Denyse Schmidt’s Improvisational Patchwork Workshop


{ I played with scraps while I waited for blocks to be passed to me }

I was lucky enough to nab a spot in Denyse Schmidt‘s Improvisational Patchwork class on Sunday, the last day of Quiltcon. I am self-taught so this was actually my first quilting class ever. As anyone who has taken this class will tell you, it is a fun, liberating, and thoughtful experience. I knew that Denyse uses a lot of improvisation and I knew improvisational quilts speak to me, but I’d never actually tried it — I’ve only gone as far as scrappy/wonky. This really was an entirely different ball game.



The process is this: bags of scraps (from Denyse’s studio, no less) split up into small, medium, and large sizes. You have to draw fabrics out of the bag without peeking, and you have to sew the scrap on to the block you’re working on. You can cut but Denyse encouraged us not to square up as we went along. We did a couple individual rounds, then the third round was round-robin.



{ Denyse critiques the second-round blocks }



I don’t know how other people felt, but I quickly went from wincing at ugly or clashy fabrics to being excited about them.



{ the Round-Robin blocks }

The round-robin was also a faster round, which meant not so much cutting, which meant bigger, freer, less fussy blocks. They were so big that the design board couldn’t contain them all. I think most of the class agreed that those were the blocks that ended up looking the best (or maybe I’m just projecting). Isn’t that interesting? Was it because the ego was removed or because the compositions were larger and simpler? Or both? Or something else?



After lunch we went back to individual work, but this time we were to incorporate a printed fabric that we had brought from home, and a solid that we chose without peeking. I had brought a Japanese reproduction print and chose a purple shot cotton from the box. Purple, I don’t like, but I took it in stride. Plus, I mean, come on, shot cotton! So this was re-introducing choice after it had all but been taken away. Our job was to finish at least four blocks by the end of the day and have a finished mini-composition.

We were encouraged to experiment with the composition of the blocks and take pictures along the way. And we had a deadline so at some point we had to stick with an arrangement and fill in the gaps. At the last-minute scramble we were all borrowing from each other’s tabletop scraps and pawing through the bags for the perfect scrap to fit everything together. Denyse gave us her blessing on that. I liked how mine turned out, though next time I will work on a larger scale, and will probably use fewer fabrics per block.








{ My classroom neighbor Cheryl Arkison at work }


Other people’s blocks (opb):








Some takeaways for me were:

- Keep it simple
- Wonky is best (most “authentic”) when it’s not forced — follow the natural edges of scraps, or round off the uneven edges of a block.
- You can certainly make whole quilts or projects using this process, but it’s a valuable process for its own sake, because there are so many serendipitous color, line, and pattern discoveries along the way.
- Craftsmanship is important to me, so I wonder how/if I might have the best of both improvisational and precision worlds. Of course, that is what makes Denyse’s work so amazing.


  1. Jan says:

    Excellent post, Kim! Thanks for sharing so much of the experience. I had to smile when I saw the black Japanese repro print you brought. I hoarded a bunch of that years ago ~ such a great pattern!

  2. Marian says:

    Kim, you hit the essence of the class, we all had a great time. It was interesting that some of the pieces we pulled were not ones we are comfortable using,and how we embraced the use of the color in the process of making out blocks.

  3. My key takeaway was indeed the authenticity. Improv is natural to me, but forcing it that day felt a bit awkward. But it was also a good exercise.
    Besides, I had fun. And I laughed when I pulled out my blocks last night and saw some of the lovely, heavy stripe you and Kristen hated so much.

  4. Kim says:

    I did a complete 180 on that stripe! I was in love with it by the end of the day. Kristen may still be a hater!

  5. Diane says:

    I love this post. Most posts have forgotten the old and well loved quilts…Thx so much!