What is an Orphan Block Quilt and How Do You Make One?

Orphan blocks. Most of us have them, maybe we haven’t named them as such, yet. An orphan block isn’t a block that lost it’s family if that’s what you are thinking! Actually, a block can get “orphaned” for several reasons. An orphan block could be an extra block not needed in a quilt project or one that didn’t quite measure up to your standards of fabric choice or piecing skills, perhaps even a test block to see if you liked a design or technique. No matter how the quilt block became an orphan, your time and fabric have been invested, and if you are like me, you just can’t let go!

My Colorful Past

Around the turn of the century I became very addicted to quilting…not only did I make a lot of quilts, but I began teaching quilt making. Later I purchased a Longarm Quilting Machine to quilt my quilts and to “pay for my hobby” by quilting for hire.

As you can see, I’m a woman who loves bright colors with a flare towards scrappy!

From the quilts pictured above I found that I either had orphan blocks (extras) or parts (units) of blocks and of course fabric scraps that I just couldn’t part with…after all, quilts are stitched with love and I loved every fabric I purchased (some more than others obviously). So…at a retreat I hosted in 2015 I decided to try something bold – why not put all those parts and pieces together to make a quilt…it was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when the box lid was missing and you don’t have a clue what it’s supposed to look like, until you do…

I named it My Colorful Past. Our youngest son (who is an artist himself) said it was a “quilt that only a maker could love“… but when I shared the story, as each block indeed had it’s own story, he began to understand the beauty in the chaos. If you compare the two photos perhaps you can see the “parents” of a few orphan blocks and units.

Orphan Block Quilt 2023

Fast forward to January when I decided I needed to organize my boxes of unfinished projects, fondly called UFO’s. (Read about it here.) As I was revisiting multiple boxes, I made decisions as to which projects were worthy of completion, which ones I could “part out” as in making a “parts department” of similar pieced units, taming a few scraps for the scrap boxes, pulling out blocks that were now orphaned, and adding fabric yardage back into the “fabric department”.

I also had several blocks I had made as demo blocks with Studio 180 Design tools and techniques that I backed with a Pellon interfacing “Shape Flex” to withstand the handling as the blocks were shared during my traveling trunk shows. I wasn’t sure how these blocks would “quilt up” but decided to give it a go anyway. Why waste a good block, right!

Organizing and Layout for Orphan Blocks

I have to admit, it took me over two hours to get to this layout design, and as you will see, it was modified several times before the final design. The key to organizing and laying our your orphan blocks is to look for a balance of sizes verses trying to balance the fabrics. In a pure sense of “scrappy” or “sampler” the beauty is in the variety, that of capturing the attention of a viewer to draw them in for a closer look.

Let The Piecing Begin

Remember my reference to a jigsaw puzzle? Well, this is where the fun begins. First decision is what to use for background fabric. Since a few blocks had light background and one actually had a black background I vetoed those choices, concerned that these few blocks might be drown out. I wanted each block to stand alone and be noticed. There was no other choice for me but lime green, actually a mix between chartreuse and yellow-green that I just refer to as lime green. For this quilter, lime is a neutral and I love how it turned out!

You will notice that I started working from right to left in columns – the reason behind this is I determined that column one (made up of coordinating fabrics from blocks that were actually duplicate blocks to my application for certified instructor training with Deb Tucker in 2017) would determine the size of my quilt. I wanted these blocks, sizes varied from 8″ to 10″ finished, to be offset and staggered. This was achieved by adding fabric to one side of each block to make a standard width, then adding spacer fabric in between. By sewing in columns I could make each column the width of the largest block, with its vertical background filler, for the overall width of that column. Once each block in the column was the correct width I then cut horizontal background filler to make the joined blocks the same length as column one, my standard for the entire quilt.

So your second tip is to work in columns!

Notice column two (middle) where the Dutchman’s Puzzle (2nd for the bottom) mets up with column one’s Lemoyne Star (2nd from the bottom). By leaving some of the blocks in column one with no background on their left side it was later balanced by the background on the right side of the next column. I worked this out as I went, the goal was to keep from having “too much lime” between the blocks of various sizes.

Third tip – make sure you don’t have too much background between blocks, they need to float but not be isolated from the rest! After all, orphan blocks are becoming a family and need to feel included (grin).

Design Change!

The beauty of an Orphan Block Quilt is the freedom to make design changes as you go along. Remember, there’s no jigsaw puzzle box cover (pattern) that you must adhere to…it’s totally creative and who’s to say if it’s right or wrong…after-all, it’s your quilt, your memories!

By the time I got to column three I decided it was a little “block heavy” so I moved it over to the left on the design wall and played around with the blocks to form a new column three…Can we all say “Design Change!

Four tip – never be afraid of a Design Change! Practice being totally creative – design like no one is looking!

Pleased with this result, I then decided yet another design change needed to happen …let me explain…

My design wall is wider than it is tall. My plans were to make column one the bottom of my quilt… then when finish, sorta rotated like the photo on the right…

Well, I’d been looking at column one being on the right hand side for several weeks now and it wasn’t setting well with me turning my head sideways to imagine it at the bottom of the quilt….so…. Can we all say, “Design Change,” again!

