew the two petals together, right sides up. Be sure the stitching line is near, but not on top of, the folded edge.

Photo 3

Only a few threads should be caught in the overbite part of the stitch. Photo 2 illustrates how the petals will look on the wrong side after stitching.

Continue adding petals until the entire flower is completed (photo 3). Turn the flower over. Apply adhesive to seam allowances all around the flower’s perimeter. Fold seam allowances over the templates.

Photo 4

Applying the flower to background

Photo 5

Audition different background fabrics by pinning pieces on your design wall and then pinning the completed flower on them.

You can continue the floral theme with a green or leafy background (photo 4), or use a solid or hand-dyed fabric to dramatically showcase the flower (photo 5).

Cut background fabric to desired size. A piece 24″ x 24″ works well for an 18″ flower. Position the flower on the background, centered or offset. Do not yet remove the stabilizer templates.

Machine appliqué the flower to the background. Cut away background fabric from behind the flower.

If desired, add borders to the center block.

Remove the stabilizer templates. Pressing lightly with a warm iron helps to release the stabilizer.

Adding dimension with batting

Cut a piece of batting slightly larger than the flower. Position the batting on the underside of the flower and secure with a few pins.

Thread your machine with water-soluble thread on top and regular thread in the bobbin.

Increase the stitch length and drop the feed dogs. With the flower right side up and batting underneath, sew along the entire outside edges of the flower.

Turn the flower over and trim all the batting outside of the flower’s perimeter.

Machine quilting

Thread your machine with invisible thread on top and bobbin thread in the bobbin. Drop the feed dogs and free-motion quilt around each petal, as closely as possible to the petal edges.

To add interest, use decorative thread in different colors. Some petals may need darker thread for shading where they attach to other petals. Some petals may need lighter thread for sparkle or a visual lift. I sometimes use as many as 15 different threads when quilting a flower.

You can either thread paint to build up dimension on the petals or just stitch the veins in each petal with contrasting colored thread.

TIP: To maintain a bit of puff at each petal’s edge, do not quilt to the very edge.

Finally, quilt the background heavily to create dimension within the flower center.


Setting options

Your flower will look stunning as a one-block wallhanging, with or without borders. You could also repeat flowers or add additional flowers for a multiple-block quilt as I did in PRISMATIC FLOWERS.

In JUST BREATHE, I made flowers of different shapes and sizes and collaged them together on a background to create a garden scene.

Prismatic flowers are so full of life and dimension that you can almost smell their fragrance.
About the Author

Barbara is an award-winning quilt artist, teacher, and lecturer.  She authored Journey of an Art Quilter, and her art quilt IN THE BEGINNING was chosen as one of the Twentieth Century’s Best American Quilts. Visit Barbara at

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This is lovely, but unfortunately you give instructions for machine quilting. Hand quilting is not yet a dying art. 😉

This sounds so interesting. I can’t wait to try it. Thanks for sharing!


Thank you for including details of the supplies used. I can’t wait to try!