Improvisational Piecing from 100 Days of Modern Quilting

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Welcome to the forth week of 100 Days of Modern Quilting – the Week of Improv!

Improvisational piecing (sometimes called free piecing or liberated piecing and shorten to “improv”) is just what it sounds like: sewing together fabric without always measuring and cutting to precise measurements.  The freedom of piecing like this appeals to many modern quilters as it keeps the design process of quilting continuing through the labor of piecing.  There are no mistakes to be made in improv piecing – if you like the way it looks, it works!

This might sound daunting in that there is no jumping off point, or pattern, to work with but often improv piecing is often done within a context or structure.

Red & Aqua - Alissa Haight Carlton, 2009

For example, this quilt is based in a usual grid of blocks and each log cabin block was improv pieced.  Between the block layout and the limited fabric colors, this improv piecing is actually quite structured.

Neutrals - Alissa Haight Carlton, 2010

Here, not only are the blocks improv pieced, but the assembly of them is as well.  With all quilts, if you want them to end up a rectangle, at some point some planning will have to happen, but this layout was improv pieced until measuring to fill in empty spaces had to happen.

Crossroads - Alissa Haight Carlton, 2011

In this quilt, the improv piecing runs through the non-block based quilt design.  Framing the improv piecing within a design that focuses on negative space gives it another sort of structure.

Many modern quilters embrace improv piecing, but we’ve absolutely been inspired by quilts from the past.  One need only take a look at the amazingly beautiful Gee’s Bend Quilts to see that clearly.  We’ve also found lots of inspiration from contemporary quilters, like Gwen Marston and Nancy Crow, who work with improv piecing.

We hope that if you’ve never done any improv piecing this week of featured quilts will inspire you to get to your sewing space and do some.  And if you have, maybe you’ll see a new spin on it that excites you to try something new!

Featured Quilt 1

Latifah Saafir made this wonderful and unique quilt, called Up In the Air.  Structured use of color (oh that pop of pink!) mixed with improv piecing makes for a bold visual impact.


Latifah who blogs at The Quilt Engineer and is the proud president of the Los Angeles Modern Quilt Guild, and is one of the founders of The MQG.

We asked her a couple of questions about the quilt:

1) What do you like the most about improv piecing?

I love that with improvisational piecing you can have a general idea about what you’re creating but, that it will take a life of it’s own as you’re putting it together. Improv piecing was a challenge to me because it is such a departure from how I normally design quilts. When I get to the cutting stage of a quilt, I normally have the entire quilt already sketched out in my head. So, then I can just barrel through the process of putting it together and it comes together quickly. With improv piecing, I have to force myself to be patient. The most challenging part is stopping and making a decision at each stage. I’m notoriously bad about taking forever at making design decisions! Haha!

2) What makes this quilt modern to you?

Up In the Air has a very restrained palette that gives it a very minimal look which is very modern. Also, being made of all solid fabrics, the complexity of the design comes from the piecing and placement of the various colors. It is also not a block based quilt.

3) What inspired this quilt?

It was inspired by a portion of a block I that I got back from the Bricolage and Butter Bee that I participated in at the LA Modern Quilt Guild. I gave everyone 10 or so solid fabrics and asked for blocks back. I gave them the freedom to create whatever they wanted but, asked them to use as many of the fabrics as possible in each block. One of my Bee members, Kelli Johnson, created an improv block that I loved. Half of the block was primarily ash gray with a sliver of another gray and it was intersected with a strip made of two greens and a pop of pink. That little glimpse made me want a quilt that captured that exact look and feel.

Featured Quilt 2

Today’s beautiful featured quilt was made by Sherri Lynn Wood and is called Red-wedge. It is a truly wonderful example of how people can express their own artistic voice through improv piecing.  Amazing use of curves creates real energy and movement in this quilt.


Sherri blogs about her quilting at DaintytimeOne of her quilts even helped to inspire the MQG logo! We asked her a couple of questions:

1. What is your favorite thing about improvisational piecing?

I like setting parameters and letting the piece play out accordingly. Even though I am the architect of the limits or the composer of the score, once the limits are set I’m never quite sure what the end result will be. I like the surprise.

2. What do you think makes this quilt modern?

I’d say this quilt is more mod than modern. Simple honest lines, strong geometric shapes, expansive asymmetric rhythms, clear jewel tones and organic modular repetition give this improvised quilt it’s counter-culture, mod appeal.

3. What was your inspiration for this quilt?

Red-wedge is one of a series of quilts exploring wedges, curves, and the bias… the idea of space being expanded and contracted.

Featured Quilt 3

Karen Anderson Abraham, the maker of this fresh and bright quilt, improvisational pieced both the blocks and the lay out of today’s featured quilt.


Karen, blogs over at blooming poppies and was kind enough to take the time to answer a couple of questions for us:

1) What’s your favorite thing about improv. piecing?

I know the obvious answer is likely that it allows you so much freedom, that is definitely true for me. I love how I can get an idea or color combo in my head and just start cutting into my fabric and see where it takes me. My attention span is too short, I guess, for cutting out 48 of the same exact size rectangle or square, etc. and then sewing them together or cutting them in half or whatever the case may be. It feels too repetitious to me. Although I am hoping to give that another go this year as I love what is created with something like that.
I may sometimes start with a drawing or general concept, however improv piecing lets me design more intuitively and change that concept as I go if it feels right. I also love how all I generally have to concentrate on is a good 1/4 inch seam and the rest is pure design. I can play with different layouts on my design wall and it’s pretty much instant gratification as the quilt begins to form.

2) What do you think makes this quilt modern?

