Is This Improv?

As I work on another project, I’m mulling over the meaning other quilters give to the idea of “improv.” This is a long post, so thank you in advance if you choose to read.

Improvisation often implies just winging it, or spontaneously reacting. However, great improvisational speakers are prepared, understanding their topics and practiced in persuasion. Great jazz improvisers have tremendous musical training and preparation. They may not plan their improvs, but they aren’t just “winging it.” The inspired creativity of extemporizing is built on the rest of the written piece. It generally has structure and form, following loose rules not obvious to the untrained listener.

A post on Disc Makers Blog quotes an interview with legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. Tyner said that he doesn’t practice for improvisation, but what he does is to compose a lot. To him, improv and writing music are the same in many ways, but improv is composition on the spot, in real time.

In quilting, this would be as if designing a quilt and “improv” quilting are the same, except that improv is a faster process. I’m not sure that’s how I see it, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Quilters often take a different view altogether. Somehow “improv” has come to be seen as a style. Think Gee’s Bend. Or think of a number of different books on quilting improv. As I look at the covers in Amazon, they all feature quilts with seams that aren’t straight, points that don’t match, non-standard blocks or traditional blocks that are done in a wonky style.

To check on my impression of this, I googled “what is improvised quilting”. One of the first posts is the gallery of photos from the Modern Quilt Guild. All the photos on the first two gallery pages are styled with the characteristics I mentioned above.

One improv quilter, Cheryl Arkison, wrote about “What Really Counts As Improv Quilting?” :

… taking a traditional pattern and making it without measuring pieces or worrying about perfect points. This often makes it wonky.
… sewing together random bits of fabric to become bigger pieces of fabric. These can be used on their own or as part of something else.
… taking a certain cut of fabric and sewing it to another with no preplanning about what goes next to what. Free form piecing.
… 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.

I would argue that the first three points above have much more to do with style than with improv. To me, improv is NOT a style or a quality of work, but a process, akin to improvisational theatre and music. It is a process about paying attention, making decisions based on what’s already happened, and choosing next steps based on resources available. It isn’t about randomness. I do like her point that it is an attitude that allows you to not freak out. 🙂

Arkison ultimately emphasizes process, too. “Improv is an approach, a technique that starts with simply starting. You begin without knowing what the end product will look like. You are improvising the design as you go.”

The article mentioned above in Disc Makers Blog has “11 Improvisation Tips to Help You Make Music in the Moment.” The tips begin with “Believe that you can improvise.” Also recommended is learning music theory; I would say this is similar to learning quilt design theory — it isn’t necessary to improvise successfully, but it does give you more to go on. Other tips include:

  • Try reacting to what’s around you
  • Embrace the accident
  • Don’t judge yourself in the moment (but review after the fact)
  • Say something — let your listener connect to the music by telling a story with it
  • Keep learning

All that said, how about this piece? I started to tell you about it in my recent post A Lot of Fun Stuff Going On. Here is the current status (and I will probably add more borders):

The photo is slightly off square, but the piece is on the money. 🙂

If you look at this through the eyes of the Modern Quilt Guild, I expect this would not be considered improvisational. But they don’t know about my process, do they? They don’t know that this started as a strip quilt, not a medallion quilt. They don’t know that the house was my design, and that it looked empty and lonely by itself, so I decided to add mullions on the windows and moulding on the door, and a tree. Or that the tree continued to grow without a plan, as trees do. They don’t know that the bird once lived in an anthology of children’s stories and poetry.

They don’t know that my process included choosing teal to frame the house, because teal would repeat the color of the door and feed well into the other fabrics I already chose. Or that I began with scraps of border stripe in a variety of lengths, none more than a few inches long, and found to my surprise that with careful piecing I had enough to miter them into the corners. Surely that is improvisation!

They don’t know that the next two fabrics were chosen after audition, or that their widths were determined based on what came before, what the fabrics themselves offered, and the potential for what will come next. They don’t know that this is another pink and brown quilt, because it is NOT! Because of improvisation.

And what will come next? I don’t know!! I still have 112 flying geese made for my strip quilt, and it’s possible that about half of them might fly around the edge. Or maybe not. My process allows me to make that decision when I am ready to make that decision.

You don’t have to give up rulers and measurement and high-quality construction to make improv quilts. Your points can all be perfect, or not. To me, the real process of improvisation in quilting is that of making one decision at a time, and being open to the notion that any decision you make might be wrong, and call for a change. It is not a style, it is a process I’ve also called Design-As-You-Go. It is what I teach in my Medallion Improv class. It is how I prefer to work, even though I often switch to design software to choose my later borders. That too is part of an improv process, because I leave open the possibility (which often happens) that I will not like what I designed with software, and I try again without freaking out.

