“The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters”

I’ve been vacillating about reviewing this book by Sherri Lynn Wood as I admired parts, and became extremely impatient with other aspects. Other quilters have responded much more positively to this book (see Fresh Lemons Quilts for an example) so be aware that responses vary wildly.

Wood improv handbook cover

It’s another modern quilt focused book about freeing your work through improvisational quilting. Lucie Summers (“Quilt Improv”) and Alexandra Ledgerwood (“Improvising Tradition”) have written recent books on the topic.

Wood’s take on improv is to divide different types of improv into scores (as in musical) that correspond loosely to squares, string piecing, flying geese, curved piecing, etc. She devotes a chapter to each, showing how she made a quilt for each score. I like that she includes quilts made by other quilters to interpret the scores. You can see many of them on Wood’s website. She also gives a lot of guidance for techniques to deal with the fallout of ruler free improv work; the pleats, the lumps, the gaps, the overlaps, etc.

You read that right – ruler free. Wood’s approach derives from Nancy Crow and the Gee’s Bend quilters. Crow doesn’t permit her students to use rulers but trains them how to cut by eye. The Gees Bend quilters lopped off and added fabric to make pieces fit and didn’t worry about squared off edges.

Anyone trained in classical quilt making with precision points and lots of ruler use will shudder while reading this book. Wood celebrates all the by the seat of the pants make-dos that are drummed out of new quilters. That may not be a bad thing. Too often quilters get so focused on the technical aspects of their work and following the pattern they forget about the fun of just in time decisions and building a quilt to suit themselves.

However, these improv techniques can be dangerous (joke!) in the hands of quilters inexperienced with making independent design decisions. Wood studied with Nancy Crow and has made quilts for many years, so she has developed a sense of design and color.

The improv round robin quilts featured in one chapter were clunky and awkward to my eye.  I know that’s judgmental, but I don’t believe every improv quilt is great or even OK. It takes far more effort than is apparent to make a good looking improv quilt, and I think that half of the improv quilts I’ve made don’t hit the mark.

I mention this only because quilters new to improv shouldn’t get discouraged at their initial results. It’s always fun to cut up a “failure” and reuse it.

Wood gives helpful advice on beginning improv work, though I winced at some of her word choices. Here’s her synopsis for the strings score: “curate your fabrics, set limits for three distinct string sheets, define your patchwork procedure, create a composition with the string sheets.”  (Sorry, I have a knee jerk negative reaction to curating anything. Can’t I just pick my fabrics?) Actually, this is similar to The Parts Department used in “Freddy and Gwen Collaborate Again,” which was published in 2009. This review by Dining Room Empire captures the flavor of Gwen Marston’s and Freddy Moran’s approach.

Lovers of fine quilt construction will gasp in horror when they read the techniques section of this book. Wood shows how to take a dart in a quilt top to remove a bump. Personally I thought I would do that in some circumstances. Same with darting across curves. I know, I know. If you constructed your top correctly you wouldn’t have to resort to such methods. Wood is definitely not a strict constructionist. One of her quilting references is “Accidentally On Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African-American Quilts” by Eli Leon.

Wood’s method of wedge strip piecing on a curve is about the only technique I’m inclined to try, mostly because I’ve already done a lot of her other techniques by accident or design. I have issues with the finishing methods given here for binding. I just hate overlapped binding ends because of the lump created.

My larger issue with Wood is her application of new-agey concepts to quilting. I’m to nurture an improvisational mind, journal, center myself before I start working, be present, and cut from my core. Not only are my knees jerking, but my eyes are rolling. Personally, I find such stuff pretentious, but I understand these terms may appeal to many. Quilting is a big tent with many roads to it.

Since pictures speak louder than words, here are quilts created by other quilters for this book that appealed to me. From the top they are “Burning Love” by Mina Kennison, “Indigo Bloom” by Latifah Saafir, and “Letting Go” by Drew Steinbrecher.  Each shows a well developed design and color sense.

Score for Modern Block Improv Mina Kennison Score for Bias Strip Petals Latifah Saafir Score for Get Your Curve On Drew Steinbrecher



Filed under Books, Modern Quilting

14 responses to ““The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters”

  1. Judy

    I got a real chuckle out of the idea of centering yourself, etc. If I waited for that, it would be a long wait. I do best when I just go in there, think about what I want/need to do, and start. At some point after that, I find myself in that wonderful zen creation space. I am amazed– or horrified– about what comes out of that zen space sometimes, but if I tried pre-centering, I would never even walk into the room to start.

    • Sounds like you’re of the “just show up and do the work” school. It may be that Wood considers your approach – to go into your studio and think about what you want to do – to be centering. I always thought of centering as something you did with hanging pictures on a wall.

