Improv Therapy

Improv.HeartBeat.Front00012015 is gradually coming to a close. It has, perhaps, been the most difficult year of my life. Earlier this year I lost my sister, Paula, and her death rocked my world. Everything changed. The world looked completely different to me.

Grief has many faces – anger, profound sadness, loneliness, confusion. It is complicated. It does not have a linear path. Through this difficult journey I have been turning toward my creative side, playing with color and fabric. Relaxing in the “zen” which is quilting.

I have often longed to make an improvisational quilt, but I think I was always a little scared to start. There are no rules, no patterns, no right or wrong choices. There is imperfection and indecision. It felt like stepping off a cliff.

And then I discovered Sherri Lynn Wood’s fabulous book: The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters, A Guide to Creating, Quilting & Living Courageously. Exactly what I needed – a little push towards courage! You will not find patterns in Wood’s book – instead you will find “scores” – a framework for flexible patterning that supports “improvisatory exploration.” Because I can’t quite get rid of the organizational self which sits on my shoulder, I decided to start with Score #1 in the book: Floating Squares. Wood suggests setting limitations such as amount of fabrics and sizes of squares. She also encourages the sewist to put aside rulers and cut freehand. Scary indeed!

The palette was an easy one for me to choose – I love orange and I thought that might best express my story. I also was thinking of Paula and knew I would include pink (her favorite quilting color). I have quite a collection of peppered cottons and other textural solids that I thought would be perfect. I decided on a “background” of low volumes as well. Here was the initial fabric I pulled:

Improv.MyHeart.Selectingfabric0001You notice that green and purple at the top? Initially I thought I would use it, but as my piece came together, I pushed it aside. I also decided to throw in a little yellow – the light that has to be inside oneself when traveling a difficult road. The low volumes included a text which was like a story, and also one that had sewing words on it. I decided that the orange pieces would be larger than the pink because they represented ME, and I wanted this to be an exploration of myself. Things got messy very quickly…

Improv.MyHeart.scrappymess0001And then it started to take shape…

Improv.MyHeart.StartingOut0001As I worked, I decided I wanted to add some red and charcoal to the piece. I didn’t consciously know why, I just decided to follow my gut…

Improv.MyHeart.heartevolution0001I was surprised when I realized I was making an improv heart! I had no intention to do this, but I think I unconsciously knew that the center of my quilt should be my heart.

As this quilt came together, I began to see and feel some of the themes that were being created. The quilt was bright and bold, colors that represent the external me that everyone sees, and then I decided to bring in some quiet colors, and some low volumes that represented trees and nature…that felt like the internal part of myself that needs alone time to contemplate. It felt right to have those lighter fabrics wrapping around the more bold colors.

Improv.HeartBeat.Label0001The pink is everywhere in this quilt – small pops of it that connect the yellows and oranges, and even some in the center of the heart. Paula is a big part of who I am today, and she will always walk beside me.

I decided to quilt this one with one giant spiral circle which is best seen on the back as I used a wonderful silver gray Minky (we all need comfort and softness sometimes).

Improv.HeartBeat.BackReveal0001Life is circular (at least it is to me). As I began the quilting, I discovered my circle was less than perfect, it wove around a bit, it got wonky in places. All okay because isn’t that the nature of life?

Improv.HeartBeat.BackQuiltDetail0001I’ve named this one “Heart Beat…”

Improv.HeartBeat.Label.CloseUp0001Because I am listening to my heart these days, flying by the seat of my pants, letting go of the “small” things and finding new meaning in a life that is changed.




Sherri Lynn Wood encourages readers to evaluate their process when working on improvisational pieces. She asks some basic questions to think about…and here are my responses:

What Surprised Me?

I did not start out to make this a “story,” but unconsciously, I did just that. Many of my choices throughout were impulsive or instinctual…and it wasn’t until later that I began to see how they all worked together. This is perhaps the most personal quilt I have ever made.

What Did I Discover or Learn?

Don’t be afraid. And perfection is not all it is cracked up to be. Let go of fear and perfection and allow yourself to be led by the process.

