Thursday 1 November 2018

Improv - how hard can it be?

Improv is a challenge I was looking forward to and expecting to be difficult at the same time. When it comes to quilting, I like to design. I love brainstorming, gathering inspiration, seeing what catches my eye, questioning what bits I like, what I don't and developing a design I'd like to make. Curiosity tends to be my driver. I wonder what that would look like in low volumes, or how would that work if I made it really big? Or both.

I tend to gather like a magpie on the computer, words in a notebook and have some ideas in the back of my mind, not yet made, that pop up when I'm not looking, like a comfortable habit that plays out subconsciously. Improv on the other hand could be considered the opposite of all that. Oxford English Dictionary has two things to define Improvise; the first being: "creating spontaneously without preparation".

Is there really such a thing as without preparation though? Could it mean the absence of a pattern? Definitely. Absence of a sketch? Not sure. Absence of an idea? Don't think so. When does an idea cross over from inspiration to preparation? No clue!

My first thought that popped into my brain was a peacock with an improv made tail. Wonky freeform curves that would be glorious in their vibrancy of colours - teal, gold, green and blues. My minds image had it looking like this:

Large and fabulous in a bed sized quilt. (Bigger curves are easier after all!) The tail being the improv part and the birds head not so much so it's at least recognisable as a peacock! As in the last few challenges, I've discovered my first idea is grand, big and involved and time-consuming and something I really want to make. With 3 months to complete though completely unachievable. There is the day job, committee work and family to look after too!

So onto plan B. Oxford English second thing about improvising is: "Produce or make (something) from whatever is available", McGyver style. Now I have a large stash so limiting myself from diving in could be a challenge. Luckily enough, our branch of the Irish Patchwork Society, had booked Catherine Lawes (a UK based Textile artist) to give a workshop, on layered landscapes, using any fabric but quilting cottons. That I thought could be fun and not bringing any non-cotton fabric with me at all, I had to use what was available in the shared pile.

I was inspired by Kaja@ Sew Slowly who is an improv quilter I admire. She had made a lighthouse quilt and it was really cool so I thought a lighthouse like the Fastnet Rock would be something I'd like to hang on the wall. It is a lonely lighthouse built on a rock off the coast of Cork that people like to race around in sailboats and it can be really dangerous especially in our wild, windy, winter weather. So I made a dark themed lighthouse out of all sorts of materials, it is handstitched and glued through three layers so still a quilt.

The thing with an improv piece is how to know when it's finished? I've added machine quilting in the waves and the outline of the lighthouse. I'm thinking about adding in some bit of a sunset with thread. The nice thing about a piece like this is if I want to do a bit more I can just take it out of the frame, remove the mat and take it back to the machine.

So have I come to a conclusion on improv, not really but I have discovered these challenges are stretching my brain and giving me plenty of ideas for quilts to come!


  1. This is great Ruth the workshop with Catherine sounds like good fun! I love your fabric choices for the lighthouse scene they really evoke a wild windy day in that lonely Fastnet outpost.

  2. This is a stunning piece, Ruth. You've created a very dramatic and atmospheric scene with those non cotton fabrics. I also enjoyed 'hearing' about all your thoughts and ideas during the decision stage. You've made me feel I want to snatch up a selection of non cottons and start making something right away :)

  3. Hello Ruth. I enjoyed reading your post so much. Almost as much as I loved looking at the details in your piece. One can just imagine how much fun you had working on the landscape. I really like to hear someone's thought process in determining how their piece comes together. I like the variety of fabrics you used, though I admit that I have shied away from them unless I am creating a garment. Saying your work is an inspiration can sound so trite, but truly it is.

  4. What a fantastically atmospheric piece. It looks as if you had a lot of fun and the results are so successful.

  5. This is stunning, Ruth. I can almost hear the waves crashing and feel the spray on my face. It would not have been the same using just cottons. Congratulations on a beautiful finish. I like the frame and mat idea also. Well done!

  6. "When does an idea cross over from inspiration to preparation?" I love that quote from you, I thought a lot about these issues too.
    One time I heard about a Zen monk/artist, who could create the perfect calligraphic letter in one stroke, because he was so in tune with the moment. I think the point was meant to be that if you practice enough, eventually you become such an expert that you can create art effortlessly. At first I was really impressed, and then I thought, no, you still have to prepare the paper, the ink, the brush, there is still lots of time necessary for the finished product. I was reminded of that story when I read your musings about the preparation/improvisation continuum.
    And I love your piece and how you drew those unique scraps into a wild and moody picture!