Improvisational Quilting ~ Tree Improv Placemats

on April 27 | in Sewing Tutorials + Patterns | by | with 84 Comments

Malka Dubrawsky from a stitch in dye is back with another wonderful post about quilting. Did you try her Supersize Shoo-Fly Quilt Tutorial?! Today Malka shares a little about improvisational quilting and shows you how to make Tree Improv Placemats. We’re so happy to have Malka talk a little about what she does so very well as an artist, and to be a part of Quilting Month II. Don’t miss Malka’s introduction, and visit a stitch in dye for a constant stream of beauty and inspiration!

From Malka: When I first suggested writing a post about working improvisationally, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to instruct someone else on how to essentially work more intuitively. Though improvisational quilt making might mean different things to different people, for me it was about putting away many of the measuring tools normally used and cutting directly into the fabric, ideally with a rotary cutter. It also meant responding to the non-traditional edges and shapes that working sans ruler and templates creates.

I eventually came to the conclusion that the best way to illustrate my take on working improvisationally was to walk you through a simple, smaller-scale project. This would allow you to learn some of the techniques and get a feel for the mindset I use when improvising.

The project I designed was a set of placemats. These are basically mini quilts, so applying this information to larger quilts is easy. Before we get into the process, I’d like to share a few helpful hints about working improvisationally, whether you’re making this project or designing your own.

Tips for Improvisational Quilting:

      1. Put your rulers away. I mean really away, so you won’t be tempted to use them.


      2. Trust your eye. You can guesstimate a strip width a lot better than you think.


      3. Embrace wonkiness.


      4. There’s more than one way to measure. Even though we won’t be using any traditional measuring tools, that doesn’t mean we won’t measure anything. For example, if you want two strips to be same size, you can lay them side-by-side and trim them even.


      5. Don’t expect to cut out all the components of a block before you sew it together. Rather, we’ll cut and piece as we go.


      6. Limit your fabric choices. The energy of improvisational blocks comes from the off-kilter lines and shapes. Don’t make that quality compete with bold prints. This method of working blends best with solids and prints that read as almost solids.


    7. Simplicity is essential. Whenever you improvise a block or design, you’re abstracting it. That means you’re distilling it down to its key parts and playing with those. Choose an original source that isn’t too complex. The inspiration for the placemat design came from a simple, graphic fabric that caught my eye.

Are you ready to put these tips to use and craft a set of fun and contemporary placemats?

Tree Improv Placemats
Finished Size: about 21” x15” (size naturally varies)

Note: All materials listed are for making one placemat.


  • 1/4 yard of 5 different cotton solids or almost solids
  • Fat Quarter of coordinating cotton for backing
  • 1/8 yard of coordinating cotton for binding cut into 1 1/4″ strips.
  • Note: This is the only item that you will measure with a ruler.

Other Supplies:

  • Cotton Batting about 22” x 22”
  • Coordinating Machine Quilting Thread
  • Coordinating Machine Sewing Thread
  • Iron
  • Pins
  • Quilter’s Clear Ruler (just for measuring binding strips)
  • Rotary Cutter
  • Self-Healing Mat

Making the Placemat Top:
Note: All seam allowances are 1/4″. Press all seams to one side, alternating sides where seams intersect.

1. From one of the five cotton fabrics, freehand cut (that means just eye the sizes) 4 rectangles about 4” x 2”.

2. From different cotton fabric, freehand cut 4, 4” x 2” rectangles.

3. Place two differently colored rectangles, right sides together, abutting one long edge. Pin together if desired.
4. Sew together. Press seam. Trim rectangles even.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with remaining cut rectangles.
6. Abut the long edges of two sewn rectangle pairs. Pin if desired.
7. Sew together. Press seam. Trim rectangles even.

8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 with remaining rectangle pairs.
9. Abut long edges of sewn rectangles 4-patches. Pin if desired.
10. Sew together. Press seam. Trim if needed.

11. Lay pieced strip alongside same cotton solid as one of two fabrics in pieced strip. Make sure the fabric is as long or longer than pieced strip.

12. If necessary, trim short edges of fabric so its length is even with pieced strip.
13. Using a rotary cutter, cut long edge of fabric so its edge matches the long edge of the pieced strip.
14. Trim fabric so that it is about 4” wide.
15. Pin pieced strips and cut fabric, right sides together.
15. Sew together. Press seam.
16. Repeat steps 1-15 to make a total of three other sewn units like the first; making sure to refer to the samples for guidance on introducing the remaining colored fabrics.

17. Place two sewn units alongside each other.
18. Using a rotary cutter, cut the edge of one so that it matches the edge of the second, trimming the short sides or adding strips if necessary.
19. Pin sewn units, right sides together.
20. Sew together. Press seam.
21. Repeat steps 17-20 to add third sewn unit to already sewn pair.
22. Repeat steps 17-20 to add a fourth unit to sewn threesome.
23. Place one fabric strip along edge of sewn foursome, so that both short edges of placemat top are bookended by a solid fabric strip.
24. Using a rotary cutter, cut edge of fabric so that it matches edge of sewn foursome.
25. Pin pieces, right sides together.
26. Sew together. Press seam.
Note: The edges of you patchwork placemat will probably not be straight. Don’t square them. They’re perfect as they are.

