A Scrappy Low Volume Background Guide


This is a topic that I get asked about on a weekly basis and I thought it was high time I posted about it.  I’ve often told you about my love of low volume fabrics, I told you what low volume fabric was in this post, but I’ve never detailed how I choose the fabrics I use in the background, and with the Bad Girl quilt along coming up, it felt like a good time to do so.


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What do you mean background?

So let’s talk backgrounds before moving on to the actual topic of the day.  I’ve got quite a bit of new quilters that read and I don’t want them to get lost.  We are talking about the background fabric (not to be confused with backing).  Your background fabric is not your focused fabric (at least most of the time).  Background fades away to let your color prints or solids shine, pop, or stand out.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty too!

Many quilters will choose a good solid white for their background.  This makes the quilt look nice and clean and you know exactly what you are looking at.  Solids do seem to be a popular choice for backgrounds, even in vintage quilts you see this as a go-to.

There is no wrong choice here.  There is only a preference and whatever you prefer is the best way to go.


Little Miss Sawtooth Quilt


I have a go-to and a preference as well!  It’s pretty obvious as I use it in almost every single quilt I make.  I like low volume.  I also don’t want to just choose one fabric.  I want it to run the gamut.  I want all the fabrics I can get into my background and the more, the merrier as far as I’m concerned.




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How to choose the low volumes

Again, there is no wrong choices, only different likes and dislikes.  You could absolutely hate what I do or like what I do and just know it’s not for you.  Please keep that in mind.

But here is what is running through my thoughts as I’m choosing my fabrics for my backgrounds:

I always want white and cream fabrics, but it’s okay to sneak another color in there sometimes.  It spruces things up.  Like this quilt.  In that Dresden quilt, the gray that I snuck in doesn’t take away from my Dresden plates.  I feel this is because the Dresdens are so eye catching.  If I was making a Bad Girl quilt however, I would probably stay away from any multicolored backgrounds because I think it would distract from the main shapes (stars and quarter Dresdens).  The pieces are small and I need them to pop or my eyes won’t see what they should be seeing.  Sometimes this is a good thing or an interesting effect, other times it’s not.

I don’t want many “busy” low volumes.  I’ve got nothing against busy.  In fact, I think many of my quilts are busy.  It’s a look I’m a fan of.  However, I tend to choose one or two busy low volumes for my backgrounds and the rest middle low volumes and whispery low volumes.

  • Busy low volumes – The first two fabrics in the third row of the above picture.
  • Middle low volumes – The last two fabrics in the third row and the two fabrics of above them.
  • Whispery low volumes – All the fabrics in the first row.

Most low volumes I choose tend to land somewhere between whispery and middle, but I like to have all three in every quilt I make.  The more whispery low volumes you choose, the cleaner and crisper your quilt looks.  The more middle and busy low volumes you choose, the more scrappier your quilt looks.  If you use too many busy low volumes, it can look a bit overwhelming.

I do pay attention to the colors on them, but not too much.  Sometimes a good pop of a totally different color other than the main section of your quilt (and by main I mean the color/solid prints) can look good.  I did that on this quilt with the red roses.  The roses were my busy print and my different color.


Landslide Quilt


At the same time sometimes I throw all caution to the wind and drag in every low volume I can get my hands on.  You can see that in the quilt pictured above.  And I think they look really good like that.

When I feel I’ve chosen wrongly, I can almost always trace this back to a large print that’s very dark.  I’m not in love with every quilt I make.  When I first started quilting, I was a total mess with the scrappy business.  I knew I loved the look, but I just couldn’t quite get what I wanted.  I specifically remember a churn dash quilt I made pre-blogging that could have been amazing if it wasn’t for the massive size chocolate brown polka dots.

I still make choices I wish I hadn’t when I make quilts.  ALL.  THE.  TIME.  It’s not that they are ugly or wrong or whatever, it’s just I stare at it every time I’m looking at the quilt and I don’t want my eyes going to that one fabric.  Even when I do make a quilt that makes me roll my eyes, I can still find love for it.  It’s my quilt.  I made it.  It took me forever and the journey was usually a good one.  I love it anyway.  Ugly brown polka dots and all!


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How I decide how many

We are about to start the Bad Girl quilt along.  I’ve been getting questions on my previous Bad Girl quilts and how many low volumes I added to it when the pattern clearly states that you need 3.5 yards.  Here’s what I do:  If you are looking at the cutting chart on page 2 of the pattern, in the ‘background’ column it tells you how many strips to cut and then how many squares or rectangles to subcut.  Still with me?  Yay!  I cut a different low volume fabric for every strip.  That’s it!  No big secret at all.

I start with my scraps.  Always, always, always.  I don’t dip into my stash until every scrap that is big enough has been pulled.  If you have a lot of width of fabric strips, you are probably sitting on a mountain of options.  Particularly for the fabric for the four-patches within the star block.


The Good Girl Quilt


I think I covered everything I set out to cover in this post.  If I’ve missed anything, send me an email or leave a comment below with your questions.  I’ll add them to this post later.

My apologies for my lack of posts this past week.  I’ve been away most of this week being a bit of a “bad girl” out of town.  Emphasis on the word “bit”.  Ha!  We took a little trip to Las Vegas and when I wasn’t trapped in the hotel room with a massive head cold, I was relaxing…..and maybe a little drinking.  A girl has to have a little fun, doesn’t she?


Fabrics Used in Example Photos



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  1. Thanks for this very helpful post, Melanie! You answered all of my questions. I just ordered my low volume bundle. It’s so nice to have a source for quality LV bundles when, like me, you’re a relatively new quilter with a teeny tiny stash.

  2. This is very helpful! Thank you. I love the way quilts with low volume backgrounds look, but havne’t successfully made a quilt like that yet!

  3. This is so helpful! I love the scrappy look and a scrappy low volume background is so enticing. I noticed that many of your main fabrics in the Bad Girl quilt are not very busy… if I am using a couple “busier” main prints (not all are busy, but a few are) should I stay away from a scrappy background as a way to “calm the quilt down” so to speak? Not sure that question makes sense, but I guess it would be great to hear your thoughts on balancing the background fabrics with the main fabrics. Thanks!! I also love your comment about still loving your quilts in spite of seeing choices you would make differently!

    1. Hi! I wouldn’t tell you to stay away from a scrappy background because it’s the only kind of quilt I ever make. 🙂 I do think however, that the main fabrics look best when they are saturated. They can still be busy, but if you are choosing main fabrics that feature a lot of white, they tend to get lost. Especially on the Dresden part of the quilt.

      1. Thank so much for your input! Going to a shop or two this week to see if anything looks like it will “fit”.

  4. Great discussion. I audition backgrounds as obsessively as I do my focus fabrics! I suppose you can relate. And I like to use subtly different base colors, white, fog, parchment, etc as part of the low volume composition. We shall see how my version of the Bad Girl Quilt turns out. It’s gonna be so much fun!

  5. Hi! I am attempting my first LV scrappy background quilt! I’m assuming you wouldn’t just use 1 long piece of fabric for sashings and borders… any secrets for chopping them up?

  6. Hi Melanie, I discovered your video on making half rectangle triangles and now I’m obsessed with the “Bad Girl” quilt. I’ve just ordered your ruler and PDF pattern. I love the scrappy look and you’ve illustrated it so well. It made me run to my stash, my studio looks like there’s been an explosion! Thank you for my new obsession and inspiration.

    Best, Paula

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