Thursday 29 October 2015

Limited improv - improv without the fear

A lot of people feel afraid of improv, often they don't know how or where to start, and it's keeping them from trying it. I think the trick is to start in a small way, I call it limited improv - to be honest, I only thought of that term just as I was starting this blog post, good timing! - and build up your confidence. I'll illustrate it below with a quilt top I recently made...

As I see it, improvisational patchwork (improv for short) is not completely random, and is seldom as "free" as it looks. While it may look random in many ways, improv always starts with some (a few or many) guidelines. You may call those guidelines by different names; rules, scores, limits, boundaries, constraints... those guidelines are all-important: They direct your improv throughout the making process and leads to a more unified result. Of course, being improv, the rules are there to be broken, so guidelines can change during a project. But it is necessary to have some in place to start off with.
If you are daunted by improv, you can simply increase the guidelines of your project to a level just beyond your comfort zone (after all, no harm in challenging yourself a small bit). To start, try mixing a little improv with your usual accurate and planned piecing, like I did. It all started with this:

"More Hearty Good Wishes" by Janet Clare for Moda

At the time I was doing quite a bit of Sashiko, and I wanted to capture some simple images in sashiko style stitching. I chose a couple of the less complicated images from the fabric and enlarged them to a comfortable size for stitching. It was great fun, and worked up much quicker than expected. I wanted to include the resulting small panels into a bigger project, a throw maybe, so I found some more fabric... I had a charm pack (5" squares), a couple of half yards and fat quarters, and my different-sized panels. I pondered how to best use it all to end up with a usable size quilt. At first I had no intention to use improv for this quilt at all.

Because I had no plan or pattern in mind for this quilt, I started with a few guidelines (guidelines can play a role in non-improv piecing, too):
  • use the fabrics I had - no more fabric buying
  • use the charm squares without further cutting - further cutting would reduce the final size, and I didn't want small, fussy piecing anyway for this one
  • use the sashiko panels - I had stitched 3 images, and two patterned strips, all different sizes
  • more linen/cotton was available - but would need more sashiko 
  • I wanted a no-fuss look - not wonky, just straight squares and rectangles
  • use the fabrics randomly throughout the top - no advance planning of fabric placement
  • balance light and dark
I started off with the easy part, which was not improv at all: I sewed the charm squares into four-patches. They ended up 9" finished size, but there were only 10 four patches, and I had two charms left. Laying them out on the floor (no design wall for me), I decided to make a few more by cutting some more squares from half yards and to place them chequerboard-like in a square quilt top. Then I considered what to make in between them.

This is where the improv came in (finally, I hear you say). It was obvious really, since the sashiko panels were such different sizes I had to add fabric around them. So I started to edge the sashiko with random strips from my fabrics, until they were big enough to be trimmed to the desired square size of 9". After neatly trimming most of them I realised that they had to be 9" finished, so 9½” unfinished (of course!! aargh!) so I improvised the blocks some more!

Liking the effect a lot I set about improvising squares for the remaining gaps from arbitrary strips and pieces, finally ending up with 13 four patch squares, and 12 improv squares. They went together into a top like a dream...

If you look carefully you can easily make out where the square blocks are, but the overall effect is surprisingly random! So give it a go, set yourself some guidelines (a few or a lot), and start improv. Even limited improv can lead to great results, and it may be the start of your journey to find out what unlimited possibilities improv has to offer!

My quilt top will (soon, hopefully) be finished with some more sashiko images in the cotton/linen pieces, and a straight border to frame it. I didn't set out to make an improv top, and of course it isn't very improv anyway, but a project like this is great to gently ease yourself into improv piecing. If you are daunted by the idea of making an improv quilt, limited improv may well be the start of an enjoyable improv journey. Making improv can be done just like making a traditional quilt; one block at a time. And to finish off another image from one of the improv blocks:

I had to leave this part of the selvedge visible in the quilt, I'm sending you all "GOOD WISHES"!!

Linking up with AHIQ - Ad Hoc Improv Quilters at Sew Slowly and Fret Not Yourself
Also linking with Quilting Inspiration at Joy for Grace


Tuesday 20 October 2015

Pattern testing - BFF quilt

In my most recent sewing post I showed some improvisational patchwork, this time quite something else! While I do enjoy improv enormously, I also like the challenge of precise piecing.

Since I have become aware of the online quilting community I have mainly written my own posts (be it irregularly) and watched/read what others put out there. I just didn't have the time to be too involved with swaps, challenges and bees, and have been watching from the sidelines, thinking "one day...".

But when I had the opportunity this summer to test a pattern for Rebecca Bryan I felt it was time to jump in and try something new. The block she was making the pattern for required curved piecing which I was itching to get back to (have I ever shown you my double wedding ring quilt? I also have ideas for a different one), and I had some time to work on an extra project at the time, too. I jumped at the chance and Rebecca was happy to have me (even though I can't imagine she'd ever heard of me before)!

I decided to start with one block, to be made into a mini. Once I had received the pattern I wanted to start straight away so I chose some fabrics that I had at hand (no time for a day trip to the not-so-local quilt shop) and made a rather traditional version.

