Thursday, August 4, 2016


I'm fascinated by the parallels between improvisation in different mediums.

Remember, improv is not random and I'm not writing about the "cut out pieces of fabric, throw them at the design wall and see what sticks" school of  socalled improv.   Or even the "put one interesting shape up and then let it tell you what it needs" idea.  My thrown fabric never seems to stick to the wall in very interesting ways at all...usually just sort of droops and sadly falls off with a sigh.....even if I do get something sewn together its thoughtless origins are far too evident!
And I've never had a piece of fabric "talk to me".  Even though I've heard both painters and writers say "oh the characters/painting takes over and tells me what to do", I've never had orders from my quilts....even for a nice cuppa tea! Or a gin and tonic, come to very interesting though if  they did!!  Might cheer them up a bit!

No, real improv is not like that at all.  In fact it probably began seriously in classical music times. In the 17th and 18th centuries  musicians were  expected to be able to take a simple theme and then, off the top of their heads (and years of vast experience with harmony, counterpoint and so on) develop that theme in many different ways.

In a article  in Clavier Companion  (a magazine for music teachers), about improvisation in playing the blues, the music writer Bradley Sowash describes how first of all you take a simple melody and add in the "blue" notes  (generally speaking a note that is unexpectedly flat, a minor instead of a major interval).  You accompany, or back, that melodywith any one of several sequences of related chords  (as in the "Blues Box - the numbers relate to specific chords in the key (or colors!) you are working in) for the accompaniment (or background).
First you play it straight....then you vary it.

So that we can see, that he's suggesting simple variations on both the foreground (melody) or subject of the piece:  do it straight, do it backwards, turn it inside out...and at the same time the background can vary too.
Composers like Bach and Beethoven and Mozart of course would be very familiar with this - though probably without the unexpected "blue" notes!!  They could take the  same subject and create 20 or 30 variations on it: straight forward, then perhaps a different key (color), or a different pitch (size), then backwards, inside out, upside down, with ornaments, with different ornaments, spaced out with something in between etc etc .

Now with quilts, one can carry out such improvisations  within one piece - like in this quilt I made many years ago:

Warm Light
So I've used the same simple "melody" - double rectangle with a cross piece - over and over....but the repeats vary in size, in color, the inner cross piece is at different heights and angles, some of the sides lean a bit more than others etc etc...

Or you can create a series of quilts changing the "melody" (your subject) in many ways, but making sure the whole series hangs together. 
(And, by the way, I've a new class starting Sept 2 at
 entitled Working In Series that describes just why and how you can do this.)

To improvise with fabric:  you set up your basic parameters, you decide on the background "chords" ( size of quilt, type of background piecing etc), you pick your subject and then consider all the possible ways you can change it.   You are freewheeling in a sense, but within fairly strict limits.

 Why strict limits?  why not just hit the piano keys at random?  or cut and place the patches of fabric at random?  Firstly, the individual  pieces would have no cohesiveness, no clear structure, no unity - it would be merely a collection of notes, or objects!   I did once write a blog about the  ugliest piano piece in the world -  a computer generated "composition" that uses all 88 notes on the piano - just once!  and it sounds bizarre, disconnected, awkward and is very hard to listen to!  You don't what to make quilts like that!

Secondly, if it were several quilts, all unrelated, it would simply not be a series!    

Well, after a nice cuppa tea, I'd best get back to my notes!
If you have been, thanks for reading...
Do email me (there's a link up on the side bar) if you have any questions...or write a comment!  I love comments...              Elizabeth


Josia said...

Hi Elizabeth, Thank you so much for this article. I am just exploring the 'new' world of textile art after making conventional quilts from other people's patterns. Design is a real challenge for me so this idea of using musical notes (although I am not at all musical) was really helpful in understanding this creative process. When I am able, I intend joining up with a few of your classes...and can hardly wait! Thanks again for all your I am off to get myself a 'cuppa'.... Best wishes (from Down Under) Josia

Mo said...

Coo, you don't 'alf make me think!

Elizabeth Barton said...

