What is Improv Quilting?

Welcome to Improv Mondays, a weekly series exploring improvisation in quilt making.

So I’ve been doing a search on the internet and have discovered a real lack of conversation about the nature of improvisational quilting.

In 2009 Tallgrass Prairie Studio started Project Improv:

The purpose of ‘project improv’, to support each other in our goal to quilt improvisationally, to quilt outside the lines and to find our own voice as quilters.

I applaud the effort, but with what results? If you participated in ‘project improv’ have you found your voice? Two years later I’m mostly seeing posts on ‘wonky’ log cabins.

Improv is not random, or off the cuff quilting. There is more to it than just grabbing pieces blindly and sewing them willy-nilly. It’s a practice of being present.

Others talk about an ‘improv style’. Improv isn’t a style of quilting. I believe improv is a process of discovery. More specifically self discovery.

Are there quilters out there who are discovering themselves through their craft? Or are you simply making pretty things for your home and following the crowd? If the latter is the case then making a wonky log cabin is a lovely, and perhaps fashionable thing to do. AND that’s ok.

But if quilt making is about finding your voice, discovering who you are and expressing it through your craft, then I encourage you to join me in considering what improv quilt making is really about. Let’s take ‘project improv’ to the next level.

So what IS improvisation? It can be lots of things! Let’s start by brainstorming the definition and see if we can move the conversation a little further.

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37 Responses to What is Improv Quilting?

  1. lola ruiz says:

    Hi from Spain,
    Thank you, thank you, for this conversation. The essence of improv. for me are your passage quilts and the people who made them.
    Now, it depends of the intention of the quilters what kind of improv. she makes. I understand Sujata comments are about this. My intention is similar to yours Sherry I hope no to seems pretentious or something like that but I prefer the procces always because the process is a way of knowing myself and to learn to be authetic, just me.

    I used to hide my quilts from other people because I felt so different from other spanish quilters doing pretty or masterfull quilts. Mines are just natural and simple and this is not much appreciate it seems to me.Neither seems the G. Bends quilters be appreciated for that but I do and very much, in fact I am inspired by their attitude at work. I don’t know now but they used to use whatever at hand and that’s so resourceful and inteligent to me.

  2. Sujata Shah says:

    To improvise anything one has to start at a point and take it to another level.. In my opinion, the degree of improvisation varies with each individual and his/her thought process. It could be with limited resources on hand but one still has a choice to put his/her mark in the creative process and then into the outcome.

    I agree that it can go without planning but as soon as you start making a quilt, there is planning. We all wouldn’t be using design walls if there was no planning. Even when some of the blocks are made randomly, we are drawn to then put them on the design wall, “live” with them for a while and then go further.

    That is how we find our voice. For someone, who has strictly followed the instructional patterns, cutting the strips on a slant and making a log cabin block for the first time could very well fit in the improvisational style. I think it is really very relative term and each quilter will have a different understanding and definition for that.

    I think every quilter who makes a quilt has a voice. It may or may not fit in the commonly known definition but their feelings are poured into this art form. You said it well Sherri, we all improvise at different level of the process too.

    For me, I improve my own voice with every quilt I create. Follow my heart and let it sing. Even when I make a traditional pattern I improvise it just a bit to fit my personality and so for me improvisational process means freedom to follow my own voice.

    This is a wonderful way to exchange ideas. Thanks for that!

  3. blandina says:

    What a great conversation. I am not much of a quilter, I am a knitter and I find that the same improv concepts apply to my way of knitting. Sometimes I ask myself why I can not follow a published pattern, I always have to make changements and adapt it to my mood, my style, the yarn, the moment.
    I love what deborah says about discipline, I have been wondering why I need a lot of discipline in my life and why it makes me feel free. Now I know.
    Thank you for starting this, Sherri, you are my teacher in many ways.

  4. Pingback: What is Improv Quilting? | Ayshah Maiorano

  5. Sherri,

    I am emotionally invested in each and every quilt I make. If I do make something where there is no investment, I am never happy with it nor does it make me happy.

    I have to FEEL that ephemeral mix of what the quilt wants, what I need from the process, and how the colors want to play together. What that happens, the direction is 100% clear and absolutely wonderful. I’ve tried to be random, and I can be. I am liberated and am glad to be free of mass-produced kits. But I am always aware of and searching for that deeper connection with my fabrics.

    I have always considered myself an intuitive quilter. Like Improv, there are lots of definitions for intuitive. But, for me, state of mind and emotional connection to the process are key.

    Interesting post and conversations ~ I’ll be watching for your Improv Monday thoughts!!