The pattern includes helpful directions for curved piecing, though I prefer to do it slightly differently, and use no more than three pins myself. The curve is not very tight and pieces together really easily:

curved piecing using three pins
 The corner units are made up of Half Square Triangles and HST units, apart from the corner triangles which are quarter square triangles. So within a couple of days after receiving the pattern I had this:

The complete block

The pattern was very well laid out, with clear explanations and templates for the curved pieces. It even includes a colouring sheet for a complete 4 x 4 quilt layout, so you can play with different colour placements before starting to sew.

The only unusual thing about this pattern is that the edges of the block all end up on the bias, which is something that I would normally avoid. Saying that, as long as you're aware of it, there shouldn't really be a problem. It certainly was no issue when making my block, especially since I added straight strips around the block to finish off my mini. The full quilt includes sashing in the pattern which would stabilise a quilt top, but I would hesitate using this block without sashing in a larger quilt.

I really loved making this block, and am tempted to make a whole quilt in completely different colours (one day...).  There is also a lovely version in the pattern with pieced arcs. In the end I finished off my mini with walking foot machine quilting (which as you can see from the result, could do with a little more practise!) and a narrow flange at the edge inside the binding.

The mini now hangs above my - theoretical - sewing space (no longer here on the outside of the shed which gave the best light for a photograph), brightening up a darkish corner.

For more versions do check out the #bffquilt hash tag on Instagram, and if you are interested in buying Rebecca's BFF Quilt pattern (PDF), it can be found here.

Meanwhile I'm going back to some more sewing, of course!


Friday 2 October 2015

Autumn light

yesterday on the walk to school

this morning

today's morning walk

While yesterday the mist gradually melted away, today it lifted - literally - to cover us from below in a grey, damp blanket. Fortunately that only happened after my walk...
It's a great excuse to do some sewing, of course!


Thursday 1 October 2015

Improv - how it started for me

Improv piecing seems to be getting more and more exposure these days with new books written, just-made quilt tops shown off on blogs of many quilters, and attention from the (modern) quilt community. Thanks to a mention by my friend Lara B of BuzzinBumble, I recently found a new initiative from Ann (Fret Not Yourself) and Kaja (Sew Slowly) to get together quilters interested in improv quilt making. There are regular posts on their blogs, showing their own work, but also with ideas, suggestions on things to try, a button, and even a monthly link-up! Not wanting to be left out (I haven't enough to do, ha!) I intended to start on one of the many ideas I have swirling in my head and start a new improv piece. However, with less progress on the current QUIP (as mentioned in my previous post) than wished for, I felt I couldn't. And since I am not without improv work to show, here is the story of "one I made earlier".

For me the improv journey started several many years ago, around 2008. At a weekend retreat organised by the Quilters Guild of Ireland I did a workshop with a guest teacher from England (I'll edit to include her name when I remember it, sorry!) on the use of large prints. Until then I had been piecing my quilts with accurate measurements (using templates and/or the one or two rulers I possessed) and a plan (though they often did get adjusted halfway through). I had never heard of improvisational piecing, and the online quilting community wasn't much on my radar either... As it turned out we were making large(ish) blocks using our large print and coordinating fabrics, and chopping them up to make the print not too overwhelming.

The result was a collection blocks of varying shapes and sizes without any further plan or pattern:

As I worked on these blocks, my work got more improvisational with each subsequent one. The blocks were reasonably large, and though they started with a block "recipe" in mind, most were made without ruler, and definitely without accurate measurement. I got more daring as I went on, and I enjoyed myself more and more that day.

As often happens with workshops (with me anyway), it was a year or so later when I dug up the blocks again, remembered how I had enjoyed the process, and started to put them together into a top. I laid out the blocks I had (about 8 or so), made a few more, and started sewing them together, filling gaps with strips and pieces anyway I felt like. I added some new fabrics (I could not find all of the previously used ones by now...), and chopped, trimmed and changed what was already there. Eventually I ended up with a top of reasonable size (49" x 76"). I did have to deal with only one partial seam to make the piece lie flat, and even that could have been avoided if I had been willing to unpick a few seams.

I think starting off my first improv piece doing one block at a time was great. I started playing with some regular block ideas and got gradually more "free" with each next one. Because I used the one large print as a focus fabric I knew that all pieces would happily live in the same quilt, even when the quilt as a whole was never planned in advance at all. It has become a quilt that I would not have made if I had thought about the finished product when I started, and it is not my most favourite quilt, but I do like it a lot. And I learned this: 

I love most types of quilt making, but working on improv gives me a buzz! Almost like knowing how to walk and run, and then being allowed to dance...

The blocks are all quite simple, many are just strip pieced, then sliced and sewn together again. Others have inserted strips across the main print. There are some wonky log cabins, and variations of four-patches and nine-patches. The two in the middle are what I started with, as you can see, not that much improv yet; the star is barely wonky! I got a bit more courageous as I made more blocks.

The plan was (and still is) to use this quilt to practise my machine quilting. The striking colours and busy piecing would hopefully distract enough from my "trial and error" ability at that skill, although I have done some quilting in the mean time so it will hopefully not be as bad as envisaged at the time.

In the years since this "Sunflower" top I have done quite a few improv pieces. A few are finished, quite a number are not, and one has even deserved a place on a wall in my home. But there are still so many ideas I would like to try, I am surely not finished with improv for a long time...

Linking up with
And now I better get on with quilting, I'm off to sew, of course!