How to Make A Quilt for Free Without Buying Any New Fabric
Imagine if you could learn how to make a quilt for free without buying any new fabric. You’ll be surprised how easy it is. Quilters have fabric. Very often, we have lots of fabric. While there are always leftover fabric scraps from most projects, this only accounts for a small portion of our cherished fabric stash. There’s also fabric purchased because it was simply too beautiful to leave behind at the store. Then there are the curated collections of fat-quarters and precuts in multitudes of colors and patterns. The options are amazing and as quilters, we tend to keep lots of fabric on hand.
What’s An Improv Stash Quilt?
Have you ever thought about pulling out a few favorite fabulous fabrics just to make a stash quilt that will bring a smile? Or maybe even making a stash quilt without a specific pattern to follow? Learning to make an improv stash quilt without buying any new fabric takes a bit of creativity and diligence but so worth the effort!
The Challenge is to Use What You Have
When my fat quarter stash reached astronomical proportions, I knew I had to act, but it needed to be a new action. All the beautiful fabrics in my stash make me happy as I think about the endless possibilities. This time was different. With no specific pattern to follow, I simply wanted the colors to guide me. That’s when I fell in love with improv stash quilting. It’s so rewarding to use all my favorite collected fabrics combined with whatever else is on hand to create a beautiful quilt. It’s also incredibly challenging to make the best use of what you already have.
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Use Your Quilting Fabric Stash to Make An Improv Quilt for Free
It took a few tries. Initially I replicated random block styles using a colorful combination of batik stash fabrics. Each piece in the block utilized different size squares and rectangles. They looked good, but not exactly what I was looking for.
Then I tried a more monochromatic quilt. With alternating rows of squares and rectangles, each also had slightly contrasting lattice strips. The colors blended well, but it didn’t have any pizazz and I wanted much more contrast with sporadic pops of color.
Improv Stash Quilting Works Well with Most Patterns
Disappearing 9-patch quilts are great for using stash fabrics and I loved how this baby quilt turned out with that pattern. What I really wanted though, was to have an all over pattern with indistinguishable blocks. I imagined a quilt constructed from varying size pieces joined together to create a splash of magnificent color.
What to Do with Quilt Scraps
As I was using my stash of fat-quarters trying all these different quilting ideas, a variety of smaller leftover pieces joined the scrap pile, increasing its size even more. Since most of the blocks I made used squares and rectangles, my growing scrap pile had lots of similar sized pieces of fabric. Plus, the extra fabric trimmed from border strips contributed some longer sizes to work with. A new idea was formulating.
How to Make A Quilt for Free from Scraps
How to Make A Free Form Improv Stash Quilt
With my growing pile of scraps there needed to be another way to utilize all this fabric. Initially it started small by sewing similar sizes together into long strips. Then those strips were joined to other varying width strips to create a larger block. What was developing was a more random, improvisational way to combine pre-sewn strips. By sewing strips together in different directions, these small 6” blocks looked much more interesting. The expected, repeating pattern didn’t exist. Instead there was a compilation of color randomly joined into small blocks which then built larger blocks.
This was my first ‘real’ Improv Stash Quilt and I loved it. With my favorite colors placed prominently, a multitude of blending and contrasting colors combined to create an incredibly, captivating quilt top. Unfortunately, the 6” blocks didn’t blend completely to allow an uninterrupted visual from corner to corner. The rigid, repeating block seams needed to disappear. Back to the drawing board.
What Size Blocks Work Best
What if the blocks were larger with each made improvisationally from smaller, varying sized strips placed both horizontally and vertically? So, began the next challenge. Intending to construct 12” square blocks, my final blocks varied in size from 16” to 24” rectangles. The larger size allowed more variety in fabric size and strip direction. Each block looked like a mini quilt and my plan was coming together.
The best part is placing each block in just the right spot to look its best among all the others. After a lot of auditioning and changing blocks around, a final design jumped out. Since the blocks varied in size not everything fit perfectly. Random pre-sewn strips were added to fill gaps and even out the edges to square up the quilt top. It ended up with three rows of large blocks and two horizontal seams camouflaged by the changing direction of all the fabric strips. It was a success and looked wonderful.