In fact, I believe medallion quilts are uniquely perfect for improvisation. Because you make one border at a time, you can make one decision at a time.

Off my soap box now. Thanks for reading, if you’ve gotten this far. What do you think about improvisation? Do you improvise in quilting or other parts of your life? (We’re really all just makin’ it up as we go, aren’t we?) 🙂

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50 thoughts on “Is This Improv?

  1. Ruth Kennedy

    What a great read!!…I would never have characterized myself as an Improve quilter , but it turns out that I am …( sometimes).
    I was feeling somewhat stodgy for not relating to many of the modern quilts being created….it turns out that we have more in common than I thought ( as is often the way in life when our eyes are opened to similarities !) Thanks

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh I do think quilters have a lot in common, even when we don’t share the same preferences for style! Think of any friend of yours who has a different fashion sense. You may never want to wear what she wears, but otherwise be highly compatible! Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  2. Sue Watson

    Yes I agree that improv is making decisions about which piece to use next “as you go along” I think this was the way I started quilting four years ago. Non of the quilts I made followed a strict pattern or conventional style.
    It wasn’t always “plain sailing” but I didn’t no any better so I didn’t freak out.
    Fixing corners and sides to even up the quilt top was a challenge in some cases in both a technical and mathematical sense.
    I was quite pleased with the end result in all cases!
    Since I’ve learned more about the “rules” of quilting I have not been as adventurous as the early days preferring instead to work from a pattern.
    However I’ve enjoyed the evolution of most of the quilts from Catbird studio especially the medallion quilts and hope that as I become more proficient in quilting techniques I will gain more confidence in improv design.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Hi Sue. Thanks for the comments. It sounds like you learned a lot with your first few quilts, made without a “conventional style.” I wonder if there is something else in your life that’s changed at the same time as you’ve preferred to work from patterns. Extra stress, extra tiredness, or other things might disrupt your personal creative process and simply make patterns more fun. We can only use the resources we have, and sometimes we’re all tapped out. Good luck with future quilting. I will guess improv will come back to your life!

      Reply
  3. Chela's Colchas y Mas

    Melanie, once again you hit a topic that has been on my mind. I am trying to decide for myself what improvisational quilting is. I am trying different things, but I am not where I want to be yet. You are so right…improvisation is in the process, being open, and going with the flow. I love your comparison to jazz. Your posts are always so enlightening.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Chela. I think improv is as much a process of changing how we see things as it is about how we make things, so I’m not surprised with your comment. thanks much.

      Reply
  4. knitnkwilt

    Once when I was resisting the process of pulling random bits of fabric and attaching them, someone suggested that one pull randomly and then audition. And that seems to relate to your suggestion that one work with a repertoire of design principles. (Like other commenters, I like your points about jazz improv and the comparison of music theory to design theory.) The line between improv and design is indeed blurry. However, speed isn’t a feature. (You didn’t come back to that point). I find improv (Cheryl Atkinson/Sherri Lynn Wood version) takes as long as or longer than sketched, drafted and followed process. Or maybe the time is simply spent at different points in the process. And while I follow your logic as you describe your quilt above, I’d not likely enter the quilt that results into QuiltCon’s improv category.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, improv can take a long time! I usually find that it is very slow for me at points, or for some quilts. Also sometimes it seems I know what to do instantaneously. And YES!! No doubt my project above wouldn’t be considered “modern,” but perhaps if a show had a “traditional” improv category, it would be quite welcome. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Reply
  5. louisedduffy

    My approach to most of my cooking is improv. For me, it is knowing I want to make soup, and looking in my fridge and cabinets, pulling out some things that look interesting today. But my soups do have a common starting place: chopped garlic, onions, and celery sautéed in olive oil. If I discover that I am out of celery, I don’t have to stop and go to the store…I just keep going. Maybe this time I use some kale for a little greenery and texture. I couldn’t do this successfully without having made dozens of dozens of pots of soups, some more successful than others. I have learned a few things about using too much salt or chile peppers.

    My approach to quilting began with a very specific instructions for making a log cabin quilt (Elanor Burns). But I chose batiks and an unconventional layout. After that, I used instructions/patterns as a starting point, checking with more experienced sources for help in techniques, and let the end results take care of themselves. To borrow a phrase from a spiritual tradition, “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, occasionally in great bursts of brilliance” beautiful, fun quilts appear in my life and in the lives of those I love.

