Modern Quilting by Linda Seward


The definition of a modern quilt definitely causes confusion. How does it differ from a contemporary or art quilt? If 100 quilters were asked to define modern quilting, there would be at least 100 different answers. Perhaps that’s what makes the Modern quilting movement so appealing to such a wide variety of quilters. Modern quilts are utilitarian art. They tell stories, break the rules, and make a statement. If there is one rule in modern quilting, it is that there are no rules.

To understand this style, we need to consider some history. Pioneers of the Modern Quilt movement, Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr are professional quiltmakers and co-founders of the Modern Quilt Studio in Oak Park, Illinois. Weeks made her first modern quilt in 1987. 

We wanted to take the functionality of traditional quilts and the freedom of expression and techniques of art quilts and combine them into a new genre that would be expressive of the time in which we live. For us, modern quilting is simply new designs not based on 19th and early 20th century motifs. It’s a way of thinking and an approach that allows us to use technology and modern tools to yield different types of quilts.

Weeks Ringle

In fact, their book title ‘Modern Quilt Workshop’ was the first time that ‘modern’ was used to describe a different way of thinking about quilts.

Technological innovations of the time contributed to the rise of modern quilting. Affordable digital cameras, the internet and social media (Flickr, blogs, Facebook and Instagram) allowed savvy young quilters to share what they were making, connect with other quilters who were doing the same thing and inspire other people to try it too. Because many older quilters were not quite up to these advances at that point, modern quilting became a movement for younger quilters to create utilitarian quilts with bright bold fabrics that would work in their homes. And importantly, because fabric pieces were large and there were areas of negative space (more on this later), the quilts could be made quickly. The speed and ease of making these quilts further fuelled the modern revolution and it wasn’t long before the Modern Quilt Guild was born (2009), founded by Latifah Saafir and Alissa Haight Carlton. Today, modern quilters have a huge online community, making this a rich, inclusive and vibrant worldwide movement. Indeed, our own Guild has a Modern Special Interest Group that is thriving. And best of all, quilters of every age are now equally enthralled by the possibilities of Modern quilts. Indeed, the enthusiastic uptake of this style amongst older makers possibly hearkens them back to the clean modernist aesthetics of their youth in the 50’s and 60s.

Modern quilters have been influenced by the bold solid fabrics, simple piecing and traditional pattern adaptations embraced by the Amish and Gees Bend quilters as well as work by Japanese quilter Kuroha Shizuko, who was at Festival of Quilts in 2017. But modern quilters didn’t just copy these styles—they updated and simplified them using bright bold fabrics that would work in their own homes. So let’s look at the seven most important characteristics of a modern quilt. While all these features may not be present in a single piece, you should be able to clearly identify some of them in a truly modern quilt. 

To me, the first two features, minimalism and negative Space, generally go hand in hand. The more negative space a quilt has, the more minimal it becomes so these two elements are of equal importance. The rules for minimalism are simple: the less there is, the more minimal the work. Paring down a design to its most basic parts will create a feeling of minimalism. Judith Lynch’s piece ‘Sticks and Stones 1 is a good example of minimalism with her spare yet effective placement of fine lines of patchwork.

Judith’s piece also has expanses of negative space—the area between the design elements. Negative space can be any colour, but should be a solid fabric; it can also be a palette for extensive machine quilting as in Judith’s piece and Helen Howes’ ‘Tower of Power’. Helen’s quilt embodies several other modern principles such as a limited solid colour palette and asymmetry.

The third element is colour/fabric. Modern quilts often use solid colour palettes rather than the floral prints found in traditional quilts. Solids in a limited palette will produce clean sharp lines, creating contrast and definition as in Devi Chapman’s ‘Modern Circles’. If printed fabrics are used, they need to be fresh, jazzy and slightly retro; large scale prints and those that feature writing or text are popular choices—have a look at Sarah Hibbert’s ‘Happenstance for some modern prints. Devi’s simple parallel quilting lines are another trait of a modern quilt.

Asymmetry is the fourth element used by modern quilters. Traditional quilts are commonly laid out in a grid of straight columns and rows. While modern quilts can still follow this structure, they sometimes incorporate alternate grid work or uneven rows and columns. Jennifer Anderson’s ‘Modern Mysteryshows how powerful a design element asymmetry can be. The white negative space around the rectangles sets off the design and her excellent use of a limited solid colour palette (as well as grey) make this a prime example of a modern quilt.

Using the fifth element, scale, will modernize a traditional block or quilt layout. By increasing or decreasing the size of a traditional quilt block, a modern quilter can achieve a dramatic look with pieces that range from miniscule to larger than life. Abigail Sheridan de Graaff’s quilt ‘Mini to Maxi – Churn Dash’ is a good example. Her minimalist solid-colour palette is sparked by the green stripes; the negative space surrounding the block gives the patchwork prominence and importance, but it’s the different scale of the Churn Dash blocks that give this quilt its primary focus.

Improvisation, is probably one of the first techniques modern quilters explored. Throw out traditional construction rules such as matching seams, straight lines or grids; combine scraps of fabric to create organic movement. Heather Hasthorpe’s ‘Improv Marbles’ is a good example of improvisational piecing with a limited solid colour palette and the use of asymmetry.

The seventh feature is modern traditionalism, which means taking a traditional design and changing or updating it, either by altering the scale, using a modern colour palette or asymmetry or surrounding it with negative space. Just piecing a traditional block pattern in modern fabrics isn’t enough—play around with how blocks are put together as we can see here in Sarah Hibbert’s ‘Happenstance’ where she has misplaced and alternated Drunkard’s Path blocks with linen sashing. Abigail’s ‘Churn Dash’ quilt is another good example.

I haven’t discussed quilting, which is an important part of a modern quilt, but which can range from simple parallel lines of hand or machine quilting to intricate free motion work. Suffice it to say that there is great freedom in the type of quilting you can do on a modern quilt. You can emphasize the quilting to make it very important (by using bold threads like perle cotton or Kantha techniques) or have it recede into the background.

I hope this has helped clarify the definition of a Modern quilt. If it has inspired you to make one for Festival of Quilts next year, the organisers say this category is:

“For quilts that are minimalist with clean, modern design and a strong visual impact. They often use asymmetry, improvisational piecing, a reinterpretation of traditional blocks or the lack of a visible block structure. A feeling of space is often achieved by the use of negative space. They are machine or hand quilted in a way that is sympathetic to the design.”

The Festival of Quilts

Good luck and I look forward to seeing what you create!

Linda Seward is a member of the Modern Quilt Group, one of five special interest groups within The Guild, each focusing on different aspects of patchwork and quilting. Why not join us, and find out what the Modern Quilt Group has to offer?

This article is an adapted and updated version of a feature that first appeared in ‘The Quilter’ Spring 2019 (Issue 158), the quarterly magazine that goes out exclusively to members of The Quilters’ Guild.

Linda Seward on Instagram

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