I love to work improvisationally. I have been inspired and influenced by the work of the quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Much of their work is done improvisationally. The variations on the housetop block used in many of their quilts are beautiful in wonkiness and unpredictability. I also admire the work of Nancy Crow and Denyse Schmidt. Both of these women work improvisationally and one day I would love to take one of their classes. I’m sure there are others, but I recommend these books for quilters who want to work in an improvisational way: Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend Quilts and Beyond, Denyse Schmidt, 30 Colorful Quilt and Patchwork Projects and Nancy Crow by Nancy Crow. It was reading about these quilters that gave me the confidence to strike out on my own and dip my toe into improvisational quilting. I started out knowing how to do a traditional log cabin block and I went from there. This tutorial demonstrates how I make a wonky log cabin block like this one.
For this block you will need
fabric cut into 1.5 inch strips selvage to selvage (for this block I used 4 different fabrics, you will need at least two)
rotary cutter, ruler and self healing cutting mat
These are the fabrics I chose. If you cut strips selvage to selvage you will have plenty of fabric to cut the logs. If I’m using scraps I trim so that the strips have straight edges so I get nice straight ¼ in. seams.
To start you will need a center for your log cabin block. I cut a rectangle approximately 2 x2.5 inches. You can start with a square or a rectangular shape. It can be a bit wonky if you choose. The shape of your center will influence the look of your block.
Line up the strip with your center and cut the strip a wee bit longer. With right sides together and using a ¼ inch seam, sew this strip to the top of the center. Press the seam away from the center.
You’ll have a unit that looks like this.
Line up your ruler with the straight edge of the center piece and trim the excess from the first log. Trim the other side as well.
Notice that I have put in a pin. This pin marks the top of the block. I learned this technique in Denyse Schmidt’s book. She calls it a compass pin. The order for adding logs is top, right, bottom, and left. It is easy to confuse top and bottom or left and right and this pin helps keep you oriented so you don’t add logs in the wrong order.
Now you are ready to add your next log. Cut your next strip, again a smidge longer than the right side. Sew again right sides together. Press the seam away from the center.
Continue this process, cut, sew, press, trim until you have completed one round of logs.
I like to sew with the log on the bottom so that I can see and make sure seams lay properly.
Your first round of logs should look like this. Here is where the fun and the wonkiness begins. It is also the time where you have the freedom to make design decisions that will impact the look of your block.
Use you ruler and your rotary cutter to trim a bit of wonkiness into your block. I decided to trim the left side. Notice that the angle of the trim is very slight. Just a slight angle will multiply as the block grows. I have found that severe angles make this process much more difficult and don’t give that subtle wonky feeling that I like a block to have. Don’t feel that you need to trim everywhere. A little goes a long way. I’m only trimming one side in this round.
Now you’re ready to add a new round of logs. It’s hard to see the wonkiness at this point. It will become apparent after the next logs are added. Be sure to orient you block so the pin is at the top. Cut and add your next round of logs, top, right, bottom, left. Be sure to press and trim after each addition.
Here is the block with the second round of logs. Do you see how the wonkiness of the left side is now more apparant. Also, notice I cut one of the logs a bit short, a disaster, of course not. I think I'll trim and add wonkiness to the top.
Time for another design decision. This time I chose to trim just a bit of wonkiness on the top and bottom of this round of logs. Sometimes I use a bit of paper to audition the wonkiness so I can decide which way or how much to trim. There is no right answer, just go with your instincts. I do make sure I always leave at least a ½ inch of the log so that it doesn’t disappear in the seam allowance. Again, notice it's a slight angle for the trim.
Check your compass pin to be sure it’s at the top and add a new round of logs, top, right, bottom left.
For this round of logs I decided to change it up a bit and piece one of the logs. Cut three pieces of your 1.5 in. strips. Make sure you make the total length longer than usual to account for the seam allowances.
Sew the pieces together, press, and you have a log with a little personality. Add this log, press and trim and you have completed another round of logs.
It’s time to make another design decision. I decided at this point not to add any wonkiness to this round of logs. You may want to trim one or more of the sides to add additional wonkiness. It’s up to you.
Continue to add rounds of logs and when the whole round is complete, trim for wonkiness if you desire. I chose to add this polka dot next. Again, I left this round of logs straight. At this point the block measures approximately 9 inches square. I want 12 inch blocks for this quilt. Are you up for a little math? To get a block large enough to trim to a 12 inch square I need to add at least 4 inches to the length and width of the block. Don’t forget to take into consideration the seam allowances. I decided to use the cream solid and add 2 inch logs to the top and right and 3 inch logs to the bottom and left. That gives me a bit extra to play with when I’m ready to square up the block.
The block is ready to be squared up. You can square up your block a couple of ways. A see through ruler works great, but I don’t have a 12 inch one. If you have one, place it over your block and trim making sure you have at least ½ inch of the outer row of logs.
I use the lines on my cutting mat to square up my block. Position your block on the mat and use the lines on the mat to make a straight edge. Before you trim make sure you know where the block will trim on the opposite side. I have trimmed too much on one side and had to replace logs because I made the block too short. The woodworkers mantra “measure twice, cut once” is really good to remember when squaring up a block.
Rotate the block 90 degrees and line up your straight edge to the line on the mat. Trim the opposite sides. Again, measure twice then cut!
This is the finished block.
Something to Think About
This is another quilt I did using this method. What I love about making wonky log cabin blocks is that in addition to fabric choices you have the opportunity to make design decisions as you work. Notice in this quilt how the shape of the centers affects the look of the blocks. You can choose to use different strip widths. In this quilt I used as small as 1 inch strips to as large as 4 inch strips. You can choose to vary the size of the strips in a round of logs, small ones on the top and right and large on the bottom and left. You can skip a side in a round or blocks or add extra, or piece in an extra block of fabric here and there. All of these decisions will change the looks of your blocks. The possibilities are endless.
This is another quilt using the same method, but it looks very different. In this quilt I varied the number of rounds of logs I did in the blocks. Some have as few as one round. This method is very forgiving. If it’s too big, trim it, too small, add another log. Have fun making quilts with wonky log cabin blocks. I’d love to see your work.