Inspired by Gwen

One of the books I bought early in my quilting life, which I still own, is Gwen Marston’s Liberated Quiltmaking (1996.) I tried the “improv” style of wonky stars and house blocks and found it wasn’t for me. However, her improv process helped develop my own design methods.

What’s the difference between an improvisational style and an improv process? My thinking on this crystalized the other day when reading Audrey’s post on one of her projects. She has long worked in an improv method — in her words, “working in an unscripted manner and working successfully to resolve any/all issues that come up, etc. etc.” — only recently has she begun working in a more improvisational style, with less concern for precision and measurement. Again in her words with her emphasis, “My best inspiration overall, is in the vintage and antique style of quilts, preferably the softer, less perfect looking utility style of quilts.”  

I wrote a lot about improv a year ago, including this: “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 opened my thinking to agree that we can call “improv” a style, too. But you can create the style from patterns, or you can work the process and still end up with something most people would call very traditional. Improv style and improv process are two different things. They both have their place but they are not the same. What quadrant is most of your quilting in? Most of mine is upper left, in improv method but not improv style.

What Does This Have to Do with Gwen Marston?

Gwen Marston is often thought of as the founder of improvisational style. (I would argue she is not.) Marston has worked with both traditional and liberated styling for decades. I have five of her many books and two focus on historical styling from the 1800s. If you understand that this is the underpinnings of her work, you can see it in what has developed since then.

In the book Freddy & Gwen Collaborate Again (with Freddy Moran, 2009,) Marston includes a quilt that reflects both her traditional roots and her improv styling.

Freddy & Gwen Collaborate Again. Gwen Marston and Freddy Moran, 2009, p. 23.

I was especially taken by the purple background. Three years ago when I began a project using an urn with flowers, the photo above was my strongest inspiration. I started by drawing this:20160126_124416_resized

Three years is a long time for development of one of my quilts. The drawing gave me a starting point, as did the purple background. I chose fabrics for flowers and leaves, most of which were too wimpy against the strong purple and didn’t end up on the quilt. My intention was to needle-turn appliqué the piece. After a couple of leaves, I knew that wouldn’t happen. And so the project got relegated to a bin of works-in-process, or more accurately, works-in-waiting.

Last year as I experimented more with appliqué, I brought it out, chose new fabrics for the center, and began again.

Skipping to the punchline, here is the finished quilt.

Inspired by Gwen. 45″ x 55″. Photo by Jim Ruebush. January 2019.

And a few notes on my improvisational process:
1. After auditioning a variety of colors for the leaves, flowers, and urn, I chose strongly saturated ones that held up to the purple and determined the rest of the color scheme.
2. I adjusted the size of the center with red strips at the top and bottom. This allowed the hourglass blocks on the inner border standard sizing. The hourglasses are scrappy of reds, pinks, oranges and golds, greens, and purples.
3. Visually there is A LOT going on in the hourglasses, which led to the calmer choices in the next border. 🙂 I wanted to extend the purple from the center but had very little of it left. I auditioned several purples and wasn’t happy with any of them. They didn’t “go” with the center. The best way to fix that is to use more than one. The more you add, the more they all go together. So the side borders with appliquéd vines got one purple, while the upper and lower borders with semi-circles on chartreuse green got a different one. While there are lots of greens in the leaves on the sides, and the vines are hand-cut squiggles, the upper and lower borders are fairly regimented, retaining some order.
4. The outer border again reflects the influence of Marston’s quilt, though I didn’t realize it until the top was almost done. Yes, I actually had the red zigzag pieced when I looked at the inspiration photo again and saw that I mimicked it without intending to. The other colors in the outer border repeat those in the hourglass border, and they are the same shape and similar size. The repetition helps hold off the chaos that could have erupted here.
5. I “custom” quilted it using different motifs and threads by section. There is red thread on the red triangles of the outer border, to strengthen them rather than diminish the color. Purple thread is on the purple background of the center for same reason. Most of the rest has a neutral, very fine thread to provide texture but allow the color blast of the surface to dominate.
6. I finished with a green binding.