How to Make An Improv Scrap Quilt from Your Fabric Stash
Creating Your Improv Stash Quilt
Not only economical, improv stash quilting provides an opportunity to try some new quilting techniques. Get ready to pull out some favorite stash fabrics and get inspired to create a beautiful quilt.
If you want a completely scrappy look, grab a pile of what you have on hand and begin!
For a more color-controlled look, your first selection begins with a focal print fabric. This sets the color scheme you will draw from. Then add plenty of fat-quarters and precuts to blend, highlight and contrast with your chosen focal fabric. You should have a good pile of fabric accumulating to get you started. But don’t stop yet, keep your scrap pile close by too, because you will also be pulling lots of those scraps into the mix.
Yardage, FQs, Precuts and All Those Scraps
How many of you remember in the beginning, when we shopped for fabric only by the yard? There was no such thing as precuts other than remnants which were often hideous leftovers in a wire basket standing in a dusty corner.
On the other hand, asking someone to cut a quarter yard from 25 fabrics just wasn’t done. At least not if you ever wanted to shop at that store again. Besides, it was only 9” wide which limited its useful options. Introducing fat-quarters offered an economical option for building a fantastic fabric stash with plenty of variety.
Quilters love bits of fabric to try out new ideas and patterns. This desire was initially satisfied with the fat-quarter. I remember first seeing a fat-quarter collection bundled together and tied with a ribbon. It was beautiful and offered such a wonderful opportunity to have a large collection of smaller pieces. This was a new concept and it took my breath away!
Nothing is off limits with an improv stash quilt. Pull out all you’ve got and get started!
What Is A Jelly Roll?
While fat-quarters have remained a staple for decades and are as popular as ever, today there are so many more pre-cut fabric options to choose from. Jelly rolls were first introduced as adorable round packages filled with dozens of 2 ½” fabric strips. Perfect for rail fences, log cabins, and so many other beloved patchwork and lattice patterns, these beauties are ready to sew into your favorite blocks.
Since the introduction of the jelly roll, we now also have 5” square charms, 10” square layer cakes and many more variations from there. The best part is their sizes all fit perfectly together with the larger pieces being halved down to 2 ½”. The benefit of the jelly roll is the number of different fabric strips included. It’s an incredible way to buy a lot of variety for a lower price.
Precuts work great in an improv stash quilt for all the above reasons. Especially for the variety they can add with minimal cutting.
How To Make Your Improv Stash Quilt
Selecting Fabric from Your Stash
Improv stash quilting is all about using lots of different fabrics to create a vibrant quilt top. You may go as bold or subdued as you like but there are a couple rules to keep in mind for a great design. Since improv stash quilts are more about the color than the pattern, your fabric selection is important. My monochromatic lattice quilt above looks nice but has minimal visual interest. It lacks contrast. The blues are all in the mid-range with no lighter or darker value fabrics. The most visually appealing quilts generally have contrasting colors and varying values.
Your fabric selection should include similar pieces that also stand apart. This is achieved by using different values of a color. Simply put, use light, medium and dark variations of the dominant colors you’re working with. The pops of color that add even more interest are created by contrasting colors. When choosing these fabrics, think about what colors are on the opposite side of the color wheel from your focal fabric. You don’t need many contrasting pieces, but a few will make an impact in your design.
How Much Stash Is Enough
Since you’re not purchasing specific fabrics for your improv stash quilt, you must be willing to improvise. Once you decide on your fabric choices, look at the grouping together to ensure you like what you see or if there are some color gaps you need to fill. You’ll want to have at least 4 – 6 yards of fabric in your pile. If you’re a bit short, find a few more pieces that are similar enough to fit in. Challenge yourself to reach outside your comfort zone and try something a bit different. Often times these are the surprising colors that add a pleasing, unexpected effect.
Which Fabrics to Use
If you are using a focal fabric, it should be at least a full yard, or a grouping of similar pieces that equal one yard. In addition to your focal fabric, you want lots of varying light, medium and dark coordinators. This is easily comprised of at least two dozen fat-quarters. These will enhance your focal fabric yet provide visual diversity across your quilt top. You may not use the entire fat-quarter, but you will definitely appreciate the variety each offers.
Next you can add some precuts. Since these mini packages are filled with so many fabrics, they will add lots of interest to your quilt top. Select some of you favorites to leave in larger pieces so they will stand out. The 2 1/2” jelly rolls I use as is, but the charms and layer cakes usually get trimmed down to 2” or 3” strips unless I want to see more of it in a larger piece. Once the block assembly starts, I’ll have plenty of strips to work with.
