Sunday, April 7, 2024

A week of Improvisatioinal Quiltmaking at the Folk School

Wow! What a invigorating, extremely productive, and whirlwind of a week I had at John C. Campbell Folk School with 8 talented quilters and a fabulous studio assistant! Our final exhibit for the closing ceremony was most impressive!

Intro to Improvisational Quiltmaking: class exhibit.
John C. Campbell Folk School, March 2024.

Cutting fabric without a ruler

The week began with improvisational, freehand cutting of fabrics. Simple units and shapes were cut and then pieced together: strips, stripes, and rectangles. With no roadmap or pattern to follow, each maker’s composition was improvisational, unique, and personal.

Reese's strip set made by cutting fabric strips without a ruler.

By cutting the fabric freehand—with no quilting ruler involved—each cut line and sewn seam reflected the “hand of the artist.”

Amy's composition using strips and strip sets.

By the end of the first day, the design walls were flooded with patterns and patchwork samples…

Delores' design wall.

Elaine's design wall.

… that became the seeds for larger compositions. 

Jessie's design wall.

Karen's design wall.

Marsha's design wall.

As the week progressed, students were introduced to ruler-free cutting and piecing of other patchwork units—isosceles triangles and flying geese. 

Triangle units on Nina's design wall.

Then we moved into cutting and piecing curves...

Demonstration on curved piecing with Amy (left), me, and Delores (right).

... and more pieces were added to the design walls.

Delores' freehand curves and 1/4 circle units along with triangle units.

Profuse patchwork productivity

Throughout the week at the Folk School, the sewing machines steadily hummed from morning to afternoon, and often into the evening after dinner.

Reese working on an improv pinwheel block.

Our spacious classroom brimmed with fabric, color and creative patchwork pieces. 

Jessie (left) and Amy at their work tables.

Marsha (left) and our studio assistant, Geri (center), and Nina (right).

Our Improv Group Project

One of my favorite exercises came on the third day—the group project. Students did a blind drawing from a selection of basic patchwork units. The randomly chosen color palette, "neurtrals," was determined by the roll of a dice.

The fabrics we used (shown below) are from the Painter's Palette collection from Paintbrush Studio. Colors are: wheat, mist, white, dust, silver, fog, golden brown, sand dollar, willow, grey, and ebony.

The neutral color palette for our Group Improv Project.
Fabrics are Painter's Palette solids from Paintbrush Studio.

With the clock ticking, students made their neutral color fabric choices, cut the pieces they needed, and began piecing their blocks.

Making fabric selections for the group project.

Karen drew the "Drunkard's Path" block.

Free-hand cutting fabric for the group project.

When time was up, the final blocks were displayed on the design wall. 

Student improv blocks for the group project.

My task is to assemble the blocks into a quilt top with the hope of contributing the final improv quilt to the Folk School for its fundraiser.

Auditioning and arranging the improv units of the group project.
[Photo courtesy of G. Forkner]

Show and Tell

To keep ideas flowing and provide inspiration for the students' larger compositions, I brought several of my own improvisational quilts for a Show and Tell. The lessons were also accompanied with slide presentations of improvisational quilts made by other quiltmakers. We all use many of the same basic patchwork units, but in the end, each quiltmaker creates their own unique composition. (That's one of the many beauties of quiltmaking!)

"Blue Rhino Moon" was in response to a guild challenge.
[Photo courtesy of G. Forkner]

One of the pieces for my Show and Tell was an improvisational work-in-progress—a quilt top that had not yet been quilted. Looking at the back side of a quilt top can provide insight into how the patchwork units are put together. Quite often, problem-solving skills are needed in the construction process to make sure everything fits together.

Examining the back of the quilt top provides insight into the construction.
[Photo courtesy of G. Forkner]


By week's end, my students had accomplished a lot! There were a plethora of patchwork units to be used in future pieces, several finished tops ready for quilting, and two students had quilted and bound or faced their compositions. 

Reese learned how to sandwich, machine quilt with the walking foot, and bind her quilt.
It's a gift for a friend.

I commend them for all for their hard work and diligent experimentation. It's not easy to deviate from familiar processes (like abandoning the cutting rulers), push oneself on a journey without a road map, and try improvisational patchwork.

Marsha finished this beautiful top! She graduated the values in her strip sets
in warm and cool color palettes.

Take-aways and favorite tehniques

I like to ask students what their take-aways are from my classes. It helps me know where the lightbulbs came on and how to fine tune my syllabus for future classes. Here are their comments:

  • students said they appreciated the freedom of the improv process; they could create their own story and create the character for their own piece.
  • suggestions were offered but we could still go our own direction if we wanted.
  • [we] liked the variations on a theme and seeing the different interpretations from each person.
  • "I have a vision for the future. I have ideas on what I can do with the pieces I made in class."
  • "I want to try combining improv with the other [patchwork] techniques I do."
  • "Passing skills to the next generation!"
Favorite techniques included: skinny strip inserts; troubleshooting and how fix a seam to make the piece lie flat; faux piped binding.

"Necessity is the mother of invention." —Plato
"Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father." —Roger von Oech

Thank you!

A big Thank You to everyone for a wonderful week at the Folk School!

Intro to Improvisational Quilting class, March 2024.
[Photo courtesy of G. Forkner]

To my generous and hard-working students for spending the week in the quilting studio with me learning about Improvisational Quiltmaking. It is my hope that you found something interesting or helpful that you can use in your future quiltmaking endeavors. And I would love to see where you take the pieces you started in our class—so keep me posted. I also appreciate your generosity in sharing your skills, expertise, ideas, and supplies with your classmates and with me. 

To our fabulous studio assistant, Geri, thank you for anticipating my needs as an instructor, filling in the gaps, keeping us all on schedule, and for creating the wonderful slide presentation that was the "icing on the cake" for our closing ceremony exhibit. 

And to all the behind-the-scenes staff at the Folk School for making this a welcoming and nurturing experience for everyone.

The Log House dorm at John C. Campbell Folk School
Brasstown, NC

That's a wrap!

And, that's a wrap!

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