Cut and pasted mock-ups of blocks: Chinese coin variation
Cut and pasted mock-ups of blocks:
Chinese coin variation

Patchwork and quilting have come a long way from their simple origins: what were once the practices of necessity - piecing together new fabrics from scraps and the remnants of old garments - have become popular pursuits and creative pastimes.

With early quilts, practicality came first; their decorativeness was quite secondary and wholly dependent upon the ability of their needleworkers to turn the material to hand into an attractive design. The skills of the modern quilter, on the other hand, are supplemented by a wealth of appealing and co-ordinated fabrics so much so, that you might almost say that the results of their efforts are almost certain to be beautiful. The key to producing a beautiful quilt, however, lies in the choices you make about the way you use the materials and pattern and work them into a design.

Cut and pasted mock-ups of blocks: Square within a square, straightline version
Cut and pasted mock-ups of blocks

Take scrap quilts, for example, the inheritors of the tradition of making new from old. There are quilters who buy interesting fabrics from thrift shops, who swap and receive material, collect charm squares or are simply given Aunty Beryl's scrapbag. Yet the quilts produced from such eclectic mixes of materials can be beautiful, too. It all comes down to personal vision: the way that you make a block or repeat unit; how many and which colours and prints you include or leave out; the placement of lights and darks; whether or not to have a filler or uniting fabric; and the relative scale of print to size of pattern.

We're helped in making these choices, of course, by the patchwork patterns that have been passed from one group of quiltmakers to the next, and which now lay the traditional foundations for the many familiar and beautiful designs in quilts. The majority of popular traditional patterns comprise squares, half-square and quarter-square triangles. In any size of a given pattern, the dimensions of these pieces are determined by two very simple geometric formulae relating their measurements to each other and to the finished size of the pattern.

Balancing the pattern of tradition, however, is the pressure for change. Whether it's brought about by material shortages or new technology, change leads to innovation.

Tidal Shallows 1 (1995) 80 x 80cm
Tidal Shallows 1 (1995) 80 x 80cm

The Afro-American communities such as Gees Bend in Alabama, are an example of materials-led innovation: working without templates and rulers, they freely scissor-cut and often hand-piece or apply remnants and parts of garments into tops for tied or quilted bedcoverings.

The rotary cutter, meanwhile, is an example of a technological force for change. When I learned the basics of quiltmaking in the USA over 15 years ago, the rotary cutter was being welcomed by quiltmakers as a new tool that freed them from the laborious task of scissor-cutting their patchwork pieces. Using the cutter and an approach then being pioneered by Trudy Hughes, I learned to draft a pattern and cut appropriately sized squares and triangles from fabric strips of various widths, often working through multiple fabric layers. This one tool not only revolutionised cutting, but in saving time and energy it also seemed to act as a catalyst in bringing a new perspective to the use of strips in patterns in a design.

As someone who likes to experiment with new ideas, I exploited the new freedoms afforded by the rotary cutter and tinkered with quiltmaking tradition, and single and multiple straight strips began appearing in my work. The 'Schwabe signature' curvy strips that now wander through the units of many of my quilts, wouldnt have been possible even if I had thought of them - until 1992, when Nancy Crow taught me not only the fundamentals of freehand rotary cutting and piecing, but how tradition, innovation and imagination can neatly dovetail.

Western Desert (1993) 76 x 76cm
Western Desert (1993) 76 x 76cm

Nancy's workshops on colour and design included a technique called 'improvisational piecing' that she'd developed from her observations of those Afro-American communities in the deep south of the US. While the original southern quilts only earned disparaging remarks from fundamentalist 'Straightliners' (known in some circles as the Quilt Police), their organic quality has been widely echoed, even faithfully copied, in the work of many contemporary quiltmakers such as Nancy. Using no tool other than the rotary cutter, her improvisational piecing involves less-than-straight lines, unequal angles, and points that didn't quite meet. Whether you personally like it or not, I'm sure that itll eventually be accepted into the canon of traditional quiltmaking. With just a touch of irony, then, the wheel turns: circumstances, materials and technology may change, but creativity and imagination remain the key to beautiful quilts.

Cut and pasted mock-up of Chinese coin variation
mock-up of Chinese coin variation

This fact was brought home to me by the quilters who attended my workshops in England and France this summer (2003). Most groups chose the 'Hot Quilts From Cold Scraps' workshop that was designed for anyone with an accumulation of scrap fabrics. The students were experienced in at least one method of construction, and were free to choose to work either as a traditional Straightliner or as a contemporary Freehander. The innovative and interesting work that resulted from both techniques reminded us all, as quiltmakers, just how much we have in common.

So while the keystone of all patchwork and quilting may be the use of a 'repeat unit', what gives the greatest satisfaction is bringing some of your own inspiration to the design. To help you explore your own potential for innovation, I'll leave you with these pairs of blocks by way of a challenge. Each pair is probably familiar to you, and displays essentially the same idea, but they're cut and pieced differently according to Straightliner and Freehander principles. Tinker with tradition by experimenting with block using the diagram below, and finding ways to plan them into your next scrap quilt.

1 Roman stripe block, 2, 3 and 4 show improvisations of the original design
1 Roman stripe block, 2, 3 and 4 show improvisations of the original design

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 11 Number 9 - September 2003