How Much Fabric Is In Each Precut Pack
Understanding how much fabric is included in each pre-cut bundle helps to figure out your yardage. These amounts are approximate but are good guidelines to gauge the fabric you need. Jelly rolls usually have 40 strips of 2 1/2” fabrics which equals about 2 ¾ yards. Charm packs generally contain 40 fabrics cut into 5” squares which is about ¾ yard. Layer Cakes also have about 40 pieces that are cut into 10” square for just under 3 yards. Keep in mind you may not use every piece in each pre-cut bundle but including some extra fabrics will liven up your quilt.
Time to Add Those Scraps
Now for the fun! Generally, there are very few colors that won’t work in your improv stash quilt. Keep your scrap pile close and draw from it frequently to fill in gaps or add extra length to a strip when needed. Set aside any that just don’t look right and move on to the next. All these bits and pieces combined with your stash fabrics will create a dazzling quilt to be proud of.
While I don’t keep my scraps separated by color, I try to trim them to common sizes before adding them to the pile. Keeping lots of 2”, 2 1/2”, and 3” pieces gives me plenty to work with. Two helpful methods to get started is to build some pre-sewn strips. Start with the 2” pile and sew them end-to-end into 18” strips. Make some strips with alternating light and dark fabrics together, and others gradient from light to dark at each end. Mix up the prints and blenders, too. These strips will be used together to create blocks quickly by sewing to a jelly roll or fat-quarter. Just trim the fat-quarter to the size you want and you’re ready to build more blocks.
What Is The Size Of My Improv Stash Quilt
Starting with 4 – 6 yards of fabric will make a at least a lap size quilt. It depends on how much of your fabric you actually use. Also, since there are lots of seams, you will be using more fabric than most quilts. But then again, you’re not buying any new fabric, just using what you already have. The most I used so far was 56 fat-quarters to make a complimentary front and back quilt. That means I used 26 fat-quarters for each side, for a total of 14 yards. It turned out to be over 90” x 90” but my 6’4” son was ecstatic to have a quilt that covered him and his wife from head to toe!
Let’s Start Your Improv Stash Quilt
Begin Joining Smaller Scraps
With all your fabrics close at hand, begin joining small pieces into larger units. Start by sewing scraps end to end to build some 18” long strips. To make this a quicker process, sew multiple strips at one time without cutting your thread between pieces, also called chain sewing. Sew two 2” wide scraps with a 1/4” seam, but don’t cut your threads at the end of the fabric. Instead, continue to chain sew your next two pieces of 3” scraps. As you’re adding more scraps, alternate between short and long pieces. The longer pieces will allow a place to cross-cut your strip to fit a smaller block.
Your strips will vary in width from 2” or larger depending on the size scraps you use. You can use 1 1/2″ strips too, if you have plenty on hand. I prefer to cut as little as necessary for these projects. Sometimes the smaller pieces can get lost in all the cross-cutting.
Remember this is an improv stash quilt. Specific measurements aren’t critical. It’s all about joining similar size pieces together to create larger blocks ready to assemble your quilt top. While there will be some trimming to even up some ends, don’t spend a lot of time doing any precise cutting.
Turn your chain of sewn pieces around and begin sewing back the other direction. Add another similar sized width scrap to the first strip and continue sewing more pieces to all the strips. Turn again and keep adding varying length scraps until your strips measure about 18”. Continue adding more pairs of scraps, chain sewing them together, until you have a few dozen strips made and cut your thread. These strips are the beginning of your blocks.
Start to Add Some Fat-Quarter and Precuts
Next think about which of your new 18” strips will look best with some of your selected precuts. Keeping in mind to vary adjacent strip sizes, build your strips into larger units. Try adding a jelly roll strip to a 3” wide strip you just sewed. Then cut a 3 ½” length off a fat-quarter and sew it to a 2” strip. The idea is to keep sizes varied to create an all-over pattern.
As your strips develop into larger blocks, look for spots where you can cross cut them into smaller pieces. Pair these pieces with other units and begin sewing them together. As you are combining strips together, join them with similar colors next to each other. This will help blend your blocks and hide the seam lines.
