improvisational piecing

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.

Improv Curves - Scrappy Versus Scrap

Improv Curves Color Girl Quilts

I knew there was a reason I couldn’t throw away the scraps.

There I was, playing around and making this improv curve quilt. It was completely inspired by a very precise pattern by Sharon at Color Girl Quilts (Indigo). But the way I chose to make it meant then I was left with a lot of cut out curves. They matched and all, but they weren’t needed for the quilt I was then making.

Rather than toss them aside to get jumbled or lost I kept the pairs of pie and crust together then sewed them up when everything else was done. Then they got tossed aside and nearly jumbled and lost.

A few weeks ago I was in the mood to finish something. I was also in the mood for some design wall play. With zero plan for these scrap curves I started playing. For a few evenings I arranged and rearranged. Some layouts were too much like the original. One was, ahem, a little too lady-like. I had flowers and other things up there too. In the end I settled on the one that - at first - felt too predictable. But that first instinct proved the best. It used up all but 9 of the blocks and I am thrilled with the results.

Improv Curves

When I went to take the photo I discovered a very interesting thing - the scrap quilt was bigger than the original! Side by side they relate by way of colour scheme and the improv curves, but they are too very different quilts! One fundamental difference, however, is that I would call the first quilt scrappy, while the second is a scrap quilt. That is, the first one has multiple fabrics, all chosen deliberately. The second one was me working with what I was handed in scraps. It might be a subtle or even a semantic difference, but there is a difference.

Side note: The difference between scrappy and scrap is one of my new truck shows!

These now get added to the pile of quilt tops. No matter when they eventually get quilted though, I think they will have to go to a certain pair of sisters that lives in my house.

Improv Curves Color Girl Quilts


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

Itty Bitty Curves Update 2 Years later

Tiny Piecing Improv Curves

When I posted some photos of these little curves the other day a non-quilting friend asked me if I was making another version of the quilt. Because she remembered me working on them last year. Nope, same quilt. More piecing.

I pulled this project back in to the rotation last week. After so many scrap projects of late it is nice to be working with a controlled colour scheme. Not that the piecing is any faster with these itty bitty curves! I guess this was the itch that needed to be scratched.

Many times I’ve been asked how big I plan to make this quilt. The answer is always “Until I run out of fabric.” Of course, since I am working with solids I could replace them. Frankly, I’ve done that once already. But even I have limits and will likely stop once this round of fabric is done. In actuality, the supply of yellow fabric is getting low so I guess that will be my limiting factor. As it currently stands, the pieces for the top make it about 40’’ x 60’’ .

Tiny Piecing Improv Curves Quilting

As the fabric supply dwindles I’ve decided to focus on making the little blocks instead of assembly. I have absolutely no idea how much bigger this can and will get. My little plastic baggies are filled with the size sorted blocks, like some sort of quilting drug deal. Every time I sew, press, square up, and add to the collection my potential finished quilt gets an inch or two bigger. By sewing all the blocks now I will ensure that my colours stay balanced across the entire finished quilt and not have a portion where there is no yellow, for example. So I will sew all the blocks first then sew them all together. Fingers crossed this leaves me with a functional sized quilt.

It’s been precisely 2 years since I started this project in a class with Chawne Kimber. At the time it was a fun experiment, a good way to play with one of my idols in the room guiding me. There is no rushing tiny piecing, especially when you want the finished result to be large enough to cover a lap and not just a wall. There is also an inherent boredom in tiny piecing, especially when making something larger. It is a A LOT of repetitive action. If it takes me a few years, it takes me a few years. I am thoroughly engaged in the process when I am doing it and have no problem letting my interest ebb and flow. I’m floating down a slow river and the ride is good.

Chawne Kimber tiny piecing