Yep, time to rearrange those final columns into a bottom row. Told ya’ it was like a jigsaw puzzle!

Time for borders!

Remember that “parts department” I mentioned earlier. I had made over 300 four patch units for a particular pattern I decided I really didn’t want to finish…I pieced them together for my outer borders! And I still have four patches for another project!

Once I had the four patches together, I added a beautiful fabric, sorta fuchsia sorta magenta, to make a pieced border. Things went well for the first two strips, then I noticed for the final two that I had reversed the lime and fuchsia strips (gasp) as the lime was suppose to go next to the body of the quilt and the magenta next to the four patches! No design change this time, I had to rip out over 80 inches times two! (sigh). But it was worth it….

Tip Number Five – There’s no shame in the Quilter’s Proverb “As ye sew, so shall ye rip” Hopefully you can skip this tip!

Drum Roll Please…

She measured in at 77 1/2″ x 103 1/2″ – not exactly the perfect queen size quilt, but pretty good considering that these were orphan blocks and a little bit of background fabric! And yes, I quilted it with green thread!

Is it perfect? By no means, but it’s not going into a juried show so why do I care! In fact, there’s a block that is “wonky” because of the way it was pieced, but I “squared” it up and made it fit by adding those background strips and trimming to the size I wanted.

It wasn’t until I looked at a photo on my camera that I notice one block is totally WRONG! It has a unit in it that is turned the wrong way (gasp!) Do I care? Nope, once it’s quilted and washed it will serve its intended purpose – to keep me warm! (And it keeps me humble too – our son said to call it my Amish square.)

Trouble in Paradise

Can you see it? Those little orange bleeds? Yikes!

Okay, so that’s the risk I take by not being a pre-washer. Doesn’t happen often…and if it’s happened to you here’s my little trick to fixing it.

Color Catchers! As you can see, it did its job, sorta. The important part is examining your quilt before it goes into the dryer! I simply washed the quilt again with a new dye catcher (quick wash) and examined again. If it’s really stubborn I will dab on a little synthrapol and wash again. The key is not to let it dry.

I’m pleased to say that after a couple of washes my orange bleed stains were no longer visible. And as a bonus, the quilt was finished on one of our coldest January nights (grin).

PS The blocks with Shape Flex interfacing quilted up perfect with no added weight or difference in the “feel”. A total WIN!

Tip Number 6 – Whether you prewash your fabrics or wait until the binding is on, take care in the washing, check for any bleeds before drying!

Ta Da! Finished is Good!

And just like that, the Texas weather went from ice storms/tornados just to the northwest of us (we had a week of gloomy rain) to a beautiful sunshiny weekend! Perfect weather to be outside and enjoy the day!

Thanks for sticking with me for this lengthy ramble. I hope I have at least sparked your interest to get those creative juices flowing to jigsaw puzzle your own Orphan Block Quilt! Just remember, relax, have fun, be open to creative background fabrics, and don’t be afraid to make several design changes along the way! I just know you will end up with a quilt to enjoy that is full of stories!

If you enjoyed this ramble please share with your quilting friends and encourage them to follow The Quilt Rambler across social media and to subscribe to my blog.

This is Karen Overton, The Quilt Rambler

Pintrest Pin
  • Choose Orphan Blocks, and Units
  • Choose Background Fabric
  • Layout Blocks on a Design Wall Based On Size vs Color
  • Work In Columns, Adding Background Strips to Desired Width and Length
  • Remember Too Much Background Can Make a Block Feel Isolated (not part of the family!)
  • Design Like No One Is Looking
  • Let The Creativity Flow!
  • Finish Like the Champ That You Are!
  • Celebrate Joining The “No Block Left Unquilted” Club (grin)

12 thoughts on “What is an Orphan Block Quilt and How Do You Make One?

  1. Dianne Burnett says:

    O my, it is beautiful and the story is great. I can hear joy and peace in this post. Praise God

  2. Diana Cowan says:

    Well done. Really like your lime background and border.
    I have used a similar technique for t shirt quilts where blocks are different sizes.

    • TheQuiltRambler says:

      Yes, this same “technique” does work with T-shirt quilts – that’s a valid point that I hope others will scroll down the comments to find your tip! thank you Diana’

  3. Clare Beth Rutila says:

    We are sisters the hood!
    Teaching leaves sooooo many blocks, partial blocks, block pieces … that get saved ’cause we might ‘need’ them again. Years ago I took the advice to make my tests, samples blocks, etc. in a single color theme – I chose autumn. David Taylor tea cup to Renae Merrill mandala … it is an interesting box with a bright future!
    I also use green like a nuetral, as in the garden, nature. Our local guild provides green thread for philanthorpy quilting – it goes with everything.
    Speaking of retirement – Saturday found me teaching the first of an eight month series. 😊 Again …

    • TheQuiltRambler says:

      Yep- similar stories! I tell folks to make practice blocks from Christmas fabrics then one day they will have a Christmas sampler. Never took my own advice though 🤷🏻‍♀️ I think my color theme is simply bright 🌈🌞

  4. patricia j reed says:

    Well Done…bringing ‘orphan friends’ together. You make it look so easy! They look as if they were a planned pattern!

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