Add Your Focal Fabric into the Mix
Now start to add your focal fabric. Depending on how large you want these pieces, cut strips that can be added to your pre-sewn units. Start with a couple smaller 2” – 2 ½” strips and some as large as 5”. Add these to your scrap and pre-cut units to begin creating your design.
Continue repeating the process until you have a pile of blocks ready to use. Join smaller pieces to build larger blocks that will be assembled into your final quilt top.
Here’s My Secret for Blending Colors
The best blocks have a beautiful flow of color from one side to other. To achieve this, you want areas of continuity across your block. As you’re adding smaller pieces to make your longer strips and block units, you want to switch between different colors. What I have found works best is to take two different color pieces that have a common color and join them. For example, if you have a blue block with bits of pink, join it to another block with some pink, or even to a pink block. This allows your eyes to follow the different colors as they flow across your quilt top.
Assembling Your Improv Stash Quilt
Size Up Your Blocks
It’s okay to have differing sizes of blocks. They can be square or rectangle, it will all fit together nicely with some adjustments. Right now, take a look at your blocks and decide if you’re ready to move on to design a layout, or make more blocks.
When you’re ready to put your quilt top together, start laying out your blocks in a few different arrangements. Watch which colors are blending where the blocks will be joined so you can determine if you like the look. Think about grouping color families in the corners and bringing them into the middle. If you find a layout you love, take a picture because you’ll never remember how it went back together again!
Filling in the Gaps
With your blocks laid out just the way you want them, you will most likely have a few gaps between differing sized blocks. Now’s the time to use up your partially assembled scraps or pieces you may have trimmed off. Place these bits between your blocks where filling is needed. These extra pieces can be sewn into strips and added to join blocks together to get the size quilt you’re looking for.
With everything in place, it’s time to start putting it all together. Start by sewing blocks together a couple at a time. Then assemble these larger pieces together until all your blocks are joined. Your quilt top will be completed before you know it.
To Border or Not
Since stash quilting is more improvisational than traditional patchwork quilting, I prefer to keep a more modern look without a border. You’ll notice my earlier stash quilts had repeating blocks and a traditional border and binding. Whereas my latest stash quilt is border free. Once I get it quilted, I’ll add a fun binding to finish the edge. I really like the fresher, cleaner look. Remember though, your binding can really add a big impact. Think about how you want to ‘frame’ your quilt and maybe take a brave leap to try something different.
Don’t Forget the Backing
Quilt backs are also a characteristic in determining a modern quilt. No longer do we just use a single fabric across the entire length and width of our quilt, you can actually create a complete design on its own for your quilt back. Whether it coordinates and reflects your quilt’s design, or it looks completely different, take the opportunity to get creative with your backing.
This Improv Stash Quilt is basted and ready to quilt. Above is the layout of the backing for this quilt. Below is the layout of my Wild Rails quilt back.
Throwing away fabric simply isn’t an option for me which is why stash quilting works so well. For my Wild Rails quilt, I made lots of extra blocks so I could have plenty to choose from as I was laying it out. When it came time to make the back, I had enough blocks to continue the pattern selectively for the backing. I love how this quilt turned out on both sides.
What I started by piecing my quilt backs out of necessity to use leftover fabric has now become a modern quilt staple. If you have an extra block or two left over, use them to design a beautiful quilt backing. Consider what might best compliment your quilt and create a backing accordingly. Or surprise everyone with a completely different look on your quilt back. Whatever you choose, have fun with it.
More on Modern Improv Stash Quilts
What is a Modern Quilt
Modern quilting resulted as quilters moved towards personal creative freedom rather than following traditional methods. Modern quilts are the balance between art quilts, which are made to hang as art, and the traditional quilt we expect to see topping a guest room’s bed. While often used for the same function as traditional quilts to top a bed or use as a wall hanging, a modern quilt’s distinction results from its design. The implementation of traditional patterns into a modern design has transformed what quilting looks like today.
Modern quilts are recognized as being minimal because they include much more negative space and they do not have a border. This allows their bold-colored, graphic shapes the prominent visual role. Most modern quilts are asymmetrical with bright contrasts and often include improvisational piecing. Another common characteristic is a significant meaning behind the design to convey a message to viewers.