    I think I will keep coming back!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m sorry I’m slow to reply — this was dropped into spam for some reason. But your example is perfect for me, as I am a soup queen, too. As you say, you start with what you have, and sometimes it’s not exactly what you would intend, but the resulting meal is satisfying anyway. The experience we have with that, and with our quilts, allows us to make something without a recipe. Even so, I read soup recipes regularly, as I also look at other quilts for inspiration. 🙂 Thanks again!

      Reply
  6. Paula Hedges

    I agree improv is not spontaneous: more doing than planning, no rules but those self-imposed, allowing the rejection of what could have been and trying again. No timeline to meet truly allows for creative acceptance, moving outside of the comfort zone. Let’s say I dabble at it right now in this quilting journey.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      More doing than planning — I do like that way of putting it! To me that means that planning is part of it (and if you look at those MQG “improv” quilts, you can see that many are very carefully planned) but doing dominates. Thanks, Paula.

      Reply
  7. katechiconi

    Perhaps there should be two new quilting words: Tradprov and Wonkyprov. I’ve made quite a few quilts in the past which conform to Tradprov principles, mainly because I like balance, neatness order and my old friend, symmetry. It’s a question of “I like that bit, what would go with it?” rather than splattering the quilt with any old colour and shape. Even my scrap blocks are moderately tidy rather than totally Wonkyprov, and with those, all I’m trying to do is fit various sizes of scrap together rather than make a pleasing arrangement. I also don’t agree that if you’ve added something you later don’t love, you should leave it there, simply because it was improvised. The process is supposed to free you, not constrain you. Great post. I found myself nodding in agreement all the way through it.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Kate. I think the main notion I object to, relative to “improvisation,” is that it somehow is exempt from structure or organization or thought, and is all about randomness. I guess in the broader definition of the word, that still works. But my goggles have me look at it like improvisation in performance, and you wouldn’t be very successful that way in performance! 🙂 ALSO YES, the process is supposed to free you, and if you don’t like what you’ve already done, do something different. I can’t tell you how many blocks or borders I’ve remade because they didn’t work for me. I DO know better now that sometimes leaving those things in place, and then working with them, makes a better quilt. But not always! Thanks as always. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.

      Reply
  8. Kerry

    Oooh it seems I’ve been improv sewing recently! I’ve been stitching odd bits together to make bigger blocks on the old treadle rather than throw them away. Very scrappy. Not sure what the next step will be, just doing some mindless sewing and relaxing with it all. I have appliqued (partially – yet another start but not completed) a robin (European version) on some holly. I didn’t like the holly stencil in the book because I thought there should be more pointy bits. In at the deep end and I drew my own leaf shapes. Now I can understand why so few points on the original!
    So I agree with you. We choose an age old block then we add our own colours and style of fabrics to make it our own – mix with another block perhaps. Sometimes we all blunder on happy accidents – could that be improvising? Actual quilting can equally be improvised by free motion quilting in whatever way you like. I love doing that – I quilted butterflies (from my own design shape) and then added curls on the wings.

    Then there’s gardening – which for me is pretty well improvised and if something doesn’t look right or it’s in the wrong spot, I’ll move it to where we will both be happier! I notice that my snowdrops have been popping up in different spots – thank the wildlife for moving them, or even they set their own seed. Nature doing a spot of improvising too!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Good point about the quilting offering opportunity for improvisation. My free-motion quilting is certainly made up as I go! And Jim would agree with you about the gardening, too. He also is one to move things as it moves him. 🙂

      Reply
  9. myquiltprojects

    I think all quilters are improve quilters at some point in their hobby. The modernist movement in quilts is not improvised quilting. The modernist movement in quilts is simply textile art. In quilting, there is a saying…..made imperfect with imperfect hands. Modern quilts are purposely trying to bend the rules, with no points and wonky seams. In Textile art they call it bending the rules. In quilting it is called the quilt police. Where the two meet is called the arts and crafts movement. They overlap and have similarities, but are completely different approaches. Your post has really made me think about this. Do I improvise? Yes, because I have been doing it so long, I have the skill set which allows me to do so. I could never do stand up improv comedy. I have no rehearsals in life for that. Quilting however is something I am knowledgeable on. And because of my knowledge I can wing it. A beginner probably could not. I hope I am communicating this correctly….I seem to be rambling. Thank you for this post. It has greased some gears that haven’t been used for a while.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’m glad it set you thinking about this. I think all the labels are interesting. I have strong opinions on some and no opinion at all on others. 🙂 This is one that has prickled me for a long time. And I think your point about having the experience to improv in quilting is part of my point, too. It takes some level of expertise and some courage — but not JUST courage — to improv with some successful outcome. Thanks for your rambles, as they help my thinking to refine, too.