I think this quilt, one of my all time favorites to make, could be considered modern because of its large amount of negative (white) space- which was pieced together with all my random scraps of off white, muslin, white, basically whatever I found in my stash of light nuetrals. Also the placement and size of blocks is very random, as is the biniding. I think the bright green diagonal quilting lines make it modern to me as well, and lastly, the colors of the blocks, are bright, and modern.

3) What inspired this quilt?

Just prior to making this quilt, I had discovered the amazing work of the Gee’s Bend quilters. I was extremely inspired by the quilts they created. They felt modern and relevant to me even though some were close to 100 years old. Another source of inspiration for me with this quilt was the incredibly creative work of Jessica Berrett of Urban Patchwork. Seeing her quilts, which I discovered through the Flickr group Fresh Modern Quilts, was a revelation to me. I love the freedom and newness of her designs.

Featured Quilt 4

These improv cross blocks were made by members of a quilting bee and the quilt was then assembled by Jacquie Gering. The improv lay out gives the quilt an unique and exciting twist. The quilt was quilted by Angela Walters.


Jacquie blogs at Tallgrass Prairie Studio and has been a member of two Modern Quilt Guilds! She was a founding member of the Kansas City MQG and is now a member of the Chicago MQG. She spent a few minutes answering some questions for us.

1) What do you like the most about improv piecing?

There is so much about improvisation that appeals to me.  It’s about creativity and taking an idea and making it come to life.  Improvising is not the fastest way to make a quilt, but I enjoy not only the design process, but also the trial and error that I use to execute a design.  It’s rare that a quilt turns out as I originally envision it. Improvisation can be frustrating and exhilarating at the same time.  I like that I have to work hard and sometimes even struggle.  I’m challenged and because of that I can grow and change. Improvisation provides an opportunity for me to express myself in my quilts and make something that is uniquely mine.

2) What makes this quilt modern to you?

During the World War I the Red Cross encouraged quilters to contribute to the cause by making Red Cross quilts and charging to add signatures to the quilt.  This quilt is my take on this traditional quilt. The cross block used in this quilt is a traditional block, but when I asked my bee friends to make them I requested them to improvise.  We all took this block and made it our own.  But beyond the block, the setting is what makes it modern.  The blocks are set to create the impression of larger crosses that float within the negative space of the quilt.

3) What inspired this quilt?

This quilt was made just after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.  As I watched the humanitarian response to this disaster I was inspired to take these cross blocks and make my tribute to the American Red Cross.  The quilt is called ‘Peace and Comfort’ and words that reflect the work of the Red Cross are quilted into the negative space of the quilt.

Featured Quilt 5

Cheryl Arkison made this improv quilt and gave it the great name Your Parents Are Cool. The quilt keeps a great balance of looseness and structure with the different improvisation blocks put in the arrangement of a grid of blocks.


You can find Cheryl here, and she blogs at Dining Room Empire. She was nice enough to answer a few questions for us!

1. What is your favorite thing about improv piecing?

I often start a project without a finished product in mind. I grab a pile of fabric, attack it with an idea or concept (or not), then start sewing. Just to see where it goes. Improv is about process for me more than the final product or design. I believe in relishing and sharing the process, not just the final product. So, improv is perfect for a process oriented person like me.
Working your improv skills also means that you can handle the hiccups that come when you are a few blocks short of a planned design, when you run out of background fabric, or another colour begs to be included. If you’ve practiced improv piecing regularly you can handle these hiccups without hesitation.

What do you think makes this quilt modern?

2. This isn’t a traditional block design. When I first made it I hadn’t seen it anywhere before. Is it possible that I made something original? (Barring the inspiration, of course.)
Floating the graphic elements on the white background, with no extra sashing brings a modern element to the design. Bright colours and a spare setting add to that.

What inspired this quilt?

3. The quilt was completely inspired by the nursery decorations my BIL and SIL painted as they prepped for their first baby. I hadn’t found a good concept for this baby quilt, and felt lots of pressure to produce something very cool for them. When they sent photos of the paint job they did in the nursery the proverbial light bulb went off. I didn’t keep it precise like their graphic, but stuck with my favourite improv piecing to get it together.

Featured Quilt 6

Anna Politzer made this wonderful large scale design called Big Birthday Improv Quilt. The graphic horizontal piecing, with the contrasting vertical lines, makes for a striking and eye catching quilt.


More of Anna’s work can be found on her flickr stream. We asked her a couple of questions about the quilt.

1. What is your favorite thing about improv piecing?

My favorite thing about improv piecing is how I don’t plan or measure (that much), so it feels very fun and spontaneous!

2. What makes this quilt modern to you?

To me, this quilt is modern in its use of solids, surprising quirky details, and intentionally “imperfect” quilting and piecing.

3. What inspired this quilt?

This quilt, design-wise, is inspired by Gees Bend quilts, and the colors are straight from the home and wardrobe of its recipient.

Featured Quilt 7

Robyn Croft is the maker of this colorful quilt called City Lights.  The use of different grays as the negative space along with wonderfully bright hand dyed fabrics make for such a lively quilt.


Robyn doesn’t have a blog (yet!) and is a member  of the Auckland Modern Quilt Guild.  She took some time to answer a few questions for us.

1) What’s your favorite thing about improvisational piecing?

I love improvisational piecing because the freedom of constraints makes it fun and the results are always unique to the quilter/artist.

2) What do you think makes this quilt modern?

The simple lines of the design, the simplistic quilting and the freshness of the colours.

3) What inspired this quilt?

The Modern BOM was the inspiration for this quilt. To add my own spin I used some pre-constucted fabric I had on hand instead of printed fabric, varied the grey background to give a more interesting look, and free-cut the pieces.