My Improv Quilt Story: How making a quilt helped me cope with the loss of my newspaper column

Jennifer made this improvisational quilt titled “-30-” in appreciation of the readers of her weekly art and craft column during a marathon quilting session that began Feb. 11 and ended five days later. The focal design was created using hand-dyed, flour sack tea towel fabric cut into random-sized squares. The “Thank You” message is a print from a block Jennifer carved and printed for this occasion.  (Photo by Jonathan D. Lopez)

After nearly 17 years as a reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press and MLive.com, my weekly art and craft column has run its course and I’m now a journalist without a newspaper. As odd as it feels to be cut from the team, there’s nothing surprising about this situation. As newspapers around the globe continue to hemorrhage talent and experience, I had been bracing to be cut for several years. I loved my low-paying column gig too much to walk away, so I wrote as long they’d let me.

After learning the gig was up, I had a good cry and then went back to work writing the first of my last three columns. When the words started to get stuck in my fingertips posed awkwardly on the keyboard, I decided I was going to have to quilt it out.

My original and pretty ridiculous plan was to buy a letterpress and a large typewriter font on deadline and print a final message to my readers on fabric. There were a few problems with the plan, the first was that I don’t own a letterpress or any wood type and I wanted to create this piece in my home. So I moved on to plan B which was to improvise.

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IMG_6845Thirty-five minutes before a scheduled podcast interview with Sherri Lynn Wood, author of “The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters: A Guide to Creating Quilting & Living Courageously,” I decided to open the vintage train case I filled with a small and very precious (to me) stash of fabric I dyed in September. I was saving it for a special project, you know how that goes. But on this particular Wednesday, I didn’t have time to deliberate over fabric choices, so I grabbed the vintage case and decided to give Sherri’s “floating squares” improv project a try.

In the same way a musical score delivers a set of instructions to the performer, Sherri presents scores to quilters that serve as loose guidelines for quilt creation. Each score allows quilters room to interpret the instructions and improvise with the fabrics as he or she sees fit. Ironically, the score I selected to follow references a broken heart and one line in particular jumped off the page: “Sometimes limits are forced on us, and our human spirit makes something beautiful out of the hardship…”

That’s what I wanted to try to do.

IMG_6848I quickly grabbed pink and blue fabric scraps from the suitcase and started cutting random-sized squares without a template or ruler. At first, I felt like I was driving the wrong way down a one-way street. It seemed insane not to use the plastic template that was within reach. And then, as I started to connect the blue and pink squares together, using  a natural fabric color as filler, I started to get caught up in the anything goes zen of improv quilting.

My iPhone alarm reminded me to call Sherri after I had pieced about an 8-inch square. We had a great conversation and then I spent all my free time sewing during the next five days. It was intense. I kept cutting squares and sewing and switching colors and cutting and sewing. As I sewed I pushed aside to urge to angst about the future and my lost identity as a newspaper columnist. I just kept cutting and sewing and repositioning strips and squares.

IMG_7023There were a couple points where I was certain I was on the verge of ruining the whole quilt. I stressed a bit about tanking the design by introducing a brighter pink and then I decided that didn’t really mater because I didn’t plan the design in the first place. Later I sat silent at my sewing machine collecting myself before commencing a session of free-motion quilting in a circular pattern, something I’ve never tried before. Oh, and did I mention that this was the first quilt I’ve machine-quilted a whole quilt on my new Juki TL-2010Q. So, this was about as improv as it gets, folks.

I went a bit overboard with this quilt project and took a lot of process shots that you can see on the video slide show my husband, Jeff, kindly put together for me. I admit this is a very unusual way to sign off as a columnist, but I figure I might as well have some fun given the circumstances. And I’m glad I did. I’m not sure how I’m going to feel tonight when I’m not on deadline for my column. It’s going to be a little weird, but I’m confident that I’m going to like what happens next, especially now that I get a chance to improvise.

CraftSanity, my friends, it continues to work for me. And I’m really interested in how it’s working for you. Feel free to comment below about how you have created your way through a difficult time.

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