The introduction of the rotary cutter by the Olfa Company in 1979 was a milestone in the history of patchwork and quilting. Not since Singer’s development of the electric sewing machine in 1889 has the way we make our quilts been so dramatically influenced. Prior to the rotary cutter’s invention, quilters relied on scissors to cut their pieces, tracing the required shapes onto fabric using home-made templates which quickly became inaccurate as the edges wore from use. This revolutionary new invention, when used in conjunction with acrylic rulers and a self-healing cutting mat, made light work of preparing patchwork pieces and changed the way we cut fabric forever.
For me, the juxtaposition of our age-old craft alongside design innovation and ever-changing technology is an interesting one. My sewing machine, a recently released all new Bernina 570QE, would be a thing of wonder to the quilters of the early 20th century. Features like presser foot hover and automatic thread cutter work alongside the little-changed needle and feed dogs to help me create quilts quickly and intuitively. The vast and varied array of feet available make all manor of sewing techniques available to the home sewer. The dual feed feature, which acts as an integrated walking foot, makes quilting larger quilts quicker and easier. Whilst the simple mechanics of the machine have remained unchanged, it’s clear that technology continues to advance in order to meet the demands of today’s sewers. I know quilters who sew traditional English paper pieced quilts with templates cut using the latest computerised die cutters. Design software like Electric Quilt 8 can replicate a block and show you the layout of your king-sized quilt in seconds. There are bias tape makers and binding attachments to facilitate a fast finish. The list goes on and on.
Alongside the innovation and excitement of the future, tried and tested methods and the influence of the past continue to inform and inspire quilters from all backgrounds. I consider myself to be a modern, improv quilter. The quilts I make are constructed using non-traditional methods. I shy away from patterns and templates and use my rotary cutter in a liberated way, not relying too much on the rulers and accurate measurements. My work is contemporary, yet what I cut with my rotary cutter is deeply influenced by the quilts of yesteryear. My practice makes use of half-square triangles, flying geese and log cabins; all ubiquitous blocks in the earliest of quilts. The same is true of other quilters I’ve spoken to who are opposite to me in their piecing styles. There are staunch traditionalists who use the latest sewing machines to piece some of patchwork’s oldest blocks, whilst other improv quilters spend weeks hand quilting a minimalist top.
No matter what type of quilter you are, modern or traditional, it’s clear that more and more of us are working in a way that melds technology and tradition. The lines that separate these two often thought of as conflicting notions are becoming increasingly blurred. As quilt makers, our end goal is the same, it’s how we get there that varies greatly. So, whether you love long-arming log cabin quilts or sewing up the hottest, just-released fabrics with a needle and thread, next time you’re making a quilt, take a moment to think about the past and the present and how they’re influencing your quilting future.
By Nick Ball