A Note on Accuracy and Improv work

by | Dec 23, 2021 | Improv, Perfect patchwork, Quilt Pattern Ideas, Quilting techniques, Tips and Stitches | 2 comments

In Patchwork and quilting a big thing is made about accuracy.  Your seam allowance must be a precise quarter inch wide; your blocks must be trimmed to very precise sizes; you must ensure that you cut all of your fabric to precisely the right size, with precisely the correct angles in the corners.  It goes on!  And, to be honest, with very good reasons!

Traditional Piecing – Sampler Quilt

Blue and white sampler quilt

Eloise’s star quilt

But take a breath here because improv allows you to be far more “creative”, “relaxed”, “-ish!” about many of these things.  There will be times when accuracy is more important, but there are many times when you really don’t have to worry about it one tiny jot!

Improv Piecing – Leckford Morning

Green and yellow piecing

Curved improv piecing in various hand dyed greens and yellows, densely quilted.

This comes with drawbacks too.  One of these drawbacks is that it simply is NOT possible to say that you will need an exact amount of a fabric.  I always try to be generous in the yardage I suggest, but it is not outside the realms of possibility that you may run out of something that you planned to use for a specific block (or maybe end up with too much fabric left over!) – maybe you used more of that fabric than I had suggested for an earlier block; maybe you changed the look of something, maybe – heaven forfend! – you made a mistake!!  Or a Creative Adaptation, as we prefer to think of such things!

Do NOT panic!  Is there a different fabric that you have more of that you can bring in?  Instead of having all of those specific blocks one colour, could you add in a little splash of something else?  Do you have something else in your stash that will add interest?  And if you have fabric left over it can be the start of another quilt, or be used for the binding, or ………!  Oh, and just a little tip – if you do bring in an additional fabric, bring it in in more than one place – don’t let it be “Billy No Mates”.

A bonus is that if your blocks don’t end up the size planned, improv allows you to just add a creative adaptation – add in a strip to bring it up to size, factor in an additional border, trim something down, slice it through the centre to take out some excess fabric.

Improv really enjoins you – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” a song by American musician Bobby McFerrin released in 1988, or in the words of Bob Marley, “Don’t worry about a thing, every little thing’s gonna be all right.” from his hit song “Three Little Birds“.

A few words on sizes. Ask yourself, is “-ish” is going to be good enough for this project?  But what do we mean by “-ish”?  How close is close enough?  Quite often I use fingers as a measurement when I am working Improv.  I will put my hand on some fabric and cut something that is about three fingers wide – this equates to somewhere around 3”; one finger is about ¾”.

In a traditional design you might need strips of fabric precisely 11” x 2” but in Improv, ish is good enough!  As an example, Improv allows you to use something about 11” long and between ¾” and 1½” wide to create your piece.  If one strip is ¾” wide at one point and 1½” wide at another – that’s fine! (Just avoid sharp elbows!  Gentle curves can be stitched, but elbows are tricky!)  A variety of widths might be preferable to all the same width.  And in the same fashion, wedges (narrow at one end, wider at the other) are more interesting than railway tracks.

Another factor to consider is the impact of quilting.  Quilting can shrink a block or a quilt by a substantial amount if it is dense quilting.  I had made a piece for exhibition in 2020.  The brief was that it had to be 20” square.  It should have been big enough that even after quilting I would need to trim it (“square it”) down to 20½”.  I could only get 19½” out of it.  So I didn’t enter it into the exhibition, but it’s a lovely piece, and one of which I am very proud, nonetheless!  Dense quilting will shrink something more than a lighter quilting.

handyed fabric in pinks; walking foot quilting

20 x 20 in 2020, or not!

Any questions ….. just leave me a comment!  And of course, if you fancy trying some Improv, have at look at my online courses and particularly at these –

  • The Improv Medallion design, Citrus Jazz, is available as an “On Demand” course


  1. Marilyn

    Hi Sheena, link to Improv Drunkards Path blocks not working, would love to see it when you have time to amend.

    • Sheena Roberts

      Thanks for the “Heads Up” Marilyn – I didn’t even give a thought to updating the links in blog posts! Woops. I will get on to it (but please don’t hold your breath as it might be a day or some!)


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