  6. Elisa says:

    Hi Sherri–
    I’m a first time visitor to your blog and found this to be a very interesting post. I have not heard the term “improv” quilting as of yet. I am a beginning quilter but am now finding that I’m interested in art quilts and embellishing (haven’t done any yet, just getting the juices and ideas flowing in my head). Are you familiar with Victoria at BumbleBeans Inc? She encourages experimentation and exploration in quilting. She has a challenge in her sidebar called “15 Minutes Play” that I think is neat. (It originated for her as a warm-up exercise.) I’m not sure if her philosophy is exactly what you’re talking about with improv, but do check her out and I’d be curious to know what you think.

  7. Kristin L says:

    For me, piecing or quilting improvisationally is to do it without a preconceived notion of the outcome. I may have a general idea I’m going for — triangles, log cabins, contrasting tiny pieces to large ones, a color range, a mood, etc., but not a specific pattern like one might purchase or design in Electric Quilt (not that there’s anything wrong with that method either). The improv is the process. I like what you said about being present. I think the best improv quilts are the ones where the maker was present in the design, fabric, and color choices.

    I think that finding one’s voice is separate from improvisational quilting. Improv could be part of your voice, but then again, it might not. I know that my artistic voice includes some improvisational piecing. But it also includes some collage, some stitchery, a desire to balance (or contrast) control and chaos, and a general willingness to let the message dictate the style. I didn’t find this through improv quilting — improv quilting found me through the voice I was developing.

    • I agree that improv is a process to employ and not necessarily a style. I love your inversion of voice and improv. A great chicken or egg question to explore in more depth.

      Another interesting question raised in your comment Kristin, is our ability to feel the presence of mind of the maker when we look at someone else’s improv quilt. Do some improv quilts feel more present than others? When we are present in making our quilts, do we imbue that presence in our finished work? How is presence communicated through objects? Another topic to take up with more depth on future Improv Mondays.

      • Kristin L says:

        I guess we might never know if we’re seeing or feeling the maker’s presence in her (or his) work or if we’re just projecting our own response onto it. I want to believe though, that when someone chooses fabrics, or colors, or scale because they are intuitively (thank you Quiltdivajulie for that!) feel right, we will respond positively. And when parts are put together without much thought, or because they look kinda like what someone else did, we don’t respond as well.

  8. deborah says:

    Woo hooo!! I am foot stomping and hand clapping here. Well said. The last two issues of SAQA Journal had good articles on finding your voice and building a body of work. For me improvisation is not just about finding your voice it is about discipline and practice and focus. It’s about understanding color, value, composition, form, shape, design and developing a good enough eye to have a sophisticated knowledge of how these elements work to help you find and develop your unique voice. For the last year I have redoubled my efforts to improve these elements in my own work. I am grateful for what I have been able to do but I want more depth, more beauty in my own work. I feel now that I have only just begun to even figure out how to crack the code. For the last year I have been fortunate to study with a master artist who demands excellence People quilt for different reasons. I accept and respect that (and I admit that I strongly dislike the wonky log cabin mania sweeping the nation).. For me quilt making is a serious art form. Again, for me, I try to show respect for my art form by learning to do it well.

    • Improv does get richer with mastery. The deeper my exploration the more fulfilling is the outcome and the discovery. It can be a life practice. Think of the great jazz musicians of our time.

      Improv requires discipline. What is the relationship between discipline and freedom?

      Improv is also for beginners. More on this later.

      • deborah says:

        So maybe I am weird but I think discipline provides/INVITES freedom. I know the word discipline often conjures the image of rigidity. But I think when you are focused (disciplined) in the practice of your craft you actually create the space to be free/er to leap –to create. Jazz is the perfect analogy. When I think of what Charlie Parker or Ella Fitzgerald or Lizz Wright can do with a note — WHEW! But the thing is they couldn’t start there. It took time for mastery before they developed their unique voice.

        And I love your comments about feeling/sensing the quilter through her work. I feel very present in my work. I am currently writing about creativity as an embodied experience for the artist and for the viewer . . . .Love this conversation. Thanks for providing the forum.

  9. Mary says:

    Well said, everyone, well said. Improv quilting is a wonderful release for me. Following the definition posted by Nifty, this is a lot of what I do. However, I feel that I also improv with my own patterns as well. Working from my photos, then sketches, then drawing patterns, I begin the process but always change the pattern and do lots of free piecing as I go in order to make it feel “right” in my eyes. I have, at long last given up the pressure of “what someone else would think or do”. As much as I enjoy seeing what everyone else has done and often thinking that I want to make “one of those”, I am high on following where ever my mind/eyes/heart leads and putting myself into each piece I make.

