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.

Euroa Quilt Update

Euroa Quilt English Paper Piecing

And done.

Not the quilt, just the second row. It seems I am on track for one row a year as I started this quilt a little over two years ago. I haven’t quite worked up the energy to assemble the two rows together. More accurately, I haven’t found the time to clear the dining room table to do so because that is the only place I can do it.

This whole thing is sewn together via the flat back stitch. I love it! Unlike a whip stitch, which most of us seem to use for EPP, the stitches totally disappear with the flat back stitch. On the small scale it is no less portable than the whip stitch. I always have my sketch book with me so I tape my pieces together on then get right to stitching. On the large scale though, like when I have a mega block together or am assembling a row like this, I need to go back to my old stand by - the dining room table.

In time for summer I should have the two rows together and the next batch of blocks ready for work. Slow and steady on this project. I will say that finishing this row is motivation. Yes it is only row two out of five, but seeing it all together is exciting! It reminds me that my work is indeed getting me somewhere. One block at a time it seems interminably slow, but I am drinking in the process. Camping, road trips, and the odd lazy afternoon are coming up, perfect for a little more assembly. Probably by the time I get the third row done it will be dandelion season again!

Firefly Quilt Top in Solids

Pattern Drop Firefly Quilt

All 15 fireflies taking flight!

After finishing up my epic scrap quilt last week I needed a break. Not from sewing, mind you. Only a break from little pieces and all those scraps. Like a sorbet course in a very fancy meal I thus turned to my palate cleanser - precision piecing.

Thanks to my handy dandy list of Quilts Under Construction it was easy to pick and locate a project to play with. And when I took out the blocks I had already made I realized I only needed 3 more to finish my top. A few Morning Make sessions and the blocks were all done. A quiet Sunday and the top was assembled!

There is a reason I only made 15 fireflies and left a block blank, I will share that later. If, and when, I get this quilted.

Pattern Drop Firefly Quilt
Pattern Drop Firefly Quilt

Each firefly is unique. I played around with my small stash of solids, going with colour combinations that felt right. There was no regard for colour theory or even a colour story, to be perfectly honest. I would pick three fabrics for the body, sometimes a gradient, sometimes not. Then I would pick a dark for the head and back and a light for the wings. The only really conscious decision was trying not to repeat combinations or colours in each part. For example, in the photo above the two top fireflies have a pale pink and a pale peach for their wings, they aren’t the same colour.

Do you want to hear something else? I’ve never actually seen a firefly before. They aren’t native to around here and I’ve never been somewhere else during firefly season.

That didn’t stop me from trying to have a little glow in each precious bug. The highlight around their bodies is actually Metallic Essex by Robert Kaufman. It almost blends into the regular Essex background, almost. Just enough of a sparkle to me. And I liked the idea of the metallic being woven in as I find most metallic prints fade quite a bit with regular washing.

Cheryl Arkison Firefly quilt

A few things to note:

- The combination of solids and the Essex linens mean there are A LOT of loose threads on the back of the quilt. It will require a thorough going over but I will do this right before I baste it so no more appear in the night.

- It is extraordinarily hard to get a full shot of this quilt when you are taking selfies in the back alley. But hey, at least the lilacs smelled nice.

For those of you wondering, the pattern itself is by Pen and Paper Patterns. It is one of the most detailed patterns I’ve read, I don’t think she forgot a thing! As I am not generally a pattern follower I truly appreciate it when it is so clear, no questions for my improv brain! You can buy it from Pattern Drop, Lindsey Neill designed it exclusively for them. (I was a Pattern Drop designer myself last year.) Here I thought I would make one or two blocks to help promote the pattern and now I have a whole top!


Focus means eliminating distractions, not just from other people, but the things we do to distract ourselves
— Catherine Pulsifer

My life moves in short shifts. If I was a lawyer I would book my time in 15 minute increments. It is no secret that I, like any other working mother, am being pulled in multiple directions. Kids and their activities, kids and their emotions, family business, voluntold commitments, my own writing, a teaching career, Morning Make, dog walks, attempts at a clean house, all the food, and that being a good wife thing. Not to mention extended family, some snippet of self care, and simply trying to read a book.

Maybe writing it all out wasn’t a good idea. I might make more changes.

For now, I want to let you all know that I am stepping back from selling patterns. No PDFs, no printed copies. Not until January 1, 2019 though!

I’ve come to this decision for three reasons, and they are outside of the business reality of it all.

  1. Exactly what I wrote about above. I am like Elastigirl in The Incredibles and at point, something is going to snap. Taking one thing off the list is vital to survival.

  2. Patterns require a certain hustle. I just don’t have it in me to do that particular hustle anymore.

  3. Teaching is a real passion of mine. That means teaching technique, skill, and embracing the process of improv. Written patterns rather contradict that.

To be clear, I am not leaving the industry. For all its warts and aging joints, I rather like working in the quilt industry. This is simply about focus. I have plans, big plans, and now I can truly focus on them.

Pattern Sale - now until January 1, 2019