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!

6 thoughts on “How to Make Improv Quilts

  1. What a fun post! I DO improv alot, but this will be especially helpful for folks who want to give it a try. I’ll link to your post in my next newsletter. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  2. This is an awesome tutorial! I haven’t tried improv because I couldn’t decide how to start. This is so helpful!!!! Thank you!

    Like

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