Improv piecing with curvy scraps

Learn the basics of improv piecing and how to incorporate curved scraps improv quilt blocks.

The key to the perfect quilt block is to blindly follow a quilt pattern to the letter, right? Scraps should always be cut into squares or rectangles before reusing. Sound familiar? It is easy to get so caught up in the rules and rigidity of quilting, that we forget how much flexibility and creativity can be found within those guidelines. It turns out improv and the fundamentals aren’t mutually exclusive! And those curvy, abstract quilts you love? Those are part of the club too. Especially because cutting and sewing curves creates a lot of excess fabric, and it can be hard to repurpose the scraps. Well, I’m going to suggest something crazy. Let’s bring curvy scraps into the improv world!

Don’t run away!! I know what you’re thinking, “Curves? Those are already a stretch. Improv? But precision is perfection! Together? I’m sorry, that’s just too much.” Give me 5 minutes to change your mind.

Improv piecing with curvy scraps

Curves add a modern, cool dimension to quilts, and improv allows you to truly create a one-of-a-kind design. There’s something amazing about a quilt that can’t be replicated, even if you wanted to. Just think of the world of possibilities that will open when you begin to incorporate curvy scraps into your improv practice.

Let’s start at the beginning: Sorting your scraps.

Some people are good about organizing scraps after each project…and some people eat fries and ice cream for every meal and look amazing…but the rest of us live in the real world. In the real world, scraps are dropped into a bottomless basket, never to be seen again, so sorting your fabric is a MUST. Yes, we’re quilting outside the lines, but organization creates a structure from which to sew. Begin by sorting according to size, color, and shape. In this project, I group similar color families, and if you’re new to improv piecing, this is a good way start.

Next are 3 examples of improv strategies (examples pictured below):

  1. The “Improv Quilt Top” uses large scraps with curved and straight edges. The colors are primarily warm tones and evenly distributed throughout the top. There are no individual blocks, the scraps are progressively combined into larger sections to create the top.
  2. The “Mini Improv Blocks” use small, straight-edged, scraps. In the example blow, each block was pieced then trimmed into a 5 1/2” square, and scrap sashing was added to create a grid. The colors are less consistent between blocks, but are all from an earthy palette that blends as you zoom out. This is a perfect for tiny scraps on a small project like a tote, pouch, pillow cover, wallhanging, etc.
  3. The “Large Improv Blocks” are a blend of the first two strategies. Large and small scraps are combined and then trimmed to match the dimensions required for use in a specific pattern. This may be done using a template or ruler. In this example, the color groups are sectioned between the blocks instead of interspersed throughout the design. This is a great way to add visual interest to a pattern that uses large, minimalist blocks. (In my unbiased opinion, one of you should make an improv Radiowaves Quilt.)

In this post, we will be demonstrating the “Large Improv Blocks” using templates from the Pasadena Curves Quilt by Sylvia Raschella and Pasadena Quilt Studio. This pattern uses a large curved template (about 10.5”x21”), so the goal is to assemble a block of scraps large enough to accommodate this size. This patten will be available September 1st, and it is a quick, easy intro to sewing curves!

Now that we have a mental framework to approach this improv project, it’s time to gather the tools.

What you need:

  • Scraps- of all shapes and sizes
  • Scissors
  • Fabric pencil
  • Sewing maching
  • Iron
  • Seam ripper
  • Ruler
  • Wool pressing mat (optional)
  • Rotary cutter (also optional)

On to the basics of piecing improv curves. This example is using a rainbow scrap created while testing templates and a curved scrap from the cutting process:

Step 1. Take the two curvy scraps, and determine which scrap you want to trim to match the coordinating piece. In this example, the rainbow scrap is already at a usable size, so the half circle needs to be trimmed to accommodate the rainbow.* The small scrap would be traced and the cutting line would be drawn 1/2” inside the original tracing line. Take you fabric pencil and trace along the raw edge of the larger scrap.

Step 2. Take the ruler to measure (or approximate) 1/2” outside the first set of markings. Cut along the outside set of markings. When piecing curves, be sure that that there is a 1/2” difference in radii or 1” difference in diameter (throwback to 9th grade geometry).

*At other times, there may be a small curved scrap or inset circle that is the priority piece, so a larger scrap would be trimmed to coordinate. In that case, the process would be reversed. The small scrap would be traced and the cutting line drawn 1/2” inside the original tracing line.

Step 3. Pin and sew the curved pieces together. Press seams. If you need more guidance on sewing curves, here is another blog post and video tutorial to walk you through the process.

Step 4. To continue expanding the block, an outer corresponding arc is needed. In this example, a large enough scrap isn’t available, so we will make our own! Take 3 strips of fabric and lay them on the curve. Be sure there is at least 1/2” overlap around every portion of the curve. Trim the strips to align with the edges of the curve (Figure 3). Sew the strips to create a 3-sided rectangle with one open edge. Press.

*Hint: This is where a mini iron and wool pressing mat come in handy. Improv piecing often involves trial and error, so having a pressing mat close by avoids endless trips back and forth to the ironing board

Step 5. Place the curve on top of the background piece assembled in Step 4. Trace along the raw edge of the curve. (Figure 4.)

Step 6. As in Step 2, take your ruler and trace 1/2” inside the markings from Step 5 to create your seam allowance. Cut along the inner set of markings. (Figure 5.)

Step 7. Pin and sew the curves together. Square up the finished block so each side is parallel to the opposite side. No specific measurements are necessary, but it is helpful to square-up your edges intermittently throughout the improv process to prevent distortion.

Step 8. Once straight edges are created from the curved pieces, it is easier to grow the block. Several strip scraps (pictured above) and a couple curve scraps from the Will-O-Wisp Quilt were added to the periphery of this block to reach the correct size. Once the block reaches the desired measurements, take the template (or ruler-depending on the design), and place it on the folded block. Trim around the periphery of the template and unfold. There you have it, your finished improv block!

Isn’t it amazing how a basket of scraps can be transformed into art? It’s a creative, sustainable way to use all of the beautiful fabric hiding in that scrap stash and design one-of-a-kind quilts.

If you would like to follow along for more improv inspiration, you can find me @wellspringdesigns_co. Let me know what you plan on making with your scraps in the comments below!


Back to blog

Leave a comment