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When Improv Quilting Goes Wrong

Improv quilting goes wrong? Yup, improv quilting goes wrong all the time. Maybe you’ve experienced this too? Or do you believe that you can’t fail because it’s all about making it up as you go along anyway? If you believe that, you definitely need a rethink! Why? Because ultimately you’re still trying to create a strong design or a quilt that ‘says something’ and you can’t do that without intention.

Often it’s the last bit of the improv process that’s important: piecing together all your different elements. This is the time you might be trying to fit all your random string sheets together in the most pleasing way you can. Or you might be trying to figure out a strong layout for all those wonky blocks. Either way, the intention is to create the best composition you can (unless of course your intention is for the composition to be completely random. But that’s still an intention and one that can be very difficult to try not to control!). So when improv quilting goes wrong, it’s likely to be at this stage in the process. It’s at this point that you’re most likely to feel that you can’t do it and that you’ve ‘failed’. But this is not the point to give up.

I Made a Discovery

© Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

My first ‘failed’ attempt to fulfil a brilliant idea

This weekend I was working on my improv circle in a square (above) for the Quilty 365 sew along and I made a mistake much earlier in the process than usual.

I don’t call my mistakes ‘mistakes’ though, to me they’re ‘discoveries’.

And when improv quilting goes wrong discoveries offer us opportunities.  I had a brilliant idea to hand stitch some text into Saturday’s circle with reverse appliqué. When I tried I discovered that I didn’t have the skills or the tools to fulfil this brilliant idea of mine. (And thinking about it, this is something I discover on a regular basis, haha!)  Now, I could consider this a failure, that it was a rubbish idea that I shouldn’t have bothered with in the first place. But I prefer a different approach:

© Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

Just look at the state of this reverse appliqué – that ‘a’ is laughable (and I’ve been laughing at it quite a lot!)

When Improv Quilting Goes Wrong, Look for an Opportunity

In this case I saw an opportunity to buy some new tools – and I call that a result! New, extremely sharp and pointy hand made embroidery scissors have been ordered. These’ll enable me to cut the letters out more accurately than the blunt 8″ dressmaking scissors did (when inspiration hits you’ve got to try with whatever you’ve got to hand, haven’t you!). As for the skills, I have the opportunity to practice and get better, or I have the opportunity to follow the idea through in a different way, one that’s commensurate with the skills I already have.

My decision? When my new scissors arrive I’m willing to give my idea another go ‘as is’, just to see if it’s the tools that caused the ‘failure’.  But if it still doesn’t come out the way I want I’ve got some other ways of expressing it up my sleeve and I’ll give those a go too.

© Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

Exploring an idea

The basic problem, as I see it, is trying to make some fairly complicated shapes on a pretty small scale (not commensurate with my skills!). I know I could make it on a larger scale without any problems, so I could just enlarge the circle, but that might affect the overall design of the quilt. And I’m not inclined to compromise that at the moment.  Another thing I’ve thought about that might help is to use ‘Fray Stop’ on the areas that are particularly fiddly to turn under (in the corners for example). This is another opportunity to try something new and see what happens.  And yet another opportunity that arises from this discovery is to ask you, my clever friends, what your experience is and whether you have any advice that might make my next attempt look less ham fisted. You know what to do: leave a comment below!

The point of all this waffling about exploring an idea is simply meant to illustrate that

when improv quilting goes wrong I don’t give up at the first hurdle!

And nor should you. Giving up isn’t what being creative is about. It’s about pushing something to its limits, or your limits, and if it doesn’t work out not being afraid to try a different approach.

Cheryl Arkinson has written an interesting post called What Really Counts as Improv Quilting? and I particularly like these points she makes (especially the last one):

“…improv is:

  • changing course midway – once, twice, or thrice (or more) – because you can.
  • an attitude that allows you to not freak out when something goes wrong or off track while piecing a quilt top.
  • being open to the direction your quilt takes or being okay with scrapping it when you hate it
  • as much about the process as the product.”
    (Cheryl Arkison, the Dining Room Empire, 21st October 2015)
Patchwork reverse applique motif 'FE" inside symbol for male with arrow. © Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

The finished block – made with new scissors and hand stitched reverse applique!

Your Elusive Creative Genius

If you’re still think improve quilting goes wrong and are uncomfortable with idea of making ‘mistakes’ have a look at this great TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) (have a look even if you’re not uncomfortable!). It’s funny, sincere and thought provoking – and might just make you think about creativity in a very different way. It could be liberating. Enjoy!

