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



  1. What a wonderful post. I agree with your statement to "increase the guidelines of your project to a level just beyond your comfort zone." I love the limited palette. The beiges and browns set off the navy and white beautifully. Great idea to enlarge a design for sashiko. This looks so good I can't wait to see it finished.
    (Funny. I made some napkins for my daughter from these fabrics.)
    Thanks for linking this thought-provoking post with AHIQ.

  2. Wow Sandra, this looks amazing... I always find it so interesting to read about the many various styles of patchwork... I've never heard of most of it! But I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your info x

  3. Great post, Sandra! I love your finished piece; the limited palette is very effective and the simple shapes and clean lines work perfectly with your sashiko and the Hearty Good Wishes fabric. Your suggestions about starting small are spot on, stretching just a step or two further than you would normally go, are spot on.

  4. Such a thoughtful post and so encouraging for quilters wanting to do some improv patchwork and not knowing where to start. it looks great and I think the improv blocks really highlight your Sashiko embroidery too :)

  5. I like your use of sashiko in this piece. It adds a special touch to the quilt top and is a great way to personalise it!

  6. I also like your encouragement to those who might be hesitant to try improv work. I would even say that there is nothing about your work that is not improv, in my opinion. To me it is any work that is done spontaneously, from the ideas in your head, and without a pattern, but with intention, and I enjoyed how you explained your intentions and your process. And, I love your resulting quilt; it is one I would like to have myself. Great fabrics, lovely color palette, and charming embroidery!

  7. Sandra, thank you for your reply, it is a pleasure to discover you, too! I'm trying again with my Google account, which I think will allow you to respond by e-mail? I think that for some reason, as someone put it, Google and Wordpress don't play nicely together. I am not fully conversant with this blog world, as a relative novice, and so far haven't been willing to sit down and try to sort it all out. My Google ID seems to work best, so I'll just use it from now on.

  8. Well, this is gorgeous, Sandra! Just casual and elegant. Sashiko, indigo, and seagulls! Perfect.

  9. Thanks for this great post, Sandra. My general impression of improv piecing is wonky, unusually shaped pieces with bright fabrics (sometimes unusual colors). Reading your post I realized that improve has a broader definition. And it seems that I'm sometimes using improv without realizing it.

    Thanks, too, for linking to Quilty Inspiration. I appreciate the support. I hope you continue to write posts you can link.

  10. Great post. It's just been "bookmarked" in my Favourites for when I will have some time to give improv a try. (The day will come!)

    Your finished quilt top is striking. I even have those navy and white "sashiko like" fabrics in my stash. It must be a sign.

  11. This is simply elegant and beautiful Sandra! I love how your Sashiko embroidery takes Hearty Good Wishes (a great fabric line!) to a whole new level of artistic expression. SizzleWaggle has the same idea of improv that I do. So I view your whole process here as improv too. I love how you explained the concept of limited improv and then demonstrated it for us to see. You are an excellent teacher and make improv very accessible!

  12. I've been thinking a lot about different types of improv quilts - they are so different that they should have different names actually. I've made a free improv quilt, from a Sherry Lynn Wood pattern, and am working on a more controlled Sujata Shah pattern. Your quilt looks great - love the sashiko you have added.

  13. Lovely quilt. I like the sashiko. Found you through Nancy's Quilty Inspiration.


Thank you for visiting! I love getting comments; I read them all and reply where I can...
Many comments are made by "no-reply" bloggers, please check your settings before commenting!

Offensive or spam comments will not be published.