Improv With Intent

What it really means to PLAY on the design wall

My absolute favourite part of making a quilt is the getting it all to work together part. For me, this means design wall play. Generally, I have a whole bunch of components and have to come to a lay out that I like. It would be different if I planned it all in advance. In that case the design wall would only be confirming what I intended. That just isn’t how I work.

More often than not I start out making a quilt without knowing I am actually going to make a quilt. An idea, a technique, a colour story. Anything can get me going. At the beginning, however, I don’t really know that it is will be a quilt. It is just something I want to try. Even if I have full quilt intentions, I have no idea how it will actually turn out. It could be awful or a different idea can come in to being. What is most important to me is to be open to the process.

Take my most recent project as an example.

I started off making sample blocks to promote my class with Marisa Anne of Creative Thursday fame. The Make Waves block is for the Thursday Club, an online class I taught earlier this month. With waves being obviously blue I made all my samples in shades of blue. Then Marisa suggested that I add in some other colours because not every one likes blue. (I know! Right?)

At this point I had no intention of making a quilt from these blocks. It was just fun times, a good sample. I honestly expected the blocks to sit around for a few years until I rediscovered them and then maybe made more.

Then I saw that yellow block, that pink one, the teal, the blue. I immediately thought SUNSET. More specifically, OCEAN SUNSET.

Make Waves Multi.jpg

And boom! I immediately starting making more and more blocks, picking colours of the sunset. Just running with the idea, no clear plan for a quilt just yet.

After I made a dozen orange and coral blocks I stopped to take stock. What exactly would I need? How many blocks should I make? Am I focused more on the sunset than the ocean now, or vice versa? Deep breath before I dive too deep. So I sketched a picture.

Make Waves Sunset Sketch.jpg

Nothing fancy, mind you. I just coloured the sunset of my imagination. An image search showed many, many variations on the theme of that red/orange sky and a dark foreground. The emphasis should be on the sky, not the water. This led to a more formal plan.

My goal was 2/3 sunset and 1/3 water. Since I’d already started with blocks squared up to 9 1/2’’ x 9 1/2’’ I kept that. If you know me at all, you know I don’t make small quilts, so my finished sized is typically over 80” square. It just so happens that that is the perfect size for a double bed and Oh! Guess what size bed all my kids have? Well then, 9 blocks wide gives me 81” finished. And 9 blocks tall gives me an even split into thirds. That meant I needed 54 blocks for the top part and 27 for the bottom. There, quilt math done.

Over the course of a few weeks I got the sunset blocks done. I did precisely zero planning for how many blocks of each colour. I just cut a bunch of fabric - first raiding scraps, then stash - and made blocks. All blocks are improvised, but with the same technique of gentle curves and number of strips. I did save yellow for last, assuming I wouldn’t need as much because that was my sun. It’s up to the design wall play to make them work together. Of course, I am open to deleting some blocks and making others, if that is what is called for.

Then I had to lay it out on the design wall - where the fun really begins. And frankly, it doesn’t truly end until I start sewing things together and commit to the layout.

Here is the first go around with all 54 blocks.

Make waves layout A.jpg

It feels choppy, like the colours aren’t flowing. I’m never going to have a perfect gradation, but this is too far off. I also don’t like that one random bit of yellow in an orange block. It needs to be managed.

On to the next try.

make waves layout B.jpg

Much better. The pink is more on the one side and the orange on the other, but without there being a defining line. But a few blocks stick out too much to me, I want more flow. And that pesky yellow strip is a bit more under control.

Still need to play.

make waves layout C.jpg

Closer yet. I think the pink has too much of a vertical dividing line now though. I may need to wrap the pink around the orange a bit more. And maybe have all the lights be at the top?

This is how it currently stands on my design wall, which means I am not done yet. I’ll know when it feels right. I usually, involuntarily, squeal and jump when it feels good. Then I sleep on it. Now matter how perfect I think it is I do not sew it together as soon as I think so. I always sleep on it. Then I do two things. 1. Look at it is bad lighting. If it still looks good, it’s probably a winner. And 2. Take a picture. Not just to compare to previous iterations like I’ve done here, but because then it is like looking at it far away on the wall. That’s when colour and shape become prominent.

The key thing is to not rush it. Something the perfect layout is the first one you do. No need to doubt that! Sometimes it is the 10th or 20th. Don’t doubt that either. By embracing the process of quilt making, but thinking of this as play and not work, you are giving in to creativity.

Make Waves - A New Class and a New Quilt

Make Waves Thursday Club

I didn’t mean to start a new quilt. But there I was on a video call with Marisa Cummings from Creative Thursday. We were chatting about her Thursday Club - a monthly exploration of the creative act for all of us - and my upcoming class. I can’t even say what was the initial spark, but a quick sketch on that call confirmed two things.

