Sunday, February 23, 2014

Do the Wave - Cutting Improvisational Curves for a Denim Jeans Quilt

So fun! So easy! And dare I admit it - so au courant! Freehand rotary cutting curves, then stitching pieces together without pins, have been trending for several years in the quilt world, widely popularized by Ricky Tims, Debbie Bowles, and the improvisational and modern quilt movements. 

[Update, 2/22/14: I learned from quilter Alison Schwabe that the technique goes a long way back, to Canadian quilter Marilyn Stoller, who developed it in the early 1980's, and taught it to legendary quilter Nancy Crow, from whence it spread. Marilyn's description of the history is here; See Alison's comment below, and the responses, for more historical context.]

On the other hand, quilters have been working with old jeans forever. Gees Bend brought new attention to the beauty of worn denim.

I love working with denim not only because of each garment's past life, but also because the blues and whites are so soothing -  an oceanic calm interrupted only by the occasional explosion of a machine needle, sending deadly metallic shards flying past my eyeballs when I make the mistake of attacking a preexisting jeans seam without protection, because I was too lazy to stand up and search for my Jean-a-ma-jig. (They're small, cheap, and easy to lose. And/or wear safety goggles when stitching through factory jeans seams. A denim needle helps a little, too.)

Oh well. Nothing's perfect, unless you engineer ways to completely avoid machine stitching through most or all preexisting thick seams, as I did for today's quilt,  

The writing in the middle says, "Ce sont des vieux jeans," which is French for, "I took art history in college." 
(Seriously, it means, 'These are old jeans,' a la Magritte.)

There's a waistband along the top: 
...A crocheted edging along the bottom...
...A blue key metal and blue glass beads hanging from a belt loop. 
If you're garage sale-ing (sailing?) for jeans, say yes to the skirts, too. Skirts (if they're longish) give you a much larger usable area than pants, and the seams usually aren't as thick. The back of this quilt is cut from one skirt, and I didn't have to piece it at all - those are the original seams, all fairly  thin:
I used an Edge Perfect rotary blade and a cotton tee shirt yarn, to create the blanket stitch edging all the way around, which served as a base for the crocheted bottom edging.

Want to give it a shot? Here's the general idea: 

These directions will steer you toward a quilt that totals about 28" long x 22" wide

If you want about as many stripes as mine (10), start with at least 3 pairs of jeans. Use both front and back for maximum different shades.

1. Cut 9 rectangles from pants legs that range from about 6-8" across and 23" high. Don't incorporate existing thick seams; or, keep them in the middle of the strip or at least 1-2" from an edge. (Curve cutting and stitching would be completely messed up by a thick seam, causing unwelcome needle explosions.) Cut the 10th/topmost piece from the rear waistband of a pair of jeans, about 6" high (or whatever works). Mine isn't symmetrical  - the center back of the jeans isn't centered on the quilt. 

2. Lay the strips horizontally across your desk in the order you want them. Mix up shades (dark/light/dark), or do a gradation, whatever! Don't be afraid to use the backs (except on the topmost piece, which incorporates belt loops.)
3. Take pieces 1 and 2 to the cutting board. Again, lay their long edges together.  Lift piece 1 and bring it upward, so about 2" of it lies on top of piece 2. Good sides should still be facing up for both of them.
4. With a sharp rotary cutter, cut a gentle curve through both pieces, staying within the overlap area.
Discard the two narrow leftover strips. Now you've got two pieces. 

5. Bring both larger  pieces to your sewing machine. flip piece 2 on top of piece one, good sides together. The curves don't match at all! That means you're doing it right! Don't pin. 

6. Starting at the top, with a scant quarter inch seam, stitch as far as you can go with the edges matching.  That probably won't be very far. Stop with the needle down whenever the top and bottom start to diverge.

7. Adjust the fabric in your hands - holding the top in one hand and the bottom in the other - bring them together so that the two right edges meet at the needle and for an inch or so in front of the needle. Hold the ends a few inches back. Take a few more stitches until the sides diverge again - stop with the needle down, and adjust so the sides are together for another inch or so. stitch and repeat.
8. Stop sewing, readjust the two pieces so they match only directly in front of the presser foot, and sew a little bit more until the pieces' edges diverge again at the presser foot.

 9. When it's done, it's a mess - so press open with plenty of steam to make everything as flat as possible. It takes real wrassling, please don't blame yourself (or me).

10. Bring unit 1+2, and piece 3 to the cutting board. Repeat the overlap with 2 and 3, and the wavy cutting procedure. Your waves should always be gentle - dramatic cuts and sharp corners won't work with this technique.

11.The topmost piece includes the waistband, which serves as the top edge of the quilt.

12. Once you've pieced the background, the edges won't be even. That's okay! Just use your rotary cutter to cut waves along both vertical edges. The waves on my two vertical sides paralleled each other, for a ribbon-like effect. 

13. Embellish each segment (or leave some/all blank!) I cut random abstract shapes from denim and appliqued them with straight and zig-zag machine stitches. Tracing paper will help you draft a design that fits each curves. 

14. To incorporate cursive writing: Place a large piece of tracing paper over the stripe you want the writing on, and trace the stripe. Then put the paper on a flat surface. Hand write the lettering so it fits the space with at least a half inch below and above to the bottom and top of the area it's intended for.  

15. Go over your lettering again, thickening the lines, by drawing a line within and outside each of your original lines. Use those as a pattern to cut out the lettering from denim. Cut holes in the letters that need them (like "e's", "a's" and "o's"), and glue-stick, then stitch the words to the quilt with a free-motion foot. 
16. Don't forget buttons! I used only blue, to maintain the soothing monochrome. A colorful assortment would have been even more fun. (Alas, l'esprit d'escalier. Hmm, could have used that phrase, too.)

