My Improv Handbook Test Quilt

Last spring I signed up to be a test quilter for The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters

I was assigned one of the scores in the book, and secret instructions arrived. The score was based on the flying geese block.

geese improv-1030108 I made many geese, and put them together in different ways. They became familiar. Composing on the scale of the block without thinking of the larger design kept me focused on finding something appealing in each block, rather than producing units for a larger design.  geese improv-1030124 I made nine small, lovely improv blocks and thought I was almost done. I just needed to frame them.

Except that looked quite boring when I laid it out. Maybe jam them together in the middle of a field? geese improv-1030138 Nope. I wrote to Sherri:

“Putting them together directly feels like crowding them and de-emphasizing the individual compositions. Setting them in a grid of sashing feels too conventional, like it would take the spirit out of them. So now what? How to bring them together into a larger whole? I feel like I need a recipe to guide me through larger scale composition choices.”

Sherri wrote back with some insightful suggestions: look for relationships between blocks, create rhythm, commit one step at a time.

Right: the improv process isn’t finished until the quilt is finished.

When I got stuck, I used my off-cuts to make tiny blocks until I found something interesting.

I started to get an inkling that the “geese” could create an offset, spiral diamond. That was pretty interesting. geese improv-1030328 I used a lot of linen, which I love, but I struggled with warp and wooble, particularly because of all the bias edges on the triangles. I used a dart technique suggested in the recipe, and I took out a lot of seams along the way. geese improv-1030316Improvising, rather than choosing a direction and powering through, takes time but is never boring. I knew where I was headed now, but I didn’t know how close to an Amish center diamond I wanted to go. I tried a LOT of variations before I got there.

geese improv-1030500

It took me quite a while to arrive at the right slightly wonky center diamond.

The main block style I ended up using is a single “goose” made of many smaller triangles, which I spiraled out from the middle. The border is oriented “with” the diamond, instead of against it, as is typical of those Amish center diamond quilts. And then there’s that square, off center and breaking away.

Patchwork quilt-top

As I said, I only used a few of my original blocks in the final quilt top, so I had lots of great orphan blocks left over. I made a second quilt right away with the extra pieces (see if you can spot the original blocks!)

See my previous post, What quilting does, about hand-quilting this top.

 I don’t tend do the exercises in books, but following this score built new skills and generated a quilt I never otherwise would have come up with, and am really happy with. That process was so valuable that I look forward to trying the other scores in the book.

The Improv Hand Book for Modern Quilters will be available at QuiltCon next weekend, and everywhere else in mid-March. Enjoy!

Edit: Here’s another account of working with the same score. Comment below if you have more!

What quilting does

This is the flying geese improv test quilt I made in response to Sherri Lynn Wood’s recipe.

Deciding what lines to quilt is always a challenge. Quilting lines change the design in ways that are hard to foresee. I wish I had before and after photos of all my quilts to study.


In this case I started off “stitching in the ditch,” which means following the seams of the patchwork with my quilting lines. My thinking was that part of what was interesting about this design was that the areas of solid color were actually made of many small pieces, so I would emphasize that. Some of those lines I liked, and some I took out. By then I was in the rhythm and decided I was also interested in extending and joining some of the lines where seams on one side of the quilt lined up with seams on the other side (for example, the diagonal connections that cross the vertical grey band, in the detail shot), so I did that. Eventually, it felt done.

Somos quilt

Somos Quilt
Photo: Steve Lester

This quilt is headed for Project Somos in Guatemala, where the kid who picks it will get to keep it for life.

The piecing started three or four years ago, as leftovers from what became Yared’s quilt. About a year ago I took my pile of scrappy squares and cut them down to 6 x 6 squares. Creating a grid tamed the chaos just enough to make me think all these colours and prints could work together.

Some of the fabric (including some liberty prints) is left over from the nine bow ties and 100 napkins I made for our wedding. There are polka dots from a dress I modified, and thrift store odds-and-ends. The borders are made of light wool and linen suiting fabric from the garment district.

I hope one day I’ll get to see a picture of the quilt with it’s new owner.

Alz quilts on sale

The Alzheimer’s Art Quilt Initiative has put all their stock on sale, including the last two quilts I made for them. All proceeds go to Alzheimer’s research.

Regular price: $35. Sale: $26.25
Regular price: $55. Sale: $41.25

Holmes Baby Quilt

Holmes quilt studio

Making a quilt as a gift for someone feels like a secret collaboration; thinking about that person helps to clarify colour and design choices – choices that can be much more difficult without someone specific in mind.

Our friends Jenny and Nicholas are expecting a baby in just a few weeks. Jenny is a natural medicine practitioner and Nicholas is an architect and builder, and they both work out of a lovingly-restored brick building on the corner of Highway 62 and Sunburst (The Nourishing Tree). The first time I went there I almost cried because it was so beautiful. It’s hard to explain what touched me, but it has to do with colour harmony and the deep, sparing, handmade way they are restoring the building; with sturdy wooden furniture and baskets; and with the palo verde trees, lotus agaves and bees in the garden.

Making a quilt for Nicholas and Jenny was an exciting challenge. Whether I’ve captured their aesthetic or not, I can’t say, but trying helped me.

Thank you Steve Lester for taking a studio photograph of the quilt.