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In Love with Improv Piecing

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

By Our Featured Writer for September: Lisa Swenson Ruble


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Instagram: @lisaerin1121

I was bitten by the improv bug about in 2012, about 12 years into my quilting journey. I stumbled across a blog post about sewing “wonky” log cabin blocks and decided to try it. I fell in love! While I love a good ¼” seam allowance and perfect points as much as the next quilter, the freedom of improvisational piecing is so enticing.

My first improv quilt was made using blue, green and orange batiks scraps, plus a white background. Because in my mind, improv piecing was modern, and all modern quilts needed a white background. (My thoughts on that have expanded over time…not all my “modern” quilts use white now!) If you look at the quilt, you can see I wasn’t totally ready to let my wild side loose—the blocks all follow some rules—orange center squares and just one orange strip near the outer edge of the block. But I was hooked and there was no looking back.

My improv journey included participating in Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s “15 Minutes Play” theory, plus workshops with Gwen Marston and Jacquie Gering. I got really into making “made fabric,” a technique I learned about from Victoria, and pieced a few projects that way. It’s great for using up scraps—especially the ugly ones!

Then I started playing with improv concepts on my own—slicing and piecing and asking “what if I did …?” as I sewed. Especially when you’re working on small projects (say, 36” square), with scraps, the stakes are pretty low. I’d stitched one project for a color challenge and didn’t like it, so it was pretty easy to just cut it up and reimagine the pieces into something else. To me, that’s part of the beauty of improv quilting—you’re not necessarily trying to make a specific block, so you can experiment. I like to call it ”no rules” quilting.

Moving into improv pattern design was the next step. Returning to my first improv experience, I stuck with log cabin blocks. I love how they look when they’re wonky, and it’s a great first step for traditional quilters because almost everyone is familiar with the basic log cabin concept. Add in some angled cuts, and suddenly you’re doing improv!

My first two improv patterns, Wonky Spirals and ZuZu Squares, are log cabin variations. Wonky Spirals uses a Courthouse Steps assembly method, and the color placement creates the design. For Wonky Spirals, I added in skinny strips of black and white piecing between wider improv logs for a whimsical look.

After talking to members of my guild and customers, in 2020 I launched the Wonk Around the Steps BOM, which combines four different styles of improv pieced blocks along with traditional piecing—sort of a hybrid quilt design that allows quilters to dabble in both areas. This pattern is now available as a standalone – not just as a block of the month series.

Last year I started experimenting with a combination of improv strip piecing and reverse applique, and developed the Strippy Improv Holiday pattern. These fun Christmas designs (a an ornament, a tree, a snowman, a star and a candy cane) are another nice soft introduction into improv piecing, adding scrap strips to a foundation background and then using applique techniques to make favorite holiday motifs. I’m currently finalizing a Halloween version and I can’t wait to show it off – a pumpkin, ghost, black cat and bat! I love finding new ways to play with improv techniques.

Another outlet for improv piecing has been quilting with my kids. All three of my boys have grown up with me sewing, and at a young age (about 4), they wanted to help. It’s hard for little kids to sew straight seams, so I introduced them to improv. They chose the fabric; they decided on strip width and color placement, and they helped decide where to cut the angles. Then we sewed together, with them on my lap. I loved seeing the joy on their faces as they showed off something they’d made, and without the frustration of having pieces not fit together exactly right. My older two boys ended up making my dad a quilt using the blocks that they’d stitched (plus a few random orphan blocks of mine). They were so proud of it!

Let’s talk a bit about the nuts and bolts of improv piecing, using a log cabin block as an example. There’s not much measuring involved—just strip cutting and sewing. I don’t cut exact size pieces—I work off a longer strip of fabric and trim as I add each log. To start, you’ll sew a log to the center square, just like in traditional piecing, press the unit open, and trim the end. Before you add the next log, you’ll use your ruler to cut an angle in your log, along the long edge. Then you’ll add the next log to the adjacent side, press and trim excess, and then angle that log as well. You’ll keep working around the block, adding logs and angling them.

If you’ve never tried improv, the “no rules” idea can be intimidating. You’re used to measurements and specific instructions, and this is much looser. But if you’re at all interested, I encourage you to give it a try – because it is improvisational, you can’t do it wrong! Here’s a tip to get help you as you sew: Quilters always ask me how much to angle their ruler as they cut. I recommend angling so you have ¼” to 3/8” difference between your top and bottom edge. If you do too much more, your block shape will distort. If you do less, your blocks will look like you didn’t sew straight as opposed to being purposefully wonky!

If you have any questions about improv piecing, please feel free to reach out to me:



Instagram: @lisaerin1121

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