Modern Quilting

There is an interesting debate about modern quilting that is happening on several quilting blogs. I won’t summarize them, but here are some links for your own reading:
(If you know of others or have written about this subject on your blog, please feel free to add links in the comments.)

Some of those posts are general and some of them are about particular people. While I don’t like calling out individuals, I do think the comments from both parties are an important part of the modern quilting debate. And I should mention that I am a fan and blog subscriber of Stitch in Dye and Tallgrass Prairie Studio. I’m not really interested in passing judgement on what any of those ladies wrote, but I do want to share my thoughts because I was inspired by theirs.

The question of what makes quilting modern is particularly interesting to me because I am a relatively new quilter (3 year quiltiversary next month) and I am the president of a Modern Quilt Guild (holla, Dallas!). When I started the Dallas branch of the MQG, defining quilting in a little box as modern/art/traditional wasn’t something that even concerned me. I was more interested in meeting others who wanted to talk about quilts and fabric. I identified my aesthetic and style as most aligned with what was happening in modern quilting – the fabrics, the designers, the simple patterns and geometric shapes are what drew me into quilting – but I didn’t lay awake at night worrying about what made quilting modern.

But after my first dozen quilts, I found my tastes maturing. The super popular blogs that first drew me into quilting no longer appealed to me. I wanted more challenge, more innovation. I started to accept that patterns could be useful and sometimes flying by the seat of your pants just made you end up flat on your face. There is a point where modern quilting becomes just a series of squares floating in a background, and they all start to look the same. I mean, take a look at my circa 2010 completed quilts. Talk about squaresville!

Since I started the DMQG last February, my opinions on quilting have continued to change.  Becoming part of a real-life quilting community has been a very positive thing for me. I’ve learned a lot from the women in my guild and the shop owners and long-time quilters that I’ve met through the guild.

Some of those lessons:

The online quilting world is not the real world. Blog photos create the idea that quilters live dreamy aqua and pink lives in soft-focus. Quilts are always fluttering perfectly at the edge of a lake. Sewing rooms are filled with beautifully folded fabric stacks that teeter just so. No one lives like that. I love pretty pictures, and I love taking them, but I promise you this – my sewing room is a hot mess 80% of the time. Sewing is chaotic and messy. Go on a quilting retreat and you’ll see that a half dozen women can turn a perfectly clean empty room into a fabric-filled disaster in about 10 minutes.

Nothing is new. Some people are definitely innnovative with color and there are art quilts that are just that – art. But when it comes to sewing fabric together, it’s all pretty much been done before. There is a running joke among my quilty friends about inventing things. We’ll show each other a new technique or notion, and say “I invented that.” Some of us have even claimed to have invented the 1/4″ seam. This is all the result of another online quilting world fallacy – some bloggers think that they invented the string/spiderweb/flower basket/feathered star/cathedral window blocks they’re making. I’ve seen so many blog posts bemoaning “copying” and not “giving credit” because someone made a string quilt*** that looked like someone else’s. If someone thinks your work is pretty and wants to emulate it, that’s flattering, right? Of course, it’s nice if they tell you that, but at the same time…it’s a string quilt! How do you know they didn’t see one at a garage sale or in a Pottery Barn catalog and think it was the best thing since sliced bread? This competitive side of blogging is one of those cringe-inducing things for me. I think the rules are pretty simple – If you use someone’s pattern or tutorial to create your piece, then it’s nice and correct to credit them. But it’s not fair to assume everyone who sews 5″ squares together is copying your quilt made of 5″ squares. [And to those of you who have been blatantly ripped off, I don’t mean you. There are bad, bad people who do copy others’ work and steal their photos to sell stuff on Etsy. But those people are too busy pushing old ladies and kicking puppies to even read my little blog.] (***I’m using the string quilt as an example because it was one of those hot trends and it’s a very simple block.)

