Book Chat: The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters

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Most quilters begin by choosing a pattern and a set of fabrics, follow some instructions, resulting in a lovely and functional piece. I did this for many years and in so doing built a strong foundation of skill and taste. But in working through the works of others, I did not build a voice.

Enter improvisational work. I don’t know why this style has drawn my attention at this time when it’s never resonated before. It’s fascinating actually. So I’ve been reading up on what makes improv work and I’m excited to tell you about The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters by Sherri Lynn Wood {affiliate link}. Improv Handbook

My friends: this is a book for every quilter. Even if you think improv isn’t your thing, there’s much to learn from the author’s approach to creative quilt making.

“At the least it requires a willingness to take risks and make mistakes”

The Score

One of the first concepts she presents is the score. This is the set of parameters the artist determines at the outset of a work and can range from colors and materials, to size, tools, scale, process, time, and more. The myriad possibilities are in themselves inspiring, and the challenge of working within a prescribed framework is both freeing and supportive. She talks about pushing limits and breaking rules as the way to innovation.  Make a list of the facets of your project and then challenge yourself with a new score.

I’m looking forward to working up a piece with a score that involves only scraps from my past projects, using scissors, and working up to 60″x 60″…stay tuned!

I realized that, like the author, I’ve seen my quilting evolve from my earliest works which were perfectly lovely, but prescribed and relatively uninspired. I played carefully to the patterns and choices of someone else, never testing my own footing, building a repertoire of technique and a strong foundation. But “as I became more skilled and familiar with techniques, materials, and process, my quilts often became static and self-conscious. Once I figure things out I’m tempted to strive for perfection”…yes! In that pursuit of perfection I lost sight of my own creative process. I’m not sure I ever even saw it, actually. I was too busy reinterpreting the work of others to have my own ideas. I lost my way and stopped quilting.

Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind

Since I’ve rediscovered my connection to making quilts, I’ve gotten to see with what Wood calls “beginner’s eyes”. Unintentionally at first, but now it’s an intentional part of my practice. I set out, on purpose, with openness and eagerness. She encourages makers to focus on questions rather than answers and to respond with an attitude of not knowing. How easy is it, after so many years of making a particular thing, to think we have the answers?

She writes about working with a spirit of willingness and curiosity. It’s easy to settle into a particular style. A groove. A rut. This can be a fine thing when we’ve determined a specialty or a niche. But if we’re settled in a complacent place, then we ought to accept the challenge to willingly explore and experiment in new and unfamiliar territory, letting go of self-consciousness and working within a comfort zone.

Most important is her advice to cling to awe, wonder, and gratitude and celebrate mistakes. This book has definitely changed the way I quilt.

Buy this book

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