Finishing the Placemat:
1. Working on a hard, flat surface, layer backing fabric, wrong side facing, batting, and placemat top, right side facing.
2. Baste according to your preferred method.
3. Machine quilt placemat as desired, removing basting as you work.
Note: I free motion stitched horizontal lines about 1/4″ apart over the surface of the placemat.
4. Trim layers even.
5. Sew together binding strips using diagonal seams.
6. Bind as you would a quilt.

Enter to win win one of these fabulous prizes::

Win one of THREE $25 Gift Certificates to Connecting Threads; Color Your Cloth: A Quilter’s Guide to Dyeing and Patterning Fabric; Win one of TWO copies of 200 Quilting Tips, Techniques & Trade Secrets: An Indispensable Reference of Technical Know-How and Troubleshooting Tips

Pin It

Related Posts

84 Responses to Improvisational Quilting ~ Tree Improv Placemats

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I love the freemotion straight-line quilting. I never would have thought about doing straight-line quilting without my walking foot and guide!

  2. Norita says:

    Gracias por todos los consejos! Muy buenas las explicaciones!!!

  3. CathyJ says:

    No rulers, huh? I’m not sure I can do that – although eyeing it may show me that I can trust myself more than I think! Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. DebbieB says:

    These are really nice. Might be hard for me as I tend to be a perfectionist, but it might be freeing too!!

  5. kimberj says:

    I am making these this weekend! Love them so much and what great easy gifts they’d make 🙂

  6. Cinnamon Sangria says:

    Great tips, thanks for sharing.

  7. Julia says:


  8. Lauree Myler says:

    this is wonderful.

  9. Oh, I have got to make some of these! I can even see this pattern being made into a larger baby quilt. I love that it does not require use of rulers and strict measuring. This is my kind of designing. Thanks for the great directions.

  10. sewlindaann says:

    I love these, they’re so modern and hip.

  11. I’m in the need for some new placemats for my table. These look like something that could work really well.

  12. Cat says:

    So I kind of love this . . . I don’t cut very straight anyway, so it is kind of neat to be able to just piece things together however you see fit!

  13. Kelli says:

    Placemats seem like a good size to let go of rules and just go for it!

  14. Ethne says:

    Love this and the larger quilts that are done using this format – thank you

  15. Deb V says:

    Thanks for the great tutorial. I have never tried anything like that before. I am going to have to make a set of placemats.

  16. Julia in WDM says:

    I may have to try the “trees.” Great title for the project. Thank you for posting this.

  17. Debra G. says:

    WOW – love these placemats and the fine tutorial. But….I absolutely LOVE everything from Malka! Always!

  18. What a great project!

  19. Lennye says:

    I started making an improvisational quilt years ago and was told “that isn’t how you make a quilt.” I’m glad to see you can make a quilt that way. I can’t wait to try this technique!

  20. susan says:

    This method of quilting really “speaks” to me. Thanks for the guidance 🙂

  21. Llamabean says:

    It looks great, I am a little scared to try the free form but this is a great tutorial.
    Thanks, the smaller scale placemat is a great project to try this out too!

  22. Aparna Mulgund says:

    These are so beautiful. Thank you for the tutorial.

  23. Greeblygreebly says:

    That’s very cool, I’ve never seen that design before.

  24. Elle says:

    Great tutorial

  25. Marcelle says:

    Cute idea! thanks for tips..

  26. Claudia says:

    So cute, I love those tutorials!
    Kind regards from Germany

  27. Oooh, what fun! Wonky stuff is my forte 🙂

  28. Manechka says:

    Thanks for sharing such a good tutorial! 🙂

  29. PeachRainbow says:


  30. mo says:

    Great tutorial. And I can see how it might be challenging to instruct people on how to not follow instructions. 😉 You did a fine job.

  31. Kate says:

    Those are beautiful. That’s what I love about improv – they don’t match, but they work so well together. Ahhh!

  32. Thanks so much for the great info on improvisational quilting. Love it!!

  33. Marcia W. says:

    The tutorial instructions will help jump me in improvisational quilt making. Malka, thanks for adding just enough structure to get us started.

  34. Tegan says:

    I have to agree with Sara, just a few comments above mine–I tend to berate myself for my “free spirit” approach to measuring (which means I rarely do it) and the unintended wonkiness that results. Thanks for helping me embrace it!

  35. Ramona says:

    I have never tried improv quilting but after reading this, I feel like I could try it. Love the idea of starting small like the place mats.

  36. Rose L says:

    Oh how fun! Thanks for the idea.

  37. Maddie says:

    I am glad to see more of this free form quilting.. it’s so freeing!.. Here is my quilty inspiration from last night!


