X Sew-Along: Week 6, Catch-up / Improv Challenge

If you’re still working on your quilting or binding, keep plugging away! Or if you want to play… this week is also our improv challenge. We’ve got some lovely offcuts to work with and some leftover fabric, so what don’t we make something to complement the quilt like a pillow? Or just experiment for no good reason other than to do it? Let’s have a look at what we can achieve this week with our improv challenge:

Improv Quilted pillow
Photo by Emma Poliquin.

#1 / Have fun

This is the most important element of the improv challenge. I love that I can just sit down and sew without measuring anything. Just do it. Put to pieces of fabric together and sew! Trim and then add more.

Improv pillow with Everyone's Got an X modern quilt pattern.
Photo by Emma Poliquin.

#2 / Lay it out

Lay out your piece and see what you’ve got. You’ll see some angles that will come together well. You’ll see where you might want to contrast light and dark, or put two similar tones together. You can try and line up your strip sets or you can say, “I’ve already done this precisely for the quilt, so this time I don’t care this time!”

Lay out improv quilt

#3 / Trim as you go

As you put your pieces together trim any funny bits off so you can add your next straight seams. You might have some groups of shapes that go well together. In this case put a few ‘slabs’ together and then join those slabs to make a bigger piece.

Improv (ignore the scissors in this photo!): Three slabs joined together - rectangle with yellow stripes at top, rectangle at the bottom with peach stripes, three longs strips at the right.

Improv with slabs above (ignore the scissors in photo for now). There are three slabs joined together:

  • Rectangle with yellow stripes at top
  • Rectangle at the bottom with peach stripes
  • Three longs strips at the right.

#4 / Experiment

With a lap size, you can easily get one 20″ x 20″ improve piece and with a baby quilt, you can get a 16″ x 16″ piece. Probably more! With this size of work — because it’s small and not too time consuming, feel free to try something new! If you mess up, the investment of time and fabric is low. Don’t even take out the seam you don’t like, just CUT IT OUT and use the fabric again. Take the opportunity to try a new quilting technique, some hand work or embroidery or pieces some improv curves together (see next point).

Modern handmade pillow with hand stitching
Hand stitching with sashiko thread (black) and perle cotton (off-white).

#5 / Try improv curves

I did an improv curve on this one pink and charcoal pillow. I overlapped two pieces of fabric and cut a random curve in the overlapped area with my rotary cutter. Then sewed them together without too much pinning or care. Again, If it doesn’t work out, take your scissors and cut the seam out and use the fabric again. If you want to try these out, start with them and then move on to other more straightforward seams. That way, if it doesn’t work, you haven’t spent a whole bunch of time on the improv only to “mess it up” with a curve that just isn’t quite right.

Improv curves.

Ready… set… play!

Handmade pillow with hand stitching. Improv quilting
Photo by Emma Poliquin.

Our Song II – A Collaborative Quilt

As the crowdfunding campaign for Our Song, Your Reflection was unfolding in May and June of this year, I asked a few quilting friends — new and old! — to each make a star block. It could be paper pieced from the original pattern, their own star invention, or a traditional block. With each block, I asked them to share what community means to them. While there was wonderful diversity in their star blocks, it was clear that all of them greatly valued their communities as vital to their quilting practice. Support, inclusion, encouragement, and connection were key words that came up again and again.

Our Song II – a collaborative quilt.

Read about each individual block in “What Does Community Mean to You?” Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

Everyone sent their blocks to me and I had a great pile of happy mail to open from across Canada, the United States, Switzerland, and Australia. And there was one more block to add before I embarked on putting them altogether into one quilt – mine. I chose a traditional friendship star – such simplicity and expression in this little block. The friendship star ended up “leading” the swan in the final design.

