Tutorial: Random piecing

Happy Sunday!

A couple of weeks ago, I (Carly) gave a little presentation on random piecing for the group.  For those of you that were there, this is your recap/notes.  For those of you that haven’t made it out to one of our meetings yet, see what fun we have?? 🙂

This technique, which I’ve called “random piecing”, is related to improv piecing but isn’t improv in the strictest sense.  It’s a great bridge, however, if you want to dabble with improv but panic at the idea.  Random piecing is a jump-off point; there’s enough order to keep you calm but it will help you to get over it at the same time.  This is improv with training wheels.  You can use it to make blocks or entire backgrounds.

Random piecing can be done large or small scale.  You can use yardage or scraps.  For this demo, I used 8 fat quarters.  I wanted a fairly monochromatic look but also wanted it to have a pop of colour.  I chose a range of purples and purply greys, with one orange print with purple in it.

General advice:

1) The more variety in your fabrics, the more interesting the finished piece will be and the more options you’ll have. However, pick fewer colours to prevent an insanely busy feeling (unless that’s what you want.)  More fabrics, fewer colours.

2) Don’t panic. Remember to breathe.  And have fun!  Play with fabric like a child plays with fingerpaints.

3) Get over it. Don’t over-think it or stress over small details. It’s more about the end result than the little steps and stages in the middle.  This is about freeing up your mind – you will still have the safety of 90 degree angles and rotary cutters and rulers. Lather, rinse, repeat. Get over it. I have faith in you. You can do it. 🙂

Prepare your fabrics by pressing them.  Then cut your fabric into strips of various widths:

1.5″, 2.5″, 3.5″, 4.5″

For most of these, I cut 2 x 4.5″, 1 x 3.5″, 2 x 2.5″ and 1 x 1.5″. (NOTE: I used Canadian fat quarters – they’re a little wider than 18″… decide which strip widths you’d like and cut those.) You can vary it as you wish provided your measurements are a full inch plus a half.  The half inch becomes your seam allowance (2 x scant 1/4″ seams) and will assure that all your pieces go together well.  The more variety you have in your sizes, the more visual texture you’ll have in your blocks.


1)Throw all your strips in a pile and start grabbing them at random to make strip sets.  You can match widths but try to mix them up as much as possible. Using your scant 1/4″ seam, sew your strip sets together and press seam allowances open.  (You may hate to press allowances open, but due to the sheer amount of them, take the time now and save yourself the bulky headache later…) These strips sets will measure at a full inch increment plus a half, between 2.5″ and 8.5″.  Save a few strips and set aside for later.

Strips -> CHIPS:

2) Take your strip sets and using the “full inch plus a half” guide, cut your strips into chips of various widths, between 2.5″ and 8.5″.  Try to cut more on the smaller side of the scale but having bigger ones, too, adds visual texture. It’s a good thing. Keep a strip set or two in reserve.

Chips ->CHUNKS:

3) Now you have a pile of chips.

I sorted these out a bit just to make it easier to match them up but it’s not necessary…

This is where it gets fun.  Start mixing them up and then matching widths.

Try alternating which direction the seam lies.  Have fun!  Try not to stress about which prints touch which prints.  Eventually, every fabric is going to butt up against itself through this process.  Best to get over it now. 🙂 Just try to make it so that the overall shape is irregular, like  a 1×4″ piece against a 2×3″, etc.

Starting to match up chips....

Set a few chips aside with the reserved strips and sets. Sew your chips together and press seams open.  You now have chunks! Yay!


Chunks -> BLOCKS:

4) Keep matching up your chips and chunks.

Matching chunks…

If you find you have sizes that just won’t match, dip into your reserved strips, sets and chips to see if you can cut or build what you need to fit.

The large piece is 8.5″ wide. The lower right piece is only 6.5″ wide. I cut a 2.5″ piece from a reserved strip set to make the bottom one fit the top.

You start to lose track of what went together first… This could be a block on its own or grow bigger….!

(As another possible solution, try trimming an inch off your blocks, though you spent all that time sewing, save trimming as a last resort..)  As you go on, you may find you have to switch your pressing from open to the side of least resistance.  That’s okay. It’s why we spent so much time pressing open in the first stages.

Make your blocks as big or as small as you like.  Let them be different sizes or rectangles and squares. If you wish, you can make a large chunk of fabric from all your pieces, or choose a background fabric and start setting them into a random arrangement.

How much area your blocks will cover depends on how much fabric you use.  A bunch of fabric will be lost to your seam allowances or just in pieces you didn’t end up using.  If I’m “planning” to cover a certain area, I try to use enough fabric to cover that area plus 20-25%.  Or I expect 8 FQs to cover 6 FQs of space. Any leftovers can be used in other projects or incorporated elsewhere.

Here are some examples of this technique:

“Blue Skies” by CitricSugar, 2012

For some projects, I had a large area that needed to be a particular colour and I feared that the vast empty space would render the finished project flat and boring.  So, rather than use one fabric, I “constructed” a fabric with more interest to it.

A gift for my brother-in-law, a dedicated Punisher fan…. Both the white and black backgrounds were constructed using random piecing.

Leftover blocks from the top went into the improv pieced back.

Well, I hope you found that useful or interesting, and that it inspires you to dabble a little more into improv piecing!  If you try this technique, we’d love to hear about it.

I’ve got some Kona ash ready for when I finish these purple blocks….I’ll let you know how it turns out. I better get sewing!

Have a lovely week!