Category Archives: Creativity

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?) 🙂


Beginning is underrated*

*That is a recent post from Seth Godin, a popular writer and thinker on innovation and excellence. A lot of his posts are not much longer than that, a few words of inspiration, motivation, or encouragement to make, do, serve, share. And here the message is to do. Just begin.

There are different ways to say this. Nike’s famous “Just Do It.” Or the basic lottery pitch of “ya gotta play to win!” Something I’ve often said is, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” (Now, sometimes that might have been said with a whiny tone of voice, implying that other people who could or should take responsibility would not, and therefore it was left to me. But most of the time, it’s simply my own recognition that I have a task to work on that won’t do itself.)

Are there things you’ve been intending to accomplish, but which you haven’t started yet? Are there quilt shows you want to enter but haven’t yet filled out the form? Are there techniques you want to try but for some reason haven’t? You can fill in those blanks for yourself better than I can. And I have a list of them, too!

Today is a good day to begin, so let’s get started!

What’s on your list of things to begin? 


Allow Your Heart To Lead You

The other day I posted some tips for “newer” quilters, and many of you chimed in with more in comments. Since then I stumbled upon something I read a few years ago. It is a 2009 interview with a newer quilter, someone with little experience in the art. She also provides a few tips, from her own perspective. I’ll start by sharing this question and answer from the interview:

KM (interviewer Karen Musgrave): What advice would you offer somebody making their first quilt?

JM (quilter Joy Major): Jump in. I would suggest [laughs.] that they allow their heart to lead them. They can search through all the quilt books, quilt magazines that they want, but quality inspiration of their heart, I think there is something to be said for traditional, the Amish type of quilt, and I think there is something to be said about expressing life through quilts. [Bold emphasis added by me.]

I’ve never seen better advice on quilting or any art than this:

Allow your heart to lead you.

At the time of the interview, Joy Major, the quilter, had made only one quilt. Even so, she understood what makes a great quilt:

KM: What do you think makes a great quilt? In your mind, what makes a great quilt?

JM: Love. The energy, the thought. The care, the care in making it. When I had my pieces of material, I treasured each one of them. A small piece, that piece right there. Love, that’s what makes a special quilt. The meaning of the quilt. The purpose of the quilt. The energy that it carries with it, the response that I had, the response that perhaps other people had, your response. I think that is the most important part. Certainly love. [Bold emphasis added by me.]

At the time of the interview, Joy Major was an inmate of the Ohio Reformatory for Women, serving a minimum of 25 years for the murder of her husband. She was invited by her prison chaplain and encouraged by her therapist to work with a quilting project called Sacred Threads.

Participants in the quilting project had limited access to resources of all kinds. Time, fabric, and notions were in short supply. As you know, constraints often lead us to our most creative work, and that was true for Ms. Major. What she did not lack was the desire to honor her own story and that of fellow inmates with her work and with her heart. She allowed her heart to lead, and created a fascinating quilt unique to her.

I encourage you to read the whole interview here, or a shortened version of it here.

Your thoughts? I’d love to hear in comments. 


What Makes It Interesting?

Not just beautiful, not just well-crafted. What makes a quilt interesting, one you want to look at for a long time? One that keeps bringing you back to it?

In these questions, I am not thinking of “art” quilts or wall-hangings. Rather, I’m thinking of quilts, whatever their style, that might be used as a bed or lap quilt.

What design characteristics make a quilt interesting? Is it easier to answer if asked what makes a quilt boring?

What makes a quilt uninteresting (to me):

  1. nothing unexpected
  2. perfect symmetry including all use of placement, shape, color, value, pattern, texture
  3. no sense of movement, nothing to direct the eye
  4. too much repetition — same shapes in same colors with same placement
  5. no repetition, too much movement, chaos — if there is too much going on, I shut down
  6. “perfection”

Things that can make a quilt interesting to me:

  1. something unexpected
  2. balance with asymmetry of placement, shape, color, value, pattern, or texture
  3. movement, a sense of direction
  4. rhythmic repetition
  5. imperfection

Here are two quilts I made in 2017, for comparison. In some ways they are the same, with solid white backgrounds and lots of open space. They are both “pretty,” I think. But one is more interesting (to me) to look at than the other.

Dizzy. 60″ x 60″. 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Fire & Ice. 68″ x 68″. 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

So what’s the difference? In some ways, Dizzy is more interesting than Fire & Ice. Dizzy has more colors. It’s kind of fun to track the block colors back into the floral print border. There’s more value differentiation in Dizzy than in Fire & Ice.

But to me, Fire & Ice keeps my eye for longer. There is more to it that is unexpected, or requires more time to consider. There are more shapes and different angles in it, while Dizzy has only two basic blocks, the pinwheels and the variable (sawtooth) stars. In Dizzy, the blocks’ colors are also symmetrically arranged. If you see one quadrant of the quilt, you don’t need to see the rest. While that is essentially true for Fire & Ice, the repetition alludes to other shapes, rather than directly repeating. The outside corner blocks use a “wing” shape from the center block, but they frame different shapes. The solid red lines are various widths. The center block suggests some puzzles to its construction. The positive/negative space use of alternating hourglass blocks creates the main movement.

Besides, that, the design of Fire & Ice is far from perfection. The proportions of shapes are not quite right. The border of alternating bars has an even number, meaning the line is not symmetrical. There’s a lot of white space in the final wide border, especially as compared to the hourglass border. Some shapes are big and some are small. The lack of perfection is exactly what makes it most interesting.

To me, it’s useful to consider what makes an interesting quilt, because I want to make quilts that are interesting. I want to make quilts that someone might linger over for a long time, taking in the details. Ones that have a story to tell through their design. Ones that carry little surprises. Ones that pose some challenges in the making.

What characteristics make you linger over a quilt? Why do you keep looking? When you think of your own quilts, which ones do you still enjoy looking at, and why? When you think of “interesting,” what do you think of?


I Love Blogs That

* tell stories
* tell about process, if the blog is about making
* use words thoughtfully
* inspire the reader
* show the writer cares about the reader.

These are blogs I follow, and this is the kind of blog I want to create.

I’ve been blogging at WordPress for more than four years. And I’ve enjoyed reading here for just as long. However, many of the bloggers I used to follow have dropped out of the process. They no longer write, or at least, not using the same url. I’d love to find a few more blogs, thoughtfully written, to follow.

Do you have favorite blogs to recommend? What do you look for in blogs you follow? They can be WordPress blogs or anyone’s!  They can be quilting blogs or any kind! Please tell us in comments. ALSO please stop back through, comment on other comments, add more as you think of them! Let’s have a conversation about great blogs we enjoy. I’ll look forward to your thoughts.