improv sewing

Nicole Blum and Debra Immergut are the authors of the new book Improv Sewing. They also blog together at Improv DiaryNicole is a freelance crafter and stylist, clothing designer, blogger and obsessed sewist. She lives in Western Massachusetts where she also works at her family’s hard cider business together with her husband and two children. Debra is a writer, magazine editor, and content packager who loves sewing and crafting, even when her creations turns out just a little bit awkwardly. She grew up in the Washington, DC, area and now lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and son. 

Creativity, improvisation, and why it is so darn good to let go and make some stuff

Once, many years ago, I was in the company of a bunch of farmers who were drawing angry vegetables for the side of their farm truck for fun (uh, why else?). They were young farmers from the UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden program, not your typical farmer, but still. Egging everyone on was our friend Harrell Fletcher, who has since become a sort of major person in the art world, and he is pretty much the embodiment of creativity (yes, look him up, his work is very worth looking at).

I was in my mid-20s, and I sat on the edge of the group and watched. I still can’t believe my shyness and how I simply missed out on ALL of the fun that day. I didn’t really think I had enough talent to draw an angry vegetable. I could throttle that young woman’s perfect neck for being so silly. I might be a bit of a late bloomer, but I have arrived and there is no stopping creativity once you let go of judgment, comparisons, and self-imposed limitations. I couldn’t be more serious.

First of all, I can draw just fine. So can you. Second, I am of the mind that I can learn to do most anything, if I want (maybe not brain surgery, but I conveniently don’t really want to anyway) and this mindset has been an amazing emancipator. I have gone from staring at a store bought tissue pattern with squinty eyes and a furrowed brow to designing my own clothes in a matter of very few years. I have tweaked mistakes and imperfections into design elements (they are easily persuaded) and then cultivated those ideas into intentionally laid down lines and squiggles, Xs and seed stitches. Layers and appliques have been my cover-ups and the basis for my decorative elements. It has been so satisfying to play around and figure things out, and, it is crazy fun.

Of course, I didn’t just go from timid non-drawing gal to sewing book author in a flash. I was a school teacher and then made the natural (and fortuitous) shift to working as a craft developer for a family and kid magazine for a bunch of years. I think that my commitment to instilling the love of art and creativity in my students and my own children has convinced me to express my ideas without all of the self-judgment. Everyone says that kids are the best teachers, and it really is true. I saw them creating with abandon and it moved me. I had to let go of a lot to be a good role model and that was important to all of us. And, it has served me in so many ways.

First, I get to earn my living making things, which couldn’t be more amazing. Also, I got to meet my co-author Debra who is an editor I have worked on many magazine projects with. She is an excellent writer (funny and thoughtful) and has a
fantastic ability to make directions clear and easy to understand. We were a great team and this book was really her idea.

I guess I am trying to tell you something here. Most likely you already are creative and make things if you look at this amazing WhipUp blog, but if you think that you can’t make your own clothes, or if you think that you can’t put your mark on something so that it is unique and a good expression of you, then I am here to ask you to rethink that. You can make whatever you want and I hope our book is a companion to you in the process of discovery. Improvise if you need to. Let go of your inhibition because it is way more fun that way. Way more fun.


Line Art Lunchbox Napkin (Excerpted from Improv Sewing (c) by Nicole Blum and Debra Immergut,  Photo (c) by Alexandra Grablewski, used with permission from Storey Publishing.)

If you’re new to drawing with your sewing machine, hone your skills with this low-stakes, ultracheap project (you don’t even have to buy fabric if you have an old white bedsheet to cut up). This reusable napkin will make its owner proud in two ways: he or she gets to show off artwork and reduce lunchtime trash at the same time.

What you’ll need :: 10″ square of Birdseye cotton, glassware toweling, or other absorbent woven cotton fabric + 1 to 3 spools of contrasting thread

How to :: 

1. Create the drawing :: Tape the fabric taut to the table. With a vanishing ink pen or chalk, draw a simple design, either centered or in one corner, leaving at least a 3/4″ margin on all sides for the hem.

2. Draw with thread :: Before you start drawing, read the techniques intro, page 134, and practice on a scrap of the project fabric. Set your presser foot pressure to 2; this allows you to manipulate your fabric easily but still follow the drawn lines. Using a straight stitch with the stitch length set at 1, stitch along the drawn guidelines.

3. Hem the napkin :: Press the edges of the napkin 1/4″ to the wrong side, and then 1/4″ again to make a 1/2″ double-fold hem. Using contrasting thread and a narrow zigzag (our stitch width was 3 and stitch length 2.5), topstitch the hem in place, leaving the needle down and turning the fabric at the corners.

4. Stitching tip :: It will make it easier for the sewist if the drawing isn’t itty-bitty, so guide the artist accordingly. For a younger child, frame the target area with tape to help him or her understand where and how big to draw the artwork.


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For more kids craft, creative ideas and activities go to the Action Pack website