  38. Sara says:

    This post makes me feel so much better about all my own eyeball cutting and creating! So all my wokiness is actually beautiful and not a mishap? Thank you for the encouragment!

  39. Lisa H. says:

    Great tutorial! I think I need to give up sleeping, then maybe I’ll be able to try all these cool ideas!

  40. Morgan says:

    Love love love this whole concept! Can’t wait to try it after my loooong list of current projects is done…or at least a little shorter.

  41. sharonj says:

    Great tutorial and really nice place mats! I am saving this one, thanks sharonj.

  42. Tina L. says:

    An interesting idea and liberating to put the rulers away for a project.

  43. Andi says:

    I think I would have to hide my rulers far, far, away to avoid the temptation! I’d love to try this though!

  44. Sara says:

    Really cool—just don’t know if I could hide my rulers!!

  45. Christine says:

    Great tutorial. A set of these would be a wonderful Christmas present.

  46. Andrea says:

    Thanks, Malka – I’m home most of the week with my kids on school break and am hoping to finally give this a go!

  47. Thanks! I need placemats big time. All I need to do is get the sewing machine working. 🙂

  48. MamaBee says:

    I love this idea!

  49. Carol says:

    fantastic idea! can’t wait to try

  50. Melissa says:

    Normally, I’m a very ordered, measured, structured person — but I find improv quilting INCREDIBLY freeing! I don’t necessarily like the chaos of having the fabric out to cut-as-you-sew, but I love the outcome more than the mess. 🙂
    I also love the feeling that each improv piece is like writing a novel — it develops as I go along.
    Thanks for the tutorial!! Hopefully lots of people will put away their rulers and their plans and JUST. SEW. 🙂

  51. Kelli says:

    Talk about a step outside my comfort zone! I love the looks of improv quilting, though. I need to take that step 🙂

  52. rosie says:

    ah, a small project i can embrace. looks like fun!

  53. Jodie says:

    I love the idea of making placemats – what a great way to try new ideas without a big committment. These are lovely and so bold!

  54. Megan Presley says:

    How neat!

  55. Lynnette says:

    Man, we really need some placemats around here. Thanks!

  56. Nova says:

    looooove this! so cool. thanks for sharing.

  57. Megan says:

    I’ve always been scared to try this improvisational approach – afraid it would be all “wrong.” But now I think I’m going to give it a whirl and see what happens! Thanks for the tutorial.

  58. Lindsey says:

    very cute…will try…maybe tonight.

  59. Charity says:

    Good post. Often I find the rigidity of quilting a bit intimidating and a bit of a turn off. I like this improvisation.

  60. Rachel says:

    I liked your introductory suggestions for approaching this right. Thanks!

  61. ~Helena~ says:

    Thanks for sharing, I had loved the improv but couldn’t see it in my head. Your lesson was great, now I get it.

  62. upstatelisa says:

    I love this one!

  63. Cathy A says:

    Wow–no ruler?? Looks great!

  64. Becca says:

    These are fun & funky!

  65. lynn says:

    loved the improv lesson!! Thanks.

  66. Melanie says:

    wow! cool to know you don’t have to be a math wiz to quilt! i’d like to try this method!

  67. Krystina says:

    I love this! Any tutorial that starts with “put your rulers away” is my kind of tutorial!

  68. Lorrie says:

    Fun concept! And I just spent 30 minutes wandering through Malka’s fascinating blog.

  69. Nichole says:

    Love this process! Thanks for breaking it down so well.

  70. Ilove these little quilts! I will try them.

  71. Melissa says:

    I need new placemats and we aren’t a “flowery” home so this might be the ticket!

  72. qsogirl says:

    Thanks for these great step-by-step instructions!!

  73. sarah says:

    Great improv tips. I find improv hard because I like to be exact with everything.

  74. Fawn says:

    Those are interesting. I think eyeballing it makes me kinda nervous. I’m glad to see that it yields some excellent small projects though and I’ll need to try this someday!

  75. So intimidating, but I love how the end result looks.

  76. Melissa says:

    Such a fun way to put this together.

  77. Tong says:

    This is great, thank you for the tutorial!

  78. sewlindaann says:

    I love the feel and color coordination of these placements. They remind me of something you’d pick up at Pier I Imports.

  79. Mary P says:

    Lovely! Thanks for sharing!

  80. Sheetal says:

    i know my mom would love there! I just have to make a set for her.

  81. Jessica says:

    I’m loving all these tutorials

  82. Latrilla says:

    It is interesting to know how conditioned we as crafters have become. We should not be afraid to create and design what we want without the stress of accuracy, traditon and naysayers. Let’s start thinking outside of the box and allow the creative juices to flow. Thanks for the insight.

  83. Margaret says:

    These are really great and I can’t wait to try to make these, love them.

  84. carolyn says:

    Sigh … so pretty. Thanks for making it look so easy!

« »

Subscribe to the newsletter

Sewing inspiration, projects, events and offers delivered conveniently to your email.


Get the latest news via