      Reply
  10. jmn111

    “To me, the real process of improvisation in quilting is that of making one decision at a time, and being open to the notion that any decision you make might be wrong, and call for a change. It is not a style, it is a process I’ve also called Design-As-You-Go.” That just about sums up how I see improvisation. That’s pretty much how I work – for quilting and garment construction.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      You were one of the quilters I thought about as I considered this issue. You are so good at taking the beginning of an idea and then running with it. It’s always interesting to see your projects unfold.

      Reply
  11. KerryCan

    I’ve never paid much attention to all these labels in quilting–improv, modern, art, whatever. We all like to use fabric to realize an inner vision and it’s all good. I think I’m an awkward mix of styles–but they work for me. I plan a lot of stuff ahead when making a quilt but, as I was just writing in that hand quilt along post yesterday, the placement of the quilting lines is determined on the fly. Sometimes it works better than others . . . but I don’t freak out! Your post got us talking!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, I was thinking of your quilting decisions, too. You can quilt a line and then decide to take it out, or to add more, shaping the look of your piece by the moment-by-moment choices you make. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Reply
        1. Melanie McNeil Post author

          Well I would say that is improv, too. If you are performing on stage and say a line that sounds stupid or play a note that doesn’t fit, you can’t go back and erase it. You incorporate it or ignore it, but either way, you just keep going.

          Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      In many ways I agree with you, but labels also help us understand what it is we do, and help shape our view of ourselves and others. So I think it’s good to fuss over them now and then, to decide if they are helpful or not. Thanks.

      Reply
  12. Nann

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Melanie. I agree with Cheryl A’s statement, “Improv is an approach, a technique that starts with simply starting. You begin without knowing what the end product will look like.” — and if that’s improv, then nearly all of my quilts meet that description! Bonnie Hunter’s mystery quilts are among the few that I make following directions and a pattern. Indeed, wonky blocks may be used in improv quilts but not all improv quilts have wonky blocks or irregularly-shaped elements.

    Reply
  13. norma

    Interesting post – lots of food for thought.
    I think quilts (& garments too!) should develop as you sew. If there’s too much planning the result is often lacklustre, boring… To me it doesn’t imply poor workmanship or a particular style, it’s something that the maker has put her or his creativity and skill into. Not copied.
    One last thought, maybe lack of physical resources actually helps with the process. The less you have the more creative you have to be?

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh, yes! I do agree that constraints tend to make us more creative. If you go back to the post I put up the other day about the woman in prison, she had almost nothing to work with, but made an amazing piece of art. And also yes, I do think “improvising” allows us to reveal ourselves or add our style in ways that making by pattern cannot. That’s why I’m such a huge advocate for it. Thanks, Norma!

      Reply
  14. snarkyquilter

    I recall that at one time you could buy a pattern to make a Gee’s Bend quilt. Talk about perverted. As to the improv process, I think it’s useful for a quilter to try as a way of loosening up, of stepping away from the instructions. Just don’t expect every result to be lovely. And that’s OK. You may have tried a color combo you never thought of before or used up those odd blocks. I don’t necessarily equate modern quilting with improv. Many of the QuiltCon winners show careful matching and sharp points, and were done from a plan. I use improv to play with scraps and to create units that I will then evaluate and plan a way to arrange.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I love the notion of trying things you don’t know will work, and if there are classes on Craftsy (there are) or workshops or tutorials online, those will help some people loosen their self-imposed restraints. I sure could use that, too! As you say, not everything will be lovely! There is room for both carefully designed, carefully crafted quilts and those that stem from a more flexible process. To me this is true for any style. Thanks.