17. Place the front, good side up, on backing fabric - I used the opened denim skirt shown above - and pin the layers together. This quilt has no batting. With regular scissors, cut gentle waves down the two vertical edges. 

18. Cut the top edge of the backing a half-inch higher than the front. Fold it inward and stitch it to the finished top edge of the waistband.

18. With the Edge Perfect blade in a rotary cutter handle, go around the two sides and the bottom, about 1/2" in from the edges, pressing hard to cut through both layers. If there's a thick preexisting jeans seam, skip it - you don't want to break the blade. Use an awl later to create those holes.

19. Do a blanket stitch through all the holes, using embroidery thread or the yarn of your choice. 

20. Crochet a decorative edging along the bottom, and/or on the sides if you want it there, too.

21. Hang from the belt loops. How? Hmmm. After all the photos above were taken, I was trying to figure that out. I thought about tying bandanas around them, (as I did for an earlier denim project), but that was a little too cute. So I came up with this: 
I locked simple metal split key rings to belt loop, then crocheted over the rings in the same yarn used for the edging. To hang, one needs 6 custom-spaced nails in the wall. Alternatively, the rings could slide over a single dowel, held on the wall by one nail at each end. 

Want to see more improvisational curve quilts? The art quilts of Marilyn Stothers, the parent of this  technique, are here. Alison Schwabe's gorgeous quilts, many of which incorporate this technique, are here

Mastering improvisational curved piecing  can open up new worlds of creativity for you. There are many other tutorials, and three of my favorites are: 
  • Alison's two-page technique summary, which you can get by contacting her (or email me - I have her permission to distribute.)
  • Debbie Bowles' tutorial. I love her 'Cutting Curves from Straight Pieces' book. Very simple, very graphic.
  • A great tutorial from the wonderful Nina Marie Sayre, here.


  1. This is just adorable. I loved your French translation. It really cracked me up. Is it tough to do the curves with such thick fabric?

  2. Not as difficult as you might think, if you aren't after precision (my seam allowances do waver). But if there's a preexisting seam in the way, fuggetaboutit!

  3. Thanks Cathy. When I get caught up, I want to try this technique. I am attempting some curved piecing at then moment. It is HARD! It is necessary for the quilt I am making.

    1. Whether improvisational or not, curves are hard, Ann - I avoided them for years! This technique feels like a hot mess as you learn it, and sometimes even when you're doing it right.When it comes out right, it feels like a miracle! Good luck with your project!

  4. Hi Cathy - I read your post and have a couple of comments -
    •the method goes back well before Ricky Tims et al - and was devised in fact by Canadian Marilyn Stothers, in the late '80's and who, despite repeated urgings by Nancy Crow to publish, by her own admission never got round to it. At first Nancy always used to accredit Marilyn, and always used to call MS into her classes at Houston to show how it was done, but as time went by and still MS didn't publish, in the end she just ploughed on teaching the basics herself in all her workshops, and it became known as Nancy Crow's improvisational piecing. I learned it in a NC class in Denver 1992 and yes, we were told in no uncertain terms to put our rulers and pins right away. Many who learned this fast way to freehand piece totally embraced it, even to the point of 'you musn't use pins' which of course is twaddle, and I suspect I'm not the only one who when I went home gradually devised my own particular way I work this style of piecing, and it includes pins if I want the extra help pins give through a tight spot. Actually, I believe I have taken the technique's principles as far as anyone has, maybe further - I have done some pretty extreme curved piecing this way and many of my 1993-2005 quilts feature a wandering strips signature in their design - see the Colour Memory gallery on my website where many photos of quilts, with details can be found eg 'Afterglow', 'New Directions' Taking it and other further on, in my Ebb & Flow quilts, I have found it wonderful, suiting my ideas perfectly. I'd say over the past 15 -20 years it has become something of a contemporary tradition, and you can find basic instructions in many places, along with some good and not so good magazine articles, YouTube demos, etc.
    •I'm sure your instructions will encourage several people to make a jeans quilt as per your tutorial. I wondered why you chose the belt loops adaptation for hanging though - why not put a normal sleeve on the back? And then you could even put a belt through the lops to just hang off each end a little - having no actual hanging function, just a visual effect linking the quilt to the kind of garment from which it was repurposed.

    Readers of Cathy's blog and my comments here can email me for a free 2 page set of basic instructions and tips to get started with improvisational piecing. Freehand, template-free, curved piecing is not hard, just different - long live irregular shapes!

    1. Hi- I couldn't resist replying to this post. I was fortunate to have grown up across the street from Marilyn Stothers! And I took some classes with her too! She did eventually publish a book about curved piecing. Here is a link to her website where she talks about the piecing and how Nancy Crow encouraged her to write the book:

  5. That is awesome! And your pics to illustrate are well, just amazing! Thank you

  6. Thanks, Jackie, I'm glad you liked it!

  7. I just love the way you use denim. One of these days I really am going to attach that pile of jeans I have been saving. At least for now, I have something I can plan.
    Thanks for the tutorial.

    1. Go for it, KickyC! You'll have fun, if you avoid thick seams! Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Thanks for posting this tutorial. This just looks like so much fun. I am going to attack that pile of jeans one day soon. Every time you post another denim piece, I just want to pounce on it.

  9. I will be doing this soon. Was wondering what I could do with my hubby's old, worn out over-alls other than making purses. Thanks for the tute and information.

    1. Send a link when you're done, Gail, and thanks for stopping by!


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