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Where We've Been and Where We're Going

Honor and display the history of quilting – both traditional quilting and more contemporary quilting techniques that have emerged. 

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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 › Blog Home › Quilting Blog

Nov 5, 2015 - To dig even deeper, check out the QuiltCon lectures on modern quilting produced by Craftsy. Common quilt designs found in modern quilting blocks include star blocks, string blocks, log cabin variations, circles, triangles, rectangles, hexagons, paper pieced blocks, and improvisational blocks.

Sep 22, 2017 -


Traditional quilts

Traditional quilts are tried and true. Folks have been piecing and quilting these familiar designs for hundreds of years. Traditional patchwork designs have names: Log Cabin, Courthouse Steps, Nine-Patch, Dresden Plate.  There are thousands of these traditional patterns, and these are based on blocks and a grid.

Traditional patchwork can be simple or complex, but it is usually made up of many repetitions of the same block and orderly rows. These are frequently combined with uniform sashing between individual blocks and/or borders all around. They rely heavily on symmetry in both the patchwork and the quilting.

Traditional quilt patterns are still made and loved today, but we can say that these are our grandmothers’ quilts—and their grandmothers before them.


Modern quilts

As the name implies, modern quilts are something new. They are more experimental and rely less on rules and order.  Modern quilt designs began popping up in the last half of the twentieth century. But they really hit their stride just before the new millennium.

Modern quilts differ from traditional quilts in many ways. Traditional quilts rely on a grid of regularly repeating designs, symmetry, sashing, borders, often complicated patchwork, and simple quilting. In contrast, modern quilts go off the grid and use asymmetry, less fuss, minimalist designs, and a more improvisational style with unusual arrangements of blocks and settings.

While there is a definite list of characteristics that categorize the modern quilt style, these are not rules. Most modern quilts will fulfill at least one but not usually all of them.  In general, modern quilt characteristics include a minimalist style; they emphasize negative space rather than intricate patchwork. They may feature bold colors and graphic designs that give high-contrast pop. And modern quilts often feature asymmetry and use unusual block placement and off-center motifs.

Modern colors and fabrics

Colors in modern quilts tend to be bold. High contrast graphic designs are created with brightly colored solid fabrics and striking modern prints. These are used more sparingly than in the more familiar repeating patterns which march across so many traditional quilts.  The focus is on the bold modern fabrics, rather than fussy technique.

Negative space and dense, innovative quilting

Negative space features heavily in modern quilts.  In traditional quilting, the repeating patchwork is meant to stand out. So traditional quilters most often construct backgrounds from neutral, receding colors. But backgrounds in modern quilts are brighter and more expansive. Whites and grays are popular choices to bring these negative spaces forward.

All this negative space highlights asymmetrical, alternate grid, or graphic modern quilting.  Simple piecing contrasts with dense quilting in innovative designs. Whereas patchwork commands attention in traditional quilts; on modern quilts, the quilting more often stands out.

No rules quilting

Traditional quilting stitches may be straight and simple lines, such as with “stitch in the ditch” lines that follow piecing seams. Or they can be elaborate curliques and designs which are deliberately and symmetrically placed to line up with wide borders. They may even meander as free-motion stipples, but these must follow rules, and not cross each other.

Modern quilters are free to abandon all these rules. Modern quilting lines may cross to form geometric patterns, irregular curlicues, or any other design an imaginative quilter can dream up. Quilters can even combine many varied stitches and feature each separately to break up a large expanse of negative space into different sections, for example.

Free-motion quilting is one way to let loose and experiment with fun and free modern quilting. To quilt in the free motion style, use your darning foot. You can either lower your feed dogs to guide your fabric by hand, or you can leave your feed dogs up and jt set your stitch length to zero. Either way works!

Leah Day, who teaches free-motion quilting online, challenged herself to create a new filler design every day for a year. And her Free-Motion Quilting Project blog is an excellent resource and inspiration.


Off the grid layout

Patchwork in modern quilts can include off center or tessellated designs.  Modern quilts differ with much less reliance on uniform blocks and borders than is traditional and may feature irregular rows. Lack of borders and offset blocks create designs that continue beyond the quilt’s edge.  In general, both the patchwork and the quilting on modern quilts tends not to rely on a grid.

Modern quilts may make use of technology, such as computers for visualizing designs, and tools such as cutting machines or tessellating or other specialty rulers, to assist with cutting and design.

Hybrid design: modern traditionalism

You don’t have to choose between these two styles, however! Modern traditionalism is a hybrid of both. These quilts marry the improvisational freedom in design, piecing, and quilting of modern quilts with the traditional patchwork designs that connect us to the many generations of quilters before us.