There is room for everyone. The DMQG is full of women with a huge variety of skill sets, taste, experience, and motivation. My friend Michelle (who blogs at Urban Spools) is a perfect example. She’s been quilting for 10+ years and her own tastes have varied from super traditional to modern. In one year, she’s made this quilt and this one. Could they be more different? I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who are different from you  because that is how you learn and challenge yourself. I can honestly say that I learn something every time I interact with the women in my guild and I have forged friendships that I know will last a lifetime.

Some people use art and creativity and taste as a means to exclude others. If you are making clown quilts, but they think cat quilts are the hottest ticket in town, you’re pretty much a pariah to them. How silly is that? Unless they insist on making clown quilts for your house, why should it bother you if they applique clowns onto every fabric they can get their clown-happy hands on? This goes double for shop owners. If someone asks for a style of fabric that you don’t carry because it’s not your taste, is making a face at that person really good customer service? If you’ve experienced this kind of exclusionary behavior, just know that there are lots of groups out there that want to have you as a member and there are shop owners who will gladly order that possum fabric you’ve been lusting after.

There comes a point where critcism is just critcism. If you don’t like the quilt, stop looking at it. If you bought the book and were disappointed, return it. At the end of the day, quilts are just blankets. There. I said it. Most people sew for the pure enjoyment of sewing. They’re not trying to win ribbons, sell books, or impress fancy pants quilt connoisseurs. If they only want to make square quilts forever, there is nothing wrong with that. How many melted clocks did Dali paint? (Answer: way too many) If you enjoy making perfect flying geese and your points always match, YAY! You should be happy and proud, but it’s not a reason to look down on the work other people do. My flying geese are spectacular but I don’t judge any of you. (JOKE). But seriously, I really think that the only value in a quilt is intrinsic. If enough people like it, that quilt can also have monetary value. To some people, Gee’s Bend quilts are amazing works of art. To other people (my dad) they are “all crooked and messed up. It looks like they just sewed a pile of crap together.”

Modern quilting is a movement, not a style.  Modern means “characteristic or expressive of recent times or the present; contemporary or up-to-date.”  So by definition, only what we’re doing right now is modern and the trendy colors, patterns, and fabrics are constantly changing. The modern quilts we’re making now will not be modern in 10 years. People will look at them and say, “That’s so 2010. Ew. Even Salvation Army couldn’t save that quilt.”  The idea of modern quilting may be just a passing trend. In 5 years, maybe Civil War quilts will be all the rage. Considering all of the “modern” fabric I’ve hoarded, this is my biggest fear. I have to use all of that up before it goes out of style. Oh, the pressure!

At the end of the day, all that matters is that you enjoy the process. Every single one of us can spot all of the flaws in our finished quilts, but the work you did to get there is the important part.

With [vintage] modern quilting love,


31 thoughts on “Modern Quilting

  1. Carla says:

    Thanks, Lisa, for your insight. As one who has been making quilts for over 30 years, I am so tickled to see the fun and excitement that is pulling younger women especially, into this fun hobby. Without the internet, I do not believe that the modern quilting movement would be what it is today…that and the gorgeous fabric available to us all. If you made quilts in the 70’s and 80’s you would know that it was slim pickin’s in the fabric world! I personally have changed my styles and likes several times so agree that things we make today may certainly be out of style in 10 years. However, we all should be able to happily create what we like and not be criticized as you have mentioned. I once was at a t quilt show where there was a display of “Ugly Log Cabins”…(they were basically all scraps) and a well known quilter came by exclaiming loudly, “Ew, I would NEVER make something like that…I’m a REAL quilter!” I was embarrassed for her.

  2. Felicity says:

    Thanks for this – I couldn’t agree more! It seems that every change or evolution – be it in design, quilting or whatever – has its critics and detractors; to each his/her own. As you said, if you don’t like possum fabric (AWESOME!!), don’t buy it. If you don’t like a blogger’s style or they’re no longer inspiring you, don’t read their blog. If you only like making quilts composed entirely of squares, go for it! There’s definitely room for everyone in this space.