Improv Stash Quilting is a Form of Modern Quilting
Improv stash quilting is considered a form of modern quilting due to the improvisational nature of the construction. Every piece is a bit different with no two blocks being the same. Additional modern quilt characteristics may be added to your improv stash quilt for a different aesthetic. Emphasizing contrasts with more neutral fabrics accentuate a perceived negative space. Creating specific design areas set apart from areas with less focal emphasis also creates a negative space.
Your improv stash quilt can be anything you want it to be defined by your creative individuality. Whether you want to keep a more traditional look with an all-over scrappy pattern, or include negative space highlighting your design for a modern look, you’re the designer. Improv stash quilts are a perfect opportunity to express yourself through fabric and color.
I found my happy place with improv stash quilting and hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Please share your project photos on Instagram at #improvstashquilts #createmorebeautyinyourlifeeveryday
Katie Cranston says
Holy moly, have I found a fabulous quilting site! I was delighted to find you! I was drawn to your aquas and blues…all my favorites. I just love batiks. I have, on my machine right now, a string quilt in my favorite jewel colors…all from my dwindling stash…and I’m ready to finish the borders then put the binding on. I’m wondering if you do all your own machine quilting, and if so, is it with a long arm? I have a regular size machine (Elna) and am limited in the sizing of my quilts. This one, however, had a mind of its own and grew, was hard to quilt. As a result the stitching is far from perfect. I just do a wandering stippling stitch, and am trying to figure out just how to handle the 2 borders…I’m thinking it’ll come to me when I get there! I’m using a low loft batting as this will be a summer quilt, and I already love the feel of it. I have another on my design wall in “woodsy” colors to bring to our cabin in Maine for the summer.
You mentioned that you live on an island…how wonderful! Where do you get your fabrics? Our fabulous local quilt store closed, so I order online…sometimes happily, other times not so much.
I’m so looking forward to following you, and learning and being inspired. Happy quilting!
Lea Louise says
Thank you for your kind words Katie. I’m so glad we connected! Generally I do most of my own quilting on my Husqvarna which is a work horse. Only recently have I sent some of my larger quilts because it’s so darn convenient. Batiks are my go to and I love quilting with island colors. I’m back in the states now but the tropical colors still remain in my quilting. My favorite way to purchase fabrics is the monthly clubs. I’ve received most of my batiks that way. The best part is getting a fat quarter collection of new batiks just being released. Then if one really speaks to me, I buy more yardage. Large national quilt shows are an awesome experience and it looks like they may be back soon. The fabrics offered are generally all the new lines with lots of fabulous ideas. If you find one close to where you live, check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Enjoy those batiks,
Would love to make this improv. I’m confused. Do I begin with 2” squares or strips to make the 18” strip piece. Do the same with 3”? Now sew two 2” strips together, then sew two 3” strips together? How am I joining these?
After this I am adding maybe a jelly roll or fat quarter to these strips which are 18” long? Am I using an entire fat quarter?
Sorry, I don’t get it yet. Newbie here!!
Lea Louise says
You’re right, Donna! There’s a lot going on in these quilts. All the dimension info refers to sorting fabric scraps which is what I primarily used in these quilts. Once sorted, I begin sewing the smallest together to create larger pieces and do this with a bunch at a time. I chainstitch them and just keep adding until the smallest pieces are sewn together. These are then attached to the bigger pieces of scraps in the same manner of chainstitching. What I end up with are generally similar size pieced blocks that can be added to larger fabrics. This is where fat quarters and yardage comes in. Cut into varying widths, I’ll sew a bunch of the pieces I just finished onto this larger piece and trim. You can use a similar color to keep a color scheme or change it up to get a scrappy look. so that’s the general piecing method I used. As I’m adding pieced fabric blocks together, I’ll often use precuts. My aim for this quilt was to have blocks that were about 24″ which makes putting the final quilt top together so much easier. Some of my blocks came up short so I used longer, narrow strips to make up the difference. This where I suggested jelly rolls would come in handy as joiner strips when it was laid out and I needed to fill in some spaces. Enjoy making your quilt and let me know if you have any other questions!
Donna West says
Thank you. The part about how to use the 2 1/2” strips is making all a bit more clear for me. I will learn and be more comfortable once I begin the process.
Lea Louise says
You’re right Donna, the more you quilt the more you’ll find your personal style. It’s a great adventure, enjoy!