An Essay on Modern Quilting

Jeanne at Grey Cat Quilts shared a video by Rossie of Fresh Modern Quilts (a fantastic group on Flickr). The video is an hour long presentation of her take on modern quilting – terminology, how it’s developed, and characteristics of the style. Jeanne then posted some interesting observations and questions about the content. I started to add a comment and it turned into this essay, so I’m posting it here instead. Be sure to check out the video and Jeanne’s post.

Everything Old is New Again

I do not consider myself a “modern quilter.” I am a quilter, period. I like traditional quilts, and I like modern quilts. I work with fabrics that could be considered modern, and I like traditional blocks. I like the negative space and asymmetry of many modern quilts, and I like the precision of many traditional quilts. I am a member of two (going on three) Modern Quilt Guilds, although none are particularly active just yet. I’m still feeling my way around my quilting style. (Although right now my quilting style is “none.” Gotta fix that.)

If you are a self-described modern quilter, you may disagree with some of my opinions. I appreciate that. I don’t mean to be critical of any person, but I have thought critically of the… let’s call it movement. It isn’t so much because I see things I don’t like, but because I see something I do like, over and over and over. You know how you hear a song on the radio and you just love it, and then the station plays it eight times a day for a month straight and if you hear it again you might have to hurt someone? Yeah, like that.

To illustrate some of the ideas of modern quilting, and to poke at myself and show you that yes, there is a bit of hypocrisy in this post, all of the quilts in this post were made at least in part by me.

Good & Plenty finished

While I have made quilts that were inspired by photos of other quilts, both traditional and non-traditional, I try to be inspired by rather than duplicate exactly. I also strive for the occasional original design, or at least semi-original design, even if it’s nothing more than a new color palette. I understand the appeal of recreating a beautiful quilt, especially when so many modern quilts are relatively simple to make. I agree with Jeanne’s comment, though, that we are being robbed of our creativity at the same time we’re being exposed to new ideas. The one overriding thought I had throughout the video was how similar the quilts looked, even when done by different people.

You know what it reminds me of? Reality TV. First we had The Real World, then Survivor and American Idol and The Amazing Race and Big Brother. For their time, ground breaking shows. Now every network airs shows “about” swapped wives and new models and dancing/singing/talent. Shows about the lives of low-list or even no-list “celebrities” smack us in the face every time we turn on the TV. Few of them have any meaning, any value anymore – it’s all background noise. I fear “modern” quilting is going down the same road. A few creative gems pop up every now and then, but I see so much replication, so much filler.


A big aspect of modern quilting is simplicity, but it’s both beautiful and limiting. You can only arrange basic squares or rectangles so many ways before eyes begin glazing over. Other common themes include negative space (lots of white, although linen and gray are now popular), asymmetry, and bold colors and/or prints. Again, I really enjoy the fresh, clean, funky style. However, I get frustrated when I click on a favorite blogger’s site and see yet another quilt just like the one they made last month. Of course these people aren’t making quilts for my enjoyment, and they have every right to create a quilt that makes them happy. Sometimes we want the satisfaction of completing a project and a simple quilt is great for that. But we also need to work on expanding the boundaries of modern quilting. At what point does “creating” end and “making” begin? Here comes another analogy: When I’m in a hurry and I’m hungry and I just want to get supper on the table, I “make” tuna noodle casserole. It’s tasty and it’s filling and it’s fast. But when I’m in the mood to “create” I make homemade lasagna, with sauce from scratch – even the noodles are homemade. I layer and fuss and enjoy the process. We need to get back to enjoying the process in quilting. (We can thank Rossie for that, too – she’s the originator of the Process Pledge.)

Framing Squares

Traditional quilts are also repetitive, but because they combine elements you see a much larger variety of quilts. Take flying geese, for example. It’s a pretty basic element, but because it can be connected in long rows, in double pinwheels, in circles and squiggles and squares, it doesn’t get old so easily. It is also used as a component of more complex blocks, and you often see secondary patterns. There’s a blog called Modify Tradition (which, unfortunately, hasn’t had anything new since June, but who am I to criticize?!). Their premise is that modern and traditional quilting don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I like this. I think if we can combine the modern aesthetic with the traditional variety, we can expand our boundaries so much further.

Modify Tradition Swap

Jacquie at Tallgrass Prairie Studio is one of those modern quilters that has not put boundaries on her creativity. I am blown away by every photo she posts because she is always thinking, always moving forward. When she makes an improvisational log cabin (I like that term so much more than “wonky”), or even several, you don’t think, “Oh, another one of those.” She plays with color, with scale, with texture, and she creates something new each time. Not long ago, she posted about a reader and new quilter who, while attending a class, was told by a master quilter that people made wonky log cabins because they couldn’t quilt correctly. The reader was understandably discouraged and frustrated. Jacquie’s response included this gem:

If we don’t encourage and welcome new folks, new ideas, we are risking quilting becoming a lost art.

There followed a long list of encouraging, supportive comments (because fundamentally, “encourage and support” is what quilters do). I believe that modern quilters can learn a lot from the traditionalists, too. As I said in my comment,

I believe beginning quilters can really benefit from learning the “rules” and basic traditional block construction and applique methods. Once you understand the how and the why you have a much better base for creativity.

On the flip side, traditionalists need to accept and learn from modern quilters. At least in my area, quilt shops and guilds are heavily traditional. I’m going to bring this back around to Grey Cat Quilts, where the whole essay (should I change the title to novel?!) began. We attended the Madison Quilt Expo last weekend, and were disappointed in the lack of modern fabric options. (She has a great post on this subject.) She made the following point:

Just to be blunt, quilting’s current target demographic, the female retiree is a shrinking demographic. That customer base is going to, literally, die off. … Marketers in quilting have done virtually nothing to woo generations X and Y, and even less to keep those two generations interested in the hobby.

