How to Make Improv Quilts

There’s really no “how-to” with improv quilts, since as the name implies, you pretty much improvise as you go along. So why the post, you ask? It turns out A LOT of people are interested in how I make my improv quilts and after lots of comments and messages, I figured it would be easier to do a blog post rather than try to answer everyone in just a few sentences on Instagram.

Improv quilting is a great way to use up scraps, try new techniques, and most of all, sew purely for fun! There are NO rules (I promise) and while it does generate a lot of trimmings and mess, it’s totally worth it.

To get started, all you need to do is select your fabric and gather a few basic supplies. I use a small ruler for trimming fabric plus my trusty rotary cutter. For the fabric, I usually use yardage, but you can easily use large scraps. The fewest colors I’ve used is 4, while my current project has 7 colors! It’s totally up to you how many you’d like to use, but I feel like a minimum of 4 allows for nice color distribution. So far I’ve only used solids, but I’d love to attempt prints someday!

My in-progress wall hanging

Let’s Improv!

So you’ve picked your fabrics, now what? I typically start by cutting one piece that will be the focal piece. I cut this piece with about 5 or 6 sides, but you can do as many or as few sides as you like. Make sure some of the sides are different lengths and angles–this will help get your quilt take shape. You don’t even HAVE To do this larger focal piece…it’s just an easy way to get started.

Once the focal piece is cut, select the first piece you’re going to sew. If you’re working with scraps, this can be an uncut scrap. When I use yardage, I will just cut a small piece off of the yardage (with no rhyme or reason, I swear!). I try to make it big enough to cover the side where I’m sewing, but not so big that I’ll have a lot of waste when I trim. As you can see from my pictures, that doesn’t always work out! I sew my pieces with a 1/4″ seam allowance, and I always press my seams open. That’s because I’m a big fan of pressing open, but also because it helps to reduce bulk, which is especially important in a quilt like this which will have TONS of seams. After the seam is pressed, I trim the piece. With this piece, I trimmed it so it “continues” the lines of the focal piece.

Now you can start adding more pieces! It’s a good idea to do a quick backstitch over the seams as you add pieces, since there’s really no way to backstitch when initially adding a piece–the ends of the pieces often get trimmed off! This can get more complicated as your quilt gains more and more seams, but it’s worth it to make sure none of your seams become loose. I recommend having your iron nearby when doing improv, since you need to iron each seam before going on to the next piece!

Shake Things Up!

Now that you’re chugging along, you can start to get fancy. I will often sew multiple pieces of fabric together, then sew that section to the quilt. In the example below, I sewed two pieces of fabric together, cut it into strips, and sewed one of the strips to the quilt. I can then use the remaining strips in other parts of the quilt. This is an easy way to add interest to your quilt!

I Messed Up! Now What?

Guess what? You didn’t mess up. Improv quilts are amazing because you just, you know, improvise. I’m not a very go with the flow type of person, but if something funky happens with my improv quilts, it’s all good. One of the pieces I sewed on today was too short. Oops! Rather than break out my trusty seam ripper, I just got creative with my trimming! These “mistakes” are a GOOD thing, because they help guide the shape of the evolving quilt.

Burning Questions!

  • Do the pieces you add always need to be a rectangle? Nope! Any shape works, as you can see with the triangle pieces below.
  • What about lining the pieces up exactly? Not important! You can sew just about any two pieces together. This is especially helpful when using scraps. No need to trim the pieces ahead of time. Just sew them together and trim the seam allowance to 1/4″ before pressing the seam.
  • Should I pin? I don’t. The pieces are so small and sewn together so quickly that pining just feels like unnecessary work. And if you end up sewing a kind of wonky seam, you can probably just work with it!
  • What about when my quilt starts to get big and unmanageable? When this happens, I start another section (not with a large central piece, however) and then sew the sections together later.
  • What if my quilt is oddly shaped at the end? It probably will be! I make mine a few inches larger than what I want the completed size to be, to allow room to square it up.

As I was working on this sample today (and stopping to take a million pictures!), I was thinking about what tips I could offer in this post. Since there’s no pattern or set directions, it can feel like improv is complicated or stressful, but to me it’s the exact opposite. It’s freeing and fun! I think my biggest tip is not to overthink things. It can be easy to get caught up in perfect placement of colors or shapes but that’s really not necessary. Improv quilts will look good no matter what–it’s the very nature of improv to thrive on the imperfect!

