improv piecing

Modern Star Sampler Quilt

Star Quilt

Ah, that mid fall snow storm. At least it makes for good quilt photos. Plus the motivation to stay inside and finish up a quilt top!

This stars quilt is probably at a decade in the making, if not more. It started as a Block of the Month. I fell behind by the third month then completely lost track of the online pattern. So I made it up. I’ve spoken about it before, that even when you are doing precision piecing, it can be improv.

So there you have it, the top finally finished. Such a pretty thing, if I can say that myself.

Five pointed Star Quilt Block

This is one of my favourite block styles in the whole quilt. It’s paper pieced, not exactly improv. I sized up a free pattern offered by Amy Friend to get my 12.5” squares. But the spirit of those hand drawn triangles we all made as a kid was exactly what I wanted. And it was the perfect foil to all the other star designs in the quilt. It needed these stars for balance.

I’m already sure I will do a simple all over pattern for quilting this. Nothing fancy, just let it live as a finished quilt as opposed to fussing about outlining each star or obsessing about matching thread colours. In fact, I’ve already started on the backing. I took all the trimmings and scraps from this last run of blocks and put them together. In a few Morning Make sessions I had one big improv block. It would make a great table runner, but I need a quilt back more than I need a table runner.

Improv Quilt Back

Oh, and a quick shout out to my 7yo son. He took the outdoor shots for me while I held up the quilt. I also wasn’t kidding about that snow. This was last week, before September ended! Then it melted. Then it snowed again. I’m not complaining, it did get me some pretty shots in the end!



Round and Round - Improv Log Cabins in a Circle

Imrpov Log Cabin Quilts

Round and Round

80” x 80”

Definitely not my oldest quilt in the construction pile, but 5 years later this one is done. I looked, and I made the original handful of blocks in September 2014. Oddly enough, also on a September snow day. Yet this quilt is the antithesis of a snow day. It is bright and obnoxious, full of energy and noise, not quiet, serene, or peaceful. But it will keep you warm during not that freaky, obviously, snowstorms.

So I started it 5 years ago, finished the top 3 years ago, and it took me all summer to quilt it. Sounds about right!

It ended up being a bear to quilt. I really wanted to get it done but it was at a peak of pain for me. So I got my friend Philippa to thread baste it for me on her long arm. But then I fought and fought with my machine on quilting it. Thread kept breaking and my bobbin sensor went haywire. Even a trip to the spa didn’t solve the problems. But I kept her clean, got new bobbins, and eventually learned to turn off the bobbin sensor. Oh, and adjusted that top tension. We will not mention my tendency to speed through corners and the impact that may have had on quilting.

Improv Log Cabin Scrap Quilts

I did use a go-to thread colour for scrap quilts - olive/sage green. It would truly be my last choice of colours given a stack of fabric or rack of thread, but it works brilliantly with scrap quilts. It blends better than grey and falls in a nice medium value so as not to pop out anywhere. With a scrap quilt like this an all over pattern is precisely perfect.

Hot pink binding for the win!

Plans are underway for something more for this quilt. I’m pretty excited to see what I can do. The snow needs to melt and health needs to return to our house. Both should happen by the weekend. After that, we’ll see if my plans can come to fruition. It just takes the time to do the work! Hard to do with that regular family business job, shingles, and sick kids. In the meantime, this quilt is already in rotation for snuggles.

Scrap Quilts Log Cabin Quilts

Patterns versus Improv Piecing

Are patterns and improvisational quilting diametrically opposed? After last’s project update I had a few notes and questions from people questioning my assertion that precision piecing can be improv. I’ve heard the same thing in my classes over the years.

The perception is that you either sew improvisationally or you follow patterns. And never the two shall meet. This is far from the case. Both are creative acts and nearly all quilters, at different times, sew with varying degrees of improvisation and pattern following. It is not dissimilar to acting. 

Random, scrappy hand pieced diamonds, cut from templates.

Random, scrappy hand pieced diamonds, cut from templates.

When we think of acting and improv we think of rapid fire ad libbing and comedy. It’s like the audience is experiencing the actor’s brain, as it happens. With scripted work the actor is playing out someone else’s imagination. Both are awesome, valid, and creative.

 But if an actor just stood there and recited the lines of the script there would be nothing but words. It is in their interpretation, their own emotions, and their ability to translate the intent of the scriptwriter that the words come to life.

Following a pattern to make a quilt is quite similar. The designer, like the scriptwriter, is laying out the words for the actor to bring to life. Only you, the quilter, are in charge of bringing the design to life with your fabric selection, your seams, and your ways of finishing the quilt. Copy the quilt directly and you are still doing more than simply reciting the script.

