The time has come to talk about stipple. You see it all over the place on quilts. What is a stipple, anyway? says:

Stipple History

Dots, small spots, small touches. In the quilting world stipple began with hand quilters. They placed single stitches randomly in the background of an applique or embroidery or a larger quilted motif. These stitches mimicked the small dots of paint used by artists who use the stipple technique. VanGogh’s self portrait is an example.

The stipple stitches did the job of flattening the surrounding area, letting the focus motif come forward and become even more prominent.

Machine quilting stipple

Machine quilting cannot produce these random individual stitches easily, so quilters came up with a continuous line way of achieving the same effect.

Remember the definition of stipple is small dots. When this continuous design is quilted, the negative space, or un-quilted area, created by the stitched line is like dots. Like these red circles:

Look what you see when I take away the stitch line:

Pro Tip: If you use a thread that blends or matches with your fabric color you won’t see the thread or stitches, you’ll just see the dots.

Figure it out

So now that you know why it’s called stipple, let’s examine the pattern and talk about how to quilt it.

Going back to our five basic shapes

We can see that stipple is made up of simple curves ( C-shapes) going in different directions. The quilting path does not cross over like it does with loops.

As a matter of fact, if you are stippling and your lines cross, the quilt police will show up at your door!

Not really, but I want you to try really hard not to cross the lines. Because that’s the design. If you do cross, no one will notice or care.  Don’t stress over it, but do try your best.

Remember last week we talked about even distribution of texture? Every time you quilt you should strive for it and stipple is no different.  To achieve the

even distribution

you should strive to make the spaces (those red circles) approximately the same size and nice and rounded. It sounds hard, but of course I’ve got a trick you can use.

Last week we learned about using mantras to keep our patterns going. Quilting a good stipple requires something a little different.

Mental Image

Sometimes it is helpful to keep a picture in your mind’s eye of an object or a shape. In the case of a stipple we want those curves to be nice and round and all about the same size. The mental image I use for stipple is a round object that I know the size of. Something I can easily picture in my mind. In other words something so familiar to me that I could come very close to the actual size if asked to draw it.

I think about a quarter, or a dime, or a ping pong ball, or a baseball, or the head of a pin, or a pencil eraser. The size of all those items is very familiar to me. Which I choose depends on the density of quilting I’m trying to do.

I imagine those dimes laying on the surface of my quilt and I stitch around them, clockwise then counterclockwise, clockwise and counterclockwise.

 Practice Stipple

Remember back when you used baseball fabric to practice and get good at quilting nice smooth curves? Well you can use the same trick for practicing stippling. You’ll want fabric with randomly scattered objects. like this:

star fabric for practice purposes

Pick a star (or whatever) and stitch around it part way. As you are stitching use the secret of looking ahead and pick your next star. Keep going, always picking your next star as you stitch, clockwise then counterclockwise, clockwise and counterclockwise.

Fill up a yard of this fabric and you will be an EXPERT stippler!


Here are some examples with a quarter in the photo for size reference.

The stipple makes the letters and flowers stand out.

This is a lattice design with a stipple in the background. The squares are about 1 and 1/4 inches. So the stipple mental image I used was the head of those yellow quilting pins. You know the ones.

yellow quilting pins for size compairison

Once again those triangles really stand out thanks to the stipple. The triangles get all the glory while the stipple does all the work.

This is a thread sampler to show the look of different weight threads. The stipple is larger because it’s not in the background of anything. It’s just a meandering line of stitches. Larger stipple is often referred to as Meander.

I call this tiny stipple a sand stipple. It looks like sand once you’re done stitching. The smaller your major motif is, the smaller your stipple needs to be. My mental image for this one was the head of a silk pin.

Even though I’m stitching so very small I still try to “go around” my mental image. There are crossed lines in sand stipple. It’s impossible to avoid it. But I still try not to cross. I find the effort gives me the best even distribution of texture. 😉

Pro Tip: when stitching this small, be sure to shorten your stitch length and use a very fine thread. You want to see texture not gobs of thread.

Go to the quilt shop now! Get that practice fabric and have some fun.


by Mary Beth Krapil

Handi Quilter National Educator