I hope this post has convinced you to give improv a try. It’s just so much fun! There’s lots of different ways of doing it, so you don’t even have to do my method. Please tag me on Instagram if you give improv a try after reading this post, because I’d love to see what you make. Use the hashtag #peonyandfernimprov if you want me to share your picture!

Triangulation Quilt

Once upon a time, I pulled together a beautiful color palette. I had no plans in mind for these colors, other than sewing with them immediately. And so, I began cutting. I cut some triangles and sewed them together. They were kind of wonky looking, so I panicked. Did I just waste all that time and fabric?!? I calmed down and trimmed them. Phew, much better. Then I sewed some together and made a pillow cover. And it looked really fun! So I decided to keep going and see what these triangles had in store for me.

It turns out there was a quilt in store! After appealing to Instagram for a name, Triangulation was born (thanks again to Anne Birkett for suggesting such a perfect name)! In about two weeks, I had a rough pattern done and had made a throw sized version, since that felt like the only way to confirm my math was correct. Thanks to a few hard-working testers, I got feedback within just a few weeks and now the pattern is available! This is my first actual quilt pattern–my first pattern was a pillow and the second was a mini quilt. This definitely took a lot more time to write and I feel more nervous about releasing it than my first two patterns…which is saying a lot because I was pretty nervous about both of them too! I feel like a lot of quilters are like me and have learned by trial and error, but I also know there are some “right ways” to do things and I’m pretty sure I don’t do any of them. So that’s typically the cause behind my nervousness. What if my weird way of doing things is annoying to my fellow quilters? What if the quilt police come and arrest me?!? I guess if they do, at least I’ll have a nice quilt to bring with me to quilt jail!

This pattern is definitely beginner friendly. I wouldn’t recommend it for your first quilt ever, since matching triangle points can get annoying and I wouldn’t want my quilt to turn someone off from quilting forever! But otherwise it’s pretty easy (although people will think you went through way more effort than you did!). The fabric cutting is very straightforward and you can chain piece the HRTs (half rectangle triangles) which cuts down on sewing time. The fabric requirements are below in case you’re making up your mind about which size to make. I hope you all enjoy Triangulation and I can’t wait to see what you make with this pattern!

Dashed Heart Quilt

My second quilting pattern is available today in my Etsy shop! The Dashed Heart quilt is a mini quilt which I made with the intention of being a wall hanging, but it would be equally cute on a table or even as a large pillow!

It’s apparent that I hate matching seams, since all of my patterns thus far have no matching seams to worry about. It sure makes life a lot easier! This pattern is definitely suitable for a beginner. It’s likely evident from the picture that it is simply a bunch of rectangles sewn together. Really the only tricky part is keeping track of all the small pieces! This is definitely a weekend project, possibly even a one-day project if you have a few dedicated sewing hours.

If you’d like to replicate the quilting I did on this version, I did a simple crosshatch pattern, with the lines 1/2″ inch apart. The sections (what are they called in this type of quilting??) are approximately 2.25″ apart. I always quilt with my stitch length at 3.0.

Lastly, this version uses shades of pink/peach/purple and all the fabric is from Kona Cotton. I buy mine from Fabric Bubb. The colors I used are: Baby Pink, Bellini, Dusty Peach, Peony (gotta use that one!), Primrose, Woodrose, and Foxglove.

I hope you enjoy making your own Dashed Heart quilt, and I hope you’ll share it with me so I can admire it! Thanks so much for supporting Peony and Fern!

Quilting Copycats

Copying ideas is something that gets a lot of attention in creative industries like quilting. And rightly so–intentionally stealing ideas for profit is the same thing as stealing physical property. The problem is, intellectual property is harder to prove as being stolen, and more difficult to defend from thieves, particularly online. Public sharing platforms make our work even more visible, which is a double-edged sword. Most of us are searching for exposure and customers, but the more well-known you are, the more likely you are to be copied.

My experience with the quilting community has mostly been through Instagram. This magical place which allows quilters to connect with each other has been a boon for professionals and newbies alike. There is so much information to be had, things to learn, and inspiration. Oh, the inspiration! It seems every day I’m discovering more talented people and being awed by their work. I’ve connected with other quilters and made friends. I’ve been cheered on and advised and comforted. As my profile has slowly (ever so slowly) gained momentum, I’ve started to experience glimmers of the copying I know other quilters dread.

