Improv Patchwork Block Tutorial

This tutorial is part of the “Build a Zip Pouch Series“, giving you the skills you need to sew custom zip pouches in a variety of styles and sizes. Links will be added to the series homepage (here!) as new tutorials go live.

Sewing up improv blocks is one of my absolute favorite activities. It’s soothing because your seams don’t need to be perfect, it’s functional these blocks make your scrap bin dwindle, and it’s just plain fun to see how each one turns out! Read below for tips and suggestions for use, then get sewing using the tutorial as a springboard for your own creations!

Notes Before Starting:

  • Shape suggestions– The shape you start with at the center of your improv block will influence the final product. In the photos above, the pillow cover had a trapezoid (or wonky square, as I call it), the middle zip pouch had a hexagon, and the zip pouch on the right started with a square. Where you place the first piece determines how many layers you’ll end up with. I love to vary the size and placement of my center fabric.
  • Color suggestions– Scrap quilt blocks are the perfect time to play around with different color schemes. I like to use solid colors and let the piecing take center stage. Prints can work well, too, though, especially if you use colors that coordinate with the pattern. You can vary which fabric color you’re using by layer, as I did in the pillow cover above. Or you can place the colors randomly, as I did with the pencil pouch pictured above right.
  • Size suggestions– There size you choose to start with depends on a couple of things: the desired final size of your panel and how many layers you want in it. A smaller finished panel will start with a smaller piece of center fabric, a larger panel with a larger center piece. The only hard and fast rule is that you want it to be large enough to show after stitching with a 1/4″ seams allowance all around. Likewise for, the width of fabric used for each layer. A smaller width will require more layers to fill up the backing fabric. For small panels, my layers are generally 3/4″ – 2″ wide. For larger panels, they’re 2″ – 4″ wide. I like to vary the widths from layer to layer within the project.
  • Fabric type suggestions– Keep in mind the final use of the panel when choosing fabrics. A wall hanging or pillow cover can use heavier weight fabrics, while a zip pouch would be better off with medium to lightweight fabrics. To keep the seams from becoming too bulky the entire way through, vary the fabric weights between layers. When using stretchy fabric, consider interfacing with Pelon SF101 (or similar stabilizer) first. Only quilt layers that will not become distorted when quilted. For example, I do not quilt stretchy fabric layers or textured fabrics.
  • Suggestions for use– These panels can be used in a variety of ways. Pillow covers, zip pouches, wall hangings, tote bags, table runners, coasters, and more. Lightweight panels could even be pieced together to make a quilt.

Basic Instructions

Use this tutorial as a starting point to come up with your own ideas for improv patchwork panels!


Gather your supplies. You’ll need scissors, scraps, and a piece of backing fabric (I use batting) approximately 1/2″ larger in length and width than the final dimensions you’re shooting for. The extra 1/2″ is important for squaring and trimming at the end, as the dense stitching can skew the backing fabric a bit.


Cut a small piece of the fabric you’ve chosen for the center. The size will depend on the size of your finished block and style you’re going for. The only hard and fast rule is that you want it to be large enough to show after stitching with a 1/4″ seams allowance all around. Cut a straight square, a trapezoid, or pentagon. See above for how each starting shape ends up!


I like to place my “center piece” slightly off center on the quilt batting/backing. Place it wherever you’d like, just make sure it’s right side up. Quilt over the center piece. The lines in this picture are approximately 1/4″ apart. You can do straight lines, zig zags, or curves. No need to backstitch.


Starting on any edge of the center piece, lay another piece of fabric right side down on top, aligning the edges. You want this next piece to be approximately the same length as the edge of the center piece you’re working with. The width of this piece will depend on how wide you want the final layer to be (see size suggestions above). Sew along the aligned edges with a 1/4″ seam allowance. Make sure the pieces are right sides together.


Press the top piece back. If desired, quilt along this fabric, parallel to the center piece. You do not need to quilt each layer. However, when you do quilt a layer, quilt each piece parallel to the seam (this ensures all loose threads will be covered in the end). See Step 13 for an example of a quilted layer.


Repeat Step 4 with another fabric scrap that is similar in width to the one you just sewed. You’ll be moving around the center piece of fabric, sewing a new scrap to each raw edge. Each time you do this, you’ll be sewing not only on the center fabric edge, but also over the edge of the previously sewn fabric. (See Step 7 for an example of what I mean.) Make sure you sew directly adjacent to the previously added pieces, going either clockwise or counterclockwise. Press the sewn fabric back after each step.


Here is the fabric from the Step 6 folded back so you can see where you’ll be sewing.


Especially when working with a pentagon or uneven square as the center shape, the raw edges won’t line up exactly. Just make sure the raw edge of the new fabric is lined up with the shortest edge of the previous sewn fabric pieces. You don’t want any gaps of backing showing through!


Press and trim as needed after sewing each individual piece. You want the widths of all the pieces in the layer to be similar, but they don’t need to be exact.


When you reach the final raw edge of the center piece, you’ll be lining up the last fabric scrap along the edges of the first and most recently sewn scraps as well.


Press back the final piece and the first layer is done! Remember: You don’t need to use the same fabric type for each piece in a layer, as I do here. You also don’t need to quilt each layer.


Grab the fabric scraps for your second layer. Repeat Steps 4-12, lining up the raw edges and sewing clockwise or counterclockwise around whatever shape you’re working on. You can see in this photo how I trim each piece down as I sew.


Press each new piece back and quilt as desired, making sure the quilting lines run parallel to the seam (this ensures all loose threads will be covered in the end).


With a pentagon or uneven square as the center, there will be quite a bit of overlap as you sew each new piece.


Make sure to line the raw edge of the new fabric scrap up with the most indented part of the previous sewn pieces.


As you work closer to the edges the backing fabric, it’s okay to let the scraps hang off of the edges. They’ll be trimmed down later.


Continue sewing each layer until the backing piece is completely covered. Trim down to the desired final size.


Quilted panels are great for a variety of projects. I’ve used them for wall hangings, pillow covers, tote bag pockets, and, of course, zip pouches.

Check out the video below for a visual on how this process can look with a square starting block!

Together we can find more ways to reclaim fabric
and breathe meaning, joy, and life into our days.

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