At exhibitions where our contemporary work is on display, the most common question posed is, ‘What is contemporary quilting?’ It used to be easy to distinguish Traditional from Modern, though less so Modern from Contemporary. Today that question seems to have no simple answer as the boundaries are ever more blurred. Suffice it to say that the definition for each individual Contemporary Quilt member will be personal, depending on the direction of their own quilting journey. Yet all are ‘working in textiles to create innovative and dynamic art’ ‘at the cutting edge’.
In 2002, this diverse group Contemporary Quilt (CQ) was born. Quilt Art, now an international body, had parted from The Quilters’ Guild. Annette Morgan, then Vice President, realised this split left no provision in the Guild for Art and Contemporary makers. She asked the Council if she could start a group for art quilters, designed to be supportive of like-minded people, providing workshops and talks. Annette organised an exploratory discussion in London. Full meetings followed, in Halifax and York.
The name was decided collectively at the meeting in Halifax. Although ‘contemporary’ can have several meanings, it was deemed suitable, stressing that it be ‘Contemporary Quilt’, not ‘Contemporary Quilt Group’. In Halifax then there were 30 attendees, half of the membership of Contemporary Quilt at that time. Today, a large venue indeed would be needed to accommodate half of our membership, which exceeds 700 people. Through its strong spirit of camaraderie, Contemporary Quilt has flourished to become the largest of the Special Interest Groups.
As numbers grew, so local groups began to spring up, currently twenty affiliated ones in England and Wales, plus several others throughout the UK. Their success lies in the enthusiasm and determination of their volunteer coordinators. That there is much to be gained through working collaboratively is exemplified by Exe Valley Contemporary Quilt (in Guild Region 4). They meet four times a year and, in 2019, exhibited at The Festival of Quilts the remarkable group quilt that is the heading photograph for this article. ‘The Wall’ was organised by Penny Armitage who writes:
“Living on a farm in North Devon, surrounded by the dry stone walls that border most fields and lanes, I’ve long been inspired to design a quilt using their wonderful range of textures and colours. This finally became a group quilt challenge for our regional CQ group, Exe Valley – except I didn’t design it. I just issued the challenge to this wonderfully talented group of quilters and waited for their blocks to arrive!”
Effort was rewarded; the quilt came third in the Group category. It is well worth reading the whole article from the March 2020 CQ Newsletter where eleven members describe creating their individual stones.
Local CQ groups are also dynamic in learning new skills from workshops. In mid-May, South Coast Textile Artists asked Alison Hulme to teach them screen printing. Anne Riches describes the productive time they had:
“Alison taught everyone how to use her Thermofax screens, along with spraying, rolling, brushing our background fabric first. She brought along literally hundreds of her screens, varying from many natural forms to buildings and abstract shapes. These were then developed into beautiful pieces of art – well, they will be when we take them home and put in a few stitches. We will have an interesting show and tell at our next meeting.”
Fundamentally, Contemporary Quilt aims to disseminate ideas and information. Our quarterly hardcopy Newsletter carries a wide range of articles from textile artists around the world, alongside reviews of talks, workshops, exhibitions and books, all to inspire members.
Facebook is the official platform; although better than on-line discussion is talking face-to-face, opportunities for this have recently, inevitably, been limited. Once firmly established, the Annual Meeting, the first in York then ten in London, continued the tradition of inviting high calibre speakers. The plan before the pandemic was to locate these meetings in provincial metropoli. March 2018 saw it held in Manchester, then Birmingham in 2019 and it would have been Newcastle in 2020. Happily, the tradition of impressive talks has not faded but rather morphed into six online talks a year – not only more chances to hear stimulating speakers but also of reaching larger audiences, with no travel needed.
Contemporary Quilt provides three opportunities for honing skills and displaying results in exhibitions, both real and virtual. There is a themed Challenge, usually every other year. The first, ‘Primary Colours’, was exhibited in 2005. The intention is to showcase members’ larger scale work, promoting contemporary quilting. To maintain a high standard, entries are assessed by qualified judges. The 2020 Challenge ‘Fragmentation’ has just finished touring and a slide show of these intriguing multifarious quilts is available. 2021’s celebratory collection ‘Uncharted’ recently began its journey; pictured below is part of their gallery at the Scottish Quilt Show earlier this year. The central stop for ‘Uncharted’ will be CQ’s Spotlight Gallery at FoQ this August – don’t miss it!
