Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Be Fearless: Designing an Improv Quilt

I'm writing my first quilting book...as we speak...and one of the projects will be an improvisational log cabin.  This post will give you a glimpse into my design/thinking process for improvisational work.

When I started this quilt, I didn't have a specific size or even an end goal in mind.  All I knew was that I wanted to make a few samples for teaching modern improv log cabin workshops.  But, as I thougth more, I came up with a few goals:

  • Work with a modern color scheme I'd never tried before--using orange, green
  • Experiment with negative space using a lighter color
  • Keep it assymetrical
  • Play with tradition--and reinvent it

I pulled out some fabric in my stash and selected a focus fabric.  The focus fabric would guide the color palette. I looked at the color dots on the selvedge and pulled solids and bold prints that I might use. (Not all the fabrics I chose made it into the quilt.)

Start out Fearless!

Then, I started fearlessly piecing small strips like this.   The strip that's second from the left was a leftover  test strip from another project. Its a free hand cut and pieced shallow curve with white and the print.

 The fabric with the flowers was my 'focus fabric'. You can see it in the next photo in the center of the block. I  added other fabrics and began building some improv log cabin blocks.

Added two solids and one striped fabric to a focus fabric center. The stripe helped a lot but it needs more...

Another block started.  I used the stripe as the center and build around it in a traditional style. 

This block started with one of the pieced strips as its center.  Then I added random sized strips on all four sides.
  Finally, I had a set of blocks that I thought were interesting.  I selected a medium gray solid and added gray frames around each block so that they were square or rectangular.  Notice that the frames are wonky--I 'squared up' the outer edges.  Again, I didn't measure anything.  Then, I  put the blocks on my design wall to see what I liked.

Stay Fearless--don't edit too soon

After studying them, I decided to put more grey fabric around them to see how they might look as a larger top.  I turned them around and laid a couple on their sides--decided I really liked that idea.  How did I know what size to make the larger gray pieces?  I cut some large and small strips by 'eye'.  Since I would be piecing all of them together, I wasn't worried about seams showing.

On the wall--sleep on it...


At this stage, I sort of liked it...so I left it on the wall for a few days and worked on other projects.  I am the type of quilter who always has several projects going.

After a few days, I came back and removed two blocks.  I didn't like the block with the white curve--it was a 'hole' that stood out for me. I also took out the smallest square block.  I like the look of rectangular log cabins.

I was still playing with the layout and continued to move the 4 blocks around and add negative space.

And, here's the final quilt.  

In addition to being a modern take on log cabins, it's also a nod to the traditional 4 patch quilt--only here the 4 log cabins are the patches.  Maybe I should call this 4 Patch Log Cabins Dance!!

One of my signature elements is in the binding.  I randomly added pieces of print and solid to the grey binding fabric.  No measuring!  the quilting is all straightline with my walking foot.

What I Look for When I'm Editing a Design

Some quilters worry that improvisation is a mysterious magical process.   Or that it's all intuitive...meaning you don't think about anything.  Well, improvisation is random AND it's a series of decisions that are informed by a few things:
  • Our cultural and personal color preferences
  • Our knowledge of the color wheel--and all quilters know the color wheel--just look at all those rainbow quilts we make! 
  • Our knowledge of what makes a design balanced or asymmetrical (we call that wonky)
  • Our knowledge of contrast and value (light, medium and dark)
I hope that you enjoyed this glimpse into how I designed one of my quilts.  This quilt with more tips on improvisation will be in my forthcoming book on modern quilting. I teach this process as a workshop showing lots of options for making improvisationally pieced blocks and creating a unique layout.  I expect to publish my first book by March 1, 2016 so visit my blog for updates.


  1. Wonderful! Improve quilting is on my 2016 to-try list!

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