As a teacher, one of the questions I get most often from students in my Improv classes is “how do you know what to do?” followed closely by “how do you know when it’s finished?”

Those are great questions with Improv quilting, because there’s no pattern and no rules to follow. For me, this is liberating, but I can understand how it’s a little intimidating too. Last week I started a new Improv quilt that I thought could either be a small piece to donate to the silent auction at the Houston Quilt Show, or a new class sample.

I started out by dumping out my scraps onto my cutting table, and making blocks fairly randomly.

Under the Big Top beginning – Cindy Grisdela

These are mostly log cabin style blocks. I make them in sizes that are multiples of 3 to make them easier to sew together later. I like the interaction of the colors and shapes, especially in the block with the stripes. There is a random improv log cabin block on the left and a striped insert at the top next to the block with the orange edges.

Under the Big Top in Process – Cindy Grisdela

Above is the quilt in process, with more blocks added, plus some “filler” lines and shapes, such as stripes and triangles, to make everything fit, and also to add interesting lines and shapes to the composition.

As I’m designing, I ask questions about what I’m doing and how it affects the whole. For example, I added some blocks with white borders–do they give the eye a place to rest, or are they a distraction? And what about the curved block in the upper right? I like the new lines it introduces, but there’s only one of them. Would it make the composition more cohesive if there was more than one?

I’m thinking about simple principles of design here–for instance, is there balance, repetition of elements, variety in the shapes and lines? You can see a broader outline of those ideas in my book, Artful Improv or simply search for “principles of design” online.

Under the Big Top more progress – Cindy Grisdela

In the next version, I made some new curved blocks in colors that complemented the design, instead of using the one that was left over from another project. They’re in the upper left and lower right corners so they “speak” to each other in the composition. I also replaced some of the white blocks so there are fewer of them, and added some stripes with dark navy and silver that came from another project. It’s important to repeat these kinds of elements more than once to make it seem like they belong, instead of being a random occurrence. Think of it as putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but you get to decide what the finished piece looks like.

This piece stayed on my design wall for several days “marinating” while I worked on other things. Ultimately I decided I wanted to make it bigger and have it be a class sample, instead of the silent auction donation. I’ll be teaching a short version of this class in Houston on Tuesday, October 29 from 2-5 PM. Visit this link for more information.

Under the Big Top final flimsy – Cindy Grisdela

Above is the finished top. Some elements got moved and I added the curved strips in white and dark purple to give the eye a place to rest in the busy composition, and to tie in those light blocks in the center. And I created a new border to finish everything off. I like asymmetry in my designs, so the borders are only on two sides–I didn’t want to completely enclose the central design.


Big Top Leftovers – Cindy Grisdela

There were lots of left overs from making this quilt, and I needed another one to donate to the Houston silent auction. So I used what I had to make another smaller version that will be perfect for that event–all it needs is a name.


Houston Silent Auction quilt – Cindy Grisdela

Thanks for reading all the way through. I’d love to hear your thoughts on creating improv quilts!





  1. Nancy Askin on August 29, 2019 at 11:33 pm

    I loved reading how you work. Thanks

    • Cindy on August 30, 2019 at 12:40 pm

      Thank you Nancy–I’m glad you like the post!

  2. Cindy Anderson on August 30, 2019 at 3:24 pm

    I never tire of seeing your amazing projects!

    • Cindy on August 31, 2019 at 12:07 am

      Thank you so much, Cindy–I appreciate that!

  3. Terry on September 16, 2019 at 7:43 am

    I love your work Cindy. I bought your book at The Festival of Quilts (UK) last month and feel so inspired! Your colours are amazing but it’s your wonderful quilting that really makes them special.

    • Cindy on September 16, 2019 at 12:58 pm

      Thank you so much Terry–I appreciate your kind words and I hope you enjoy playing with Artful Improv!

  4. Theresa Johnson on September 19, 2019 at 12:57 pm

    Awesome I love your improv quilting. I quilt also by hand

    • Cindy on September 22, 2019 at 2:04 pm

      Thank you very much, Theresa! I was a hand quilter for many years and still enjoy it, although my stitches aren’t as small as they used to be!