Organizing Fabric for Improvisational Quilting

Posted by on Nov 19, 2014

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Piecing and quilting improvisationally is all about creating a design without a pattern and making it up as you go along. You may have a general idea of the direction you would like to take, but you cut, sew and audition shapes, then adjust as necessary to suit your own taste. 

In my book, Improvising Tradition, I show you how to add improvisational elements to more traditional, familiar quilting techniques and designs. As you might imagine, creating quilts this way can get a little messy. All the changing fabrics, cutting sections off, and beginning again creates piles of rejected fabrics, as well as scraps in odd sizes, trimmed pieces of thread and, of course, a growing piece of fabric art. This probably sounds familiar to any of you who quilt or sew, even if it’s not improv piecing. 

improv quilt bed pillow
There is a certain amount of mess that is inevitable, but an organized space and fabric collection, certainly at the beginning of the process, is really helpful. I like to think of my fabric stash as an artist’s collection of paints; they are the raw materials I use to create. My rulers, scissors, rotary cutter and sewing machine are like my brushes and palette. Having each one where I can find it quickly makes creating so much easier. 

I organize my fabrics in an open shelving unit, folded and stacked by color. The shelf is next to my sewing and cutting table where I can see and reach it as my sewing plans may change. For smaller scraps and strips, I sort by color and store in clear plastic shoe boxes. This makes finding the right piece and size of fabric easy, as well as making clean-up of scraps quick. Small children are also useful for this —I put the scrap bins out, and my six-year-old loves to put scraps away by color in each box. 
improv pieced baby quilt
"No More Fussy Baby"
If you have your fabrics and tools at your fingertips, improvisation can flow naturally. I don’t worry too much about the flurry of scraps and rejected sections as I improvise, though. There is something to be valued in the accidents and serendipity of creative messes. Sometimes I find two fabrics next to each other in the scrap bin that are the perfect addition to a project. I may have never put them together otherwise, but seeing them there inspires a new idea. 
improvisational quilting
"Paper and Plums"
The exuberant chaos of improv can be balanced and contained, if that's what pleases your aesthetic, by cutting improvisational pieces into more traditional shapes, as I did in my Paper and Plums quilt, or by setting improv strata into a background with expanses of negative space, as I did in the Waterfall Quilt and Pillow Sham project. It's easy to see how improvisation can utilize plentiful scraps collections, but it also the perfect way to feature hard-to-use novelty prints, as I did with the No More Fussy Baby quilt. 

I hope you'll take a look at Improvising Tradition and experiment with ways to express your own, unique voice though improv quilting.

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