Rules vs Limits in Improv Quilting

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

The last two weeks I’ve posted about THE RULES. This week I want to talk about limits. Is there a difference between rules and limits in improv quilting? According to the dictionary, the word “rule” is defined as:

An authoritative regulation or direction concerning method or procedure

The word “limit” is defined as:

To confine or restrict within a boundary or bounds

In my practice I have found it helpful to differentiate between these two words. Whereas the word “rule” implies an authoritative power or force that dictates my decisions, the word “limit” implies a boundary that I can set which affects the range of decisions I will make while improvising.

Limits define the parameters of a piece so that decisions are easier to make. If you are feeling overwhelmed by improvisation. Where do I start? What’s next? Set narrower limits and see what happens. Limits that are too restrictive can kill creativity, or induce boredom. The right balance of limits will nurture creative flow during improvisation.

Limits work to guide the improvisation in an open way, but without a set determination. Limits can also challenge us to break free from predictable patterns. Like Sujata’s, self imposed limit to only use scissors and not work on a wall. Limits provide a safe container for freedom and risk taking.

For example I may decide to only use five different fabrics, a 1/2 yard of fabrics A, B & C, and a yard of fabrics D and E. I may have a limit that says I have to use up all of the yardage. I may limit my shapes. I’ll only use squares and strips. If I’m strip piecing I may set a limit that requires my strips to be between 1/2” and 2” or between 2” and 5″. I may set a time limit to complete the pieced top in one sitting.

Brainstorm on the ways you can set limits when you improvise, quantity, color, shape, size, time, procedures, use of tools or technique, etc. Do you set limits when you improvise? What kind? With what results?


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14 Responses to Rules vs Limits in Improv Quilting

  1. Pingback: I Ching Modern Quilt-along: Week 3 ~ Gathering | daintytime ~ Sherri Lynn Wood

  2. Amber says:

    This also brings to mind something I’ve tried to use in my design thinking, that I got partly from Kay of Mason-Dixon Knitting – she’ll take something she loves, a design of some sort or a picture or a quilt or a painting or whatever, and try to isolate some of the elements, like “this combines round shapes and pointy shapes” or “this is about darks and lights” or “this is about neutrals emphasizing contrast.” Then she’ll create a new work based on those concepts. So when I see something I like, I try to figure out what the elements of it are.

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  6. Isabelle says:

    Another interesting post and comments, Sherri. The limits I set for myself are mainly about the fabrics: shades, patterns. Scraps too. From then on, I follow my inspiration and the feel I want to create in a particular quilt with what I have in my treasure boxes. Always unexpected; a pleasure to see the quilt getting a life of its own. This type of limits are good for me.

  7. lola says:

    I love Sujata comments on her self imposed limits. I do it exactly the same way and for the same reasons. If i can “see” the finished quilt in my mind i don’t make it neither.
    Other self imposed limits:
    – Respect the personality of the printed fabric, i mean, i choose different pattern for an african printed fabric than for a, say, japanese.
    – Not to think much.
    – Keep it simple.

  8. Alissa says:

    I think that as quilters we find our own voice by searching for and setting our own limits. For me sometimes that limit is as simple as “I want to use blue – ok, these are the only blues in my stash – how can I make them work” or “the patterned fabrics can’t touch each other” or “focus on asymmetry” or “no ruler this time”… I love finding and exploring that balance between total improv. and decision making. Tweaking that balance, or what the limits are, completely changes the look of the work. It’s all so much fun, isn’t it??

  9. Sujata Shah says:

    Hi Sherri,

    I set limits depending on the projects. I love self imposed rules like limiting the fabrics and colors or the kind of materials I would use in my quilts. For me, making quilts are more of an experiment to challenge my own creativity.. I love how my mind works and enjoy the thought process and the design and patterns that evolve due to the limits. Like Anita, I love scrap quilts.. and do use strictly scraps for some of my quilts.
    The days of using scraps from leftover dress/clothing material and household linens are long gone. So we rely on either cutting the yardage or making scrap quilts after few of the planned quilts are made and bins are filled with scraps from other projects.

    Back in my teaching days, I had my students work with limited yardage, colors, exchanged fabrics and used clothing in several different projects. Some students would take the challenge with whole heart and others were not so crazy about the ideas. But overall everyone enjoyed if it was a small project.

    I find that sometimes, limitlessness creates an extra challenge for me. I tend to then try to create ‘A Perfect Quilt’ with just the right design and fabrics and colors and loose the freedom of being human with imperfection. Planning takes away the element of accidental designs. I like quilts that have surprising miss-matched fabrics and textures.. If a quilt is planned in advance, I already can ‘See’ it and I don’t stay excited until it is finished. When I stay limited to resources, it keeps me engaged and wondering about the final result and it works!

    By the way, thanks for plugging my post. I love that quilt and enjoyed every step of that process. I had been meaning to do a post on rules but you have said it so nicely.. I enjoy reading your blog. Wish I could someday work in the same room with you!
    That will be an experience!

  10. Mary says:

    Perhaps that is my problem. I have no limits, only rules. Rules, in the traditional sense, that I am constantly striving to rid myself of. It seems that I should let go of the rules and try some limits.

  11. Yes, I use limits … but they are limits of my own choosing (as opposed to RULES made by others). My limits typically include working only from my stash, range of colors, size of strips, etc.

    Another great post!

  12. Kristin L says:

    I’m a fan of limits too. Like Anita, one of my favorites is to limit my fabric choices to what’s already in the stash. I used to work as a graphic designer, and there too, I liked the limits of meeting a client’s specific needs — it was more focused than working as a studio artist in which I’d have to come up with my own problems to solve or messages to convey (of course, that’s what I do now, so obviously my limits can be broken through).

  13. Anita says:

    I think this is one reason why I like scrap quilts so much. I like setting the limit of only using fabrics from the scrap bins and no “new” uncut fabric. And I often find that without any limits I tend to freeze and then I can’t make a decision. Limits are a good thing for me.

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