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Essay On Quilting

1. If I were to begin teaching design again, I would rely heavily upon the modern quilt movement for teaching aids. More than any single genre, modern quilts display an effective use of the principles of design: movement, unity, harmony, variety, balance, contrast, proportion and rhythm. Most interesting to me is that most modern quilters employ these principles organically, without any formal training or structure—they simply create what is in their hearts and minds. This, in my opinion, places modern quilting alongside ancient and indigenous art and designs as expressing the inborn drive of humans to create beauty.

The defining design principles in modern quilting (so far) are rhythm and movement. Modern quilts may be flowing or hopping, or some combination of those, but they are never still or static. Some have rhythms of nature and many have rhythms of urban life, but they all have an almost audible rhythm and an almost palpable movement.

I see parallels between modern quilts and the quilts that were created by American pioneer women of the 19th century. Both groups of people started with observations and impressions, and then stylized them into patchwork patterns. I have a Flying Geese quilt hanging on my wall that was made in the 1800’s by a woman in South Dakota, but looks right at home with any modern quilt. It is supremely simple, having only triangles and rectangles and two colors, red and white—but this quilt has captivated my mind every day for the past 10 years.

Modern quilting bridges over some of the excesses and complications of the last few decades to connect us back to the quilters of the past who only had their hands, needles, thread, and precious scraps of fabric to express their thoughts and emotions. Modern quilting really takes us back to the roots of quilting, reinforcing the idea that there is nothing new under the sun.


2. I am fairly new to quilting. By this I mean I have not grown up with a needle and thread in my hand, but learned to sew and quilt in 2007 at the age of 28. I was taught by traditional quilters who loved to tell me the endless rules of quilting. These rules included border sizes, color and fabric choices, and that one should never use anything but cotton or God help you. To be fair, I learned a lot from these women and still seek their advice. I also began to seek out alternative ways to quilt and groups who would encourage this type of behavior.

In my search I came across I modern quilt guilds and was introduced to modern quilting. After reading several blogs and looking though several resources I believe there is a definition for modern quilts. Much like modern art, modern quilting throws out the rules. Bold prints, exclusive use of solids, geometric patterns, negative space, and borderless quilts are all elements that I commonly see in modern quilts. Modern quilters have a different perspective and do not mind experimenting.

Modern quilts have many inspirations from the past. The quilts of Gee’s Bend are brought p often and for good reason. The quilts of Gee’s Bend are amazing in their use of recycled fabric and bold patterns. They also have unusual fabric combinations that turn off a traditional quilter. These women were modern quilters before there were modern quilters.

The Amish communities also were a big inspiration for modern quilters. The Amish use primarily solid fabric and create fantastic geometric blocks. Traditional quilters favor calico or small prints and find solids to be too flat.

What I like best about the movement is the acceptance to anyone. The guild I belong to is a very diverse group of people from all backgrounds. Some enjoy traditional quilting. Others have more of an art quilt background. Others have been stretching the limits of what fabric can do in order to create really amazing pieces. Everyone gets along!


3. I’ve wondered what modern quilting is, and after considerable research here’s my definition: We Don’t Want to Hang Out With Old Ladies. As an old lady myself, I think that’s a good idea.

Some of us old ladies took up quilting as youngsters and we had (and still have) the same thrills you’re experiencing now: appreciation for the elegant geometry and poignant history of traditional quilts, the fun and accomplishment of making objects both useful and beautiful, the ineffable joy of watching a baby sleep under your creation. We also treasured the companionship of a shared craft, learning from and helping one another as we stitched and talked.

One difference: you have a lot more tools and support than we had. Quilting fabrics come in a myriad of colors and patterns that weren’t available decades ago. Books, patterns, workshops, Internet tutorials and blogs abound for those who want ideas and instruction. Rotary cutters and mats, not even invented in our day, make construction easier.

As I read about modern quilting, I find people saying they want to break the rules, but not specifying which rules they find so bothersome. I think this is an existential complaint and perhaps has more to do with social rules than the technical or design rules. Society’s rules say that people should buy stuff rather than make it. But traditional quilting society has its rules too, many boiling down to “age before beauty.”

