Tutorial: Improv Birch Trees

I was asked to make a quilt for a woodland nursery. Animals are not yet in my design wheelhouse so I still have to work out that part, but I was delighted that to have the opportunity to test a tree technique that was in my head. Birch trees are linear, black and white, irregular but wieldy enough — I can handle that! There are many ways to make birch trees as you can see by the examples on Pinterest (scroll to the bottom of the post), but this tutorial shows you my approach.

If you’ve been following my blog, you will know that I prefer to test new ideas and techniques on small projects such as mini quilts, pillows, and trivets. The project below is a 12” x 18” pillow cover featuring Elizabeth Hartman’s Fancy Fox.

This is a somewhat improvisational technique, so that means that variation adds interest. All measurements are given as guidelines; allow yourself to approximate. No cuts have to be straight, no widths have the  same, no lines have to be parallel. More variation results in a more realistic birch forest.

3rd Story Workshop’s Improv Birch Trees
Yields at least 4 trees, roughly 1.5” x 15”, finished
with leftovers for future birch tree projects.
A 1/4” seam is assumed, unless otherwise noted.

 

Fabric Requirements:
1 white or off-white fat quarter
4 scrap strips of black and or dark grey, ranging from 1” to 2” wide x ~18” long
Scraps of white, off-white, or black/white stripes, about 1.5” x 3.5” (stripes should be parallel to the 1.5” edge)
Background fabric, width of your project x ~14” tall

 

  1. Fold your fat quarter in half along the 22” edge. (This step is not necessary, it’s just easier to cut and is what is pictured below.)
  2. Cut into strips between 2” and 3” wide. The strips don’t have to be very straight or parallel.

  1. Put your three skinniest strips aside.
  2. Pair 4 white strips with your black strips. Piece them together.
  3. Cut off any excess black.

  1. Slice off a bit of the black strips, leaving about 1/2” attached to the white. (Remember: Variation is best! More or less than 1/2” is good. Not quite parallel is good.)

  1. Piece your strips together.
  2. Add one additional white strip from the strips you put aside in Step 3. Voilà, a panel of fat white stripes and skinny black stripes.

  1. Cut 8 strips off your pieced panel, roughly 1.5: wide.

  1. Pair them up and turn one strip from each pair upside down.
  2. Take your remaining two white strips and cut them in half lengthwise.

  1. Insert them in between your stripy strips.
  2. Join each trio together with a rough 1/4” seam.

  1. You can make skinnier trees by omitting the white strip in the middle. My fifth tree, on the right below, shows you how this will look. (Another variation = good!)

  1. The resulting trees are about 12.5” tall, but I needed a little more height for my pillow. I sliced three trees into two; the cut line varies in position.
  2. This is where you will add the additional white, off-white or striped scraps. I used some hand-printed linen scraps from Keephouse that I picked up last weekend. For the two trees on the right, I added the extra fabric to the bottom of the tree.

  1. Trim the addition to match the width of the tree.

  1. Take your background fabric and slash them at various angles. For my project, the Fancy Fox is part of my “background” and is centred between two pairs of trees.

  1. Lay your birch trees in the slashes, and piece your verticals together in pairs, leaving a extra bit of length of tree at the top and bottom.

  1. Trim the extending tree bits  off the top and bottom to line them up with your background. This will help you align the next background piece without having to deal with funny angles.

  1. Finish piecing the remaining verticals.
  2. Baste, quilt, finish as desired.

 Variations for your forest:
  • For taller trees, stack and join the trees or add more scraps as per Step 15 and 16.
  • For some skinnier and different looking trees, omit middle white strip as per Step 14.
  • For quicker trees, only use a single ~2” strip from your pieced panel, as per Step 9. No additional piecing before you insert the tree into your background.

You’ll see in this photo that I had to add more background fabric to the left and right to make it wide enough for my pillow. These seams will almost disappear when quilted, especially because it’s linen. I can’t see Elizabeth Hartman’s Fancy Forest with anything other than free motion quilted wood grain, so that’s how this one will be quilted. I found instructions for wood grain FMQ in Free Motion Quilting with Angela WaltersCheck out more birch trees on this Pinterest board.

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