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Put Aside the Patterns! Let's Improvise!

In the quilting world, when you hear the word ‘Improv’ used, you might picture some kind of modern, off beat composition with wonky seams and few matching points. This is often the case, but I believe even traditional quilters improvise as they build their quilts.

In my view, if you’re not following a pattern, you’re improvising. Even when the results look traditional; if you’re making it up as you go along, you’re improvising.

There’s a parallel to be found between making quilts and making music:

When I’m not sewing, I’m playing and teaching music. A violinist since the age of 8, I grew up learning to play classical music in a very ‘text based’ fashion: If I didn’t have the music in front of me, I couldn’t play a melody - I was reliant on a pattern, effectively.

Going to Bluegrass camp as an adult cured that reliance on the printed page. In the world of Bluegrass, sheet music rarely features. Musicians memorize songs and chord sequences, listen really hard and take turns soloing, personalizing the melody with their own variations.

I also play in a Big Band. Although it’s a different genre, Jazz has similarities to Bluegrass. Musicians agree on the key and tempo they’re playing in, and the theme or melody. Then they make room for moments of improvisation; musical flights of fancy that experiment with contrasting rhythms and harmonies.

Maybe you’re a quilter who has ‘grown up’ on following patterns. You like the reassurance of clear directions and guaranteed results. You’re confident with your machine, with choosing colors and handling fabric. Maybe now it’s time for you to put aside the patterns and improvise!

I recently joined in with an Instagram Quilt Along led by Shannon Fraser (@shannonfraserdesigns) and Amanda (@broadclothstudio).

Their 30 Days of Improv Quilt Along was a challenge to explore improvisational quilting over the month of August by making at least one 5” block each day.

We prepared by choosing a palette of five solid colors to work with. I took my color inspiration from a vintage silk scarf (and ended up using a few more than just my original five colors!). I used several shades of Kona Cotton, and found the perfect shade of blue in an organic solid cotton by Clothworks.

Our month was broken into four weeks, each week focusing on a particular motif.

With very few rules - and little use of a ruler! - we got started in week 1 with squares.

Week 2 was all about stripes; creating them then slicing and dicing them further.

For week three, the focus was triangles

In our final week we tackled freehand curves and circles (Yikes! For me, a precision-loving gal, this was a s-t-r-e-t-c-h!)

When the 30 days were up, we finished the project by assembling our blocks into a finished quilt or wall hanging. I think this is the strangest quilt top I've ever made - but it really interests me!

Here’s what I discovered: Limitations are helpful when you’re improvising. With a set color palette, a theme of the week and a recommended dimension, I was able to make a couple of small blocks most days of each week. None of them looked anything like the work I usually make, and that was exciting.

Shannon and Amanda gave live 20 minute ‘briefings’ every Wednesday on Instagram and they were kind and encouraging. They sent weekly emails setting up guidelines and then gave full permission to disregard those rules! Everyone taking part in the Quilt Along shared their progress on Instagram with the hashtag #30daysofimprovqal .

There were moments where I felt inauthentic - this was not my usual style! Who am I pretending to be? What is this all for?

But I concluded that this exercise was like taking my fiddle to Jazz Camp. It was me, with all my skills and experience, just trying something new.

Here’s the finished quilt top. I’ve named it Jazz Camp.

Keep your eye out for Quilt Alongs. They're often free, sometimes offered by quilt shops or on different makers' social media pages. I really recommend the process!

Have you been stretched creatively by a class or quilt along? Have you discovered your own improvisational skills? Your comments are always welcome here at See How We Sew!

Happy Quilting!

274 views3 comments


Peggy O'Connor
Peggy O'Connor
Sep 21, 2021

I'm loving these process posts! I made a paper pieced quilt a couple years ago and I couldn't throw away the pieces I cut away from the paper. I put them in a box and have been improvising them into usable patches. I'll see if I can challenge myself to use some of the themes from you QAL.

Nov 11, 2021
Replying to

Belated thanks for your comment, Peggy! I love your waste-not practice of using scraps to create improv patches.


Sep 21, 2021

Wonderful post Julia! Thank you.



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