How a Found Object Taught Me to Love Improvisational Quilting

gai mini 4

All quilts tell a story. It’s one of the reasons I am so drawn to the craft. One of the quilts I own that has made the most lasting impact on me over the course of many years, is Great Aunt Irma’s quilt.

Years ago, my ex-husband’s Great Aunt Irma passed away after a long and rather adventurous life. Irma Hayes had been a collector, a lover of beauty, and a very gentle soul. She was not, however, a quilter or a sewer or someone I had ever even seen crafting. So it was with much surprise that, upon her death, as we sorted through her many treasures we discovered a quilt top, a traditional Grandmother’s Flower Garden.

gai pillow 3

I was the only one who audibly gasped at the discovery — and the only one who had any interest in keeping the top. I knew I wanted it, but I had no idea why. I wasn’t planning on quilting it. I admired the fussily-cut hexagons, deftly sewn together by hand, and could tell that many of the fabrics were Depression-era, but the top itself was just not my style.

So it sat. It sat for years. It moved from one house to a second, always folded, never finished. One day, finally, it dawned on me — I realized that what I loved most about the top were the individual blocks, and if I could find a way to use them, I could give new life to this quilt.

gai pillow detail

I started by carefully cutting out each full “flower”, basting it to a background fabric, and hand embroidering the flower. Then I used improvisation and whimsy to build a pillow top around the center re-purposed and embroidered flower block. I finished these tops with intense machine quilting, added a zippered backing and crafted a series of pillows using many of the flower blocks harvested from the original top. I made and sold quite a few of these and then decided to explore this same idea with mini quilts.

gai mini 1 and 2

I loved mixing the traditional flower block with modern fabrics as well as fabrics that belonged to other textile traditions. Whether it was fabrics from my own commercial or hand dyed collections, African cloth, or Japanese indigos, I honestly felt that every combination worked.

Over the years I’ve made countless versions of what I call, “ Great Aunt Irma’s Flower Garden”. I continue to marvel at how well the bits and pieces of these quilts and pillows, despite coming from disparate places, seem to gel. I have a few flower blocks left but I’m patient in how I decide to use them, partly because I want to make sure the fabrics and composition coalesce, but also because I know I’ll be a little sad when the last of the blocks has found it’s new home. I didn’t realize it at the time of its discovery, but Great Aunt Irma’s Flower Garden has really been one of the most significant quilts of my life.

Ten Ways to Love Improvisational Quilting Blog Tour
Tomorrow we’re kicking off a blog tour to celebrate my upcoming class Ten Ways to Love Improvisational Quilting with some of my favorite bloggers and friends. Check out the schedule below and follow along to find out what inspires these talented quilters!

9/30 – Modern Sewciety
10/1 – House on Hill Road
10/3 – Fresh Modern Quilts
10/6 – Cheryl Arkison
10/7 – Wisecraft Handmade

Malka Dubrawsky

Malka Dubrawsky is a fabric and quilt designer, and author.