How to Sew A Modern Improv Quilt Block (for Newbies)

Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks

Virginia Cole wrote the following article for Modern Patchwork March/April 2017. She is a quilter living in Moses Lake, Washington. Previously, she created miniature quilt collages but has since gone modern. She started the Moses Lake Modern Quilt Guild chapter and thoroughly enjoys spending time with other modern quilters.

Modern quilting is all about creating your own designs and looking beyond the traditional rules. But newbies sometimes feel intimidated by that freedom. Are you intrigued by modern designs but don’t know how or where to start? You can design your own block—or your own quilt—even if you’ve never done it before, with these simple instructions. Distilled down to the basics of gray, white, and a bold color, these improvisational blocks are fun, versatile, and wonderfully addictive.

Here are three techniques for creating a Newbie Modern Quilt Block. Try making a few using each technique, varying the position of the colored element, the size of the quilt block, and the placement of each element. You’ll find that you have favorites, and will probably want to make more than just one.

These cutting instructions are for 20 quilt blocks, which is a good amount to play with for a variety of quilt settings.

Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks


Skill Level: Intermediate

NOTE: As this is an improvisational technique, yardage is approximate. The yardage noted below should be enough for 20 blocks set in a coverlet- or twin-size quilt.

  • ¼ yard each of 10 different gray prints and solids
  • 1⁄8 yard each of 20 different bold color prints and solids
  • 3–4 yards white solid for blocks and background/setting strips
  • 3 yards backing and binding/facing
  • Twin-size quilt batting
  • Double-sided fusible web (optional)
  • Camera (optional)


NOTE: The cutting instructions specify to cut each Gray with a corresponding measurement in White. For example, cut a Gray piece 2″ x 10″ and White piece 4″ x 10″. In this example, you will sew them together on the 10″ side.

From assorted Gray, cut:

  • 20 rectangles or squares of various sizes with sides no longer than 10″ or shorter than 2″. Try to cut no 2 alike.

From White, cut:

  • various sizes with sides no longer than 10″ or shorter than 2″. Make sure each White rectangle/square has a side the same length as a Gray rectangle/square.

NOTE: Set aside remaining White for later steps.

From assorted Color pieces, cut:

  • 20 rectangles, squares, triangles, and/or circles. Include some long skinny strips.

TIPS: Cut as you go! Improvisation allows the designer to make changes along the way. To get the most out of this technique, follow these guidelines:

  • Cut enough fabric for only a few blocks at a time.
  • Sew several blocks together and review your work. These blocks may lead to other block design ideas.
  • Try this technique with a group. This could be a fun guild activity.


NOTE: Each block will be different and so their assembly may be different as well. Aim for rectangular-shaped blocks in the range of 5″ x 8″ to 10″ x 14″. Remember, you aren’t locked into a size at this stage: each block will be trimmed later, as needed.


  1. Sew a gray rectangle/square to a similar length white rectangle/square.
  2. Slice the block perpendicular to the seam. Make sure the slice is not in the center: the goal is for asymmetry, so make the slice either nearer to the top or the bottom of the pieced unit.
  3. Sew a color strip between the slices and trim the block.
    Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks

Play with the placement of a color element in this block before sewing the pieces together. Consider making several of these blocks, varying the position of the colored element.

Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks

  1. Sew a gray rectangle/square to a similar length white rectangle/square.
  2. Place a color rectangle or square somewhere on the block, over the seam. This will help you “audition” where the colored element will be positioned.
  3. Cut a panel from the gray/white the same width as the colored piece.
    Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks
  4. Cut gray/white pieces from the cut panel and sew to either side of the colored piece.
    Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks
  5. Sew the white and gray solid pieces to either side and trim the block.
    Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks

Fusible appliqué allows for a significant amount of freedom in designing quilt blocks. Don’t feel restricted by geometric shapes if you choose to fuse. You can easily substitute letters, numbers, or freeform cuts for geometric shapes.

  1. Sew a gray rectangle/square to a similar length white rectangle/square.
  2. Place a color shape on top. Move it around to explore different placements, moving it until you smile.
  3. Apply fusible web to the wrong side of the colored shape and fuse in place, following manufacturer’s instructions, or appliqué the shape to the block using your favorite method.
  4. Trim the block.
    Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks


Now that you have all sorts of Newbie blocks in different sizes, you can incorporate them in a quilt design. Use your newfound improv skills to create an innovative block layout.
TIP: Take photos of your block arrangements while you are designing to keep track of your ideas.

  1. Try 3 horizontal rows, like blocks hanging from a clothesline or make 4 columns of vertical banners flying this way and that. Investigate other shapes like circles or arrange them like a frame. Add white background fabric or contrasting fabric, as needed.
  2. Arrange the blocks in a pleasing design and piece or appliqué to create the quilt top.
    Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks


  1. Divide the backing fabric into panels at least 8″ longer than the top. Sew panels lengthwise, creating a backing at least 8″ wider than the top. Cut the batting the same size as the backing.
  2. Layer backing, batting, and quilt top; baste. Quilt as desired.
  3. Measure the completed quilt. Cut enough 2½”-wide binding strips for the 4 sides of the quilt plus 10″–15″. Sew the strips into 1 continuous piece for straight-grain French-fold binding. Add binding to quilt.
    Newbie Modern Quilt Blocks

While it may feel intimidating to piece a seemingly complicated quilt top like this, breaking it down into small sections will help. The resulting quilt will truly be your own.

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