A modern traditional quilt may shrink a traditional pattern and sprinkle these sparsely as isolated individuals amongst a wide expanse of negative space. Other modern treatments of traditional patchwork include combining patterns or enlarging blocks to a single design. A quilter may then feature such blocks this off center, for example.


The Evolution of Art Quilts and Quilting

Sometimes you have to wonder which came first, the art quilt or the art quilter.

Art Quilting in the Past?

You might use the argument that when people began to put quilts on their wall that quilting as art was born. But if you go back to Colonial America you discover that the master bedroom was also the sitting room. The finery around the bed including the bedcoverings and canopy draperies were meant for show. Whether it was a whole-cloth, broderie perse or medallion quilt the center of the quilt was the focal point because that was what would be seen between the drawn drapes.

There is no doubt in my mind that much as a quilters today might make an art quilt to hang above their mantel the well-to-do women who so long ago made these fine bed quilts considered them to be an important part of the room's decor. After all it was there that guests

would be brought for conversation and tea.

Also as I study quilters throughout our past I realize how important it was to them that they make something beautiful in their quilting. Of course society didn't see these quilts as art and the quilters would never have thought to call themselves an artist.







The Discovery of Art in Quilts

This quietly began to change in the late 1960s when two art collectors, Jonathan Holstein and Gale van der Hoof, recognized that quilts could display abstract art much like the modern art that was in vogue at the time. They began to collect quilts that caught their eye for their artistic expression. With their enthusiasm for these quilts as art they were able to convince the Whitney Museum in New York to do an exhibition. I find it most amusing that this display replaced an Andy Worhol exhibit of cow wallpaper.1 The presentation titled "Abstract Design in American Quilts" was such a hit that the exhibit went on to travel around the United States and to Europe. Soon after that Amish Quilts were discovered by art aficionados and people began to buy them as art.

Artist's Turn to Quilts as Art

While the early emphasis was on art in quilts of the past it wasn't long before artists began to create new quilts as art. You notice I said "artists". The quilt art movement was primarily started by artists who originally created in other art media. For example early art quilter Michael James had been trained in painting and print making while Nancy Crow began her art career in ceramics and weaving. It has been more recently that quilters have gone from traditional quilting to quilt art.

Rejected by Traditional Quilt Shows

In the beginning there was a dearth of places to show art quilts as quilt guilds and fairs favored traditional quilts. They often had rules like insisting that entries must have batting which eliminated some art quilts.


In addition judges favored traditional quilts with fine quilting and perfect mitered corners over creativity.

This was nothing new. The Sears National Quilt Contest featured at the 1933 World's Fair encouraged quilters to make modern quilts featuring the fair's theme, "A Century of Progress". To the ire of many who made such a quilt the judges gave the top awards to traditional quilts. So it's not surprising that quilt artists in the later part of the century still had to deal with this prejudice against innovative quilts.

Given the lack of venues for art quilts Quilt National was born in a barn in Athens, Ohio in 1970 and on the west coast Quilt San Diego   (now Visions) came to be in 1985. They are both well known show cases for quilt art. But the process has been slow and there has always been a real need for both major and small quilt shows to accept and even promote art quilting.

In 1988 frustrated art quilter, Elaine Plogman, responded to this problem by declaring that "we are turning ourselves into quilting machines when we place more value on the quality of work than on the design of the work." 2 New Opportunities but Limitations Still Remain Even in the new millennium this attitude remains among some quilters. In 2004 Hollis Chatelain's quilt, "Precious Water", won Best of Show at Houston. It is hand painted with dyes and is machine quilted using thread painting consisting of 200 different thread colors. Yet a newspaper article questioned that, though this winning quilt was a work of artistry, was really a quilt? But most quilters admired it as an amazing art quilt.

Today we find a positive attitude toward art quilting and many quilters are trying their hand at creating quilt art. They are taking classes in fabric dying, painting and stamping.

They are trying their hand at embellishing with beads and even found objects. Some quilters are making wearable art and are showing their creations at quilt shows. A few are pushing the old boundaries with quilts in unusual shapes. While quilters are turning to art, artists are still discovering textiles as a media for their art.

We are so fortunate to live in a time where there are so many choices open to quilters. Many guilds include programs and classes on art quilting in their schedule and some have an art quilting group as well. But we still need to be constantly aware of the ways we limit our creativity with the old images of what a quilt "should" be like.

(click on the book covers shown above to learn more about each book.)

© 2008 Judy Anne Breneman


  1. p112, "American Q uiltmaking 1970-2000" by Elanore Levine

  2. p44, " Uncommon Threads: Ohio's Art Q uilt Revolution", by Gayle Pritchard

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