Meet the Whale Shark

At roughly 40 feet in length and weighing around 11 tons, Whale Sharks are the largest sharks, and truly the largest of any fish, alive today. They feed on plankton and travel large distances to find enough food to sustain their huge size and to reproduce. Whale Sharks are found in all the tropical oceans of the world. Like human fingerprints, whale sharks have a unique pattern of spots which allow individual sharks to be identified. This make it easier to identify total population in particular areas. To learn more, click here.

Aurifil’s Whale Shark thread set was created in tribute to this hulking sea creature. It features 3 large spools of our 40wt thread in 3 hues of blue— a warm, a medium, and a dark— 2770, 2735, & 2784. When purchased via Shop Aurifil, this set includes a custom designed foundation paper pieced PDF pattern by Aurifilosopher and pattern designer Cassandra Beaver / the (not so) dramatic life

This block finishes at 16″ x 16″ and it might just be one of our favorites!

We enlisted HollyAnne Knight of String & Story to share some tips and tricks for quilting this block. With her help and expertise, you’ll have this stitched up and on display in no time. 

When Aurifil first announced the 2021 Color Builders Program last October, the whale shark made me so excited that I immediately emailed the Aurifil team and asked, “How can I be part of this project??” As we are here at the halfway point of our adventure, I’m so excited to quilt this block with you! Before we get to the quilting plans, though, let’s take a moment to talk about stitching in the ditch.

When to Stitch in the Ditch

You might be thinking: “But HollyAnne…. Aren’t you the free motion quilting gal? Are we really going to talk about stitching in the ditch??” Yep! Stitching in the ditch is a valuable tool to:

  • Secure the the three layers of your quilt before adding more detailed quilting
  • Create clear lines between different sections of piecing
  • Quilt bulky areas of your quilt top that aren’t suitable for FMQ

While I’m all about the amazing textures of FMQ, strategically using stitching in the ditch is key to a crisp final product. Let’s take a closer look at each of these scenarios.

Secure the Quilt

Personally, I’m a huge fan of spray baste, and generally, spray basting is pretty secure and minimizes shift while you are free motion quilting (If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my blog on Homemade Spray Baste HERE. If you prefer pin basting, however, intricate quilting or quilting that requires you to work the quilt top a bit haphazardly, I strongly encourage you to stitch in the ditch around the major elements of the quilt first before adding more details. For the Endangered Species BOM, I like to stitch around every animal early in my quilting process to hold it steady for further quilting. If you plan to assemble your BOM as a sampler, consider stitching in the ditch between all blocks first, then around each animal, then carry on with your more detailed quilting. 

Recommended Foot: A walking or piecing foot

Create Clear Boundaries Between Pieces

When you stitch in the ditch between different pieced elements of the quilt, the slight indentation made by the stitches makes the visual boundary between your piecing more crisp. If one section is then quilted more densely than the other, the less quilted area will appear “puffed” and more dimensional. I quilt around each animal in the Endangered Species BOM to make them as dramatic as possible. 

Recommended foot: Your FMQ foot if you can work in flow with your quilting plan. A ruler foot gives you the added advantage of being able to use a ruler as a guide if you need it.

Quilt Bulky Areas of Your Quilt

When a quilt is intricately pieced, some areas are simply too bulky to be easily quilted (please refer to the February tips article for my tips about navigating bulky seams). The Endangered Species BOM is an excellent example of how detailed piecing can create thick areas of fabric that threaten to break thread and / or needles. For these areas, especially on the faces of many of our animals, simple stitch in the ditch is the perfect option to secure these areas discreetly so the piecing can shine. 

Recommended Foot: A glide foot or walking foot

Introductory Level Quilting Plans

This month’s majestic Whale Shark by Cassandra Beaver has larger pieces offering the opportunity to add details to its back without wrestling with much bulk. I’m stitching in the ditch around the shark, then adding small FMQ to the darkest blue areas of the back with a lighter thread for visual interest. 

For the water, one of the motifs I explored was switchbacks at various angles to look like waves. If you choose this option, I would consider making the switchbacks no more than 3-4” long or using a ruler to help keep your lines steady and even.

Beginner Level Quilting Plans 

My first thought for adding spots to the shark was to use French Knots, but as I have exactly zero embroidery experience, I think pebbles are the next best thing! You could also mix a few pebbles into the water around your shark to show it disturbing the surface as it swims.

Intermediate Level Quilting Plans

This Whale Shark block offers the perfect opportunity to use the Rippling River motif I teach in Free Motion Quilting Academy. It creates amazing texture of water movement around the shark. Another super fun option is grafitti quilting– in this case a mix of McTavishing, swirls, and paisleys– to portray a choppier sea.


PS As you’ll see in the video, another great use for stitch in the ditch is to have “highways” around your quilt so you can work without breaking thread! If you’re worried that your “traveling” will show up on the back, just use a cool print! 

Aurifil’s 40wt Color Builders

If the Whale Shark has you feeling inspired, you’ll be delighted to know that it’s one in a series of 12 mini collections, dedicated to some of our world’s most Endangered Species. Each collection features 3 large spools of our 40wt thread in 3 hues– a warm, a medium and a dark– and comes with a coordinating FPP pattern custom-designed by Cassandra Beaver. 

Thanks so much to Cassandra Beaver for her stunning block design and to HollyAnne Knight for giving us all the quilting confidence to turn this block into a dazzling mini this year! Stay tuned as we’ll feature one animal per month throughout this year. Will you sew along with us? 

Don’t forget to tag us in your project images on Instagram– we love the opportunity to celebrate your work! 


** If today’s quilting plans inspired you, but you’re brand new to free motion quilting, check out HollyAnne’s Intro to FMQ Mini Course to learn the basics!

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