  3. Susan says:

    I agree — to each her own! Trends come and go in everything else; why would quilting be any different? Surely everyone can create whatever appeals to them at the moment without worrying about whether or not someone else is going to think it’s “real”.

  4. Jenniffier says:

    I actually just wrote about this. I was asked to speak to another guild about modern quilting and many of my conclusion were the same. Modern is the here and now. If you would like to read it then go on over to my blog. I will have to check out the other posts you listed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Ann Marie says:

    Great post. Totally sums up how I feel.
    If I’ve only got 10 years before last week’s fabric purchases (sans possums) are no longer modern, I’d better get crackin’! I’ve got some UFOs that are older than that. And I still like them. I just like the new projects better … until another new one comes along.

  6. Megan says:

    Thank you so much! As a new quilter, I’m often saddened by seeing a great 9 patch block that someone has decided to claim as THEIRS. ??? How is that even possible?!?!? It often makes me nervous to read other quilting blogs, because I’m afraid I’ll see something I’ve been putting together as a tutorial somwhere. :

  7. Karen Petrich says:

    Very well stated and I am glad to see it. I have been quilting for about 6 years and just recently got into blog review. Some of these blogs have some fantastic ideas and techniques – and the fabric lines are wow! The ‘better than you’ and competitive nature of some sites makes me a little ill. I am leaning more towards the manufacturers sites anymore and a few other select sites – who needs the drama? Thanks Lisa – I liked reading this!

  8. Jan | Daisy Janie says:

    Very thoughtful (and funny) post! It’s been disheartening to see such negativity surrounding something we do b/c we love it. I appreciate dialog and conversation with opposing opinions, but not outright slander and offensiveness…doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Way to go on starting the DMQG – awesomeness!!

  9. wishes, true and kind says:

    I have been trying to catch up on blog reading and have ended up scanning so many; only stopping to read if the quilts or fabric catch my interest (because I have A LOT of catching up to do), but I stopped and read every word of your post. I do not understand some of the negativity, competition, and drama. Oh, the drama! I’m going to go check out the posts you listed at the top of the post. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Very well said. I think there is room for lots of different styles and tastes. What if there was only one kind of music, one flavor of ice cream, one home decorating style, etc. Viva la difference!

  10. silvana coutinho (silort) says:

    I read all of your words and I agree! We should accept the differences, withou judgement! Taste is a very personal thing, each of us have your own, and if you are open to see what is happen in the world, you may change your taste, or not!

  11. Karen Wierenga says:

    I quilt because I like to. Simple. My friends who quilt don’t choose the same colors, patterns or styles that I do – thank heavens! I don’t need to be surrounded by mirror images of what I do; I need variety, new colors and different techniques in order to grow as a quilter. If a quilter is tied in knots because her nine-patch look has been usurped by another quilter, is she having fun? Don’t think so!!

  12. julie says:

    Thanks for the possum fabric link- I’ve been looking all over for possum fabric! And a terrific post- well said.

  13. Shannon says:

    Wow, what a hot bed, it’s like Art History class all over again, and I think the same lessons apply. An artist’s real skill, training, aptitude and discipline shows in his or her work no matter how it is expressed. Sandi’s original statement that “If her (sic) work is primarily improvisational because she love the freedom and enjoys adapting the technique, that’s a different matter entirely!” qualifies her ideas.

    It would be helpful if in the quilting community we said Modern when we meant modern and Contemporary when we meant that. Participating in Modernism implies an extensive knowledge of the skills that led your work to where it is at this moment. Modernism IS a critique of tradition.

    Contemporary is a fresh rendering of something that is new.

    I never want to jump into judgment over whether artist deserves recognition or not. Any one who has the courage to be expressive should be warmly welcomed into the conversation. Modern or contemporary, every shade adds to our palette, right?

    Oh man, I guess I expounded a bit, but this is such a fascinating discussion, it’s fun to be a part. Thanks.