  10. drew says:

    Hello, everyone. Here is a portion of an email I sent to Sherri about the improvisational quilt I am currently working on that is similar to a mod mood quilt…

    i started the quilt because, 1. i love art quilts and have been meaning to start making my own, and 2. i started a personal journey 5 months ago to make some serious changes in my life, one of which is learning to “let go”, and i felt a project like this would be a great way to practice that as well as a visual representation of where i am at this moment in my life. i limited myself to only fabrics i had on hand, didn’t allow myself to use a straight edge to cut, and i didn’t worry about the finished result… i just started making it.

    it’s been the best project for me! and, to be honest, the first time i feel any of my creations have been truly about me.

  11. Isabelle says:

    Nifty´s comment describes well what I feel about improv quilting. There is this quilt I have been starting to put together when a dear friend of mine passed almost a year ago. No clothes belonging to him were available so it is not really a Passage Quilt in this sense. And yet it is because all the scraps I used mean something related to him : colours, patterns, situations, dreams, life events he shared in letters. My way of improvising for remembering his life and saying good-bye to him. It is made with my heart too. Does it make sense ?

    • Yes, you are saying that improv is about relationships. That is exactly why I like to encourage people to use the improv process when they are making memorial quilts, using clothing or other materials like you described, Isabelle. The improv process brings you into relationship with your grief and with the person you are remembering.

      Improv is all about relationships!

  12. KTseams says:

    A marriage of planning, adapting, flexibility and vision.

  13. Heather says:

    I think of the Buddhist patchwork quilts I make that start with two random pieces. from that beginning the questions is always, “What does it need?” It’s about relationship, and finding balance, keeping it moving. Texture, colour, pattern dance together.

  14. Roz says:

    Yes, I love to mix colors and patterns together. Wonky is what I call it. I recently made a quilt that was improvised of scraps mixed with parts of old denim jeans.

  15. sarah hemm says:

    This makes me think back to my college fiber/textile art courses — where it was important that we weren’t just following a pattern or making something pretty but pushing further to create concepts and transforming them into craft as art. And that can include functional objects like quilts as well. I prefer the natural, intuitive process of making – and I like the way you put it, “It’s a practice of being present”. I really feel that way when I quilt, it’s the same feeling as when I’m painting or otherwise creating art. I just found the Mod-Mood quilt tutorial the other day and I started making a quilt inspired by it. It was more like discovering a technique than a pattern, which is what I love about it! The possibilities are endless.

  16. nifty says:

    I meant to also say that the quilt you’ve posted here is beautiful!

  17. nifty says:

    I love this question. It’s really making me think. I even looked up the definition of improvisation. The dictionary says it’s something created either: 1. without previous preparation, 2. on the spur of the moment, 3. from whatever materials are readily available. This was comforting, because my quilts made in this way are what I call improvisation. But there is more. For me, it’s making something with the voice of my heart, rather than my head. Getting the judging part of me out of the way. I love what one of the Gee’s Bend quilt makers said, “I just do what my MIND tells me to do.” The best part is that she was pointing to her HEART as she said this.

  18. Carol says:

    HI Sherri, I just discovered your blog a few weeks ago, love it!!! Then I saw the class Rhythm of Attention that you are doing, read the description and thought that is exactly what I need. I keep reading blogs doing the “in” thing but what I’m really looking to do for myself is some self discovery, being present as you said above. So I am thrilled that you are having this conversation with us! Thank you. I would love to take your class but getting away from the family for 2 weeks probably will not be happening :(

  19. mjb says:

    Thanks for starting this series. I don’t use patterns and often grab the next fabric randomly, but I don’t always push myself in designing as much as true improv quilting could, because I’ve decided to just get the project done quickly and make something simple. But when I do improv quilting in the sense you’re talking about – to find my voice and not copy anything I’ve seen before, I’m always happiest with the results (even if they’re not as suited for a gift for someone else, because they’re mine alone).

    • Yes I agree, taking the time to listen for and respond to my own voice is very satisfying.

      Improv is conversation! Sometimes the conversation is simple and straight forward. Sometimes it’s difficult with lots of twists, turns and even dead ends.

  20. Kimberj says:

    Hi Sherri :) I believe what I do may fall into improv quilting. I’ll be emailing you pictures. I would love to have your honest interpretation of what I do because I’m not sure what it is.

    • I think improv can happen during different phases of a project, and our quilts do not have to look like Gees Bend, Nancy Crow, or Denyse Schmidt to be improv. Sometimes I can’t tell from a picture if something is improvised or not. The question is how much of your process Kim, is pre-designed and then executed? Do you deviate from your original designs as you are making it? Do your designs come together precisely on paper first? Or do you start with a loose sketch and then improvise to come to something like it? Or do you just start with a bare bones concept and see where it takes you? When making something completely original there are always elements of improvisation in the imagination, and execution.

      We all improvise differently, not only in regards to how, but also in regards to when we improvise, and how much, during the process of realizing an idea. More on this later!

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