Linking Up

This is the week to link up your improv projects  with Kaja at Sew Slowly or Ann at Fret Not Yourself. The AHIQ link up is open until next Monday 30th, so head on over!

Did you know that Lorna at Sew Fresh Quilts is celebrating her 100th Let’s Bee Social post?  Isn’t that fab?! Of course I’m going to link up with her there and I hope you’ll come too.

Finally I’m going to link up with Lee at Freshly Pieced for Work in Progress Wednesday, because this improv quilt I’m working on will be in progress for at least another year!

You can find some of my other favourite link ups by clicking on the button below.

Favourite Link Parties graphic © Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

Next time you pop by I hope to have a post ready for you that might be a little bit controversial! Stay tuned for that one.

Until then, happy stitching everyone!
Signature: Stephie © Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnchorusStudio.com

23 replies
  1. Emilee
    Emilee says:

    Way to go with trying new things and taking the positive approach & reaction to it! I haven’t done much appliqué-so wouldn’t really even know where to start! 🙂

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Applique is a lovely way to stitch Emilee, but reverse appliqué isn’t something I’ve done an awful lot of so I’m not really sure the best approach to small and fiddly shapes. Trial and error are a good way to learn! Thanks for coming by and good to meet you!

      Reply
  2. carrie wikander
    carrie wikander says:

    I agree with you totally. Pretty much all my ideas are improv and often I have to try several different ways to make them work. In the end I gain skills and in the mean time it’s a chance to practice being present and enjoying the process.

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Thanks Carrie – you’re so right: being present and enjoying the process is what it’s all about. The end result is just a summation of that, then the journey picks up again in the next piece and so on. The journey never ends really and that’s what I love about it 🙂

      Reply
  3. Bossymamma
    Bossymamma says:

    I’m just going to creep away and hide under that quilt in the corner (which quilt? Any one that will cover me!) as I am definitely a quitter. In fact, being a quitter is the only thing I haven’t quit!

    Reply
  4. Deb @ Frugal Little Bungalow
    Deb @ Frugal Little Bungalow says:

    before a few of you quilters that I am familiar with started to post about Improv, i’d never heard of it. Ofen now reading your posts I have to smile thinking about many of my wonky piecing and applique efforts over time…which I can now call improv, ha ha ! seriously not sure of the size of your circles but since I am not skillful at needle turn applique I can only suggest the method that I use for fiddly little pieces….which would be the freezer paper and starch method.
    Some of my green fabrics for leaves fray more than others…and I’ve found that the designer fabrics versus cheap ones make no difference in regards to fraying, but if I give myself a bit more fabric around the template to work with when I am using the starch it is better. I was just quilting the other day, though and found a leaf with a bit of fray on the tip….too late to do anything now but dump some fray check on it ! 🙂

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      I’ve got quite a lot of really old ‘improv’ projects too Deb 😉 The circles vary in size from about 2″ to 4″, so pretty small for that kind of fiddly detail, if you’re not very proficient…yet! Starch is a really good idea that I hadn’t thought of – which is ridiculous because I could probably drown in it on some occasions! I think you’re right about different fabrics, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in ‘fray quality’ – I guess something that’s very tightly woven might be the only way to avoid it?

      Aaand missis, your needle turn appliqué is lovely – you have great skill, so don’t belittle it – and consider yourself well and truly told off!!!! x

      Reply
  5. Sandra Croley
    Sandra Croley says:

    Like Deb, I really haven’t heard of improv quilting and may have to find a book or something to explain it to me!

    As for your reverse applique….I wish we could sit together so I could show you a few tips! But, for sure, a nice, wee pair of very sharp scissors will help! lol, I can hardly imagine you going at this with such a big pair of scissors!

    I guess if I had to give one tip on fiddly work like this would be…..don’t fuss with the needleturn too much. Make a decisive turn with your needle and stitch it. The more you fuss, the more likely you will be dealing with a frayed mess.

    Also, some fine thread is nice for getting some nice reverse applique done.

    Like you say, though, it’s all part of the journey!

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Sandra thank you sooo much. Fine thread is something that hadn’t even entered my head! Goodness knows why I thought these enormous scissors would do the job, ha! I lost my previous embroidery scissors a while ago and have managed without them as I haven’t had to cut any tiny shapes until now. My optimistic effort with the shears was a bit on the hysterically funny side! I love ordinary needle turn appliqué and have never had this kind of issue before. Generally I like to keep things as simple as possible: some fabric shapes, a needle and thread and that’s it. I thought I could just do the same with reverse appliqué, but you live and learn! I take your advice very much to heart and can’t wait for the new scissors to arrive and have another go! I’m going to look for some different thread too.