In our area (south central Wisconsin), there are at least nine quilt shops within a half hour drive. Only one carries fabric that could remotely be considered modern. Expand that to 90 minutes and 16 quilt shops and the number increase a bit, but only one of those 16 is primarily modern (and it’s at the farthest edge). I desperately want to support my local quilt shops, but it’s difficult when they don’t support me. Lizzie House, designer of the fabulous Castle Peeps fabric (and daughter of Cherry House who wrote the book City Quilts) spoke at Spring Market about how quilt shops can attract younger quilters to their stores. She posted the video on her blog, and it is AMAZING. She’s funny, speaks well, and makes some very good points. I want to tell all of the stores in the area that they have to watch it. (And then I want to win the lottery so I can go shopping!)

So, if you’ve made it through all the way to here, what do you think? Am I being judgmental? If you say yes, I won’t argue, because I know that particular personality flaw is alive and well in me. Do you lean more toward traditional, modern, or do you incorporate both into your quilting? How so? What do you like about modern quilts? Traditional quilts? What do you dislike?



  1. You know I throw my hat in the ring with you – I’m a quilter. I take elements that I like and make them work for me. I dislike the fissure that exists between traditionalists and modernists. We embody facets of the same craft, and there are valuable lessons to be taken from either side.

  2. great post! i enjoyed reading your reflections, though i have nothing to add. you said it all, i think.

    one point: crystal and i have decided to take a hiatus from modify tradition and enjoy our own personal sewing. MT was starting to feel like an annoying job, not a fun endeavor, so we elected to take a break. you know how it is. obligation and all.

    by the way, i just want to chime in about the process pledge. that whole thing is a big fat obligation, as far as i’m concerned. there is nothing that makes sewing more annoying than stopping a million times along the way to take pictures.

    rant over!

    • I’m so glad you stopped by! I completely understand putting the Modify Tradition blog on hiatus – I’ve taken several extended breaks when it starts to feel like either I don’t have anything interesting to say, or I just need to focus on other things. I hope that you’ll find the interest to post again, but until then, enjoy sewing!

      I appreciate your point of view on the process pledge feeling like an obligation. I don’t want to photograph every little thing I do (and you’ll notice that I haven’t made many process posts!). My interest in the process pledge is more about the thought process than the assembly process. I’d like to know what people go through when they make fabric choices, or what inspires them, or how they come up with new ideas. Showing me step by step assembly instructions of a wonky log cabin – not so much.

      Please stop by and rant anytime!

  3. Using the latest fabrics available is nothing new … turkey red was the new, modern fabric when it first became available. At the moment it is bright cheerful fabrics with prints which look like they escaped from the nineteen seventies. Wonder what will be new in ten years time?

    About ten years ago the new, modern designs were called innovative ….. what will be the next term for modern?

  4. You go girl! I am getting tired of all this modern vs. traditional debate. I just want to make quilts. I make quilts for the people in my life and I try to make things that suit their personalities. Some may be more modern and some may not. I agree with virtualquilter. I like the fabrics of the 2010’s but they are just that, fabrics of this decade.

  5. Very well said…I, too, love both the modern and traditional…also, I am so pleased to see so many of you “younger” ones in the quilt world…I know there will be lots of inspiration for my grand-daughter after I am gone…all said and done I think you expressed the views of many of my friends too!

  6. Hi Sandi, You know I definitely dance to my own tune but I love and admire traditional quilting. Hand applique and hand quilting make my heart sing. I too believe too much of a void exists between both worlds. I am so glad that more and more new techniques are showing up in quilt shows.

  7. An excellent post! I’m very new to quilting-on-the-internet, and I’ve been inspired by all the things I see but also a bit put off by the idea of categorizing myself as ‘modern’ or ‘traditional.’ I worry, too, as I’m starting work on a new quilt for my daughter about being derivative or uncreative, that what I’m doing is something that’s been done before–and I know it has, as I’ve taken inspiration from pictures of other quilts I’ve seen–but I decided that it’s what will make me happy, so that’s what is important!

    I also agree with you and Jeanne at Grey Cat Quilts–fabric stores don’t cater to a younger crowd’s tastes. Many times we’re overlooked as a market, even though we spend plenty of money.

    So nice to find another southern Wisconsin quilter! Hello!

  8. Here’s one retired baby boomer who is never going to be categorized as traditional or modern, has no quilt shops within twenty-five miles and knows that none of the other members of her quilt guild has any idea who the current fabric designers are. I still quilt and love every minute of it. Great post Sandi.

  9. What’s interesting is that if you go back and read Cheryl Arkinson’s post on “Throwback Quilts”

    You’ll see that she’s saying much of what you are saying: what gets called “modern” isn’t so new and shiny as one might like to think and also, she’s bored with quick and easy quilts.

    My posts on Mutant Quilting and on the Process Pledge came out of agreement with and response to Cheryl’s post and to email conversations between Cheryl and I. While part of the process pledge’s motivation is to spread knowledge around, it is also intended to devalue reveals of finished quilts so that people can perhaps slow down and, to put it in your words “create” rather than “make” more personal quilts.

    At the same time that I refuse to say “these aren’t your grandmother’s quilts!” or anything along those lines, I do think there are repertoires of elements that might mark a quilt as what is being called “modern.” However, in my head, it is all on a spectrum, not in a strict taxonomy.

    It’s an interesting conversation, one that I hope to keep having.


Comments are closed.