By:     Deborah Lyn Stanley

I particularly enjoy creating hair for my portrait art quilts. The shapes, highlights and shadows, and the flow of hair add interest and character to each piece.

Fabric & Image selection
A portrait art quilt can be any size; mine are frequently 14-16” wide by 16-20” high. The path for this project involves: compiling a variety of fabrics to create the portrait, and a drawing or photo reference for design and for pattern creation.

The back side of a simple white print works well for portrait facial areas, select batik or very tight weave fabrics to create hair, and a background fabric for your project. Once the background is quilted it will add charm and texture to the piece.

I use my watercolor sketches or my photos to develop designs. Choose an image that inspires you and enlarge it. It should be sized to fit nicely into your piece with room for the background setting.  Use tracing paper to make a line drawing of the photocopy.

Finding Ruthie detail  Gibson girl detail    Autumn's Grace

Pattern development
Overlay the enlarged and traced image with freezer paper. Trace again and use one of the following methods:

  1. With design transferred to freezer paper, cut around all major areas. Iron the freezer paper pattern to the background. Using a heat erasable ink pen, draw an outline of the figure or portrait on the background piece; include notations for facial features (eyes, nose, lips). Remove the pattern pieces.
  2. For a large figure design, draw the design on muslin fabric the size of the figure plus 2” all around. Use a heat erasable ink pen or a permanent marker. The muslin will be your temporary base until it is appliqued to the background (as used for “Finding Ruthie”).
  3. Affix the fusing material to the back of each fabric choice and cut out the freezer paper design allowing an extra ¼” edge for over or under lapping an adjacent piece.

Beginning Construction
Sandwich the backing, batting, and background fabrics together. Layout the portrait and/or figure pieces in the desired position on the fabric background.  For greater interest, consider a composition other than centering your subject.  When satisfied, fuse in place with a hot iron per manufacturer’s directions.  Remember: heat setting will remove your heat erasable marks and you may want to redraw some of them.  Next, straight or blanket stitch around the perimeter of each figure element to secure it to the background and to enhance quilt stitching.

I use acrylic paints to create facial features and shading. I also paint a base in which to create the hair – see “Autumn’s Grace” and “Thoughts of a Young Girl”.   As an alternate, the hair can be completely developed by applique as in “Finding Ruthie”.

Thoughts of a Young Girl - detailSince hair needs form, lights and shadows, use batik fabrics with a good variation of light, medium and dark values. Next, apply fusible material to the fabrics you have chosen.   WonderUnder fusible material is excellent for this application because it holds well, causes the fabric to become more firm, and facilitates the cutting of hair strand shapes.

Hair can be fashioned as long and straight, with gentle flowing curl or very wavy and curly. Cut narrow fabric strips or strands about 1/8th inch thick and at varying lengths, tapered at each end.  After cutting several strip pieces, begin laying the strands on your piece.  Consider placing darker pieces down first and then adding lighter pieces more to one side of the head than the other.  Save your lightest pieces for highlights at the top of the head or as the source of light indicates. Highlight fabric strips are best shorter in length.

Heat set the pieces into place after you have the first layer down. Continue building and shaping the hair style.  Tuck the ends closest to the scalp under other strips of fabric to facilitate shaping.  Heat set the strips as you go to limit the mobility of the small strips you are working with.

Machine quilting the piece
Add a linear, free-motion stitching pattern to the background of the piece to create a subtle look that draws attention to the subject of your piece. Use tracing paper to audition a quilting design by sketching the design on the paper then laying it over your piece.

Use free motion quilting stitches to create the flow of the hair style. Refer to the detail photo of “Helen”.

Trim the quilted piece and bind as desired to finish.


  • In addition to batik or very tight weave fabric strips, scraps of silk, organza, ribbon or yarn can be used to create variations of light, shadow, texture and depth for hair.
  • Apply additional highlights and shadows with thread as you quilt the hair.
  • Audition various quilting thread colors to enhance your piece. Thread size 50 or 60wt in a neutral color will attract very little attention. Cotton thread of 30 or 40wt will further define and accentuate an area.

Best of all, have fun creating hair!

Helen detail