      Some great books about improv quilting include Sujata Shah’s Cultural Fusion Quilts and Sherri Lynn Wood’s Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters – both are on Amazon 🙂

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment Sandra – you might just have saved the day!

      Reply
  6. Kaja
    Kaja says:

    I like your attitude: when something doesn’t work, look for the opportunity in the failure. It’s very satisfying when you persist and something finally works, even if it takes a while to get there, and as you say it often builds skills and broadens your repertoire.

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      And if you don’t accept that things go ‘wrong’ you’ll never really do anything. You’ll just put your project aside and start another one that you’ll probably put aside at the first hurdle too! You certainly won’t become proficient at anything that way – anyone that’s good at anything has done it through persistence and belief that somewhere there is a way!

      Reply
  7. linda schiffer
    linda schiffer says:

    Seeing your version with the male symbol with FE inside it made me chuckle … ‘Fe’ is the atomic label for the element iron …. women as iron men. 🙂

    Linda

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      I’m so glad you got it Linda! Women are as strong as iron I reckon! I’m playing around with an idea about gender that arose listening to a podcast the other day – I’ll explain more about it in an upcoming post 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping to say hello, it’s lovely to have you here!

      Reply
  8. Ann
    Ann says:

    You always have the most interesting work. The iron symbol made me laugh!
    I do so little applique I hadn’t realized the scissor size makes a difference. It is important to work through difficulties, isn’t it? Otherwise we can’t improve.
    Thanks for linking up with AHIQ.

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      The symbol seems to be having the desired effect Ann – if only my appliqué did, ha! Onwards and upwards: my new scissors arrived today and I’m a bit over excited 😀 We definitely have to work through our ideas, as you so wonderfully illustrate when you describe your design/thinking process. And, thank you for the opportunity to link up with some great like minded souls.

      Reply
  9. knitnkwilt
    knitnkwilt says:

    First, I totally agree that “mistakes” can be “design opportunities.” And that includes mistakes in traditional piecing as well as improv–like stitching a triangle in backwards or not liking a palette after a piece is together. And Second, I too have many ideas that are beyond my skill set. So, like you, I keep practicing.

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      You’re so right, traditional piecing offers just as many opportunities – and without having done traditional piecing many of us wouldn’t have the confidence or first clue where to start with improvisation. Practice, practice, practice makes perfect, so they say, but I’d be happy with just not looking so rough as this stitching, haha! I love trying out new ideas and if I’m not well practiced with a technique it gives the wonderful opportunity to slow right down and really concentrate on what you’re doing, which is something I love 🙂 Good luck with your practicing too!

      Reply
  10. Sue
    Sue says:

    I’ve just resigned myself that the big successes will be more or less accidental, but all the fun is in the process. You’ve got to just trust it. Love this post, I’ve read it twice now, quoted it, and still will come back again.

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      I love that Sue “trust the process” – and of course that’s definitely where the fun is. I think the small successes are just as important as the large ones: they’re what spur us on to try more I think. Thank you so much for linking to the post, I’m so pleased you enjoyed it and look forward to popping over to your place for a catch up!

      Reply
  11. Mary at Fleur de Lis Quilts
    Mary at Fleur de Lis Quilts says:

    The nice thing about coming to modern quilting from garment making through traditional quilting, is that all that sewing and quilting gave me lots of practice. It seems I’ve already made just about every mistake and turned a few into design opportunities. The others? Well, they go into “the compost bin,” a box of mistakes that could not be saved (or I abandoned). Sometimes when I am doing true improvisational quilting, I will pull a couple of things from the bottom of the bin and challenge myself to do something with them. At the very least they serve to get me started with a color palette or wonky block.
    The point here is that abandoning a project (or picking one back up) is not the end of the world. It’s easy enough to rip out the wayward stitches, chop the offending blocks, or cut away the seams and save the fabric bits. A couple of years ago, I had guild members bring in abandoned or orphan blocks. We tossed them into a huge bag and each person chose one. Then I showed them how I cut apart the blocks and use them to begin a new improv block. It was a fun exercise in learning how to free oneself. Many of them ended becoming really interesting charity quilts.

    Reply
    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Hi Mary, thank you for coming by and leaving such an interesting comment. I think it’s true, nothing’s the end of the world with improv quilting. You can do so much if you just sit and think about it for a few minutes, even if that does mean adding what you’ve made to an ‘I’ll do something else with that sometime’ pile! Your orphan blocks project sounds great – that way your students weren’t cutting up their own work, which must have taken the stress out of it!

      Reply

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