Celtic Shadow Quilting


  • 20in (50cm) square piece of fleece for the background
  • Smaller piece of fleece for the motif in a contrasting colour
  • 20in (50cm) square sheer fabric
  • 20in (50cm) square lining
  • Light colour firm iron-on interfacing (as used in dressmaking - a piece large enough to trace the motif onto)
  • Nylon fibre
  • Pattern for motif – enlarged to the appropriate size
  • Sewing cotton of a colour to blend with the background
  • Waterproof marker to trace with

Note: Iron all fabrics before you start

Finished Size

To fit a 16in cushion

Skill Level


Traditional shadow quilting depends upon shapes of fabric placed on a background layer showing through a layer of fine fabric such as chiffon. Stitching around the shapes holds them in place and creates a quilted effect. It was while I was seeking a way to indicate the marks on old pottery that we describe as ‘crazy’ that I devised this variation on an old theme. Several years later, when I was looking for methods that would make good use of Celtic motifs, it seemed to me that the wisps of nylon fibre that had previously represented tiny cracks would work just as well as an indication of the mists of time. I like the idea of using twenty-first century materials for these ancient designs. I have taught it for several years now and people who like to sew, be they quilters or embroiderers, have been delighted with their results.

It can be worked by hand or machine. Many Celtic designs can be interpreted in this way and some are included here. You may prefer to use your own design – maybe a monogram. Sometimes you can make good use of more than one colour.

In my first pieces I used felt but I have moved on to fleece – the fabric warm jackets are made from; it is easy to manage and lovely to stitch through. The bulk without weight means that you do not need wadding to achieve a quilted effect.

Choose your motif

Whether you use one of the motifs given here, Horses, Knot, Green Man, Animal, or choose to find your own you will need to enlarge it to a size that is appropriate for your finished article. The designs I use would fit within a 12in (30cm) square. This is a good size for a 16in (40cm) cushion or small panel. Your local photocopy service will be able to enlarge your image for you.

Note: If the design is not symmetrical you will need to ask the photocopy operator to flip the design horizontally.

Prepare the motif

TIP! Before you iron to bond the interfacing to the motif fabric, check the heat of the iron on a corner of both the interfacing and the fleece to make sure neither of them melts.

  1. Using a waterproof marker trace the outer edges of the motif onto the iron-on interfacing, drawing onto the plain side – not the side coated with adhesive. (If there are additional lines on the design that will need to be stitched in and not cut away, do not trace them.) You may need to place white paper beneath or hold it against the window to do this. A little masking tape helps to hold the interfacing in place while you trace. If the design is complicated, it helps if you scribble on the interfacing that is outside the motif to guide you in cutting away the correct part.
  2. Iron over the two layers, starting in the middle, fusing the interfacing to the motif fleece. Using your traced line as a guide, cut around the outer edge of the motif. Keep the remnants of interfaced fleece as whole as possible. You can later use this negative shape to help you ensure the proper placement of the motif on the background. Some parts of the motifs are very thin – for example, the lions’ legs.

Make the Quilting Sandwich

  1. Smooth out the lining fabric on a flat working surface. Place the large piece of fleece, RS upon top of the lining. Arrange the motif centrally on top of the pile RS up. Tease out the nylon fibre so that it is very thin and wispy and lay it over the motif and the background fleece in a random fashion.
  2. Cover the whole pile with the sheer fabric, smoothing it from the centre. Place pins through all the layers. Tack the layers together at intervals of approximately 2in (5cm). You might like to place additional tacking into areas where the motif consists of a thin strip.


Choose whether to work by hand or machine.

By Hand

  1. The quilting stitch is a running stitch with equal sized stitches on the top and the back. Try to make your needle pierce the layers at right angles each time you go down and each time you come up. You can start with a small knot that you can hide by pulling it into the fabric. Fasten off each thread by working a few small stitches on top of each other into the lining. Choose a thread to blend with the overall colour created by the background fleece when the sheer fabric has been placed over it. Do not be tempted to use too long a thread – 16in (40cm) at the most. If you have a choice of needle, use a betweens as small as you can manage to thread.
  2. Place the row of stitches close up to the motif without stitching into it. Try not to allow the motif to move out of shape. The thickness of the fleece will help you and the raised effect will be quite noticeable when the work is complete. Remove the tacking and stitch in any additional details that the design needs. Make up into a panel or a cushion.

By Machine

  1. Barbara does not recommend free machining for this work. The stitch to use is the ordinary sewing machine stitch – longer than you would use for dressmaking. Choose a thread to blend with the overall colour created by the background fleece when the sheer fabric has been placed over it. Use the same thread on the top of the machine and in the bobbin.
  2. For machine quilting Barbara recommends that in addition to the tacking threads you place safety pins through all the layers in a pattern that gives you 2in (5cm) intervals. You can remove them as you work. If you have an even feed or walking foot you should use it. Alternatively, if you can loosen the pressure, then do so. This is to stop the pressure of the foot pushing the upper layers forwards, which would make the surface crumple.
  3. If you have a slow speed setting on your machine do use it - otherwise operate your foot pedal very carefully. Place the row of stitches close up to the motif without stitching into it. Keep stopping the machine to lift the foot whilst you turn the work around the corners, leaving the needle down as you do so. The panel is small enough to turn easily under the arm of your machine. Machining is quite a lot quicker than stitching by hand - remind yourself of this and take your time. Start and finish by using a few of the smallest sized stitches possible and pull the ends through to the back of the work. Tie them and cut them close or thread them into the lining by hand. Remove any tacking and make up into a panel or a cushion.

Barbara's website can be found at www.barbarahowell.co.uk. She produces kits for 'Celtic Shadow Quilting' that are available by post at a cost of £8 including postage.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 12 Number 5 - May 2004