Artquilt Improv with Intention

Here's a peek into my process for making this commission quilt.

Commission Quilt

As many of you know,  I spent many years as an artquilter before I moved into the world of modern quilt designing and teaching.  I still make a few artquilts every year--usually as a commission like this one or in response to an invitation to submit for exhibits by curators like the fabulous visionary Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi.  (If you haven't seen her books, check them out on Amazon.)

This summer (2019),  I was commissioned by THAP and Synergy Health to make an artquilt.  They wanted some of their current program participants to participate in making the quilt.  The theme that they chose was the word "Resilience".

After learning a bit about the program, I suggested that I work with the participants using a hands on, no-sew process for making individual blocks using fabric and glue.  At this point, I did not have an overall design in mind.  So, making this quilt is an example of improvisation with intention as you will see below.

The participants met with me one afternoon and I explained the block making process and also showed them a couple of my artquilts. (I assumed that most of the group wouldn't be familiar with what an artquilt might look like.) After showing them my quilts, I put them away.  I didn't want them to think that they had to somehow replicate what they had seen.

Then, I asked them to reflect and journal on what the word Resilience meant to them.  We discussed the ways that they maintained their own resilience during challenging times.  As they talked, I made notes capturing their own words.  I then used some of their words in the quilt itself.

After the discussion, I asked them to work individually to create a block that represents their most resilient self.  The format was open--some created a portrait, others used more abstract symbols.  Everyone worked with the fabric that I brought, scissors and acid-free glue sticks. I provided an 11 inch square of white heavy weight fabric, and marked off a 1 inch border with blue tape.  They worked inside that border.

They shared ideas but mostly worked pretty intently on their own for about 40 minutes.  I did not offer any artistic or technical  guidance other than showing them how to glue down their elements (and to stay inside the blue tape lines).   I find that people are pretty creative when you just let them get on with it!  Besides, I wanted their blocks to be their unique vision, not a copy of what I might make.


The fabric all came from my stash--some of it fairly new and some of it several years old. I quickly selected a very, very wide range and styles of prints, colors, and styles. I was aiming for variety so that everyone could find fabric that appealed to their taste. I even threw in some ribbons that I found buried in a bin.

After they made their blocks, I asked them to show their blocks to each other (and to me) and say a few words about the meaning behind what they had chosen.  I was extremely moved hearing more of their individual stories.  (THAP filmed a documentary during this process, and I'll update this post with information about it.)

Back In My Studio

First, I machine appliqued each block to secure all of the elements.  I removed the blue tape and started sewing.  I used a variety of decorative stitches and different colors of thread.  I tried to match thread colors to the colors in the block.

Hand & heart block. I added extra batting behind some of the blocks to achieve a stuffed or trapunto look. I wanted to add even more dimension to the blocks.

Back of the hand/heart block showing some of the stitching and how I cut away the trapunto stuffing.

Some of the blocks were very 3 D so I had to secure them without flattening the elements too much.

As I machine appliqued the blocks, I kept the blocks up on my wall. They were all wonderfully unique and different.

This posed a design challenge--how could I bring them together so that the quilt wouldn't look chaotic.  I decided to use a deep, rich ombre fabric from E.E. Schenck to frame each block.  This fabric would bring coherence. I made skewed frames to keep the improvisational feel. At first, I aimed to make each block the same unfinished size.

Then, I looked over the notes I made and selected words and phrases that they used.  I wrote the words and phrases in different fonts using my word processing program. Then, I printed their words on fabric with my inkjet printer.  (I used June Tailor printable fabric in white--I've used this product over the years in many artquilts because it does not require pretreating, just quick heat setting with an iron.)

I also printed the logos of the sponsoring organizations.    I cut all of the text blocks out in various sizes--not preplanned at all.

Fabric: Good Vibes only #51101 from Windham.

Finally, I remembered that I had a very cool text fabric in my stash that I purchased several months ago at FabricSmart.  It was perfect for the themes in the quotes from the group








I started sewing the blocks together as a 9 patch arrangement with the text blocks on the outside in a border. However, the text looked like afterthoughts--they were not integrated with the participant's blocks. I wanted a more cohesive design--improvisation with intention.

So, I took the rows apart--seam ripper time!

Initial layout thought--quickly abandoned.

I realized that I had to intersperse the text within the layout. To integrate them well, I decided to add the ombre, Good Vibes fabric and a muted black print to the text and logo blocks as frames so that they would 'match' the participant blocks.

Here's a shot of the final layout of the center on my design wall.  I rearranged it quite a few times before I got to this stage.  I took lots of photos along the way.  I changed the sizes of some of the text blocks so that I could sew everything together with straight seams.  At this stage, I am still deciding on outside borders and how to frame the bottom row.  I realized that using the black fabric wasn't quite right.  Scroll down to see the final quilt and the decisions that I made about borders.

Final Layout and Quilting

Here's the final layout. I used the ombre for all of the outside borders.  I loved the way it shaded from dark burgundy/red to a golden yellow.  The ombre brought more light into the quilt--the black fabric was way too dark and somber.

I quilted it with my walking foot, using eccentric lines of quilting and a built in meander stitch. I used a 40 wt thread.  I did not mark it in any way. I sort of followed the seam lines, and also quilted through each block to make sure everything was secure.

Quilting detail

I used a faced binding (tutorial link) and added a standard hanging sleeve.


12 thoughts on “Artquilt Improv with Intention”

    1. Awww….thanks Jayne!! It’s all about experimentation, listening to your instincts and finding new options. The voice that I silence is the negative critic voioce that says “this is bad….this is wrong….”.

      My voices say, ‘hmmmm….this could be more balanced….this needs something more ….this needs less of….’. I should write a blog post about our inner critic!

  1. Amazing! Carol, I could not begin to do the planning and designing of an improv quilt like this! Thank you for posting the steps you used to create it. I won’t be afraid of trying it now!

    1. Thanks so much!! I’m glad that my post inspired you to try it. Remember…it’s just fabric. And, if it doesn’t turn out like you wanted, you can always buy my Stash Jazz pattern and repurpose it all. (Shameless self promotion…LOL!)

  2. A post about silencing our inner critic will be much appreciated – I fight with mine daily, haha. But I don’t let it win anymore – as I move into my ’60s. I find your work very inspiring.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top