So revel in your freedom to hang out with people like yourself, who want to talk about the activities and concerns of a younger generation rather than complain about high taxes and health problems. Take advantage of the online community, which can connect you to friends and mentors even if you can’t find them in person.

And use this freedom to flex your muscles and move into new territory. Choose your own fabric combinations instead of buying a designer line. After you’ve learned the basics, graduate from other people’s patterns to making your own designs; heck, make a quilt without a pattern! And maybe even make friends with an old lady.


4. To me the adjective in modern quilting has little to do with the aesthetics of a quilt. Take a look at the primitive solid quilts of the Amish and Mennonites and the free form and wonderfully abstract quilts of Gee’s Bend. You can’t say that what quilters are making today is new and uncharted territory.

So what is it then that makes a modern quilter? One common trait I’ve noticed is unabashed creativity. Originality and untamed lines are applauded over perfection. There is NO FEAR in the modern quilter. No fear of shame for not having perfect points, no fear of seam allowances being measured, no fear of angles or colors. When the fear of breaking rules is gone the creative juices flow with much more force.

But what if you want to make traditional blocks with perfect points? That’s okay too! Another attribute is the acceptance and embracement of all styles and methods of quilting. Sometimes making a classic block is a rewarding challenge. Hand quilting? Machine quilting? Both are cool. The modern quilter moniker is more about attitude and less about construction.

You can’t overlook the new social networking aspect of quilting either. Blogs, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and message boards are the new quilting clubs. My own introduction to quilting was a blogger’s quilt-a-long with the participants joining a corresponding Flickr group. I was able to ask questions, show my work, get feedback and see what everyone was doing all while on my laptop in my living room. I became friends with several people in the group and we became mutual blog followers. Some of these friends live halfway around the world and, yet, I feel like we are in a virtual quilting guild together. Even if you live in an area with no quilt shops or associations you can grow in your skills, get advice and tips, and feel kinship within the global modern quilting community.

So my interpretation in a nutshell: No fear. Acceptance. Social Networking. Degrees of these three elements combined in one quilter = one modern quilter. What do you think?


5. What is Modern Quilting? In my opinion it is using traditional quilting as your foundation and then tweaking it by using unusual fabrics, different techniques or unexpected colors.

For example, a traditional quilt will use white or muslin as a background fabric, while a modern quilt will use black or blue or maybe even orange as the background fabric. A traditional quilt will use the same fabric type for the entire quilt (all flannel, all cotton, etc.) while a modern quilt may mix flannels and batik, or cotton and Minke. Another difference is that traditional quilting follows certain rules, where modern quilting isn’t required to follow rules. Modern quilters may choose to follow rules, if it suits their mood, but other times rules just fly out the window and colors can go together willy-nilly as long as it looks good to the quilt creator. In short – modern quilting is the freedom to do whatever you want to create your quilt, with the security to know there is a long history and well established rules to support you if needed.









6. Trying to describe what modern quilting is reminds me of the quandary I’ve found myself in for many years. How do I classify what I do?

After many years of trying to put myself into a “box” I’ve discovered that there isn’t one that fits.

Could I be a modern quilter? I have a great deal of respect for traditional quilters, and I enjoy art quilts, but my own work is just that, my own. Describing it is difficult as it doesn’t fit into any real category. It’s traditional in its framework and execution, and yet it’s definitely not what many people would call a “quilt.”

I can’t resist pushing the edges of the envelope. I get bored with traditional patterns and fabrics, with simple machine or hand stitching, with colors that don’t pop or even clash a little. My quilts are so laden with beads and buttons and other odds and ends that they weigh a ton, (although they hang well!). They also take forever to make.

I start off with one idea and end up with something completely different. I keep up-to-date with what’s current and yet resist going along with the crowd. If everyone else is doing it, I don’t want to.

Perhaps that’s what modern quilting is. It’s not a box or a category or a style, it’s quilters doing what they want the way they want to and loving every minute of it.


