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.

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