Workshop Wednesday: Improvisational Quilt Piecing

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Are you an improvisational quilter? Most of you probably immediately answered “No!” to that question. For many of us, and I’m including myself in this, successful quilting is about precision, tradition and following direction, even when we allow ourselves to explore and play a little within those boundaries.

We may think of improvisational quilting as just throwing caution to the wind and sewing bits and pieces of fabric together with no regard for design or outcome. To be sure, there may be some quilters who operate that way, but you might be surprised by how many rules most improv quilters actually follow, if only self-imposed. And the most experienced improv quilters have developed their individual voices through experimentation and exploration.

Consider jazz, the “other” art form besides quilting that’s thought of as inherently American. Jazz is defined by improvisation, but that doesn’t mean the musicians are making up those solos on the spot. No, they have all spent many, many, MANY hours practicing, getting to know their instruments and exploring musical ideas to be used later. They “woodshed,” meaning they practice intently in private. The woodshed is where they make their mistakes and find out what musical ideas won’t work so that when it’s time to hit the stage with other musicians, they know what will work when the mood strikes them.

Even in improv sketch comedy there are rules, the most fundamental one being “Yes, and…,” meaning that you agree with whatever a scene partner might introduce and try to expand upon it, no matter how outlandish it is. That type of fearlessness and willingness to take risks is built up through taking class after class and doing showcase after showcase. It takes time to get good at saying “Yes, and…,” just like any skill.

I can tell you that improvisational quilting is much less scary than improvisational sketch comedy, especially if you approach it with a mindset of establishing a few rules before you start. These rules will give you a structure and a place to start flexing a set of quilting muscles you didn’t even know you had.

Improvisational Quilt Piecing: the slice and insert method for joining fabrics at random angles while maintaining an even top edgeIn an episode of the free series “My First Quilt,” host Sara Gallegos demonstrated the slice and insert method for joining fabrics at random angles while maintaining an even top edge. Also see an example of how curved cuts can turn a fabric panel into an art piece. You can view the full free episode on our website here.

how to improvisationally piece Log Cabin blocks using scraps and strips

In two free “Quilty” video tutorials, Mary Fons demonstrated how to improvisationally piece Log Cabin blocks using scraps and strips. You can watch the full episode of part 1 here, and the full episode of part 2 here.

A couple of years ago, acquisitions editor Lori Baker and I did a three-part video series on improvisational quilt piecing inspired by the quilts of Pam Rocco. In part 1, we talked about Pam’s approach of doing “thumbnail sketches” as a way of testing designs before going forward with a full-size quilt, and focused on her version of a Greek Key pattern (spoiler alert: it’s really a Courthouse Steps once you know how to look at it). The preview video is below, and you can view the full episode on our website here.

(For the record, I did end up turning one of my Greek Key thumbnail sketches into a baby quilt. I had a lot of fun making it and would love to make another someday!)

Greek Key

In part 2, we demonstrated Pam’s Triple Pinwheel block. Again, once you know how to look at it and keep just a couple of things in mind, it’s easy to make at any size you please. And as you’ll see, making even the basic block led me to ask numerous “what if?” questions about what would happen if I made slightly different decisions. So many possibilities! The preview video is below, and the full episode is available on our website here.

And in part 3, we demonstrated how to sew Pam’s Scrap Block from start to finish. Again, we gave some measurements as a place to start, but this block can be made any size you want. You can view the full episode below.

Improvisational Bowl of Candy Hexagons with Bea Lee

Everyone’s crazy about hexagons these days, and quilt designer Bea Lee is no exception. Inspired by hexagon and triangle cutting dies, she developed an improvisational hexie block quilt that will make quick work of your scrap stash. In her “Improvisational Bowl of Candy Hexagons” on-demand web seminar, you’ll learn her step-by-step process for designing, cutting, and piecing the “bowl of candy” blocks and tips for turning them into an eye-catching wall hanging or quilt. Click here to learn more.

Improvisational Adventure

Are you ready to go beyond the cookie-cutter patterns and have a quilting adventure? This process is fun for the quilter who is not timid about cutting and stitching without a set pattern and would love the thrill of designing on the go—no templates, no patterns, no curves. Using a bright color palette, learn to creatively build Log Cabin blocks. By improvising, each block—and each quilt—will be truly distinctive. Click here for more about this pattern.

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