7. Ahhh…the bold colors, the vibrant designs, just one look and my heart starts beating faster. My mind’s eye starts envisioning different combinations of fabrics. If only I could take them all home.

Modern quilting is an adventure. The fabrics are exciting, the patterns are fun! There are no such things as templates in my world of modern quilting. All cutting is done with a rotary cutter, but the blocks are not necessarily symmetrical. Lines don’t have to be straight. The end result is fabulous.

Modern quilting understands that as a mother of three young children, my quilting time is limited. I don’t have to spend hours painstakingly piecing stars and hand appliquéing intricate designs to make something worthwhile that I would be proud to showcase in my home. The fabric designers have done most of the hard work for me. I love their fabrics and want to show them off. The larger the blocks, the better the quilt. If the fabric is cut into too many small pieces, many times the effect is lost.

Modern quilting is having fresh ideas. It breaks the traditional mold. It isn’t afraid to use different textures and embellish with a variety of mediums. In short, there aren’t any rules. Your imagination is your only limitation.


Dating quilts - a brief overview

Quilts and quilt making are a reflection of the life and times of the women who made quilts. Although the technique of quilting existed throughout history (quilted items have been discovered in Egyptian tombs, for example, and French knights used quilted jackets under their armor), quilts as we think of them didn't start showing up on the American scene until just prior to 1800. I believe the earliest existing European quilts are a pair of whole cloth trapunto ones, telling the story of Tristan and Isolde dating from the early 1400's.  The oldest quilts in the Smithsonian collection go back to about 1780.

A side note from The Patchwork Pilgrimage:

"Further proof that ornamental patchwork is no newcomer to the church is provided by this fascinating pieced silk chasuble that is believed
to have been made around 1540. During the Reformation, Roman Catholics were driven underground, and in England, persecution was given additional impetus by King Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533, when he broke with Rome and forced his subjects to swear allegiance to himself as the head of the church. Recusant Catholic priests traveled to private houses to celebrate mass in peril of their lives, and many were forced to disguise themselves as peddlers, carrying their sacramental paraphernalia around in backpacks. Catholic families built hiding places in their mansions that are known today as "priest holes". The chasuble was probably deliberately made in patchwork so that if a priest were challenged, it could pass as a bedcover. For example, the clearly defined cross would probably have escaped detection when the garment was folded or rolled. The maker was Elizabeth Belling Arundel, a member of one of the leading Catholic families of England, and the chasuble has remained in the possession of the Arundel family from that time. (Photograph by Jim Pascoe reproduced by kind permission of Lord Talbot of Malahide)."

In colonial America, thread and needles were expensive. Cotton was not readily available - the cotton gin was not invented until 1793 - and so the majority of fabrics used in clothing were linens, wools and silks. What you might have seen prior to 1800 were quilted petticoats, worn for warmth. Quilts were almost always made of wool, unless they were remade from bed curtains or quilted petticoats.  However, the idea that all early quilts were made of worn clothing is a myth. Not to say that there weren't any, but it is far more likely that a quilt would be made out of fabric bought specifically for that purpose, possibly to match bed curtains.  It might also use the extra fabric left over after making clothes. While it is true that many women were weaving their own fabrics in the early 1800's, the tremendous time and energy needed to produce hand woven goods was generally not put into a luxury such as a quilt.  A home weaver would be more likely to weave a blanket or coverlet.  Generally, quilts were made by wealthier Americans on the Eastern Seaboard who had access to a tremendous variety of fabrics brought in by ship. Many early quilts still in existence today, therefore, are either made of imported fabric or have some imported fabric along with the American.  Backings were often of linen, which was considered a utility fabric.

Early 1800's quilts were usually large (120 X 120), and often whole cloth quilts, or quilts of whole panels, such as the Tree of Life. It might be a medallion or a stripy style quilt. Sometimes you would find quilts made of plain blocks (such as a simple Ohio star or nine patch) alternating with a plain block. Trapunto (stuffed work) quilts were made until the 1840's when their popularity waned. Glazed fabrics such as chintz (see photo, left), roller prints and pillar prints were popular. Fabrics were glazed with egg whites or honey. Some quilt edges were finished with a fringe, particularly on the East Coast. Quilting was done in straight lines, often with double and triple quilting, although flowers, baskets, feathers and wreathes were not uncommon.

