This week I spent a couple of nights at the home of my friend Janellea MacBeth. As usually happens when I visit quilting friends, I had a bed covered with a stack of handmade quilts. I was snuggly and warm, but the first night I didn’t sleep as well as I do at home because I missed having my body pillow up against my back.

The next day I asked Jan if she had a couple more pillows I could use as a body pillow. Instead, she offered me a life-size plush alligator! As it turns out, that night I slept quite comfortably with the alligator. And as a bonus, we now have a fun joke to share between us. (And now with you.)

Sometimes the answer to the question – or the perfect fabric you are looking for, or the just-right composition — is not what you were expecting. My friend Nancy who worked at City Quilter in NYC was a person who could always see beyond the expected to the perfect. One day I was selecting fabrics for my first quilt pattern to be published. She insisted that I use a muddy yellow with a large bamboo print on it that reminded me of a 1940’s bar cart. I protested. She insisted. Finally, just to satisfy her, I bought ¼ yard to play with. A couple of days later I went back and bought a couple of yards: she was right, and it ended up being the main focus of the design. That odd color of yellow created a subtle dynamic tension that enlivened all the other colors.

Empress of the Nile, by RaNae Merrill

The principle of dynamic tension applies to composition, too. There is a wonderful article by Pam Rocco in the January 2017 issue of American Quilter magazine called Using Active Balance. Pam describes active balance as “the use of symmetry, but with some irregularity.” By placing a piece or two of fabric in unexpected positions, she adds surprise and movement to her design. Even though the composition is not symmetrical, it has a dynamic tension that gives it balance. You’ll see this in a lot of Modern quilts.


Dynamic tension is not as strange or scary a concept as you might think. In fact, it is what enables us to carry out the simple everyday act of walking.

Next time you walk into a fabric store, buy an alligator.

Happy quilting! ~ RaNae