First, the Make Waves block is for my month teaching The Thursday Club. This Thursday join me as we make the block live! I will walk you through fabric selection, both hand sewing and machine sewing techniques, and finishing options. It’s okay if you can’t join us live, you can still purchase the event and learn all about the block. This will be the only spot I will be teaching it.

Make Waves the Thursday Club

If you ever take a class with me you know I am a big proponent of creating for the sake of creativity; that nothing you make in class has to be anything. That was honestly how I started with this. Just some class samples, no plans beyond that. I picked blue for the obvious wave reference. Then Marisa suggested we have some other colours because not everyone responds to blue. So I made a few other colours. I also make some solid versions, thinking the block itself is a miniature landscape. That got me thinking about sunsets. Suddenly I am making blocks in all the colours of a sunset.

So second, this is the start of a new quilt. It’s going to be a bit to make all the blocks. You know me, I don’t make small quilts.

In the meantime, make your own waves. Join us on April 4 at 1 pm MST to learn how to Make Waves yourself. This is a totally beginner friendly improv quilt block. I will be providing instructions for both hand sewing and machine sewing. Either way, it is deceptively simply yet has striking results.

Make Waves The Thursday Club

The Thursday Club is a wonderful initiative by Marisa. I’ve known Marisa online for over a decade. She continually inspires me and I can honestly say she has changed my life in some pretty positive ways. The Thursday Club is about giving ourselves just a little bit of time to explore creativity. Last month it was painting with Helen Dardik. Next month is another painting session with Marisa. And wait until you see the rest of the line up! Just one or two hours a month to explore, play, create. Just for you. Give yourself the gift, it is worth the investment in yourself.

Register Here

The Places I've Been - Improv Letters in Action

Improv Letters and Words Quilting

The quintessential graduation gift is Dr. Suess’ Oh, the Places You Will Go! For whether you are graduating from kindergarten or medical school. It’s a fun one, full of optimism and encouragement. And while I don’t want to disparage any of that, I do think it is also important to look backwards some times. Not to hold grudges, obsess over past mistakes, or fester (although I do a fair bit of that myself). No, looking back sometimes is important for celebrating progress and success. It is a good reminder that our hard work did get us somewhere.

In the wake of some high profile retirements from the quilting industry, plus a few more you might not have noticed, I’ve been doing just that. Well, actually, I started this particular process years ago, but the past month really got me being reflective.

Quilting was a lifechanger and is a lifesaver for me, no question. I would not be the person I am, the mother I am, the woman I am, without quilting. It teaches me to embrace my own creativity. It provides a mindfulness that no amount of meditation would ever give me. It is an outlet for anxious hands. And, at the end of the day, is a career that provides financial freedom and personal challenge.

A few years back I started teaching a class on making letters and words, improv style. For my class samples I started working on the names of places I was at or had been. As a teacher I like having samples that can be something else some day, that can be built upon with each class I teach. It simply provides a focus. Picking the community names was a fun thing I tried. And it kind of stuck.

Cheryl Arkison Quilt Teacher

In all fairness, I haven’t got that far. I will admit to overwhelm when I think of having to add Charlottetown, Kangaroo Valley, and Prince Rupert to the list. That’s a lot of letters! But when I sit down to make a word, in the end, it doesn’t take that long. It becomes a wonderful trip down memory lane. I often pull out the photos from the trip and pick colours based on the scenery or something memorable from the class.

My plan is to make a quilt with all the places I’ve been. I can’t predict where I will go in this industry - it is constantly changing, as are my personal challenges - but I sure can appreciate where I’ve been. Since becoming a professional, as a writer and teacher mostly, quilting brought me to some pretty amazing places to meet some even more amazing people. How lucky am I?? I’ve worked hard and will continue to do so (this is not a retirement announcement). As I have no travel gigs booked for this year I might get this done to this point. Then we will see all the other places I will go!

Confessions of an Unconventional Quilt Teacher

Quilt Teacher

I am just back from a two week teaching trip through the Maritimes. On top of the feeling of homecoming in Halifax, the exploration of new to me cities and islands, and the joy of end of the day solitude I had a glorious time teaching! Yes, we call these bizcations in my house, but the business part comes first. That is, the business of inspiring quilters to creative action.

My style of quilt teaching is not to come in to a class with a pattern and a timeline to finish a project. While I can completely appreciate that there are many students who want just that, it isn’t the kind of class I like to teach. Rather than 20 versions of the same thing at the end of the day I want to see 20 different things! My style is to come in, teach a technique or pull an idea out of you to make. The goal is for you to see what you can do with your own skill, time, and imagination. No two quilters are the same, no two projects are the same, no two classes are the same.

