Improv Quilts Week, Day One

Most of us never heard of the Gee's Bend quilters in the early 2000s. I lived in Atlanta at the time and a man named William Arnett in 1996 got lost on a winding road in Alabama and saw one of their quilts hanging on a clothesline. He knew art when he saw it! Fast forward a few years and he arranged for several of their quilts to be exhibited at the prestigious High Museum in downtown Atlanta. A few more years and Windham Fabrics knew quilts and fabric and they needed a designer to interpret 8 of these quilts (that was me!). After a year of negotiations, selecting a color palette and deciding on the size and scale of the first 4 quilts, Windham launched the sale of kits of fabric with patterns for these improvisational quilts (yes, that's an oxymoron). (And, yes, contracts were signed all around!)

First 4 of the 8 Gee's Bend patterns. Interpreted and sewn by Debby Kratovil
I honestly couldn't wrap my head around these non-symmetrical quilts, but I soon learned that the beauty is in their originality. I began to enjoy letting my fabric tell me they wanted more freedom. Then I was asked to teach some improvisational workshops and I knew I would have to standardize some of the parts so my classes of 20 students could feel successful. What follows this week are many of my techniques used both in making these 8 Gee's Bend quilts and in my workshop samples.

No Sneaky Peeky Sample 1
In 2010 I called my first class "No Sneaky Peeky" because I took these same Gee's Bend solids, cut them into fat 8ths, added a variety of strips and remnants from sewing the quilts and put them into a brown lunch bag STAPLED shut! I printed a simple pattern and when I said "Go" my students then opened their bags and pulled out 2 of the scraps. They HAD TO sew them together. It could have been a triangle and a skinny strip. Or a square and a large triangle. Whatever. Then they had to pull out pieces one by one, stitch, and keep going. They set aside this first "block" and we were ready for Part 2.

All sorts of scraps and pieces of Gee's Bend fabrics
Now it was time for an exercise! We began with LOG CABINS. Most of the improv exercises, ideas and the classroom prompts that I use are based on the Log Cabin.

If you notice in the 4 quilts above, there are log cabins in each one. Some are symmetrical. Most are "wobbly."

Let's look at the beginning of a "regular" log cabin.

Simple, one round log cabin
What if you sliced off one corner? Then added a triangle (or a pieced triangle)? This is what's going on in my No Sneaky Peeky sample above.
Slice a corner off. Add another triangle.
Or you can just add a random set of different width strips. Sew, trim. Sew another strip, trim. Sew a pieced strip (as you see in the left side of this block).
Log Cabin being built in a random fashion
You can slice one side off at an angle and then keep piecing.

I got these ideas from working with the original Gee's Bend quilt images. Here is the simplest one, Housetop 4 Block. "Housetop" is a word used for Log Cabin in these quilts. This one uses 4 Housetop blocks (4 log cabin blocks).

Mary Bennett's 4 Housetop blocks
Here is my interpretation. Remember, this is a pattern so the end user can be guided in improvisation and be successful.

My interpretation of Housetop 4 Block by Mary Bennett
Look at each block, starting in the center. They now look pretty simple, right? The magic of Mary Bennett's ingenuity is that she didn't plan. She just picked up what fabrics she had and made them work.

I put all my class notes, illustrations, student exercises to make a LOT of block variations in my 15 page pdf called Improv Adventure. Check it out!

One last block to show you that you don't have to work with strong colors. This is from the 8th quilt I patterned and the logs are pretty regular. There is symmetry. What makes this improv are those two "renegade" strips (black and gold). It's like they're wagging their tongues at us, saying, "Nah nah nah nah nah!"
Prototype from Housetop 9 Block quilt
OK. I've gone on too long! How about you go make a log cabin/housetop block today? Sometimes it works best to use solids or blenders at the beginning. Then it's easy to see the contrast. See you tomorrow for Day Two and some more ideas!


  1. I managed to get a hold of one of these kits, made it and have yet to quilt it. Loved the adventure. I'd gladly make more.

  2. Hi, Chris. I’d love to know which one! I realized after that first post today that I should have made a disclaimer that the samples and blocks I make were mostly based on a log cabin variation (or as the Gee’s Bend quilters say: Housetop).

    Thanks for stopping in. Stay with me through the week because I have a nice surprise on Saturday

  3. Hi Debby, thanks for the great description of Gee's Bend and your techniques. Looking forward to the rest of the week!

  4. I would have really enjoyed those kits you speak of but I will have to experiment with scraps.


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