Colors were glorious. The dye process was long and involved and colors changed depending on the mordents used. Home dyes used onionskin, nut shells and bark to create yellows, browns and greens, but they were not used as commonly as myth has it.  Reliable permanent dyes were widely available in the mid 1800's.  However, green was considered fugitive - it often washed out or faded. In the early 1800's, it was made by overdoing yellow with blue.  Later in the century, the process was reversed, overdying blue with yellow. The applique quilts we now see with blue or tan leaves may have once been green. Another fugitive color, purple, could be made with lichens and seashells. Walnut hulls, hickory nut hulls, clay, or wood chips made brown. A deep brown with warm accents was made using manganese. Sumac, birch, oak, woodshed in general and iron made black.

Indigo blue and turkey red were very reliable dyes as they were made by the process for which the color was named. Indigo blue was a deep blue, although Prussian (Lafayette) blue and light blue was also available. Pinks and dark roses were also seen most likely made from a madder dyes.  The picture on the right shows Turkey Red.


The mid 1800's saw more appliqu� quilts being made, with more elaborate quilting. Quilts were heavily quilted, often echo quilted or double quilted. Broderie Perse was an early 1800's fad.  In fact, you could purchase fabric specifically designed to be cut out and appliqu�d. A later appliqu� fad was were Baltimore Albums, red and green appliqu� quilts and album samplers. They were as large as ever, although as the century progressed they tended to become slightly smaller and sometimes had two corners cut out for bedposts. Colors were bright and varied. You often saw deep yellow greens, Prussian blues, turkey reds (below right), madders, double pinks (also called cinnamon pinks), fugitive purples, brilliant yellow/butterscotch, and aqua as well as graded or ombre prints. The picture at left shows an 1841 signature quilt using the Chimney Sweep design with an unusual appliqu� in the setting blocks.  The picture below shows an ombre print (also called a rainbow print) in the middle of the Ohio Star.  The setting block is a fugitive double purple. 

The civil war and its aftermath brought a lot of changes to American women. Men took quilts with them to serve as bedding. If they were killed, they were often rolled in their bedding and buried. Quilts were also used to communicate the makers beliefs (like abolition), smuggle messages and supplies through enemy lines and raise money.  Research is still continuing on the belief that quilts were used to direct escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.

The quilts that did come home were often in terrible condition. Some of the finest quilts still extant from this period came from the families of soldier who retrieved them from encampments or purchased them from soldiers who were using them as if they were a common blanket.  One quilt was retrieved from the back of a dead mule!   Recognizing their beauty and value, some were looted  from southern plantations. It was after the civil war that the scrap quilt became popular. Due to the inevitable shortages of war, quilts really were made of discarded clothing at that time.   Silk prices had come down around 1850 due to trading with the orient and many women had at least one good silk dress.  But it was not useful for the hard work and shortages of everyday living most were forced to endure. The silk quilts popular during this period were probably made more out of sentiment and a need to keep busy while the men folk were away.  The scraps of silk dresses and mens wear recalled happier times of balls and parties.    

The sewing machine, which was really invented in the late 1700's as a tool to make shoes, was redesigned and patented by Elias Howe, Jr., in 1846.  Howe's rival, Isaac Singer, received a patent in 1851 for an improved sewing machine, later adding a foot treadle for hands-free operation and a carrying case that doubled as a stand. Singer's primary contribution to sewing machine history, however, was his marketing techniques.   He was the Bill Gates of the 19th century. The installment plan, and a trade-in allowance, was his clever marketing plan to put a sewing machine the home of every American woman, and it did work! By 1870, Singer was selling 200,000 sewing machines a year. Godey's Lady's Book praised the sewing machine as "the queen of inventions," noting that "it will do all the drudgeries of sewing, thus leaving time for the perfecting of the beautiful in woman's handiwork."  Quilts began to take advantage of straight line sewing and it was not uncommon to see hand-pieced quilt which was treadle quilted. A sewing machine was a status symbol, if a woman had one, she made sure to show it off.