For sure, I concede that this isn’t for everyone. I know that a small majority of quilters want to come out of class with a thing at the end. Something to show their partner to prove the worth of their time in the class or something to share at guild to demonstrate the joy of the effort of bringing in the teacher. I get that, really. But that just isn’t the type of teacher I am.

The work of the Maritime Modern Quilt Guild in the Improv With Intent class

The work of the Maritime Modern Quilt Guild in the Improv With Intent class

The first thing I tell my students is that what they make in class doesn’t have to be anything. Not even a mug rug or a Meals on Wheels placemat or pillow, let alone the start of a quilt. It can just be some fabric you sewed together. Ultimately, and more importantly, the class is about showing up. Just being there: embracing your own creativity, good company, and the process of quiltmaking. I want everyone to learn, but mostly, I want everyone to play.

The second thing I tell my students is that we are there to jump off a cliff. Not to worry, though, I am going to hold your hand every step of the way. Improv work, the bulk of my classes, does not come easy for most. It takes a leap. But with me in the classroom - or church hall - you have guide on the creative journey.

As a quilt teacher I see myself as three other things on top/in conjunction with quiltmaking guide: performer, playground supervisor, and therapist.

Performer

Unfortunately, I don’t get a spotlight or pyrotechnics for each class I teach. Sounds systems are nice, but not necessary (as anyone who knows me knows what I mean). Stages can sometimes be found in the room. You see, when I am in front of a group of quilters I consider myself a performer, not just a teacher.

It only took one class for me to realize that a teacher that sits at the front of the room sewing her own stuff is quite possibly the worst kind of teacher. I’ve been in those classes, as a student, and I will admit, have been that teacher at times. It is the worst. You, the student, paid money to be there, took the time to be there, hauled all your stuff to be there. If I am not going to give a thing to take home at the end of the day then I sure as hell better make the day worth it for all for you!

You can be guaranteed of stories, some bad jokes, ideas, hand holding, stunt sewing, and more. This is on top of the stellar quilting techniques we do. Hopefully no pyrotechnics though - cotton is flammable.

Playground Supervisor

At my kids’ elementary school the teachers take turns supervising recess. They walk around in reflective safety vests so everyone knows who they are. Just enough supervision to stop a fight or bandage a skinned knee. Mostly they stay out of the way and let the kids do their thing. And what are the kids doing? Playing made-up and real games, sitting in groups gossiping, tackling each other, looking for four-leaf clovers, creating yet another version of tag or grounders, or generally enjoying not having to think for a little while. Recess is the best.

I like to think of my classroom as the playground. We are there to play! To explore, to experiment, to try something new, to figure something out. It’s like taking the basic rules of tag but having a million iterations. We still use a 1/4’’ seam allowance, we still press, and squaring up happens eventually. After that? Well, we are only constricted by our fear and perceived limitations.

By no means am I the quilt police, but maybe I should wear a bright safety vest next time I teach, just so you know who I am?

Therapist

This is a stereotype. The more traditional the guild, the harder it is for most participants to relax and play. We are just so used to playing by all the rules and sitting nicely. When I say it is time to get dirty and throw some rules out many people balk. It just isn’t what they are comfortable with/used to/approve of/like. I get that. It’s normal, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean, however, I won’t encourage you to try something new just for today.

When people are struggling with what I am trying to teach or the space I am creating to play I don’t like to leave them struggling. I will sit down and have a chat. We’ll talk about the why of their quiltmaking and why this particular approach is so hard for them. I’m coming to realize that it makes me a bit of a therapist. (Minus any degrees, training, or certification.) I can’t offer any real life solutions to real life problems, but I can hold their hand as they talk about their quiltmaking journey.

What I can also do fairly well now is understand why they struggle with my approach. The response, then, is unique to each quilter. Sometimes a few personal, encouraging words is all that is needed. Other times I might literally hand them the fabric and tell them where to sew as a start. And for those running full throttle with the play and improv techniques I teach it might mean a high five or chest bump, or even a slight pull back. No matter what, I’ve got your back. I’m here for you.

Quilt Teacher Cheryl Arkison

Inspiring quilters to creative action is my biggest thrill. It is the mission of my work, as cliche as that might sound. It is a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to be in front of a crowd full of expectations. I do not take the job lightly and always try my best for the group in front of me. So you know, I appreciate every opportunity you all give me. From the big classes to the tiny guilds, from the exotic locations to the small church basements. No matter what, I am here for you.