The dumbing down of quilting

1. I am not calling “you” dumb. I don’t know you.
2. Nor am I calling your quilts dumb.
3. Please read the second and third posts as well, linked at the bottom. There’s a bit less snark.

Anyone who is easily offended, please stop reading.
Anyone who believes that Sew, Mama, Sew! is the be-all and end-all of fabric crafts, please stop reading.
Anyone who thinks bloggers should always write nice, happy posts, please stop reading.

If you’re tired of seeing the same seven quilts on every blog you visit, keep reading.
If you’re frustrated by lopsided log cabin blocks being called “adventurous,” keep reading.
If you’re able to disagree constructively, hey, welcome! I don’t mind healthy discussion.

So what set me off today? Sew, Mama, Sew’s blog post about sewing trends: What’s New?! I agree with the trends listed, I think they’re spot on. Pinwheels, ruffles, embroidery and cross stitch, gray and yellow, painterly fabrics – yeah, sounds about right. But listen to this:

Quilting Trend: Pinwheels
I’m seeing pinwheels everywhere! I think they’re a nice challenge for the intermediate to advanced quilter.

Seriously? Pinwheels are four half square triangles sewn into a four patch. Any intermediate quilter worth her salt could whip out a dozen pinwheel blocks in a couple of hours. They might be a challenge for a beginner, but – SERIOUSLY?!?!!!

Please, please understand that I love simple quilts. I make a lot of them. There’s nothing wrong with quick, basic quilts. There’s a real satisfaction in knocking out a whole quilt in a few days or a week. They’re beautiful in their simplicity, and easy quilts should be respected (along with their makers). I encourage beginning quilters to try their hand at larger quilts using some of these simple construction techniques. But I also encourage them to then try making something a little more complicated. Something that requires focus, concentration, accuracy.

Quilting has the potential to be a wonderful outlet, a way to engage both sides of our brains. With one side we get to create things with colorful, beautiful fabrics. With the other side we use our mathematical, logical skills to work accurately and accomplish something useful. But we need to exercise these skills, stretch them and push them. We also need to stop stroking the egos of some quilters simply because they make things with pretty fabrics and bright colors (and take awesome photos). If a quilter can’t work with triangles, she’s a beginner, I don’t care how many quilts she’s made. If she can’t sew a consistent quarter inch seam, she’s a beginner. Makes the same quilt seventeen times in a row? Beginner. Makes only wonky blocks because they’re don’t require accuracy? Beginner. (NOTE: If her work is primarily improvisational because she love the freedom and enjoys adapting the technique, that’s a different matter entirely!) I’m not naming names because, well, that’s just mean. But I believe there are some very popular blogging quilters that are doing their readers (and themselves) a disservice by focusing so heavily on the simple stuff. Like everything else in this world, quilting experience isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality. I sew with a number of quilters who soak up new techniques, then think and twist and push them in a different direction. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been quilting – every one is at least an intermediate quilter.

Try something new! If pinwheels and HSTs are new for you, then great! Try them. Master them, then try something else. Learn flying geese. Make a block with more than 20 pieces in it. Try 60 degree angles. Then learn curved piecing. Learn applique (I’m trying!). Try working with smaller blocks. Don’t worry about making a whole quilt. Make a block. Make a sampler. Make something, hate it, stuff it away. That’s fine. Try it! Try one of the hundreds of free patterns available on the web. Check out Karrie from Freckled Whimsy’s patterns – she does a great job of taking a new technique and breaking it down into manageable components. Join a quilt along (Jeanne at Grey Cat Quilts is going to be starting a Double Wedding Ring quilt along in April – try that!). Look around you for patterns, shapes, colors, and make up your own design. Simple or complex, creating a quilt entirely out of your head is a fantastic accomplishment.

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, because we don’t grow without challenge. And doing the same thing over and over is pretty damn boring.

Please take a moment to read The Dumbing Down of Quilting, Part 2 for a little clarification and a somewhat gentler attitude.

Also, take the time to read Sew, Mama, Sew’s response: Weighing in on the Great Quilting Debate: Three Guiding Principles. I am grateful for their moderate and understanding take on this issue, and their invitation to contribute a guest post on their blog.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I do appreciate those of you who have respectfully disagreed with part or all of what I wrote. To those who have taken the opportunity to use MY blog as a forum for name calling and vitriol, I wonder if you recognize the contradiction in your behavior?


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?

What is Modern Quilting?

Last week the Modern Quilt Guild blog asked the question “What does “Modern Quilting” mean to you? As a traditional quilter who is just beginning to dabble in what I consider modern quilting, here’s what I think:

For me, modern quilting is about a new generation of quilters putting their spin on the tradition of quiltmaking as a creative yet practical art. Through the years, quilts have been made for a purpose (warmth). They’ve also been a creative outlet and a way to add beauty to our lives. Some were made from scraps and others from found cloth (feedsacks, old clothes) or specially purchased materials. None of that has changed.

The biggest difference I see is color/fabric choices. Modern quilting leans toward clear colors rather than grayed colors. Solids are more prevalent. (Based on those two qualifications, modern quilting is very much like traditional Amish quilting.) Prints are either very large scale, graphic, or whimsical as opposed to traditional florals and calicoes. Modern quilting also pairs fabrics much more… um… adventurously. I also see a change in the patterns. Instead of representative blocks, like traditional stars, baskets and flowers, they lean toward geometric designs with less emphasis on symmetry (although there are also some very symmetrical modern quilts). I also see scale playing a greater part in modern quilting, either very large or very small. However, I think a traditional pattern with modern fabrics is more likely to read as modern than a modern pattern with traditional fabrics.


Let me try that again: If you use calicoes in hunter green and burgundy and cream and federal blue to make a Wonky Log Cabin quilt, it will look like a traditional quilt. If you use Amy Butler prints and whites and clear solids to make an Ohio Star quilt, it will be called a modern quilt.

Art quilts are a genre all their own, and I tend to think of them as more complex, smaller, and with more emphasis on different techniques. They may also be modern, but I think of them as overlapping styles, not one as a subcategory of the other.

As an aside, I believe that all quilters can benefit from learning the traditional piecing methods. I don’t think we should use ONLY those methods (or even any of those methods, once learned), but understanding them can give us a starting point for trying new things.