I had given the participants a small range of colours to choose from and the subtle variety in colour was a wonderful challenge to assemble into a cohesive whole. I was pretty scared at first, but I finally had to jump in and learned that the only scary thing about this project was the jumping in! I found my process was the most painterly experience I’ve had in my quilting life. (I felt a bit like Neil Buchanan from Art Attack! Remember that show?) As you can see, I used a wide variety of solid scraps to blend the colours together. There was a modularity to the grid of the design – the blocks measured 2″ x 6″ or 6″ x 6″ finished, which allowed me to use standard 2 1/2″ strips to do some filling in.

What was important to the creation of this quilt was laying it out on the floor instead of on a design wall. This gave me the option to casually drop a crumpled mess of fabric to fade the colours into one another. I found this to be a really creative and invigorating process after a loss in “sewjo” over the summer.

The inclusion of a swan was an obvious reference to the original Our Song, Your Reflection quilt, but without the lone star behind it. I’m happy announce that I will be releasing this 20″ swan block as a separate pattern – one that is less daunting than the whole Our Song pattern. It will be released on Oct. 11, 2018 as the “Our Song Swan”! Stay tuned.

For the water that the swan sat on, I used triangular scraps from the first #oursongquilt to signify the otherwise calm water being disturbed by the swan’s presence. These little bits also helped the colours transition from blue to yellow-green.

Straight-line quilting was all I had the time for and I took a bit of a risk — I used a 28wt Aurifil thread in a peachy colour (2315). It’s a heavier weight of thread than I’m comfortable using so I crossed my fingers that it would look OK and not be too obvious.

I used the same type of blending method for the binding. A handful of colours to continue the design of the quilt right to the edge rather than to frame it.

The backing was a bit of an unconventional choice – Carolyn Friedlander’s Snake in Ash from her Gleaned collection. There was no clear connection colour-wise to the front of the quilt, but the design spoke “feathers” to me (rather than snake!) so I found it to be fitting.

I’d like to thank the following people for lending their time and energy to this project. What a joy you were to work with!
Alyce Blyth of Blossom Heart Quilts
Mathew Boudreaux, Mister Domestic
Shannon Fraser of Shannon Fraser Designs
Krista Henneberry of Poppyprint
Lisa Hoffman-Maurer of Sew What You Love
Adrienne Klenck of Seam Work
HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
Stacey O’Malley of SLOstudio
Kim Soper of Leland Ave Studios
Silvia Sutters, A Stranger View
Julia Wentzell of Briar Hill Designs
Kitty Wilkin, Night Quilter
Your Reflection, by Meaghan Smith from the Our Song, Your Reflection project. Keep an eye out for Our Song II at the end!

Prairie Storm + Female Artists

Side of the highway, on our way to Regina to see a Saskatchewan Roughriders football game.

I married into a family of Saskatchawanians. I had no connections or interest in the prairies prior to my relationship with my now-husband. This summer we had the chance to spend some time at the family cottage two hours north of Saskatoon, as we celebrated the Jackson matriarch’s 90th birthday. I had the chance to make a quilt for her based on a 16” x 16” sketch from the landscape charrette series that I created last spring.

16″ x 16″ mini quilt, April 2017 – Quilt Charrette series.

A few summers ago, my mother-in-law experienced an intense storm that hit as she drove by herself on a very late night in rural Saskatchewan. Using one of my favourite colour combinations, I imagined from her description — gold improvised fields and very regularly spaced rain, quilted with metallic gold thread.

Side of the highway near Warman, SK

There were a couple of stops along the side of the highway to photograph the prairie-inspired quilt, which measured 50” x 72”. The intensely yellow canola fields were a regular siting along our long drives around the province. This time I used Glide Thread in Fool’s Gold for the quilting. I wasn’t sure how regular metallic thread would fare in my Juki TL-2010Q so I was happy to try this 100% polyester thread with a sheen. I didn’t get a chance to photograph the quilt label unfortunately, but I suspect I will get to see the quilt again.

We made time to escape for a day trip to the city of Saskatoon, which has its own cultural vibe going on. In the fall of 2017, the new Remai Modern opened up, an art gallery dedicated to contemporary art. The building was designed by KPMB with lead design architect Bruce Kuwabara. It is located at the junction of a bridge crossing the South Saskatchewan River, the river itself, and multiple recreational bikepaths.