  2. patty

    As you know I participated in testing a “score” for her. First thing that drove me crazy was trying to reinvent the wheel by calling each design a “score”. There are musical scores, you can score in a game, but I question what purpose was calling it a “score”? I think SLW’s book lacks the showing of good solid sewing techniques. I improv piece, but my quilts are not lumpy, bumpy , and there is no need to take out excess fabric with a dart. I was slightly horrified when I saw how the “pedals” were constructed. To make bias strips, sew them in a curve, and then press the life out of them to try and get them flat? Yes, I could do that, but does it make sense? I don’t think so. I wonder how much fabric has been thrown in the trash because the piece ended up like a bowl? I have a much better way of achieving the same result without torturing the fabric. This is not a beginners book by any means. You need to have some skills before attempting to try some of the “scores”.

    • So, when is your book about that better way coming out? Just kidding. I think the “score” business is an attempt to find a different hook on improv. Also, I think Wood believes that doing things the Gee’s Bend way on purpose is to be admired. While I love the graphic qualities of many Gee’s Bend quilts, I think part of their “accidental” approach came about from lack of quality materials and the need to make do. It seems pretentious to emulate that approach when you have quality materials and tools.

  3. I think this is an excellent review–it provides information about what you look for in a book and shows how the book meets, and fails to meet, those criteria. If I come to a book with the same criteria, the review lets me know whether to bother with the book. And I won’t bother. The writing style would tick me off so much I’d have a terrible attitude about the content! Plus the approach to improv quilting (which I’m not drawn to anyway, as a maker) sounds too vague and new-agey. Your discussion made me think of abstract art and the ways in which so many of the best artists in that genre are also classically-schooled in art technique. So, when my husband sees a piece of fine abstract art and says, “I could do that,” I’m pretty confident to say, “No. You couldn’t.”

    • I had to laugh when Wood cited her study with Nancy Crow as the source of her ruler free approach. Crow spent many years making perfectionist quilts with perfect points, working from detailed templates, before she threw away her ruler. Again, a grounding in technique made Crow’s later work possible.

  4. “Curate” makes my back teeth hurt! I think one of the major differences between this book (and many other modern quilting books) is the authors really don’t have a solid understanding of basic quiltmaking. You really do have to know the rules to break them intelligently. I’ve been hanging around long enough to remember when Gwen and Freddy were making traditional quilts. That understanding is why their subsequent journey into minimalism and exuberant improv has worked so well. Too many of the new folks seem to have a “how hard can it be?” Attitude.

    • I understand where you’re coming from. I know one newbie who back stitched all her seams, something quilters usually don’t do. She learned quilting from YouTube videos and I guess they didn’t cover that issue. Yet…some of the most innovative quilts I’ve seen have been made by people with zero sewing experience. They blithely did intricate curved seaming without knowing it was supposed to be hard. These were folks with an art background, so the design and color aspects of their work weren’t an issue.

  5. Thanks so much for this. I just brought this book home from the library and haven’t been able to spend much time with it yet. Winging it without either construction skills or design knowledge is only going to produce a great quilt by accident. Improv construction is not an issue in my world — hell, I’m improving all the time to a small degree! — but it still has to serve the finished product.

    I’m a believer, also, in using a mindful approach to quilting (and most things.) But I doubt most people will learn meditation in a quilting book. My take on it is simpler — be open, be flexible, don’t give up easily, but be gentle on yourself and your art.

    You and I have a lot of the same peeves. “Curate” certainly makes me roll my eyes!

    All that said, the quilts you share from the book are pretty great.

    • I did show those quilts that to me showed excellent design with carefully considered choices. There are others in the book that I’m not so wild about. The Latifah Saafir one actually has a horizon line that gives a still life effect. The Drew Steinbrecher quilt is enhanced by the subtle background piecing and moved from good to great by that blue stripe on the left side.

      Let me know your thoughts on this book once you’ve had a chance to digest it.

  6. I agree with your mixed reaction to this book. SLW and I share the same philosophical approach up to a point and I am familiar with the books she references, including the Zen-oriented ones. I do like her book, but all the tireless self-promotion that has (of necessity, I suppose) accompanied its publication sets my teeth on edge.

    • Anymore publishing a book isn’t for the faint of heart. I gather that writers of quilting related books are expected to be their own marketing/PR departments. I am becoming a tad cynical about many of the modern quilt books that seem to contribute little to the literature, and don’t even have doable patterns. SLW’s book has a coherent approach to quilting and tries to cover all aspects of the process. I’m just at a different place in my own quilting journey.

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