Some very precise piecing in a block designed by  Cristy Fincher of Purple Daisies Quilting , using her paperless paper piecing technique.

Some very precise piecing in a block designed by Cristy Fincher of Purple Daisies Quilting, using her paperless paper piecing technique.

This notion that you are still creating when you sew from a pattern seems to be missing in the quilting world today. With so much of the decision making being offered up for the quilter in the form of patterns, precuts, bundles, and kits it can feel like creativity is given to us in a can. This isn’t necessarily the case.

For one, you are still making something. You are taking the time to sew together something with your own two hands (and likely a machine). This is a helluva lot more creative than going to a store to buy a blanket.

And for another, it is impossible to create exactly THAT quilt on the cover of the pattern. Even if you had all the same fabric and followed the pattern to the letter, your quilt has your hand, your sewing signature embedded in it. The stitches would be different, the quilting likely unique, and the final stitches in the binding present only in your quilt. 

While pattern following may get dissed for an apparent lack of creativity, improv gets all the credit. Is that really fair?

My Lilla quilt pattern - a mix of precision piecing and improv techniques - with an improvised layout limited by the fabric on hand.

My Lilla quilt pattern - a mix of precision piecing and improv techniques - with an improvised layout limited by the fabric on hand.

 One of the most common forms of improvisational piecing is about sewing together random bits of fabric. The quilter may even remove all decision making from the process by placing their fabric in a brown paper bag or a basket. It becomes about the act of sewing, when control of fabric selection is taken away. In this sewing is still a creative act, but is there a lot of creativity involved? Absolutely there is, just like the quilter who agonizes over fabric selection for the Swoon quilt they are making. Just like the quilter who sketches out a new template for a flower they want to sew. Just like the quilter who picks a block pattern and starts making blocks with no end in site.

 I often tell my Improv students that part of improvisation is the ability to accept that you are starting without knowing where you will end up. You are starting with the intent, in most cases, of making a quilt. That never changes. And that is the same regardless of how you get there in the end.

Sometimes the pattern follower decides they want to add a few blocks, or change the layout compared to the pattern cover. They might run out of fabric and need to figure out a new solution. Sometimes the improv piecer is trying to recreate a certain shape or idea through their piecing. The level of interpretation and control vary, but they are essentially doing the same thing. The pattern follower is improvising, ad libbing as they go. They’ve taken the script and gone off in their own direction, improvising. The improvisational piecer is creating a template, a pattern for the direction they want to go.

It is even unfair to say that it is a continuum. You can’t put yourself on one end or another and sometimes in between. This still sets it up as an either/or thing. It can be both, at the same time.

Creativity is there because you are creating. As soon as you make, you are being creative. Any time you make a decision along the way, you are being creative. It isn’t about who is more creative, which way of sewing is more creative, it is about the act of creating. Creativity is still there, only manifested differently each time.

You may not be the script writer or the manic actor making us laugh, but you are a quilter, no matter what.

Started with vintage fabric and HSTs. It didn’t work so I had to improvise a layout that did.

Started with vintage fabric and HSTs. It didn’t work so I had to improvise a layout that did.

A slightly different version of this post appeared as an article in Quilty. Continued thanks to Sean Hogan, an improv actor/teacher based in LA and Leanne Chahey of She Can Quilt for their insights.

Time for PLAY

Triangle Play Improv Quilting

My big Bernina is acting up. It is making me more than a bit frustrated. 1. That is an expensive machine that, for me, has not lived up to the hype. 2. I want to finish quilts and that is my machine for quilting! In an effort to chill out and still be hanging out in the sewing room I pulled out my old machine (which is perfect for piecing), consulted my great big list of quilts under construction, and picked this improv piece to play with.

I checked and it turns out this project was my summer play 2 years ago. And I haven’t done much on it since!

Improv Piecing Solid quilts

As I said in my last post, this summer is low key when it comes to quilting and my business in it. I am encouraging my kids to be free range and PLAY as much as they can. We are swamped in the school year between classes and their chosen activities, life is Capital B Busy. Just like them maybe I need to be putting aside the ‘supposed to’ things and need to play a bit more. Yes, I am swimming and frisbee tossing and bike riding with them, but I mean play for myself.

Yeah, this time is for me to play so that is exactly what I am going to do with these blocks. Unexpected or weird colour combinations. More angles and less angles. Experimenting. Making mistakes and getting creative trying to fix them. Moving my body and brain in ways it isn’t necessarily used to doing but is exactly what it needs. Venturing into the unknown with a sense of adventure and only a little bit of direction.

Play.