  14. Heather says:

    Who knew? My mother taught me to make garments. She was so crazy intimidated when I brought two charm packs to make a quilt for my baby girl, she had to call her quilting friend, Kay, to help us. She taught sewing for years, and the idea of sewing squares together was daunting to her–perhaps she knew. Thank you for your honesty–your–quilts are blankets. I make them for people I love. I haven’t been criticized publically. I have been encouraged. I hope I share the same encouragement with others. Thank you for the time you took. New, old, beautiful–room for everything!

  15. Jess B. says:

    Your words about “nothing is new” is something that rings so true! If my (now passed) grandmother had posted any of her quilts on a blog… say in 2010… I’m sure there would be a slew of people who would cry fowl that she copied them. Not even knowing that she was born in 1916 and had been quilting long before they were ever even a thought in their parents’ minds.

    The fact remains: there is very little under the sun that has not been done. We all absorb — whether actively or passively — the images that we see and incorporate them (again, whether actively or passively) in to our works.

  16. jacquie says:

    such an interesting, thoughtful response. i especially related to your point about “claiming” to own the design of a string block or other blocks or designs. i think many quilters don’t know the history of the art and haven’t seen so many of the amazing blocks and designs that have been made over time. you’re so right that very little is new. there is so much room in the quilting world for everyone. thanks for weighing in.

  17. Marci Girl says:

    This was beautifully written, and you deserve a pat on the back for this great article! I think this one is the best written on this subject to date!

  18. Carolyn says:

    wonderful post…..I just smile at most of the “snide” comments they remind me of my students whining “She’s copying me” or “I did that first”. The Internet bloggers who complain about “copying” should click on the history of textile blogs and there they will see all their modern and unique ideas.
    Fabric is to enjoy and sewing is a pleasure………

  19. Kathy in San Diego says:

    So well said! Wonderful, and funny, perspective on the quilting world.

    I’m 60, quilting for over 35 years, and I love it all, even the “ugly” quilts. There is room for us all.

    Thank you!

  20. Jennifer says:

    I just found your blog, and have to say that this post is brilliant! I couldn’t agree more — and, even better, you made me laugh out loud. And that is pretty hard to do….

  21. Julie says:

    i just found your blog today, and you made me laugh!, i loved your post. thanks!. and you are correct, there is nothing “new”, it’s all been done before in some form or another, quilts,music,art,knitting,etc!.

  22. BJackson says:

    I loved this post. Thank-you. It helped me to remember that even though my quilts are not perfect, I did them because it is a source of peace and satisfaction for me, not to gain popularity. I don’t have any on my new blog yet, but they are coming soon.

  23. Leona says:

    The Modern Quilting Movement appears to have three distinct categories. Modern Quilting which is totally free form and abstract, Minimalism which seems to utilize a lot of “negative space” or voids of blocks surrounded by yards of fabrics…and Contemporary Quilters who tend to use Modern Fabrics in traditional block sets. The movement appears to be met with much skepticism from some traditional quilters who believe Modern Quilters are lazy quilters and that they don’t like to match their seams! I am a Modern Quilter and have taught Modern Quilting Classes. Modern Quilting is an Art Form just like any other form of quilting that challenges your imagination to think outside the block. Perhaps as we learn the history of the movement and really study it as it began many years ago before the Modern Quilt Guild existed, then we can all appreciate the current art form that it has grown into.

  24. Sharon says:

    I’ve taught quilting for over 25 years. One story I love to tell is this: when I started quilting, machine-piecing your quilt was okay, but, – horrors! – you didn’t machine ::quilt:: it, did you? Then, it isn’t a real quilt! Georgia Bonesteel once said that a quilt made by hand or by machine was going to keep you just as warm, so, in effect, get over your bad self. We take the new and blend it into the old and continue to innovate as quilting continues being the creative craft it is. Life goes on and we create new tools and faster methods, too. Plus, don’t you know that those women who quilted by kerosene lamp light in days of yore would have really, really loved to have a sewing machine?

    And, those women who snubbed machine-quilting? They all have longarms. Just sayin’. . .

    Keep up the good work of blending however you choose to do so. ::That:: is the best quilting tradition!

    Sharon in Harris County, TX

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