Secondly, we have the Suitcase Collection of 70 or so A3 quilts, which literally pack into a suitcase for any group (absolutely not just contemporary ones) to hire. This provides perfect opportunities for studying workmanship and design close up (white gloves provided). These quilts certainly fuel discussion and often are a revelation to people specialist in more traditional fields. Below is a glimpse of the current ‘On the Road’ collection at a Northern Threads’ meeting in May this year.
Four previous collections each toured for three years but have now been retired; all contents are unpacked onto our website galleries. The sixth one is about to start construction and will be ready to book in 2023.
Finally, Journal Quilts are probably the most popular of all of Contemporary Quilt’s ventures. These originated from the American Journal Quilt Challenge to produce one A4 quilt per month. Helen Cowans thought this ideal for Contemporary Quilt, initiating the scheme in 2007. Each year, size and shape are varied, sometimes with additional rules. Journal Quilts provide ideal opportunities to experiment, especially in mixed media. White cotton and non-woven textiles such as Lutradur and Tyvek can be transformed with fabric and acrylic paints, dyes both natural and synthetic, Inktense blocks/pencils, Neocolor II water soluble pastels, Xpandaprint, sketching and printing with screens and Gelli plates. This is far from an exhaustive list!
Technology is employed, too; image manipulation with Photoshop and Procreate combine with more ‘conventional’ methods, appliqué, hand and machine stitching (with a myriad of threads), not to mention paper lamination. Participants post monthly and images are collected into albums on Facebook. This is a closed group but anyone can enjoy the Journal Quilts section on Contemporary Quilt’s website. 2021’s Journal Quilts Challenge was to create twelve JQs which would join together as one whole piece at the end of the year. When displayed at shows, Journal Quilts draw much attention.
“My starting point was to envisage all of the 2021 Journal Quilts joined together with no gaps and that each Journal Quilt was a different shape. The odd shaped quilts inspired the thought of fields as seen from a bird’s eye view. I crunched up a piece of A4 paper, unfolded it and drew along some of the fold lines in order to create an abstract design. I enlarged each of the twelve abstract shapes and used those as a template for each month’s Journal Quilts. I tried to use fabrics to reflect what the fields might look like at the time of the year I was making the Journal Quilt.”
“My series of Journal Quilts is based on pages from my sketchbooks, in particular pages from a concertina sketchbook developed from an abstract collage workshop. Each Journal Quilt is the same size and shape as a double-page spread and they are machine stitched together in a concertina format. The base fabric is Vilene covered with a layer of wadding then a layer of teabag paper, and the designs are created using paper, fabric and thread collage elements, machine quilting, and the occasional hand stitch. My favourite Journal Quilt is August’s ‘Cliff Fall’, which features an extra bamboo paper flap dividing images associated with Charmouth in Dorset from a collage reflecting the flatter sea marshes of my local Kent coast.”
Contemporary Quilt aims to encourage newer quilters to extend and develop their work. The annual Anne Tuck Prize (in memory of a founder member of both The Guild and Contemporary Quilt) is awarded to someone who has been a member for less than three years and is not a professional textile artist. The winning piece in 2021 is a beautiful and meditative example. Buffy Fieldhouse had only discovered quilting two years before and the award is already forming a stepping stone along her quilting adventure.
What Contemporary Quilt can mean to its members is set out in this tribute by Alison Livesley:
‘I’m an individual member and part of an affiliated group and CQ is a constant source of information and inspiration, motivation and challenge. We have a fabulous newsletter which keeps me up to date with current issues, ideas and practice. I really enjoy the themed challenges, not only to stimulate my own creativity but to see and learn from the innovative responses from other artists. I am doing the Journal Quilt challenge for the first time this year and valuing the opportunity to try new ideas and techniques without the pressure of creating a competition or exhibition piece. It provides both a real and virtual connection to the UK’s contemporary quilting and textile art. Summer schools have been a great opportunity to meet with and learn from brilliant tutors and talented peers. I follow the group Facebook too – and I think there is more CQ can do via social media to continue to engage and inspire us over the next 20 years.’
Alison Livesley, May 2022
Words alone cannot adequately describe Contemporary Quilt’s innovative work so please do explore the Galleries section of our website. There, excitingly original pieces demonstrate the imagination and ingenuity without limits – our CQ members creating at the cutting edge!
Find out more about Contemporary Quilt and how to join on our website.
Newsletter Copy Editor, Contemporary Quilt
(Featured Image at top: ‘The Wall’ a collaborative piece by Exe Valley Contemporary Quilt. Image credit: Delyse Upton)