      Reply
  15. audrey

    Great post Melanie! Technically ‘Improv.’ is designing as you go, making those decisions in real time and not being afraid to change directions. I think the modern definition came about from more of a marketing and style thing. If you encourage beginning quilters to be okay with a looser, more imprecise look, then maybe they’ll buy more and not be so intimidated with the details! I know it took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea of what true improv. was all about {the process} and maybe, just maybe I had been doing a form of it for years? lol Now I’m trying to get more comfortable with the free form cutting/sewing part of it and letting my imperfections hang out there for all to see!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Your quilts (at least recent, the things I’ve seen since starting to follow (including digging back through some of your old stuff)) has an ease and joy to it that I think comes from improvisation. And yeah, you’re probably right that an imprecise look (wonky?) is less intimidating, and 3 cheers for that! Thanks

      Reply
  16. zippyquilts

    I agree with you that improv has rules, though they could be either Cheryl’s or yours or somebody else’s. I see lots of improv quilts that are not really successful designs by my standards, but then, those quilts weren’t made for me. And I like your house quilt so far!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Mary! I think you’re the only one who has commented on my house. 🙂 I’m not real interested in the rules of improv, I guess. I have a thing (you’ve surely noticed) about how words are used. (THOSE RULES!! How words are used!!) So I wanted to throw my thoughts out there, and am grateful for the conversation it started. Thanks for your two cents.

      Reply
  17. quirksltd

    This post hits home with me, and I also loved reading the comments! Maybe because I moved from traditional to an improv process, made easier by learning good construction techniques before breaking the rules. That experience helps so much as you make each choice, each step, each design decision. Improv is totally a fluid process to me and not a style! Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I agree, having a solid foundation of construction technique helps. Good construction doesn’t require that all the points are perfect, but stuff shouldn’t be prone to coming apart, and finished pieces generally should be flat, even if not squared. So I’m glad I learned that first. Don’t you love the comments? It’s been really interesting. Thanks for adding yours today.

      Reply
  18. jeanswenson

    I was literally in the middle of work on my current quilt, and getting ready to redo a seam that didn’t line-up as my expectation allow… I am probably off by 1/8″ – but that won’t do! 🙂 I then thought of your blog post from the other day, and how improv quilts might incorporate “seams that aren’t straight, [and] points that don’t match”. I had to chuckle to myself as I thought that perhaps I should just leave it and chalk it up to “improv”. I stopped what I was doing, and wanted to drop you this comment. BTW – enjoy your upcoming retreat – it sounds fabulous!
    p.s. I am now returning to fixing that seam 😉

    Reply
  19. tierneycreates

    Melanie – just another excellent post! I agree with you “improv is NOT a style or a quality of work, but a process, akin to improvisational theatre and music” 100%. When you listen to improv jazz there is structure and freeform creativity but it is not like everyone is just randomly playing their instrument at the same time, but also they are not using sheet music.

    Reply
  20. Sue

    Melanie, I missed this when you first wrote it, but Kaja linked to it from the AHIQ page, and it is right on. I couldn’t have, and haven’t said it better myself. Thanks for being so articulate!

    Reply
  21. Mary Marcotte

    I’m here from AHIQ, also. This is how I think of improv also. I may have wonky blocks, but I may not. I sew scraps together, but then that “fabric” may be used just like other fabric…and I’m pretty particular about corners and lines then. True improv is simply whatever we need it to be at that moment in time. So while I may work using an improv method, or work in a style that some may call improv, or work however my little heart wants to using the 40 years of experience to make decisions, it’s all improv in my mind. Except I’m a wordsmith, too, and I like definitions, but it’s just about impossible to define improv in all its states of being, unless we just to to figure out what improv is not. That might be much easier. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Mary. I’m sorry I’m slow responding. Travel delayed me, but also your comment dropped in spam for some reason! I love your last sentences. Yes, definitions are important to me! I like to be clear and specific, which is why labels so often don’t work well. They tend to be too broad and ungainly. Improv is one of the troublesome labels, but one of many in quilting. Thanks again!

      Reply
  22. Quiltdivajulie

    I am also visiting via AHIQ — a very well-written post and I did enjoy Cheryl A’s post that you linked. To be totally honest, I have a “thing” with labels. I realize they are necessary but trying to define them demands too much of our time and attention that, to me, would be better used in our studios MAKING. I resent the “snootiness” of those who use a label and then look down on others who don’t live up to “their” standards – we each have the right to create in our own manner so our process makes us happy. If I don’t like “their” work or “they” don’t like mine, well that is okay. No one said we had to like everything. Great conversation that you’ve gotten started here!

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Labels are troublesome things, aren’t they? I’ve written about them a number of times in varying ways. They can help us be more clear, but they can also bind up our thinking so we don’t allow for new ideas. I am actually a fan of things well defined, but that mostly makes me bristle against poor use of words. Hmmm…. not sure where the line is between those things! Thanks so much, Julie, for taking the time to read and comment.

      Reply

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