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.