The Plan Without a Plan, an Improv Quilt

Last winter, it was gray and gross for a really long time. Or at least it felt like a really long time. Mostly because it’s always gray and gross all winter here so I can get kind of cranky.

Since petting fabric always makes me feel better, I started pulling springy fabrics out of my stash to try to break the mood. Then I decided to try some improv, but rather than just haphazardly making cuts, I gave myself a few rules… I had been watching Cheryl Arkison’s “Improv With Intention” classes on Creative Live, after all. Here were my rules:

  • 3 colors (poppy red, citron, spring green) and a background (white/off-white)
  • Cuts had to be straight and square cuts, and all measurements had to be in 1/4″ increments
  • Skinny (1/2″ finished) strips had to be solid or tonal prints.

After one night of playing, here’s what was up on my wall.


I was having a blast, so I kept going, pulling more and more fabrics from my stash that worked in this colorway.


Already, the winter doldrums started to feel a bit better and my sewing room looked springy!


Of course, since I can’t leave well enough alone, I decided that I might want a sparing scattering of diagonal lines to give the piece some extra motion. I made a few to see how they worked with the rest of the composition, and liked the result, especially since there weren’t very many of them.


A few more evenings of work and rearranging, and it was starting to find some structure and cohesiveness, but I was finding the color palette to be a little too limiting.


My solution was to add some skinny strips of aqua fabric to break things up, but again, I didn’t want to add too many because I didn’t want them to take over. I liked the result much better.


Then it was just a puzzle of partial-seam constructions and careful measuring to keep everything squared up as I assembled the pieces together. There’s only one bizarre Frankenseam in there where I had to pretty much make ritual sacrifices to get it all put together, but I couldn’t even tell you where it was now.


Once I had the middle of it all assembled, I left town for a school trip. When I got back, I added some more of the background color and extended a few of the blue strips into the border to give some visual relief to the piece.


I wanted to quilt it densely in such a way that the piecing was featured, but the quilting was an extra treat if the viewer got close to it. So I made rules for the quilting, too — just so I wouldn’t be paralyzed by indecision when I was ready to quilt.

  • Prints were quilted with matching solid threads (exception: darker green prints were quilted with variegated thread because I didn’t have the right color solid thread)
  • Solids were quilted with matching variegated threads
  • Aqua strips were left unquilted
  • I also limited myself to a handful of free-motion fillers: hook swirls, pebbles, wavy lines, ribbon candy, and headbands
  • Adjacent sections wouldn’t have the same quilting design if it could be avoided

I bound the whole quilt in an aqua print to match the skinny solid strips, which framed the finished composition nicely.

Here are a few closeups of the quilting process as I was going along. The hook-swirl filler is one of my very favorites, because I’m able to keep the swirls a consistent size and I’ve gotten pretty good about self-correcting my path so I don’t get trapped in corners. I buried all threads at the edges of the sections rather than traveling to the same color along seamlines. I also didn’t stitch in the ditch anywhere (and actually, when I’m quilting densely like this I usually don’t bother since I’ll be hitting the ditch about every 1/4″ anyway).

I pin-basted the quilt a lot, so I was able to jump around and quilt different sections without changing thread colors until I was ready. Each night I’d fold it back up on my quilting table, and it was fun to watch it get thinner as the batting compressed under the quilting stitches.

I even experimented with my tried-and-true Ribbon Candy fill in a few places, just to combat boredom or fill in a too-large-scale section. I loved how this triple ribbon looked on the back of the quilt in a variegated cream/beige thread.

Because of the density of the quilting, it became very obvious which sections remained to be quilted as I got further and further along.

Matching the bobbin thread to the top thread meant that the back of the quilt was just as interesting to look at as the front, for different reasons. It also helped me check for density changes that I might want to fix.

I like the back almost as much as the front.

I love this quilt, even though the whiteness makes it totally impractical for use as a throw. But it sure is pretty — on both sides!

Here’s a look at the front again…


Last year in January, a friend of mine sent me this screenshot, with the comment, “Here’s your next quilt.”

My reply back: “Damn you.”

Turns out it’s a well-known illusion first introduced by B. Pinna and R. Gregory in 2002, and it’s commonly referred to as the Pinna Illusion. There are several iterations of it but this is the original one. So of course I had to get on Illustrator and construct it myself. 

And then I had to experiment with colors. 

The illusion fell flat unless the colors were kept monochromatic, so I chose to just stick with the original image and go with black, white, and medium gray. I built paper foundations in Illustrator and set to work. 

18 tilted square wedges in the first ring. 

32 in the second ring. This was not thrilling yet. Pretty dull, actually. 

Then the innermost ring was significantly smaller than it needed to be on the outside edge, so I was going to have to figure out how to correct that somehow. Thankfully I’m a geometry teacher so drafting doesn’t terrify me… so I constructed a regular octadecagon (perfect 18-sided polygon) out of freezer paper and attached it to the smallest ring so things would fit right. 

And turns out the math wasn’t quite right on the second ring so I ended up having to rip all of the wedge seams out and redo them correctly. 

