10 Ways to Love Improvisational Piecing

Last week I literally got back in the saddle, taking a horseback riding lesson for the first time in 20 years. It was an exhilarating but odd experience: familiar, and yet different from my encounters with horseback riding back in my younger days.

It occurs to me that this very-familiar-yet-strangely-different feeling is similar to the one many art quilters experience when giving a contemporary spin to patchwork quilting. Yes, you're piecing, but not in the traditional way. Yes, you're making blocks, but the blocks look off-kilter. And the fabrics? Hardly blue and brown calicos!

Like my horseback riding lesson, this fresh take on patchwork quilting is exhilarating. But–also like my latest equine encounter–many of us approach it with some trepidation, especially when it comes to creating patchwork quilt projects with improvisational piecing.

But according to Malka Dubrawsky, who takes this approach to dizzying artistic heights, learning to piece improvisationally is worth any initial apprehension. Here are her tips for learning to love this patchwork piecing technique, excerpted from her forthcoming book, Fresh Quilting: Fearless Color, Design, and Inspiration.

10 Ways to Love Improvisational Piecing

By Malka Dubrawsky

Piecing a quilt top improvisationally should be a liberating experience. Yet, for many sewers, experienced or otherwise, the thought of freehand cutting and piecing causes them to hyperventilate rather than breathe easy. If you're one of these quilters, before you reach for a brown paper bag, consider these 10 helpful hints to make improvisation groovy, not grating.

1. Relax. Ruining a piece of fabric is not the worst mistake you can make in life.

2. Trust your eyes. Put away your measuring tools and freehand-cut a few 4" × 4" (10 × 10 cm) squares. Now measure these squares. You'll be surprised how close you get to the desired measurement.

3. Add or delete fabric as needed. Take comfort in the fact that if a block is not the same size as its neighbor, you can adjust the size by adding or cutting away an extra strip or two.

4. Embrace wonkiness. The energy of improvisational pieces comes from the fact that the parts are slightly–or more than slightly–off-kilter. If you want that quality, improvisation is the way to go.

5. Squaring off is always an option. If you like the energy of off-kilter pieces, but want to contain it, know that at any point in the creation of a top you can use a quilter's clear ruler, cutting mat, and rotary cutter to square off the edges.

6. Size disparity is a good thing. Making blocks sans measuring tools can yield blocks of varying sizes. Use this visual element to your advantage by making additional blocks in a variety of sizes; then, by adding or deleting fabric strips, fit the blocks together like puzzle pieces.

7. Accentuate the edges. Improvisational piecing often yields a quilt with edges that aren't quite straight. Highlight this design feature by easing binding along angled or curved edges rather than straightening them out. If your edges are especially curvy, cut the binding strips on the bias for more stretch.

8. Contain the energy with sashing strips. If you like the energy of individual blocks but want to tone it down a bit, add wide vertical and/or horizontal strips of solid-colored fabric between the blocks to give the eye some visual rest. This can also help organize seemingly disparate blocks into a cohesive quilt top.

9. Utilize color. Improvisationally pieced blocks and color go well together. Bright, intense hues accent the energy of these blocks. Don't be timid in your color choices.

10. Focus on solids. An improvisationally pieced quilt doesn't benefit from the use of lots of printed and patterned fabric; vivid colors and piecing give it plenty of intensity. Narrow your fabric choices to solids and prints that read as mostly one color.

With Malka's tips, and Fresh Quilting: Fearless Color, Design, and Inspiration, you'll be creating fresh new patchwork quilt projects with personality and panache.

P.S. Want a free patchwork project from Malka? Her Inside-out Quilt is included in our free eBook How to Make a Quilt: 6 FREE Patchwork Quilt Projects for Contemporary Quilts. Download it now!

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2 thoughts on “10 Ways to Love Improvisational Piecing

  1. I wanted to laugh when I saw the above tips for improvisational quilting. Without realizing it, when I started my first quilt back in the 60’s that was precisely the method I used. I was in 8th grade and didn’t have a clue about how to make a quilt. I eventually finished it and got to use it but it fell apart fast! Glad that I have learned a few things since then. Once you know the rules, it is easier then to know the ones you can break and how.

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  2. Back in the late 60s when I was in high school I improvised my first quilt. I didn’t have any instructions I just decided to make a quilt for my water bed. Working on an old Singer sewing machine I figured out how to sew my strips together with batting and actually did a quilt as you go. The quilt was all made on the sewing machine. The quilt came out great and all my friends wanted me to make one for them – I never did, I was too busy creating my next project. Not only was it used on my bed, but I would drag it to the beach for sun bathing. I still have my quilt, although it has certainly been used, over the years I have patched stars on it to cover the holes. My kids and husband always seem to grab this quilt and try to claim it as theirs. Too bad I didn’t publish my quilting design idea back then – who knows what could have evolved.