Improvising a quilt design

A little over a year ago, I took a one-week workshop at the Nancy Crow Barn about Improvisational Quilting. When I create for fun, I like to work without knowing where I’m heading. I had hoped the class would give me some ideas and direction for working in that style (kind of funny…”I want to improvise…give me some rules.”)

The class turned out to be a significant emotional event for me. It was a humbling experience, and served as a reminder to always consider myself a beginner. Nevertheless, I learned and learned and learned…not necessarily what I thought I’d come to learn, but my technical know-how jumped by leaps and bounds. After a year of practice, I can now construct pretty much whatever I want by piecing the fabric.

Nancy’s class teaches a few approaches to improvising a quilt design, based solidly within traditional art disciplines. I learned a lot by trying her ideas and I know her teaching will continue to influence my work. However, I find that I have a different approach that comes more naturally to me…probably formed by my last 15 years of doing graphic design using stock images and my own electronically created images.

How I Find Myself Improvising

Sometimes I just want to sew. I don’t have the patience in that moment for a big master plan, I just want to sew. As an example, I created the red patched panel at left in October 2008, post-workshop.  The patchwork was spontaneous, relaxing and fun. The only goal was to use a variety of values (dark to light) and hues on either side of red (purple reds, pinks, red, peach, orange, rust).

I lost interest in the panel for one reason or another, but it was stowed with other fragments and UFOs.

Nearly a year later, I found myself in the same mode: I just want to sew. We had just moved and I was unpacked just enough to feel like I could take a break for me and have some fun. I had recently unearthed some beautiful scarlet satins that I never use because the quilt police require 100% cotton. When I ran across the red-ish upholstery fabric panel again, I had a perfect fit…a panel that was already created with “junk” fabric that I wouldn’t “ruin” by inserting shiny satin ribbons of red.

At first the altered panel looked sort of wing-like, so I put it up on my wall this way. I added some of the scraps from the satin on the right to make some source for the radiating stripes.

Then I took the picture

I take a picture when I get to a stopping point like this so that I can look at the piece on my computer screen. It allows me to get more “distance” from the image…as though I were standing 20′ away. Or more…zoom out, zoom in…the computer is a great tool for seeing what I have on the wall.

I have always taken photos of my work so that I could bring the work into my computer. However, it was my experience at the Nancy Crow barn that showed me the value of using the camera as a seeing tool.

Playing with quilt images onscreen

I work with images in Adobe Photoshop, but much of what I do can be achieved with iPhoto, or other software photo editors. The largest advantage to Photoshop is the ability to work in layers, which I will try to illustrate below.

The first thing I did was rotate the image, and then I saw the piece as a skirt. 

Using a drawing tool in Photoshop I drew an outline of a skirt within the edges of the fabric, then used that as a mask on the photo…that temporarily erases any part of the image outside that drawing. I also added a black background.

Boy did I get happy at this point…I could just see her skirt moving to the music…this was no stationary, wallflower woman! She was clearly in need of a top half, but I was out of virtual fabric.
No problem in the land of layers. I created a new layer and went back to my Photoshop drawing tool. Starting from the waist line created in the skirt, I drew a rough figure.

I began to suspect that I knew who she was at this point. Or at least I could get to a short list of the many lively musical women I’ve known in my life. However, none of them would have been pleased to be depicted topless, so I still had some work to do.

In Photoshop, I duplicated the skirt layer…so now I have two skirts and twice as much virtual fabric. I flipped one layer upside down and pushed it to the top of the frame.

The final Photoshop sketch of the proposed quilt.

I then used my figure drawing as a mask of the top skirt, resulting in my final sketch for this piece. I liked the white feet and decided to leave them alone.


Coming next: The sketch becoming a quilt

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