Prepping to make more boring square wedges. 44 in ring 3. 

Finally, the illusion started to emerge. 

That was just the incentive I needed to press on and finish. 58 squares in the outer ring, for a total of 152. 

Then I had to figure out how to attach the rings together. I was going to machine sew them, but there wasn’t really a good way to do that. Ultimately I used pins, an iron, and Elmer’s school glue to appliqué the rings together by hand. It took quite a while to complete this step. 

Attaching it to a background was interesting, too. I prepped a background and fought with it for several nights until it was flat enough to hand-appliqué down. 

And finally, it was ready for quilting. Since I didn’t have a longarm and have not mastered using rulers on my HQ16, I drew the straight lines with a water soluble marker and just free-motioned them in groups of three. The imperfect nature of the quilting bothered me and excited me at the same time, but ultimately it made the piece look less computer-generated. 

I backed it in black and quilted the whole thing in medium gray, so you can see the quilting well on the back. Outside the outer ring, I let the quilting lines wobble so that imperfections in squareness would be less obvious. Turns out I loved the effect anyway just as a design choice. 

Through all of this I didn’t share any revealing photos of it on social media, because I knew that it was going to be amazing– and I also knew that if someone had the right combination of computer skills, it would be pretty easy to copy.  

I ran out of thread and had to wait for more so I could finish.

Friday and Ella were very helpful, as always. 

Mom and I pin-blocked it square in May with several hundred T-pins and a full bottle of water…

And then Jeff White took photos of it for me so that I could enter it into the International Quilt Festival’s World of Beauty show.

I got permission from Baingio Pinna to compete with it and It was juried in and was first seen by the public in at the Houston Quilt Festival in November! Then I entered it into QuiltCon East, which will be in Savannah, GA in less than 2 weeks. It got juried in to that one too! I didn’t get to see it in Houston but I’m taking classes at QuiltCon so I’ll be able to visit with it there.

And when it’s finished entering shows, the friend who suggested I make it in the first place has called dibs. Heehee!

Twenty Strips

I was a member of the Color Inspiration Club at Pink Castle Fabrics last year (and will be again– I signed up again), which meant I was sent 10 solid fabrics a month from a collection of colors selected by the shop. When the fabrics arrived, I’d immediately cut off 2 2.5″ strips from each one before I put the fabrics away. Then I’d roll up the twenty strips together and put them on my ironing table to tempt me. 

Between projects when I just want to see without a plan, I just grab things like those rolls of strips and start sewing. 

This time I decided I’d do half of the strips in a big stripset like I have done in the past. The remaining half would be used to assemble those into a single mini quilt. I did not permit myself to add any additional fabrics and I challenged myself to use as much of the twenty strips as I could.

Fun coincidence– I had already made the strip set when the pictured issue of American Quilter arrived. That made me happy! I’m on trend!

It was so much fun!

The resulting piece is about 24″ x 18″, and I custom quilted it. 

The binding is a scrap of binding I had left in Moda Grunge in plum. It finishes the little quilt perfectly!

 IMG_2273 (Edited)


Very early on June 12, 49 people died and 52 more were injured in a dance club in Orlando at the hands of a crazy man. 

Soon after, quilters all over the world started making blocks to send to the Orlando Modern Quilt guild. I made a few, and realized quickly that I wanted to make 49. 

So I got to work. 

I quickly found them very addictive to make. And the scrappy background fabrics I already had cut to the right size because of leftovers from other projects. 

They also go together very fast. 

As quilters have been working on their #quiltsforpulse there have been a lot of relevant things being posted online. This one resonated with me and kept me making more hearts. 

In just a few days, I had all 49. 

Then I wondered what 49 geese flying around a heart would look like, so I built this in Adobe Illustrator. I need to get the design finished and up for free on my Craftsy page if people should want to make one. 

Here is my completed quilt top. I layered and quilted it quickly so that it might be one of the first finished quilts to arrive in Orlando. 

The leftover pieces from the larger triangles in each heart were made into half-square triangles for me to use in another project later. For now they just make me happy on my design wall. 

I free-motioned my favorite flower filler pattern all over the quilt and bound it in a text print. 

And I even managed to win the game of Thread Chicken and finish quilting it before my thread ran out. That usually doesn’t happen!

Friday and Ella tested it immediately and approved. 

Rev. Paul Pradat at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Huntsville blessed it on Sunday, June 26, and many parishioners touched it and expressed their love for the Orlando community. 

I washed and dried the quilt, took fence photos of it, and shipped it to Orlando on Wednesday, June 29. 

While I cannot begin to understand the losses and injuries that were sustained that terrible night, with quilters around the world I hope that we can unite in our love for each other and all people with whom we share this world. The many colors and background fabrics in the quilt symbolize to me how diversity and acceptance and working together cohesively provide depth and richness to our lives that we wouldn’t get to experience if we all believed and lived exactly the same way. 

I may not always agree with everyone I encounter, but I’m glad you’re here in this world. 

As I say to my girls, 

Be strong. Be brave. And above all, be kind. Always be kind.