Remai Modern, designed by KPMB Architects. Image via remaimodern.org.

I really enjoyed our time there without our kids to take in the artwork. Of special note, two installations in the public areas of the museum. Lucky Charms by Pae White makes use of neon “doodles” (terminology mine) in colours of light used in “happy lamps”. These wavelengths of light are used to help the symptoms of depression caused by seasonal affective disorder. On our visit to Saskatchewan shortly after the summer solstice, we experienced daylight until past 10 pm. That means that the opposite season of cold dry winters have very limited daylight hours. This installation touches on the effects of daylight, living at such a northern latitude.

Lucky Charms by Pae White

The second piece was Sol LeWitt Upside Down by Haegue Yang. These very rational looking boxes are a re-interpretation of his modular Structures but hung upside down. Each cube of the framework is enclosed with a surprising material – very mundane Venetian blinds. I love these very rational boxes against the geometric linear lights suspended above them. The Venetian blinds capture both the artificial lighting above it as well as the natural light coming through the atrium space that connects all levels of the museum.

On a non-aesthetic level, what strikes me about these two installations is that they are works by female artists prominently displayed in public spaces. Women’s roles in the public realm has evolved greatly in the last 100 years and I hope that this artistic representation continues to grow. Especially as a Asian female artist, Yang’s artwork as the first encounter in a museum of such importance really encourages me. Asian females are often perceived as the most reticent, passive, and submissive in European and North American cultures. Although none of the females in my family fit this profile — we are a particularly assertive and vocal bunch! — I have certainly been subject to this stereotype. I have begun to make a case for my role as an female Asian artist in a dominantly white art form, as well as for domestic arts to have a place in the public realm. This is a relatively new dimension to what I think about in my artistic practice, and I’m excited to see how it informs the way I work.

The lobby of the Remai Modern.

The vast Canadian prairie landscape is one that I really took notice of this trip and I’m sure we’ll be back again in the next few years for another Saskatchewan adventure.

Photo by Bruce Jackson

Icebergs and Narwhals

I had the opportunity to develop another pattern from a commission (first one was the Sleepy Fox pattern) and this time, I went underwater. When my son’s preschool teacher approached me about making a wall hanging for the classroom, I had in mind to try this business model again.

The teacher had travelled up north to Nunavut in recent years and teaches a unit on the Arctic in the winter months. I had also spotted a small print of a Lawren Harris painting in her classroom. He was a member of the famous Group of Seven, who all had their own takes on Canadian landscapes. His icebergs are powerful and peaceful at the same time.

Mountain Forms, an iconic 1926 Rocky Mountain canvas by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

Using a similar improvisational technique to the series of pin cushions I did last summer, I constructed the icebergs with loose overall dimensions in mind. A gradation of white/baby blue/pale aqua formed the icebergs above water and deeper blues formed the underwater portions. I elongated the darker ones because most of the mass of icebergs resides beneath the surface. (Lessons learned from the Titanic, right? “Iceberg AHEAD!”)

I developed the narwhal patterns simultaneously and had my faithful testers working on the narwhal blocks while I designed the baby quilt. Narwhals usually congregate in groups, so I made one of each of the Dancing Narwhal patterns. And for the third, I made a tuskless version to represent a female and used a mirror image of the pattern simply by printing it out flipped. Most printers have the ability to do this, if you can find the function in your print settings.

Instead of making the full 16″ x 16″ blocks, I omitted the extra background rectangles for the two male narwhals, and finagled a funny Y-seam to insert the female into the group. It did pucker a bit but nothing that a little quilting over couldn’t fix.

SInce the spring, I have been working on free-motion quilting cloud motifs (sketches here and another experiment here). I quilted them over the icebergs and sky in a pale grey thread.

