Improv Low Volume Quilting with Batiks
Improv quilting is my absolute favorite style of quilting. Improv low volume quilting with batiks like this one creates an especially beautiful quilt. The freedom to create a completely individual quilt my way is totally liberating. Bright, bold colors with lots of contrast fill each of my improv quilts. Sometimes I use blocks and sometimes not. There are no rules and no two quilt tops ever look alike.
Most of my previous improv quilting was more about utilizing all those leftover fabric bits and making them into something more. I called it stash quilting and have enjoyed it for years. Now my focus is about combing those improv quilt blocks with pieced backgrounds to develop an enjoyable design.
Recently, I’ve worked with a lot of Low Volume fabrics. They are a perfect companion for my bright, improv batik blocks. Their subtle look adds to the design but doesn’t overpower the quilt top. The low volume fabrics add areas of interest to rest your eyes on while you’re exploring each part of the quilt top. They are fun fabrics to use together.
All About Color
Starting an improv quilt is all about the color for me. With my stash pile and scrap bag strewn about, a vision comes together, and the fun begins. Initially my style of quilting started as a challenge to use my 1,000+ fat quarters to make quilts without buying any new fabric. It has kept me busy for quite a few years. A quest I’m still working on.
Stash quilting easily evolved into improv quilting before I even knew it. Fabric was sliced and diced, sewn and crosscut, then resewn into blocks. Using block sizes from 6” to 24”, these quilts always attracted attention. There is so much going on visually that they become quite captivating. What better compliment than for someone to simply enjoy looking at your quilt as much as you do.
Improv Quilt Building Blocks
A dramatic quilt needs plenty of contrast. Start with some brightly pieced batik blocks for your focal block centers. They can be as easy as a single square, to an intricate patchwork with a multitude of fabric bits to create a more colorful block. Keeping each batik block within a color family will make that area of your quilt color specific. Or totally mix up your color placement for splashes of color throughout your quilt top.
Add Some Variations
Get really wild and add some uneven improv blocks with angled sides like I did in this quilt top. This is a fun way to use up varying sizes of scraps. Just keep sewing pieces together until you have a usable size for a block. It’s a quick method to get a pile of blocks started.
Be sure to vary the dimensions of your focal batik blocks so they are different sizes. Orient them with some placed tall and others wide. Unless you want your design to be symmetrical, be sure to make an uneven number of focal blocks. An odd number generally makes for a more natural looking and interesting design.
Batik Improv Blocks add Contrast
This is the first quilt top that I’ve combined improv blocks within a traditional 9-patch background. The primary batik color blocks each emphasizes a single-color group. Using batiks, the fabrics also brought in some nice contrast and design with the additional patterns and colors.
Play off those colors to add some extra smaller bits of color in the surrounding 9-patches. That technique is described below.
Note the difference in the block layouts at the bottom of the quilt. The focal blocks have more large color blocks scattered around them than the top ones do. This gives the illusion of the improv block being larger and makes the pattern look more intricate.
Low Volume & Batik Transition Blocks
The second group of blocks alternated small low volume 1” squares mixed with lots of bright color squares. These blocks are great transitions for your eye to follow where the design leads. I also incorporated this design element along the right side of the quilt top. It ties all the colors together nicely.
There are two other components to this quilt layout that also play a very important role in the design. The 9-patch low volume background blocks are also an opportunity for a bit more color.
By adding a square of a single color, or a mini 4-patch, the path of color continues from block to block. It also totally mixes up the structured look. The more color scattered around the focal color blocks brightens up those areas.
Additionally, narrow strips between the blocks are an opportunity for more fun. Sometimes a simple low volume strip is adequate, but in other places adding some unexpected spots of bright color can add a lot of interest. I tended to use the low volume strips as background filler to even some areas up. The batiks strips are more of a design element anchoring the adjacent blocks in place.
Adding the Contrasts
Try a few different layouts to get a feel for where you like your prominent colors to be. Place the batik blocks in a random pattern and balance your colors. Then start adding your additional blocks to round out you quilt design. The largest open areas are a good place to add some secondary color blocks. Then I filled in the remaining areas with low volume 9-patch blocks along with the mini 4-patch pieces.
Keep mixing it up. Add low volume fabric around the batik blocks, and bright fabrics around the low volume blocks. The batik blocks are the stars of the show therefore the surrounding low volume blocks separate these bold batiks for more emphasis.
