Lessons in Improvisational Quilting

Usually when I’ve been away from my sewing machine for too long, I become desperate to work on a quilt and grab something I think will be quick and easy (often it isn’t) and start cutting. If I’m lucky I also get to start sewing. For years now I’ve wanted to use a week of vacation time just to create. Not travel, not visit, not sit on a beach. Create. And last November the stars aligned and I had my week.

Journey2InspiredDesn_WellsHaving enjoyed myself playing à la Rayna Gillman (see my Restrained Free-Form quilt here), I decided to see what I could learn from Jean Wells. Jean’s book Intuitive Color and Design didn’t suit my style very well because in the learning phase I need instruction and direction, and ICD was not prescriptive enough. But her follow-up title, Journey to Inspired Art Quilting: More Intuitive Color and Design is perfect. This book includes lots of pictures and many assignments to teach different aspects of improvisational, or intuitive, quilting.

???????????????????????????????Since I didn’t have time to work my way through each of the assignments, I jumped into the colour and contrast exercise and made a small quilt contrasting warm and cool colours. Armed with a box of solid fabrics and a few hand dyes, I first pieced the horizontal and vertical segments on the left side of the quilt (photo at right). The bottom right quadrant had to be reworked more than once because I had no more warm colours in this palette and didn’t want any one fabric to dominate. The various iterations of this piece weren’t recorded because I was trying to live in the creative moment, and that meant no stopping to document my progress.

Border options quilt 1The assignment recommended a border in the lesser-used palette, and after auditioning two fabrics I went with the colour that was already in the quilt (above right) rather than introducing something new. At 10”x7.5”, it was quick and easy to quilt up.

Untitled Intuitive quilt

Untitled intuitive quilt

There you have it, my quilt in a day, still waiting for binding or facing. I like it a lot. If I had lived with the composition a little longer before bordering and quilting it, I would have substituted a thinner piece for the lowest teal/turquoise trio, and possibly for the purple, too, since I find them a bit clunky. That’s a good lesson for me: not to let my enthusiasm, or impatience, keep me from making the best art that I can.

Second quilt 1 _1101Applying that lesson, and because I moved onto a more challenging project in the book, I spent 3 days making my second piece and it’s not even quilted. The assignment was to make a small composition from a list of four options, and I decided to incorporate a focal point in the form of a strip of multicoloured fabric bits. For the larger background pieces I chose one of the hand-dyed fat quarters I made just over a year before. Those were my starting points: little bits of colour that I kept thinking of as piano keys, and multi-coloured background fabric. But a starting point is not a finishing point. The “piano keys” were fairly lifeless, even with the navy and yellow framing strips, so I added the swirly purple and pink section and kept building.

Second quilt fave alt_1103The component above is my favourite of any that I sewed that week and I made sure to incorporate it.


Now my patience is about to pay off. That somewhat primitive pink and purple section to the left of the piano keys was clearly misguided. It took the focus away from the focal point! Why it took me so long to zero in on this flaw I don’t know, but it was back to the drawing board.

Second quilt  with pink_1103Now I’m getting closer. Obviously the piece needed something with enough personality to support, or maybe expand, the focal point. And although the batik swirls have presence, the fabric doesn’t fight with the piano keys the way the pieced section did. Or perhaps my favourite component at the bottom had more personality than the focal point itself and the batik restored balance.Second quilt finished top  rotated IMG_1172Here, strips of opposing fabrics have been added to make a border of sorts: pink fabric at the outer right edge while hand-dyed fabric butts against the pink batik.

Second quilt finished top IMG_1172

Second untitled intuitive quilt. 10.5″x9″

After looking at the original design from every possible angle, I decided the best look was when it was rotated by 90 degrees and am very happy with it. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure whether I completed the assignment as intended, and I’m okay with that.


No, I’m not dead; I’ve been dyeing

My bundle of 16 hand-dyed FQs

After months of silence I’m resurfacing to tell you about my first attempt at fabric dyeing. This week I gave myself the luxury of a day off work to take Elaine Quehl’s low-water immersion dyeing class. Usually I’m very stingy with my vacation days, but after seeing what others had done in this class I knew I had to try it. And I wasn’t disappointed. I learned how to hand dye fabric and came away with 16 fat quarters: a 12-step colour wheel and 4 free-form blends.

Students were given the option of working with either bright or earthy primary colours to create their colour wheel. The picture below shows Elaine’s samples, with the earth tones on the left and the bright tones, which I used, on the right. 

Elaine Quehl’s fabric samples

After we transformed the powdered dyes into liquid, the intermediate steps of the colour wheel were created by mixing primary colours in different proportions. We followed Elaine’s recipes to make 12 bags of dye and smooshed (a very technical process) one FQ into each of the bags.

For the four multi-colour FQs we scrunched the fabric and poured on the dye prior to bagging it. All of the packages had to steep for a day before we could wash out the excess dye and see the outcome of our efforts.

The 12-step colour wheel while it incubates

I’d sum it up by saying the theory and mechanics of adding pigment to fabric were surprisingly easy. That’s because Elaine did such a good job of preparing, explaining, and demonstrating the process. The labourious part was washing out the excess dye. No doubt it would have taken me at least twice as long to accomplish half as much if I had tried to learn this on my own. Not to mention what I might have unintentionally dyed along the way.

One of the beauties (and curses) of hand dyes is the unpredictable way the colour takes to the fabric. Controlling the outcome is not so easy. Based on my minimal experience, I speculate the serendipitous (or calamitous) results have to do with the way the fabric is bunched, how easily the dye can penetrate the bunched fabric, and the homogeneity of the dye bath. No doubt much trial, error, and recordkeeping would help control freaks like me come at least close to what we’re aiming for. 

Some of my other observations were that the fuchsia, my primary red, blended very well with yellow to create fairly uniform secondary and tertiary colours, while the fuchsia-turquoise (my primary blue) combinations seemed to separate a bit. This is especially noticeable for colours with a greater proportion of fuchsia than turquoise.

My pure turquoise piece is almost solid in appearance with virtually no bubbles or creases to add visual interest. It’s the only piece that is so uniform and I have no idea what I did differently here. Perhaps the turquoise takes better than the other colours.

Unfortunately the camera doesn’t capture colours as they are seen by the naked eye. The fabrics are more intense and lively than they appear in these pictures. Believe it or not, the two pictures below are the same piece of cloth, one taken in natural light, the other with the camera’s flash. While neither looks exactly the same as it does in person, the picture on the left resembles the real thing. In the flesh, so to speak, the fabric is a dark turquoise, darker than what you see here, with violet-purple around the edges and highlighted by a luminescent turquoise that peeks through here and there.

Same piece of fabric.The left picture used natural light, the right used a flash

As was the case with most of the people in the class, I took this course to learn the process rather than to create fabric for a specific project. Now I’m conflicted between using these beauties (dare I cut into them?) and leaving them whole so I can admire their loveliness. All in all, not bad options.