Lessons Learned From Improv Work

I am often tempted to play with improv rather than discipline myself with a planned out project. However, if I’m feeling blue a few hours flinging fabric onto the design wall will cheer me up. It’s way cheaper than antidepressants.

I’ll begin my pearls of wisdom on improv quilting with the well known “yes and” approach used in improvisational theater, which I interpret as – be open to any and all possibilities. If you have a crazy notion, try it out. It’s just fabric and thread.

Many original quilt designs gestate on paper and maquettes before any fabric is cut for the finished piece. Improv is more slash and burn.

I work directly on a design wall with my fabric bins close to hand. Now, my bins contain fabric strips up to 2.5 inches wide, little bits of fabric I can’t bear to toss, larger pieces of fabric that are smaller than a fat quarter, and fabrics I’ve printed, painted, stamped, embroidered, or already sewn together. I tend to work small for improv pieces, so scraps free me from my inability to cut into virgin yardage.


With that inhibition out of the way, I sift through my scraps in search of inspiration. Shapes that work together, certain colors or textures, or a marquee scrap can give me a theme.


After I make a pile of fabric possibilities (no curating for me) I start sticking up bits on my design wall, working by instinct. After a few rearrangements, I decide what to delete or add. Sometimes I go back to the scrap bins.

The next step after “yes, and” is to leave it alone for a while. Once I reach an initial composition that momentarily satisfies me I walk away.

Only at this point do I analyze my draft. I take photos with my digital camera to help me step back from the wall. Sometimes I feel only a little tweaking is needed. More often, I feel a lot of work is in order.

I realize that my process may work for me but not for you. However, here’s my advice that I think applies to any improv created quilt.

Don’t stop with the first solution that satisfies you. I suggest you study your photos. Print them out and cut them up to see if you like another arrangement. Turn the piece upside down and sideways. Another orientation may work better or inspire the next addition.

Sometimes another possibility will occur to you while you’re working. Feel free to start it.  It can be more fun to work on two at once. You already have your scraps at hand.

After studying your draft for a while, feel free to cut up your piece to change its shape. Put any leftover bits into a bin for another piece.

Once you’re satisfied with your piece, let it sit on your desk/design wall for a while. Look at it in different lights, see if you’re still happy with it. If it’s a go, sew your pieces together.

Then you’ll be ready to quilt it if you think your piece is a keeper. You may find some ideas have popped into your head during the piecing phase. If not, a small improv piece is great for trying out new types of quilting. Performance anxiety should be low, and goofs can become design elements.

Here’s the first improv piece I ever made, called “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” At the time I was reading Jean Wells’ Intuitive Color and Design, which inspired the curves and the mounting. I sewed together scraps left from trimming a paper pieced top. I have yet to finish the paper pieced top.

Nothing Gold Can StayIf you do improv I’d love to hear about your process, and any tips you have.




Filed under In Process, Inspiration, Techniques

4 responses to “Lessons Learned From Improv Work

  1. patty

    What great advice for anyone not knowing how to approach improv piecing! You are so good at putting a process into words that are clear and understandable. My process is mostly in my head. I think about what I want to do with something that has inspired me. I do a lot of designing in my head before I start hanging pieces on the design wall. Once I start sewing together the fabrics, I continue to refine the design and move things around as I play around when situations arise. For example, when I made the rock t-shirt piece I had no intention of having a narrower row where the motif went sideways. But the piece was getting too big for the show requirements and I want to have as many different bands represented as possible. The motifs that fit into that narrow width got moved from their original spot and boom, there you go! I had a blast last night with you and all the ladies touring the show!

    • I’m such a literalist that I have to see the actual fabrics before I begin a design, although I may have a vague idea before I begin. And I think the sideways motifs in your quilt give an element of surprise for the viewer. Make ’em work for it. Glad you enjoyed yourself. Maybe you should join SAQA. Yes, there are dues, but it’s a different crowd than the modern one.

  2. Good advice here. Though I don’t work “improv” like you work improv, I do assume any part of my design might change. I’ve changed center blocks, even, after borders were attached. And though I might well stop with the first solution that satisfies me, I don’t get stopped by a solution that doesn’t. If it’s already sewn on, there’s nothing some seam ripping can’t fix. Or rotary cutter. Many times I’ve cut borders narrower after they were already attached. It’s amazing what LESS of something can do to improve things. And let’s say i cut it and then decide I’ve “ruined it.” Yeah, sew what. Again, that’s what the ripper is for.

    Over the last 3 years, especially, I’ve gone past most of my fear of mistakes, because I see better all the time that mistakes help me learn, and also that it’s all fixable. And also that when it isn’t fixable, it’s not fatal. 🙂

    • I think one of the hard things about improv is figuring out the proportions. You alluded to this with regard to borders. And if you cut off too much, you can get creative with adding something different back on.

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