Adding some splashes of bright colors in random low volume blocks keeps your eye moving and adds so much more interest. Where a space needs to be filled, use some narrow, bright strips between blocks. With so many choices for color placement, you’ll be using up that extra fabric in no time!
How to Layout an Improv Quilt Top
Improv Quilt Block Sizes
When you layout an improv quilt top using blocks, be sure to change up the sizes to create a feeling of colors floating across your quilt top.
Remember this is an improv design. So, don’t get stuck on block placement in even rows. Let your blocks look like they are randomly placed across your quilt top. Fill in the open areas with secondary pattern blocks or background fabric. Mix up the sizes of the filler strips to keep your design random.
Adding improv narrow strips to the sides of some blocks will offset them, giving your design a more modern feel. Where there’s background space to be filled, use some larger squares of low volume fabric to break up the repeating patterns. (see my Lessons Learned notes below)
How to Sew an Improv Quilt Top
When assembling this quilt top, I started in the middle. Just grab two blocks next to each other and sew them together. Then sew a couple more together and add them to your first pair. You now have the beginning of you top started. This top is assembled much like a large log cabin block. Starting in the center, more blocks are sewn together to create longer strips to sew along the side of the starter block.
As each side is built up, you will have some uneven ends. You may choose to either trim them up to be even with the blocks or leave them longer and incorporate them into the next row. I did some of both in this quilt top and both methods worked great. The longer strips that were carried across to other blocks tended to blend those areas together.
Keep working and adding more strips of blocks. When working with asymmetrical blocks that have uneven sides, add some extra narrow strips to the outer edge. Then trim it to make the block square. This strip creates a separation in between the blocks and enhances the improvisational look of the assembled quilt top.
Finalizing Your Improv Quilt Design
As you’re piecing your quilt top, keep your eye on how your design is developing. While most modern quilts don’t have borders, adding some long strips of fabric within your quilt top can really make a bold statement. Since I want this quilt to be a bit larger than just the initial blocks I made, I started by adding gray and white chevron fabric strips to one side emphasizing the vertical line of the quilt top. It also ‘holds’ the color blocks within the quilt rather than letting them ‘float’ along the edge.
Also notice that the chevron strip is not only broken up from top to bottom, it varies in width. This is a perfect opportunity to square up your quilt top. When working with multiple size blocks and inserting varying widths of long strips, it’s very likely your quilt will not be square. Use these pieces to make the necessary adjustments to size up your quilt top.
Keep an Eye on Your Measurements
As you are piecing your top together, fold it in half to see if the sides line up evenly. Then fold and check it the other way, too. If you find there’s a difference, add where you need more. Your quilt top is filled with blocks and strips, simply add a few with their sizes adjusted to get the finished dimensions you need.
I prefer to have some kind of linear definition in my quilts. Once the chevron border was added I still wanted more color. First a bright bold two-tone strip added sharp detail and transitions into a long, full-length section of 1” alternating blocks. Just for one block within the long strip I changed up the size a bit to add some interest, though unless you are looking closely you can easily miss it. But finding little surprises are always fun and make studying a finished quilt all the more captivating.
Side note: I’ve always loved postage stamp quilts but the thought of cutting and sewing those thousands of 1” squares makes my head spin. This was a good trial run for me. Using some different length strip piecing, I saved quite a bit of time and didn’t get a lot of color repetition. I may not have hit 1,000 inchies on this project, but it’s good practice to get me ready! LOL
Adding Improv is Fun!
As you can see, this has been a great learning quilt for me. I’ve sewn lots of improv quilts and enjoy it immensely. So much so that’s I’d left the traditional block quilting behind. Combining these two methods resulted in a very fun quilt.
While I love mixing the varying sizes of 1” and 2” blocks with the improv pieces, scattering them more densely around the batik blocks enhances the look. Keeping them farther apart elsewhere lets the background settle to the back and not appear too busy.
What I like the least are the larger pieces of low volume blocks snuggled in here and there. They don’t seem to blend very well within a quilt that is predominantly made with 2” or smaller squares. The longer strips seem to work much better because they are narrow and don’t appear out of proportion. Despite these little quirks, they are in the background and not very noticeable.
Personalize Your Quilting Style
Improv quilting is your opportunity to personalize your quilting. Try a simple improv block to get started. The best advice to improvisational quilting is not to over think the process. Let your fabrics lead you to a beautiful design of your own making. Most importantly, have fun!
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