Post civil war quilts took on more somber aspects. Women lost their husbands and sons in the war, Queen Victoria lost her husband Prince Albert and strict mourning protocol was followed.Mourning prints (Shaker Grays) similar to the one at left, of black & white, gray on gray, burgundy and deep purple were used with the madder browns (copper brown), dark chocolate, cocoa, double pinks and chrome orange's (cheddar) of the period. Rich, deep, vivid colors became popular.  This period marks the first of reliably colorfast synthetic dyes, making the fabrics of this period easier to wash as they wouldn't have to be redyed. 

Stripes and plaids were also used as well as textured fabrics, shirtings and lead-weighted silks. A lesser quality fabric and homespun (which may or may not have been spun at home) made an appearance, often on the backs of quilts. There was a veritable explosion of reasonably priced, colorfast cotton goods after the war as manufacturers which had geared up during the war sought reasons to keep up production.  Wool quilts became more common, especially around the turn of the century.  Quilts became more utilitarian - they were often tied rather than quilted. Applique was rare. If they were quilted, it was in large designs such as Baptist fans unless the quilt was being made as a "best" quilt. Mercerized thread, (a thread treated to improve strength) made its appearance in 1859 and began to be mass produced. The type and thickness of thread used to make a quilt is often a clue to its age.

As life improved, women found themselves with more time to spend on needle arts. Redwork became popular. Crazy quilts became a fad. These were quilts made of silk and satin and often carefully embellished with beads, embroidery, ribbons and hand painted blocks. The 1876 World exposition in Philadelphia had a pronounced influence on quilts. Many quilts, and embroidery designs began to show an oriental influence. "Impractical" silk, satin and velvet quilts were created using traditional styles, like the log cabin. The silks of that time period were often weighted with lead, to provide the rustle that the ladies loved so much. The more lead the better, since silk was sold by the pound. Unfortunately, it is this lead that causes the deterioration we see in silk quilts today.  Chemical dyes also play a large factor in deterioration.   

The early 20th century saw prints getting lighter and cheerier. Turkey red began to give way to a bluish red. Indigo dyed blues began to give way to simple blue vat dyes. We received Germanys' aniline dye formulas as part of their war tribute for W.W.I. This meant the 30s and 40s quilts had better dyes, giving them more depth of color. Our greens and yellows improved and pastels became possible again. Purple finally became reliable, as did black.

Charming and happy prints as well as delicate solids appeared to contrast the depression. Kit quilts (above left) became popular, and it often seems like the majority of quilts made in that time period were Double Wedding Rings, Dresden Plates (below), Grandma's Flower Gardens, Floral Appliqu� and Sunbonnet Sue. Redwork Penny Square's enjoyed continued popularity.  Yo-yo's were made by everyone and "Colonial Revival" quilts became popular, influenced by Marie Webster who wrote a book which may have inadvertently perpetuated quilting myths. 

The country entered into a new war and women once again found themselves forced to be resourceful. New quilts were made out of old tops. As a marketing ploy, grain producers began to package feed in print sacks. Men were sent to the store with instructions to buy feedsacks in specific colors and quantities. Three were needed to make a woman size dress.   Novelty feedsacks to make aprons or dolls were available. The picture below shows a Sunbonnet Sue made with feedsacks.

Sometimes called feedbags, textile bags and "chicken linen," these terms refer to the bags that were purchased with products like flour, grain, feed or seed in them. They were also used for flour, salt, sugar and other baking necessities.  Generally  made of cotton or burlap, they might be tightly woven or loosely woven depending on what they carried.  When the product inside was used up the cloth bag was recycled (long before that word was fashionable) into garments, quilts and household articles.

When the war ended, the interest in handmade items waned. Women were joining the work force in unprecedented numbers and had no time to make bedding. Especially when they could now afford to buy it!  It was associated with poorer times.   Interest in quilting was revived in the late 1970's, with the advent of the Bicentennial and the renewed interest in our life of our forebears.

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