Improv Triangles—Perfectly Pointless

Over the years, I have made several quilts using the flying geese unit. I think the obsession started in Nancy Crow’s Workshop called Sets and Variables.

We were to select a motif to work with. I wanted to work with the flying geese unit. I started three compositions. None of which were the assignment–this was a problem. Still my love of triangles persisted.

The neutral triangle units in the upper right photo eventually became Birch Woods Glimmer.

Birch Wood Glimmer

While writing Improv Patchwork—Dynamic Quilts Made with Line and Shape, I had the opportunity to go even further down the road with this pointy shape.

Improv Patchwork

Chapter seven covers several different types of pieced triangles. Half-square triangles which are super useful units. I used a lot of half square triangles in KA-POW!

KA-POW! Large

BIG TRI is made with lines.

BIG TRI for Web

This blog post is going to focus on the improv flying geese unit and how to own it. Here are the steps to follow.

Select a Palette. I usually work with eight to twelve colors. This is the palette I pulled for  Tundra. It is a larger palette then I typically use.


Decide how big you want your finished flying geese units to be and then add an inch. For example, if you want four inch finished units, cut your strips of yardage to be five inches wide. Cut one strip of fabric from each color. I usually use a ruler for this step, but you do not need to do so.

Iron any creases out of your fabric strips. I am SERIOUS about this folks. Don’t skip on the ironing.

Decide if you want your flying geese units to be rectangular or square. If you want a rectangular shape make your next cut 1’’ bigger than your previous cut. If you want a square, make your next cut the same as your previous cut’. I use the lines on the mat and no ruler for this step.


It is up to you to decided if you are going to use a ruler. The more you use your ruler, the more controlled the lines will be. The less you use your ruler, the more “improv” your piecing will be. I think of this as controlled wonkiness.

The next step is to cut triangle shapes out of your squares. Cut from the lower right corner towards the center of the square and then repeat with the lower left corner. Use the lines on the mat to help you make sure the diagonal line lands in the center of the rectangle—that is where you want it.


When you are done cutting your fabric, sort the skinny triangles from the fat triangles into piles that look like this.


Go to your sewing machine and sew one skinny triangle to one fat triangle. Select your pairings while sitting at your machine. I am NOT random in my selection. I am working INTENTIONALLY to create beautiful pairings. Some colors may turn out to be duds, and they never find a pair. This is okay and all part of the process. Your units will now look like this.


Sew from the top single point towards the base point with the skinny triangle on top. Do not worry about the difference in shapes between the triangles. After you stitch, you will be gently re-shaping them with your rotary cutter. Iron the seams toward the skinny triangle. This will reduce bulk in your next seam. The triangles will be slightly mis-shaped and have dog ears that need to be trimmed.


The sizes of the triangles will vary quite a bit at this point. Be patient. You will make them approximately all the same size later. Using your rotary cutter, slice off the little bit of fabric that extends past the edges of the triangle while also smoothing the edges of the skinny triangle shape.


Repeat the process again for the other side of the triangle. Stitch, as before, from the single point at the top of the triangle towards the base. Stitch with the large triangle on top of the skinny triangle. Iron the seam away from the center triangle. The triangles, at this point, will very a lot in size and many of them will be mis-shaped.


Now, using your rotary cutter, shape these triangles so that they have straight edges. We still don’t care if they are the same size, but we do care that the edges are nice and straight. It is okay to chop off points.


Now we are ready to stitch the flying geese units to each other. After every seam, I continuing to shape the units so that they fit together. This creates interesting shapes for the eye to enjoy. Tundra is the same composition as Birch Woods Glimmer except for three things.

TundraI concentrated the browns, blues, and greens. So if the large triangle were one of those colors, then the skinny triangles were not.


I placed the flying geese units so that the browns, blues, and greens formed a zigzag instead of a diamond shape as shown in Birch Woods Glimmer.

The short rows (the multi colored strip set) are much wider in Tundra than Birch Woods Glimmer.

Break Up is my most recent improv triangle quilt. While I did carefully work to create beautifully colored units, I didn’t isolate colors as I did with Tundra.

Break Up Cafe

Once the units were stitched, I put them on the design wall and THEN worked to concentrate color.

You can read more about process behind Break Up in this blog post.  And if you like piecing shapes, you might want to check out my book. You can get a signed copy here.

I hope this tutorial is useful and has you thinking about how you might use triangles in your work.

This entry was published on May 25, 2019 at 9:48 AM. It’s filed under My Process-Quilts, Quilt Stories, The Crow Barn, Tutorials and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

21 thoughts on “Improv Triangles—Perfectly Pointless

  1. Thea on said:

    I always look forward to your blogs. I have your book and just sat down with it again to get inspired to start a piece using your wonderful book for guidance.
    Thank you for sharing your processes!

  2. Jo- Anne Vandermey on said:

    Maria your work inspires me! I read your blog. I have your book which I got in Houston in 2017. I read and study your book.
    But I just can’t seem to make one.
    I just figured it out this morning why I can’t. I want to make a Marie Shell inspired quilt not a Maria Shell Quilt. I want to make a Jo Quilt!
    I will have to figure this out with some play.
    I just want you to know your work inspires me….

    • My goal with the book is for people to learn how to make the units and then make their own quilts. I want you to a make Jo quilt too! The fastest path to that is taking a workshop with me. I hope that happens some day. In the meantime, keep stitching!

      • Jo- Anne Vandermey on said:

        I hope for doing a workshop with you too! I wish the SAQA conferences had hands on workshops for it’s participants. That would be an added incentive for me to go. The Toronto conference is only an hour from my home. I heard Mary Pal talk at a local guild … she said to always jump opportunities… Could we talk about what it would take for you to stay after the conference and teach a few classes? Niagara is not always warm in March but you would be used to that!

      • Jo-Anne- I am so sorry to be slow to respond to this! I am on the road. I will email you in the next few days. Thank you!

  3. I didn’t get a chance to tell you at the conference that “Break Up” took my breath away when I saw it in person! It is fabulous.

  4. Aha! I’m working on an improv project that has been waiting for the next step, and I think this is it! Thanks for the tutorial 🙂 Mary

  5. That is great news Mary! Good Luck!

  6. Thanks for this. I haven’t used this specific method. I have taken strips of a couple of fabrics and cut them at improv angles to make rows of dog’s teeth. Do you ever do that?

  7. These, shown by Barbara Brackman, reminded me of yours.

  8. This was very helpful, Maria. I read this post more than once, and all your suggestions were good. Thanks for being so generous with your methods. I have your book, but I still learned something about your aesthetic reading this.

  9. Dear Pam! I have been thinking about you and wanting to make the time to send you a good email. Thank you so much for commenting on the triangles. You are the reason the pointy shape chapter exists in my book. I hope you are doing good!

  10. Pingback: Current Series: Blue Ridge | Zippy Quilts

  11. Janine Dalziel on said:

    You’re quilts are beautiful, fun, and true works of art.
    Very inspiring.

  12. Pingback: Block Lotto – August 2020 – Orange County Modern Quilt Guild

  13. Pingback: BOM 2021: March Instructions | seattle modern quilt guild

Leave a Reply