The underwater currents went edge-to-edge and I found a rhythm of spirals and echoing after a few rows. The 80-20 (80% cotton, 20% polyester) batting I used is loftier (“puffier”) than a 100% cotton. In combination with the lighter weight shot cotton that I used for the water, it added so much extra texture to the water.

You can find the Dancing Narwhal patterns here; each comes with a tuskless option, making them female narwhals or like their cousin, the beluga. Check out some other versions of the patterns on Instagram.

Sleepy Fox Quilt: Thoughts on the Client Relationship

Sometimes you come across a dream client: Someone who lets you explore as an artist, someone who wants you to succeed, someone who wants what’s best for them and what’s best for you. These people are hard to come by. This happened to me in early spring 2017, with the commission of the Sleepy Fox quilt.

A previous customer was now pregnant with her first baby and wanted a gender neutral quilt for her baby’s woodland nursery. She was following my work closely. She loved Elizabeth Hartman’s Fancy Fox and how I had paired it with improv birch trees. (tutorial here). And she loved wood grain free motion quilting. She wanted an original fox design in my own geometric style and — here’s the kicker — wanted me to design it so that I could sell the pattern later. She wanted the perfect keepsake quilt for her baby, and she wanted me to get the most out of the process.

Here’s how I have been approaching commissioned work, as of late:

  1. We discuss what the client wants: Design, colours, dimensions, rough timeline.
  2. I decide on a price for my labour (read some thoughts below), and I estimate the price of materials. The client pays for the materials separately.
  3. I specify the process: I will provide two preliminary designs. The client will pick one and we will refine that design with up to two revisions (different colours, design tweaks, slightly different layout, etc.). It is not an eternal back-and-forth.
  4. I state that I require a 50% deposit before I begin the work.
  5. I give an estimated date for completion of the work based on what else is going on in my work life and personal life.
  6. If the client agrees, then we proceed. I then give some intermediate dates – when I will send the preliminary designs, when to expect the finished piece with a shipping deadline.

How I price labour: I estimate how much time it’s going to take me to design and then execute a project. I charge a higher rate for design time and a lower rate for execution. There are a few factors that play into this decision. [Disclaimer: I have in no way, shape or form, figured out pricing, but here are my thoughts on pricing design vs. execution.]

Design work takes a certain skill set that is developed through specialized training and experience. I happen to have both formal training and experience in this realm. Also, I’ve gotten relatively fast at it, and I pay for software to allow me to do it efficiently and well. And there is no reason that I should be penalized for my speed, which comes from experience. Therefore I charge a higher rate.

Execution I charge less for. To be honest, I am not that experienced in piecing, basting, quilting and binding. I’ve only been seriously doing it for about 18 months. My workmanship is not top-notch, and as a result, my results are not top-of-the-line. I’m might also be slower at it than a more experience person and I make more mistakes that I have to fix. So why should my client be penalized for my slowness? Therefore I charge a lower rate.

The client and I shopped for fabric together at Patch and found the perfect combination of colours and a Dear Stella Pine Grove backing. I also had some hand-printed Keephouse scraps in black and white to add to the improv birch trees. The sky colour is Essex Yarn-dyed Linen; I love the texture of these linens, both visually and in a tactile sense.

Here is what I used:

  • Fox: Free Spirit Solids Apricot, Tango, White, Raven; Kona Solids in Paprika
  • Trees: Free Spirit Solids White, Raven; Keephouse Studio hand-printed linen in “Rows”
  • Ground: Free Spirit Solids in Silver
  • Sky: Essex Yarn-Dyed in Aqua
  • Binding: Free Spirit Solids in Malachite, White
  • Backing: Pine Grove – Fox, Deer, Owls by Dear Stella

It took me longer than I had estimated originally, but I had such a good time putting it together that it didn’t bug me, as it sometimes does. And also, I considered it part of the upfront time that pattern design takes.

The Sleepy Fox paper piecing pattern is available as a PDF download here.

A satisfied heart that was full of gratitude. That’s what I came away with. Lucky me.

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.