Storey publisher and avid quilter Deborah Balmuth spent a weekend expanding the limits of traditional design in an improvisational quilting workshop hosted by Denyse Schmidt.

I love learning from books, but there’s nothing like a hands-on, in-person workshop to jumpstart my creativity and give me fresh ideas for how to use my shelf-full of craft books. Recently, I found myself in need of an inspiration infusion, and discovered the perfect recipe in Denyse Schmidt’s Pure Improv Weekend: two days spent in Denyse’s studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with nine other aspiring improv quilters. (If you’re not familiar with Denyse’s work, check out her website and her books: Denyse Schmidt Quilts and Denyse Schmidt: Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration. A leader in modern quilting, Denyse is also profiled in Quilting with a Modern Slant by Rachel May.

Denyse instructed each of us in advance to select two solid fabrics of similar hue but different value, or of similar color value but in different hues.  It was fun to see the varied palettes around the room. We started off by cutting templates for the traditional shoeman’s puzzle design, and then creating a block from our own fabrics. From here, Denyse challenged us to start off on the improvisational journey. The rotary cutters and sewing machines got a workout as we launched into freehand shape-cutting and stitching each unique block together.

improv quilting workshop

It didn’t take long for the group to bond over the shared challenge. As Saturday progressed, the variations took off in so many different directions.

I was working in shades of turquoise, and here is how mine looked by late afternoon.

improv quilting workshop

Around 5 p.m., Denyse and her talented assistant, Richard Killeaney, enticed us away from our design walls with the promise of a walk on the beach, along with designer cocktails and a scrumptious dinner at a small cottage on the Bridgeport shore. Joelle Hoverson, owner of Purl Soho — one of my destination stores every time I get to New York — and fabric designer Kate Spain joined us for this magical evening. A few avid participants slipped out early to put in a bit of late-night sewing; others of us snuck into the studio the next morning while Denyse and Richard guided a couple very early-morning risers to the flea market.

Sunday’s pace ramped up around 11 a.m. with all of us back in the studio, and the blocks and layouts continued to evolve. A final round-robin wrap-up session around 2 p.m. gave each of us a chance to share a bit of our creative process with each other, and receive some final guidance from Denyse. By this time I had played with my layout quite a bit, with the idea of having a few recognizable blocks surrounded by “shatter images.”

improv quilting workshop

Turquoise quilt based on “shatter images” by Deborah Balmuth.

improv quilting workshop

Laura Bednash, a contributor to Little One-Yard Wonders, with her design.

improv quilting workshop

Denyse (at right) admiring the design of Deborah Friedman.

improv quilting workshop

Martha Ruest describing how her fabric choices led her to explore nautical flag motifs in her design.

Energized, inspired, and eager to continue building on our experiments in improv quilting (and actually sew some of these blocks together!), we all vowed to keep in touch and continue to feed our shared creative spirit.

Deborah L. Balmuth

As Storey’s publisher and editorial director, Deborah heads up efforts to acquire and publish outstanding, long-lasting nonfiction books that support the company’s mission of promoting… See Bio

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