More Thoughts On What Is A Modern Quilt

It’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of the modern quilting movement. First it was all about solids and negative space. Then prints were added to the mix.  Lately, traditional quilting blocks have made an appearance.

flying-triangles-HollieLobosky(Flying Triangles by Hollie Lobosky)

Part of the change may be practical. The sewing skills of modern quilters are improving. Some modern quilters now get picky about precision. Quite a change from all those wonky quilts. Part may be market driven.  Fabric companies are always eager to increase their markets, and the infusion of the modern aesthetic into fabric has been invigorating.  And part may be the design/art background of many of the modern quilting practitioners who have emerged as bellwethers. Like Bob Dylan, they may be moving on to their next reinvention as they explore the fabric medium further.

The most recent discussion I’ve read on this topic is by rOssie on her blog, Fresh Modern Quilts. Her post was occasioned by a MQG challenge quilt she made using very nontraditional fabric (Zombie Apocalypse!) and the very traditional ocean waves pattern.  She concludes that fabric choice doesn’t necessarily make a quilt modern.

“You see, at last year’s QuiltCon there was a section of quilts called ‘Modern Traditionalism’ and when I walked through that section of quilts I was a bit overtaken by confusion.  Because the quilts don’t fit my definition of ‘modern quilts.’ And while I could go on a bit about that, I think that what it boils down to for me is this: fabric choice is not enough.”

She goes on to consider calling her quilt “modern traditional” but decides to reject that label.

There are lots of comments in response to this post, so I suggest you read them rather than have me try to put words into other people’s mouths.

Ahem, so how do I define modern quilting?  Does it even matter to me?  I started thinking about this after I read Thomas Knauer’s Quilt Matters columns in Quilters Newsletter. I confess I still don’t know how he defines a modern quilt, though he does say this:

“Modern quilting does not step outside of the quilting tradition; rather it is by and large a response to what the term traditional has come to mean.”

And what does he think that term has come to mean? As he understands it, “traditional” became used in the 1980s to differentiate quilts meant for use from art quilts meant to hang on a wall.  From there, certain approaches became traditional while others didn’t. He talks about this leading to more complicated and difficult work being given a higher priority.

I guess in some ways modern quilting’s stress on the functional nature of a quilt is a reaction to those highly complicated quilts (like the ones on the cover of Quilters Newsletter) that would never find their ways onto children’s beds or into washing machines.

According to the Modern Quilt Guild, “Modern quilts are primarily functional and inspired by modern design. Modern quilters work in different styles and define modern quilting in different ways, but several characteristics often appear which may help identify a modern quilt. These include, but are not limited to: the use of bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, and alternate grid work. “Modern traditionalism” or the updating of classic quilt designs is also often seen in modern quilting.” I think that last sentence may be a recent addition. Overall, the above statement seems to boil down to you’ll know it when you see it.

Barbara Brackman’s blog, Historically Modern, has been a bright spot for me in all the murk surrounding what is/is not modern design. She addresses modernism in a much broader art context than just quilting.  Her recent post on Sophie Taeuber-Arp helped reinforce my ideas about “modern” – asymmetry, negative space, broad swaths of solid colors, and a keen sense of balance in the design. Taeuber-Arp painted Moving Circles, the piece below, in 1933.

sophie t arp 1933 moving circlesA side note: I just love Barbara’s post about one principle of modernism – no sentimentalism.  Quilts with anthropomorphized animals (puppies, kitties, bunnies and the like), pumpkins, Xmas cuteness, etc., set off my gag reflex.  Yes, it’s my personal taste and it’s why I’m the Snarky Quilter.

Actually, I’ve decided that it’s not productive to try to parse what is a modern quilt. I view quilting as a very big tent. Lift the tent flap and come on in.  There’s something inside to appeal to everyone. Just don’t think that your approach to quilting is the only true way.


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11 responses to “More Thoughts On What Is A Modern Quilt

  1. A bit late to the discussion, but wanted to add my 2 cents’ worth. I’m part of the generation who muddled along before all the developments in the 80s–made my first quilt in 1963, and it was kind of a mess, but it was what I knew to make. As the new innovations came in–Blanche Young and Mary Ellen Hopkins with their rotary cutters and streamlined chain-piecing–I have embraced them. Nowadays I’d say my style is “eclectic” since I don’t fit in any of the boxes. Not modern, exactly; not really traditional; not really an art quilter; but some of each of them. Challenging myself and doing the things I enjoy doing, and hopefully producing quilts that will be loved and appreciated for lots of reasons!