The technique here is as improvisational as the design method. I used several different methods of appliqué in this project, choosing whatever seemed to work most simply. A few shapes are applied by hand; some are fused and finished with a zigzag; some are stuck down with glue stick; the semi-circles use a completely different method.

Gwen Marston has been an inspiration in my quilting life since nearly the beginning. I’m pleased to finish this quilt that shows that influence more directly.


26 thoughts on “Inspired by Gwen

  1. audrey

    Love how saturated your quilt is. I think that’s one of the things that Gwen showed so wonderfully as well but was never really addressed much. Fun to read through your post about improv. style versus method. We can really get hung up on words and trends it seems!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      That’s me — hung up on words!! 🙂 I’ll take that as a compliment though I know it doesn’t always work well for me. Yes, saturated. It makes it harder to get a good photo, for sure, but the colors make me happy. Thanks for taking a look.

  2. Jodie Richeal

    Oh, what a stunning quilt! I can see the influence, for sure – but you have made a grand quilt that’s all your own. I love that about the creative process – we all see things we love and then we take what we love most and then add even better things. Fascinating to hear a bit about your process. Thank you.

  3. Ryan R Young

    I wonder who would argue that Gwen was the mother of improv quilting. I think she freely acknowledges Nancy Crow as the one who moved her toward this style. And the women of Gee’s Bend were doing improv at least as early as the 1930’s, heavily influencing Sherry Lynn Wood for one. Yvonne Porcella’s work is surely improv, and she started her art quilt practice in the early 1962 . The quilts Gwen made with Joe Cunningham in the mid 1980’s only hint at their later, looser style – they are mostly QUITE traditional.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I think people who don’t know much about quilt history might suggest that she is! Yes on Nancy Crow, yes on Gee’s Bend, yes on utility quilts from as long as they’ve been made, and yes Marston’s background is very traditional! Thanks for chiming in. 🙂

  4. snarkyquilter

    I love that book, in part because Freddy Moran has such a great definition of a neutral. Here’s the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of improvise: “to invent or provide something at the time when it is needed without having already planned it.”

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      That’s the understanding I’ve always had, which is why I’ve always bristled at the notion of improv as a style rather than a process. But I guess you can emulate the process. I just wouldn’t naturally think of doing that by making things look haphazard. :/

  5. cspgarden

    I too love Gwen Marston and she inspires me even when it’s not obvious. I LOVE hearing about your process. Thanks for sharing this beautiful quilt and how it got this way!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for taking a look. As you say, inspiring even when it doesn’t look that way. There are a handful of quilters/authors/teachers that I always have in my mind, and she is one of them.

  6. piecefulwendy

    I received Gwen Marston’s Liberated Quilting as a gift from a family member. I pulled it out sometime last year, and was reading it. I believe it inadvertently got stacked in a pile and thrown into recycling. I’m so sad. I do have her Liberated Quilts 2, however.

  7. Nann

    I like your version, Melanie. Your experience designing medallion-style quilt means that the borders are proportional to the center. The borders build on one another to hold the eye, then allow it to progress. P.S. At one time the 1996 book was selling for a handsome price on the used book market — $100+ — but now I see (Amazon, Alibris) that it can be purchased more reasonably.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Nann. Wow, what prices! I think a lot of books are being offered again as print-on-demand, lowering the price. Don’t know if that applies to this one. Or perhaps just the used book market is maturing, making some things more available and therefore cheaper. Either way, I’m happy with it, as most of the books I buy are older. Thanks again!

  8. katechiconi

    To me, Gwen’s original looks unfinished, a centre waiting for more borders, which is why I like your inspired version better! It’s richer and more satisfying to my eye, and I find your zigzag border much more appealing.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thank you, Kate. 🙂 There are things I like about hers better. For example, I think her red zigzag is a little better proportion than mine. Also overall her composition is simpler and cleaner. There are things I like about that, and also things I like about the relative complexity of mine. As I write it makes me affirm, yes, inspired by, but not copied from… Thanks again!


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