My mountain quilt is my quilt that is most often discussed for copying

Before I started writing quilt patterns, I occasionally designed my own quilts and shared them on Instagram. There were plenty of times where people would chat with each other in the comments of my post, talking about whether or not they could replicate the quilt I was sharing. I always tell myself people don’t mean any harm by this, but it still feels unsettling. At the very least, discuss your plans in private! When this first started happening, I usually just ignored it, but these days I will often delete the comments. I’ve also received messages from people asking me how to make quilts that I’ve shared. While I know people are just excited by a quilt they’ve seen, this is also an unpleasant request since I feel like I have to directly tell someone not to copy me. No fun for a non-confrontational person like me!

I’ve never seen any evidence of my quilts actually being replicated without credit, but who knows. Now, does it really matter if there’s a duplicate of my mountain quilt out there in the world? Not really. I made it for my son and I’m very proud of it! It’s the first quilt I ever quilted myself, and it was the push I needed to start quilting more seriously. Someone copying it doesn’t lessen my achievement, but it does sting a bit. After all, they could have given my idea credit and gotten my name out to new people who might not know about me. What is more concerning is when people sell a quilt or pattern based on someone else’s idea. If someone makes a quilt just like my mountain quilt for themselves, that’s one thing. But if they make it and sell it, well, that’s money I could have earned.

Whether it’s intentional or not, copying can be a problem among quilters, and I have a few suggestions which I’ve personally started implementing to do my best due diligence when I have new ideas!

Do Your Research

Instagram hashtags are an amazing thing, so put them to work for you! Spend some time looking up different hashtags to see if there are quilts or patterns similar to your idea. Pay special attention to hashtags specific to your idea, like #trianglequilt or #hrtquilt in the case of my Triangulation quilt. If you’re friendly with any quilters on Instagram, you can run your idea past them to see if they’ve seen anything similar already. Checking around to make sure your idea isn’t an exact replica of someone else’s idea will save you some heartache–better to check first than spend lots of time creating an idea only to find out someone else did it already!

My Triangulation Quilt…which I’m 99% sure is an original pattern!

Credit, Credit, Credit!

Let’s say you’re blown away by someone’s work and want to make something similar. Awesome! This is when you give them credit like crazy so people know where the original idea came from. If you make it clear that you were inspired by someone else, you’re being upfront and giving people an opportunity to discover the quilter who had the original idea. There are lots of prolific quilters who have very specific styles and there’s no shame in being inspired by them. But it’s crucial to give them credit! And even more than that, you need to….

Make It Your Own

Related to giving credit is another important concept–making an idea your own. I don’t mean changing it just enough to get away with it. I mean really challenging yourself to think about what you like about the quilt you saw, and how you’ll put your own spin on it. Copying something exactly is taking the easy way out. To grow in your craft, you have to take risks and be willing to mess up. It’s fun to find your own style and way of doing things, and that can only happen by trying…not by copying. And selling items that are very similar to someone else’s really isn’t cool at all. Quilters can do better than that!

I think it’s worth reiterating that most people in the quilting community are amazing people, and the majority are trying to do their best work and not steal anyone’s work. Still, mistakes happen (and there’s also likely a finite number of quilt ideas out there!) so your first step should be to reach out to the other person if you ever have a concern or feel that someone is copying you. Quilters tend to be kind, generous people and our industry isn’t exactly cutthroat, so I imagine most of the time people would simply be embarrassed (and hopefully apologetic) to have their mistake pointed out to them. I know it isn’t always that simple though, and I think this is a continuing conversation we’ll be having in the quilting community. I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts on this topic!

My Sewing Room

I have shared pictures of my sewing room on Instagram before, but I’ve never really had a chance to really share a full “Before and After” of the room, so I think this is the perfect place to do that! I personally love to look at pictures of how rooms and houses change, and it’s not often that it’s actually my house that underwent the change, so you can imagine my excitement to share! Unfortunately I don’t have many good pictures from its prior state since I never expected to be able to redo it as much as we did. Please enjoy this (blurry) attempt at a panoramic picture of the room from a few months before the changes began!

This room was initially our dining room, but it was simply never used. We have a room right by the kitchen which fits a table plenty big enough for our family, so having a big table in this room was just a waste. It’s a beautiful room and for it to barely be used was a shame, so I slowly started moving in…and taking over! When we found out we were expecting our son, the room that had been the junk and storage/sewing room was turned into his room, so I was “forced” to move into the dining room officially. Rough life, I know.