What Was Satisfying about the Process or Outcome?

There was a lot of freedom and joy in creating this piece. I loved the surprises that evolved as the piece came together. I found that I really enjoyed cutting without a ruler! I loved using a variety of solids, some quite textural, as it gave the piece a different feel. This turned out to be a really warm, drapey quilt that I can’t wait to wrap up in.

What was Dissatisfying?

I chose to make “sections” of the quilt and then connected them together – but I didn’t like how there were two long lines of low volume across the quilt – it felt too obvious and not enough improv. I wanted it to be unclear where things were joined, but I ended up being too methodical and the quilt captured that…

What Can I do Next Time to be more Satisfied?

I think if I worked with different size sections, or if I pieced sections as I went (instead of waiting until the end to join them) that the connections would be less abrupt.

Where Do I want To Go From Here?

I want to keep doing some improvisational work and see where it takes me.

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  1. What a treasure – I love the meaning of this quilt.

    • Cathie on December 6, 2015 at 22:46

    I love how this one turned out, even if I do not usually care for improv. It is so you. Thank you for sharing the meanings behind the fabric. I agree that it fits you, the bold and bright you allow the world to see and the soft side that a few of us lucky ones get to see. Having added the pink is just another way to keep Paula close because she is always with you. Remember all the firsts are the toughest. I love you my friend.

    • Mary on December 7, 2015 at 09:08

    What a quilt and what a story…love it all. And as the journey continues embrace all sides of who you are as well as all parts of this difficult journey as that is where healing begins …Hugs.

    • Ti on December 7, 2015 at 09:53

    Improv in the form of a quilt is an interesting concept. I’ve never seen an example of it before your post but I love how your sister is represented here. I am so sorry that you’ve had such a rough time of it too. I lost my dad in February of last year and there are days when it just doesn’t seem real.

    • Kay on December 7, 2015 at 09:57

    Wendy, this is just such a precious post and a wonderful, meaningful quilt. I think that we are so honored that you chose to share with us. I’ve thought of you often and hoped your journey this year was progressing. I feel that I do understand somewhat and I still find myself tripping over grief for my lost family members. I love the way you described your process and hope you’ll continue to share it with us. Take care of yourself, my friend. Paula will indeed still walk beside you. Hugs and may you find bits of joy as this holiday season progresses. 🙂

  2. Lovely. Absolutely lovely, both the quilt and the tribute. I love how you are still structured within an improv quilt! It makes it more you, and I totally get wanting the rules to follow, and yet not wanting it too symmetrical. I’ll say it again – your colour choice is amazing, and completely matches my aesthetic. I would want you to help me decorate or pick out paint because the way you blend and balance colour is phenomenal.
    I also want to echo Kay’s comment – been thinking of you and knowing what a difficult year this would have been for you. I was so excited to see your name pop up in my feed reader to have a little catch up. Let’s pretend we had a cup of tea while we visited.
    Peace and love to you and your family,

    • Elisabeth on December 9, 2015 at 20:04

    So sorry to hear about the loss of your sister. I am sending you a hug. I have missed you. Though not a quilter, I want to learn, I LOVE reading about and seeing the beautiful quilts you create. I am glad your back. I find it fascinating how your latest quilt evolved and has helped you through your grief. . I have never heard of an improv quilt before. I know every quilt tells a story, and it seems to be true even in an improv quilt.

  3. Wendy, I am sorry to hear that 2015 has been a rough year for you too. I’m glad that it’s almost over. Hopefully next year will be a whole different sort. Loved hearing the story of your quilt and especially how it developed from inside out. You and I will have to keep on with our improv therapy. The best kind!

    • Claire on January 2, 2016 at 17:20

    Beautiful quilt and beautiful exposition of the process. And I am glad to have found you; I didn’t move fast enough to reconnect with enough people when Threadbias closed down.

    • Liz on January 2, 2016 at 18:24

    Wow~ What a beautiful journey your quilt has taken you on. I love it, and I appreciate your sharing so deeply. Hugs to you.

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