improv piecing :: a beginners guide

improv quilt
There’s something about the ordered chaos of improv piecing that appeals to me – sticking out in my mind especially are this crochet hook roll and these journals. I’ve long wanted to try it, but I wasn’t quite sure where to start, and a search for a tutorial or how-to turned up pretty much nothing.

Over the last week or so, I’ve been planned and working on a capsule quilt for Beetle. Originally, I was quite partially to this strip-and-square quilt – even measuring and calculating the pieces to cut. I’d cut exactly 1 fabric and started laying them out on the floor of my studio, when I looked at the fabric, then the plan, then the stack of fabric awaiting cutting. Without thinking too much about it, I decided to take the plunge and switch to an improv style. And it seems, it wasn’t as scary as I thought. Today I’m sharing some tips on how I fumbled my way through and fell in love with this fun style of patchwork.

improv patchwork piecing - a starters guide

* for my first few blocks, I started by cutting the two starting pieces to size – one of which was a piece I had cut for my original plan. I found with a concrete starting point, it was then easier to start adding extra pieces.

* I quickly learnt the second and onwards additions to each block were best added as over-sized pieces then trimmed back, squaring the block each step of the way. This gave me not only nice neat blocks, but also gave me a bit of flexibility in sizing, as well as a good visual of how each piece affected the whole block. Then as I got more confident, I no longer felt the need to cut those starting points to size, and just trimmed as I went, varying the size of the starting blocks and the add-ons.
improv peicing step by step


* Keep in mind the scale of your project – I was planning  a 17×18″ finished piece, so I made my individual blocks somewhere between 4-6″ (approx) on the long end. This also meant I had to make the component pieces smaller as well. A bigger finished size can handle bigger blocks, while something like a journal cover may need more long and skinny blocks.

* If using scraps, don’t forget to allow for a few larger pieces before sewing it all into small blocks. I knew I wanted the owl fabric as a pretty major feature, and was only working with an odd-shaped leftover half of a fat quarter, so at the very start I cut a 4.5 x 5.5″ square to use, and then was quite selective in the rest of my cutting to allow for another large piece at the end. You can always cut down a large piece later on, but if it’s the last piece, you can;t un-cut it if you run out.

* vary the side you add the next piece to as you build each block, to avoid ending up with a heap of log cabin blocks (unless, of course, you are wanting log cabin blocks)

* When laying out the individual blocks to work towards a whole, don’t be too haphazard, and don’t be afraid of lining up edges. My first attempt at laying out the top, I was so determined to have everything offset and looking random, it needing lots of little cuts to fill in the blanks, and frankly, it looked a hot mess. When I scrapped that and started lining blocks up, it not only looked better, but was a lot easier to sew. Quicker too, because I didn’t have 7000 tiny little pieces to join up.

* make your blocks a variety of sizes and shapes to give yourself lots of options for the final layout. The sections outlined in purple were my original blocks:

improv blocks

* the gaps don’t need to be filled with just solids. You can see in the above diagram there are sections I ended up piecing segments as fill ins – or added to existing blocks to line up with others. In the end I only had one section needing set-in seams.

* remember, improv piecing is just that, improvising. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Make a couple of blocks, lay them out, make another to complement it. Move them around. Add more pieces to each block. Keep moving them around until you are happy.

* if you aren’t sure, trim bigger, you can always cut down at the assembly stage. (Also, don’t be afraid to trim down at the assembly stage. I had a couple of blocks that were 1/4″different. I could have added an extra strip of fabric, but in most cases I chose to trim the larger piece, except where I didn’t have an option – like that vertical thin orange strip on the left hand side there).


The most important part? Have fun! Keep it flexible, don’t over think it. Dive in and see what you can come up with. And let me know if there’s something you’d like to know about how I got started with improv, I will do my best to help out! For more experienced improv sewers, what tips for newbies can you share with us?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.