Even though I was thrilled to have my own sewing room, things felt cramped with the giant table taking up all the room, and it was so dark for a spot with so many windows. The dark cabinets and table, plus the paint color just did not do the room any favors. I had always hoped to update the cabinets, and had been slowly (slowly, slowly) saving my pennies, so just a few months before our son was born, I ordered new cabinets. To make life more interesting, they arrived and were installed right after he was born…that was a busy week!

After the cabinets were up, things all fell into place. The cabinets were bigger than the previous ones, so I was able to store a lot more in them, and clear off the table. We had paint leftover from sprucing up our main floor walls, and extended that color into the sewing room. We also had the doors removed and it looks even more open without them! The dining table and chairs were sold, and I added a smaller table, two chairs, a bookcase, and best of all, my rug which reminds me of a quilt. As I’ve shared in the past, I’ve also been adding decorations to the wall, notably in the form of my Kona Color Card board and a wall hanging I made specifically for the spot. I’m hoping to add even more someday but for now, the room is functional and pretty, and such a lovely spot to sew. All told it took about 3 years for the room to go from “Before” to “After”, but that makes me appreciate the room so much more. I feel very lucky to get to work here every day.

Waterfall Pillow–The Pattern

The Waterfall Pillow pattern is posted to my Etsy shop which means that my first foray into pattern writing is officially out in the world!! My nervousness dissipated over the last few days and was replaced with eagerness to just get it out there already. Much like the anticipation before a big test, the worrying about an error I had overlooked was starting to get the best of me. Last night I reread the pattern for the 100th time and decided if I hadn’t caught a mistake by now, I probably never would. Plus I always love finding mistakes in published things (especially textbooks!) so maybe it’s only fair that I give someone else the opportunity to find an error in my pattern. Needless to say, I’m glad release day is finally here!

So if you’re looking for a fun and relatively quick project, I hope you’ll give my pillow cover a try! There aren’t any matching seams and the placement of the “waterfall” fabric is all improv, so you really don’t have to worry about getting things just so, which is often a concern with quilting. This is sewing and quilting for the joy of it, and when you’re done, you have a pillow to show for it!

My testers did a great job helping me hone the directions, but I’m always happy to answer your questions if you get stuck or find a particular step confusing. If there’s a question I get several times, I’ll update this post and include info to help! And if there are any pattern corrections (eek!) I’ll list them here. I can’t wait to see what everyone makes!

Wall Hangings for the Lazy

A while back I made a wall hanging for my sewing room, and I absolutely love how it turned out! It’s adapted from the Sienna Burst pattern from Then Came June Patterns, and it fills up a big section of the wall. The only problem was that I had no interest in making a quilt sleeve for hanging it up, and not surprisingly, my “just hang it up with masking tape!” plan failed after a few days. Nothing is quite so sad as walking into your sewing room and seeing a quilt crumpled on the ground.

So I decided to do the smart thing and research alternate ways to hang quilts. Just kidding, I pitifully asked my Instagram friends for help, and boy did they deliver! I got incredible suggestions. A few top contenders were:

  • Command Strips (like masking tape, only better!)
  • Push pins (extra credit for clear or colors that coordinate with your fabric)
  • Regular quilting pins (even more discrete than push pins)
  • Sewing small loops on the back and hanging them on nails (less work than a sleeve for sure)

However the answer that most intrigued me came from CR Creations Shop (@crcreationsshop on Instagram). She suggested using command hooks and nails which sounded sturdy and easy. I decided to be even lazier and simply use some safety pins I had on hand. This was completely trial and error, but it worked perfectly the first time, so I can wholeheartedly recommend this excellently lazy method.

The theory is that you’ll hook the safety pins on the back of the quilt (I did it through the binding since it’s thicker) and then put the nail through the hole of the safety pin. My wall hanging isn’t too wide, so I used 4 safety pins–one in each corner and two others spaced out in the middle. I took a few quick pictures in case you’re having a hard time visualizing how it works!

<—The nail through the safety pin, practicing for hanging!

      

My safety pin placement —>

Before I started hammering, I used a disappearing pen that I use for quilting and my quilt ruler to mark a line on the wall where I wanted the nails to be. The only slightly tricky part was hammering the nails in since I had to push the binding out of the way while also holding up the quilt. But the actual hanging took less than 2 minutes. Once all the nails were in, I wiggled the binding around a bit to make sure you couldn’t see the nails. They are completely hidden, exactly as I had hoped! If you have a wall hanging that needs hung up, I definitely recommend giving this method a shot. Let me know if you have any other tricks for wall hangings and I’ll add them to the list!