So glad my cogitations create more cogitations, Mo!
And thank you too for your comments Josia - I look forward to meeting you in class! We nearly always have a few "down underers"! Which is great, some really wonderful OZ quilts these days, such a sense of space....

Pat and Govind said...

Improv: Yes! Limitations can be liberating.

I recently took the “Working in Series” course and have almost completed three quilts --- the same street scene, using value and colour differences to convey changes in time and weather. The course was invaluable in enabling me to discover what I wanted to explore, and in giving me the tools to do so.

However, the point I want to make here is that I have found unexpected benefits in working through these variations. Once I had laid out the basic design, I was able to solve the technical problems with the first piece, freeing me to enjoy concentrating on value and colour from that point on. The practical details of size, sequence of work, applique methods, the combination hand and machine stitching which would normally require decisions for each new piece did not delay me. I even found the best way to deal with the space limitations in my sewing room so that I could establish, and work smoothly through, the sequence of steps involved.

I think there is at least one more value/colour variation I would like to try using the same procedure, but after that I’d like to extend the series approach by making a change in technique, from turned-edge to raw-edge applique. This will enable me to build on the same design while exploring a new method and its practical consequences in a controlled way --- another benefit of improvising on the same theme. Strictly speaking, I should repeat the fabrics used in one of the pieces, and, if I can resist the lure of the new, I will.

The exploration of these variations has had yet another advantage. It has freed me from the need to be faithful to the details of the scene, enabling me instead to explore its full potential. After trying for something approaching fidelity to the location in the first attempt, I was able to forget my usual concerns (Which way is west? Is the church really visible from this position? Does the sun rise here?) and concentrate instead on capturing the feel of an oncoming summer storm or the aftermath of a heavy snowfall.

So thanks for your book and your course, Elizabeth. Working through them has been a liberating experience.

Pat and Govind said...

I'm not really two people as the signature that Google added to my comment suggests. I'm just the half of the combination. My husband doesn't quilt (or even sew on buttons)!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Daer (singular!) Pat! thank you so much for your comments, and I'm really pleased that you found the Working in Series class (and book!) so helpful - much appreciated.

Ellen Lindner said...

I'm trying to work improvisationally with some abstract pieces. I take cues from the previous quilt (or all the previous quilts,) mimicing some of the colors and motifs with the current one. The challenge is to not only get a new idea for the current piece, but then to be willing to COMPLETELY DEVIATE from it as completely different ideas arise.

You can see what I mean on this blog post:

Elizabeth Barton said...

You make a good point, Ellen. sometimes we feel as if we're totally locked into some element of the design despite many indications it's not working! For example a favorite piece of fabric that really doesn't go anywhere but we just love it.....

KrisR said...

"real improv"? What exactly is REAL improv? I believe we each need to find our version of improv or wonky or liberated. What works for each of us. I guess your perspective sets me on edge a little bit - makes me feel just a little bit judged - as if my version of improv (which occasionally includes throwing things on a design wall and seeing what 'sticks') isn't as valid as your version of improv. I also get cranky about the entire 'modern' versus 'non-modern' quilt discussion.

I'm sure this crankiness is MY stuff - it's my issue to think about and figure out why your blog post has pushed a few buttons for me. :) It will be an interesting evaluation, that's for sure.

I've done one of your classes. I have both your books. Although I find them interesting - your methods didn't work for me. And I think that's totally ok. It doesn't diminish my appreciation for your work.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Hi Kris and thanks for your comments....the bottom line is always what works for you. If your method is yielding the results you want - then great! And it is good to try other ways of doing things, but if they add nothing to your "tool chest", as it were, then - absolutely - discard them.
You know a blog is more interesting if it's a bit controversial and opinionated....if it's really pallid where a person makes no definite statements of like or dislike it's pretty boring. and you don't learn what you like/don't like! I spent a year with a piano teacher who palely liked everything I did ...and learned nothing. I switched to a different one with strong opinions - I don't always agree! - but I'm learning.
and thank you so much for buying the books, I do appreciate that.
I am looking further into the "modern" thing by the way - it's a bit elusive! but i think there's a will 0'the wisp of something different there. a little flame that might need blowing on - gently!!