Saturday, August 08, 2009

Advice on making wonky improvisational log cabin blocks

While I've been blogging for a long time now, I don't think I've ever written a how-to or a tutorial on the blog. I see myself more as an advice-taker in sewing than an advice-giver. As such, I get confused on the occasions where my mom asks me for sewing advice, as this is totally backwards. I see her as the source of All Sewing Wisdom, gained over her years of sewing and craftiness.

But yesterday, when I was sewing some wonky log cabin blocks, I had the bright idea to fill my watering can and leave it on my ironing board. Log cabins require a lot of steaming and pressing, so I run out of water in the iron fairly often. Rather than making several trips to the faucet with the little refill container, I fill the iron with the watering can. It saves me trips, plus the narrow spout on it easily pours into the water chamber the top of the iron. While a fairly obvious insight, it did make me think that sometimes it can help to have some advice on things, even if it's kind of intuitive material.

So let me share some of my wisdom about making wonky log cabin blocks, one of the areas where I do probably have some specialized knowledge.

How I got started making improvisational log cabin blocks:
A perusal of my quilt collection quickly reveals that I love Denyse Schmidt's quilt book and her general style of making quilts. I've made versions of probably half the quilts in her book and made others inspired by work she posts on her website. Early on, I used the templates from her book. It's a good way to figure out how wonky pieces fit together, but now that I'm a more experienced quilter, I can't imagine working from paper templates. All of the quilts I've made over the last few years have been done without patterns or templates. Now that I make more blocks improvisationally without patterns or measurement, I've collected a few tips and tidbits about how to do it better.

My tips on making wonky quilt blocks:

1. Make sure you consider contrast in terms of the width of your strips.

Using very thick strips on two adjoining sides and thin strips on the other two sides will result in a more interesting final quilt.

My first visual aid:
Advice on making wonky quilt blocks: Contrast

In this example, see how different A and B look. On its own, A looks like a perfectly lovely block. And it is. But a whole quilt of A will look much more uniform and grid like than a quilt that combines a few versions like A and many versions like B.

From my own collection, compare a more orderly wonky log cabin built from many A blocks with a wonkier quilt built from more B blocks. I wish I took my own advice more often, as I tend to be more cautious when I construct blocks, and I end up with more traditional looking blocks than I sometimes want.

One way to force yourself to induce more contrast is by cutting very thin and very thick strips to use as your log cabin building material. Even if you end up trimming some of them down later, you should end up with at least some higher contrast blocks.

I also recommend doing this when you frame the block with sashing. That way when you line the blocks up together, they won't all be perfectly parallel. Some blocks will be left of center, others right, some top aligned, some centered, and some bottom aligned. Here's one of my quilts where I used this strategy - see how it results in irregular block spacing?

2. After sewing a round of strips to form one of the squares of the log cabin, pivot the block a few degrees and resquare the block.

I usually construct my log cabin blocks from straight strips as they are easy to cut. The mathematicians in the room have deduced that this will result in very square and linear blocks. One way to avoid this is to introduce angles by pivoting the block when you trim it. One way to do this is to put your block on your gridded mat, twist it a few degrees off alignment, and then cut along the grid on the mat. Or if you have a slightly irregular shape to the square, choose one of the odd angles of the shape, and then square the other sides to be perfectly parallel (or perpendicular) to that irregular side.

Sometimes I do this at each stage of the log cabin construction, choosing different and opposing angles each time, and sometimes I just do it once or twice in a block. The more you do it, the more irregular the resulting block.

Visual aid:
Advice on making wonky quilt blocks: Pivoting

You of course need not cut all sides to force a square shape. You could instead just cut one side or two, leaving an irregular polygon. The result will be a much more angular final block. I just have found that I like the look better when I rotate and square the whole block, rather than just cutting angles into one or two sides.

Here's a quilt where I used both strategies:
Advice on making wonky quilt blocks: pivots versus angles

3. Different sized center pieces

One simple way to induce irregular log cabin blocks is to start with different sized center pieces. If some centers are small squares, some centers are large squares, some centers are long rectangles, and some squares are tall rectangles, you will end up with some nice heterogeneity of log cabins even without introducing angles or pivots or wavy seams.

Visual aid:
Advice on making wonky quilt blocks: Center size

4. Advice on layout

I think layout is very important with wonky log cabins. Because the blocks are usually not symmetrical, you can easily change the look and balance of a quilt by just rotating a block 90 degrees. I don't have a felt design wall, so I end up laying out the quilt on the floor. But because you don't get a good head-on perspective of the quilt this way, I recommend taking some digital photos where you stretch your camera hand over the quilt to get a view over the whole thing flat. Then upload the pictures to the computer. When I look at the whole quilt on the screen this way, I sometimes see things I missed - like clusters of like colors together, or too much white space in some corner.

So these are just a few pointers from me. I've posted some additional advice from others below. If you have any other links or suggestions, please post them in the comments!

Other people's advice on making improvisational log cabins:

1. In the past, I've heard the advice to cut strips with scissors rather than a rotary cutter to promote wonkiness. I've never tried it but it sounds like a good idea.

2. I've also read that people will load a paper bag with strips and then randomly draw pieces to sew onto a base block, as a way to promote improvisational piecing.

3. Jacquie has an excellent tutorial for the basic construction of a wonky block.

4. The advice from Pink Chalk Studio on making wavy log cabins is also handy.


Momoo said...

Thanks for the compliments, I may have many more years of sewing experience but you have made a lot more quilts than me. Our styles and tastes differ, so it's always neat to get your take on a project.

Rebekah said...

Awesome post! Thanks for laying everything out like this.

Kris said...

What a fantastic post! This is really helpful in thinking about designing a quilt like this. I'm about to jump in on one myself and this gives me a lot of concrete ways to think about the issues I've had floating around in my head. Thanks!

Amy Seven-Stitches said...

Awesome tips. Thank you so much for sharing, and I just love the visual aids.

Wendy said...

Pivot and resquare! Brilliant!!!

Nanette Merrill and daughters said...

Being new to "wonky" myself I found this very informative. When I made my daughter's graduation quilt I wasn't really sure what to do. The watering can idea is good. Your mom is great. What would we have been without our mothers???

ciocia kot said...

As the possessor of the quilt made of more orderly A blocks I must say I think it is very effective the way it is. Those small orange blocks have a lot of impact, maybe because there are lots of different fabrics in the quilt. Maybe the number of different colors has something to do with the total effect. Very interesting tutorial. I'll look forward to more--it might motivate me to start a quilt of my own.

msalleycat said...

This is a great post! I like how you broke it down into simple, bite-sized pieces. I've been trying to figure out I like some of my blocks better than others, and pivot-vs-angle answers the questions. AND, I've been fav'ing your quilts on Flickr for about a year now, but just realized you have a blog! How is that possible?!? Consider me subscribed.

Annette said...

Wow, wonderful post. I am new to Wonky quilts. This post is so helpful. Love the freedom with these quilts.

Anonymous said...

I use a plastic table cloth w/ felt backing over the shower rod (in my guest bathroom) for my design "wall". It works great & is easily moved as needed,