    • I hear you about the trad/mod divide in some quarters. I’ve heard traditional quilters dismiss modern quilts as Amish on white, which really misunderstands modern quilting. One aspect of modern quilting that has affected workmanship is that some modern quilters are newbies to sewing machines. They’re sometimes so thrilled to sew anything together that I kind of hate to point out technical flaws. I think this is fallout from the evisceration of home ec. Nobody is taught how to sew nowadays (old fart alert) and many of the modern quilters grew up in the post-home ec era. Yet, there’s hope as I see workmanship improving tremendously as modern sewers gain more experience, and learn some traditional techniques – applique, paper piecing, etc.

  2. sandy

    We are all Fabric Artists, and it took me a long time to figure out what was bothering me about this new classification of our art. It bothers me because it feels exclusionary. Also, the modern quilter has such a difficult time defining what their creations actually are. “You’ll know it when you see it, just doesn’t cut it in my book.

    It’s like forming a new group of quilters who only hand quilt, or machine quilt, or only use the color red.

    We are having a hard enough time having our art recognized as art to spend the effort to further divide us.

    The new “modern” quilting looks very similar to the backs of my quilts. For 35 years now, I’ve made minimalist art on the backs of my quilts.

    Hope I haven’t offended anyone. But I gather from the title of this blog, I’m free to be snarky. Quilt on….and create what makes you happy, or matches your wall color, or pleases your granddaughter, or wows the masses at quilt shows or simply uses up the massive stash that you’re afraid will bury you.


    • Don’t spare the snark! As I said in my post, I view quilting as a very big tent. For me, the biggest contribution “modern” quilting has made is to bring in a new generation of quilters who are not intimidated by the quilt police and who have used social media to share their process and products.

      • sandy

        I agree with you! It does my heart good to see the unbridled creativity just on the internet! Such inspiration!!

  3. Lesley

    There are modern quilts that take my breath away, just as there are traditional quilts that have the same effect. The first quilt exhibition I visited was in Nantes where I was mesmerised by Japanese quilts on display. Another visit to Nantes 3 years later and there was a room displaying 100 or so “Dear Jane” quilts. I have to say I found them terribly depressing, the more so when my French friends inspected them to see how well-matched the piecing. You only have to look at French gardens to see how obsessed they are, as a nation, with all things symmetrical! Thank goodness quilting has moved on, but too many visits to exhibitions, especially here in France, make me “quilt blind”. I’m trying to become modern but I am considered anarchic by other members of our club.

    • Well, Dear Jane quilts are made by and inspected by obsessives. Ultimately, I think you can admire all sorts of quilts, and I’m so grateful for the infinite variety, but you’re happiest doing the kind of quilting that speaks to you. I just saw a quilt show with lots of lovely pieces but very few that left me wishing I had made them.

  4. jennyklyon

    Excellent post on the subject! I posted a link on Facebook. I am confused as to what a “Modern Quilt” is even though I follow the movement, go to the shows and enjoy the work of those who make them. This gives great perspective.

    • My off the cuff reaction is that the definition of modern quilts is a moving target. It’s like try to nail jello to the wall. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate aspect of the quilting world.

  5. sandy

    I’m of the generation that “discovered” quilting in the 1980s. With the development of the new rotary cutters and rulers, we definitely thought of ourselves as “modern”. We certainly were able to create things more quickly, and accurately than our mothers and grandmothers were.

    Asymmetry, negative space, broad swaths of solid colors, and a keen sense of balance in the design have ALWAYS been the goal of some quilters. Just look at the Gee’s Bend Quilters. Some quilters, then as now were traditional, and some quilters went in a whole new direction with their creativity.

    I honestly think that each generation has to reinvent a skill to make it their own….just like we did. There is nothing “new” under the sun and now, as when I started out, design was personal to each quilter.

    I’m just delighted to see a new generation take up the craft and pass it on.

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