To the untrained eye, a quilt is a quilt is a quilt. But, to the modern quilter, every quilt is a fresh opportunity to approach a traditional craft with new color combinations, new fabric choices, and a more playful, improvisational twist.
The chance to mix fun with functionality seems to be attracting a whole new generation of quilters, according to board members of the Modern Quilt Guild (MQG).
"Among younger people, there's been the indie craft movement that had been going on for awhile, and quilting just hadn't reached that world yet. Now I really see modern quilting as combining those two worlds," says Alissa Haight Carlton, MQG Executive Director. "A lot of women who were already sewing purses and skirts are now hearing more about quilting and wanting to join in."
Based in Los Angeles, Carlton has also casted aspiring fashion designers for the popular cable TV show, "Project Runway." A knitter, she said she discovered quilting by looking at photos online. It was an "aha!" moment for her when she realized, "Oh...quilting can be like that."
Carlton already owned a sewing machine that she had hardly turned on, but when she saw the contemporary work of Massachusetts quilter Denyse Schmidt, she decided, "I want to make these! They just called my name. I wasn't scared of just giving it a shot. I just started making quilts and completely fell in love."
"Modern quilts take their design cues from modern art and mid-century design," said Elizabeth Hartman, another MQG board member based in Portland, Oregon. "They tend to have a lot of negative space, feature large areas of neutral colors, incorporate a lot of solid fabrics, and eschew the traditional block structure. You see a lot of improvisation."
"I don't remember ever not sewing," Hartman says. "I pretty much remember making things my entire life, and sewing was always a part of that.
"When I first started, I would say I was more of an art quilter. I've always made useful quilts, but I did that with a lot of mixed media, fabric transfers, paints and dyes, appliqué, and a lot of odd materials that weren't necessarily quilting materials."
Today, her bold graphics fall squarely into the camp of modern quilters whom she inspires and instructs in her book, Modern Patchwork: 12 Quilts to Take You Beyond the Basics.
"I don't want to give the idea that modern quilters don't care about craftsmanship––because we definitely do––but I think we tend to be a little more open to different methods," Hartman adds. Regardless of their different approaches, all kinds of quilters can peacefully co-exist and learn from each other, she says.
"The look of modern quilts appeals to younger people, but the modern quilting community is very connected online, through social media and through the Modern Quilt Guild. The prospect of having people to communicate about quilting—both online and in person through the guild—is really appealing to new quilters.
"I've been quilting seriously for a very long time, but until the Modern Quilt Guild in 2009, I didn't have any friends in real life who were quilters. And now I know a bunch of them—more than I can count. It's a really great culture that a lot of people are looking to get into."
Malka Dubrawsky, a quilter and author in Austin, Texas, says she has always loved traditional quilts, especially Amish quilts. She pays homage to many traditional patterns in her book, Fresh Quilting, but with a spark of playfulness.
"What I hope to bring to quilting and the new modern aesthetic is a more light-hearted approach to quilting. I teach classes and people will literally wring their hands over what fabrics go together or if the points of their triangles don't meet exactly. One of the things I tell them right away is 'hey, we're just making quilts here, so lighten up.'
"I hope that's something that's communicated in my book," she adds. "This is supposed to be fun. Whatever you do with the final product, it's got a piece of you in it. And it shouldn't be something that causes a lot of anxiety or is laden down by rules."
Modern quilting fits well into the contemporary, communal desire to craft and do-it-yourself, Dubrawsky says.
"They want to craft their lives, and what better way than to craft the things that go into it––the things that cover you at night, the things that keep you warm, the things you give away as gifts to someone having a new baby," she says. "You want to put something of yourself into it that you can't when you just go and buy something at the store."
New York quilter Victoria Findlay Wolfe comes to modern quilting with a deep appreciation for the traditional quilting techniques of a previous era. In her newest book, 15 Minutes of Play, she credits her grandmother for teaching her the basics, which, in turn, gave her the freedom to play.
"It's not that it's something new, but it's the way that I learned. It explains why I don't do 'pattern' quilts," she says. "I'm kind of working backwards. I'm still doing what I learned to do from being exposed to the quilts that I slept under, but now I'm just trying to find my way."
Wolfe has certainly found her way because her quilt, Double Edged Love, won Best in Show in the Modern Quilt Guild's first conference in February. While the double wedding ring pattern is certainly traditional, the interplay of colors offers a fresh twist. White rings intersect with pink and black, while the interiors draw your eye to modern patterns in lavender, mauve, and light olive from Jay McCarroll's City Center line of fabrics.
While many modern quilters strive for functionality, others expand the definition with pieces that cross over into art quilting. Chicago quilter Jacquie Gering, author of Quilting Modern, pushes the envelope with works of art like Bang, You're Dead, an oversized image of a black handgun on a white background, dripping with stark red.
"I think all quilts are art, whether they're laying on a bed, hanging on a wall, or draped on my chair," she says. "Even though my kids spilled popsicles on them, they're still art to me."
"My family is Mennonite, so I've been surrounded by quilts all my life," Gering says, but she didn't start quilting until five years ago when she was inspired by the quilts of Gee’s Bend and also the work of Denyse Schmidt, who may be described as the mother of modern quilting.
"I looked at their work and thought, 'ooh, that's so much more my aesthetic,'" she says. As a director on the national MQG board, she has observed that women of all ages are embracing that aesthetic, based on the demographics of the Guild's membership.
"I'm just so excited that there's this fresh energy around quilting," she adds. "I just want to make sure that we're all just one big quilting family. I hate the separations between traditional, modern, and art quilters. We're all part of this amazing, vibrant community that's so supportive. We all have to remember that we're quilters first, modern quilters second."
Photo 1—Preppy Knee Socks quilt by Elizabeth Hartman.
Photo 2—Fish Baby Log Cabin by Malka Dubrawsky.
Photo 3—Baby Barres by Malka Dubrawsky.
Photo 4—Neon Honey quilt by Elizabeth Hartman.
Photo 5—Detail from Numbers Quilt by Malka Dubrawsky.
Photo 6—Aftermath by Jacquie Gering.
© 2013. A publication of Quintessential Quilt Media. No portion may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Quilts, Inc.