Quiltcon and the Modern Quilt Movement (and the Quilt Police)

Let me preface all of this by saying that the following is just my opinion, and not the opinion of HeartSong Quilts or its brilliant owner/designer/glitterati, Ann Powers.

Just got back from Quiltcon in Austin, TX, and boy, was that illuminating.  We’ve been trying to get a handle on this “modern” quilt movement.  Everyone seems to have a different take on it.  We were hoping that hearing about it from the “horse’s mouth” would clear up our confusion.  Well—kind of.

There are clearly several camps in the modern quilt movement.  We heard from a couple of them.  Those who “birthed” this movement clearly have a view of what the movement is and should be, and made it clear what that is.  For those who organized the event, modern quilting is mostly an aesthetic and design thing.  If you don’t conform to those expectations, you are not making modern quilts.  Hello, quilt police!  They deigned to allow that those who have a “modern” sensibility could be considered “modern traditionalists,” but they were not modern quilters.  In fact, the judging of the show followed some pretty strict guidelines.  Modern quilts meant . . . well, what they defined “modern” as.  Now, that’s OK, I suppose.  If you want to join a group or club, you have to agree to be bound by their rules.  But, this should disillusion those who thought that being a modern quilter meant that there were no rules.

As I suspected all along, there are rules, and they are pretty strict about design elements and color.  No borders, no traditional blocks (unless they are distorted almost beyond recognition), lots of “negative space” (I got really tired of hearing that term—it appears to be the rallying cry of the movement), bright and “graphic” colors, minimalism, improvisational piecing, alternate grid structures, asymmetry, exaggerated scale, pixilization.

They specifically stated that being a modern quilter meant more than following the “modern” philosophy (no rules, etc).  In fact, one speaker who is very influential in the organization said that modern quilting is “more than a philosophy.”  There is a “specific quantifiable aesthetic.”

But wait. If you are well known, part of the “in” crowd, you can be modern without these characteristics.  We heard several well known and published quilters who made quilts with borders and modified log cabins and other blocks  which were recognizable.  It appears that who you know is a factor in whether you are considered a modern quilter or not.

The modern quilters claim that they are influenced by modernist and post-modernist movements in art, architecture and interior design.  I wonder how many of them actually are aware of and believe in the philosophy expressed in modern or post-modern art. Or, do they just like the look?  I think they like the minimalist appearance of these schools and of their quilts.  Giving them the benefit of the doubt on this issue, though, they deny they are creating art quilts.  But, a great percentage of the 228 quilts hanging in the show (600 plus entered, but did not pass muster in the jurying) were small wall hanging quilts. Modern quilters say they are not art quilters, that they believe in function as well as form, but  many of these quilts would only cover my left leg if I was watching TV.

I think there is a fair amount of arrogance and elitisim at work here.The stratified world of hip has reared its ugly head.   Now we not only have to fear the quilters who have “always done it that way,” and who tell us “you’re not doing it right,” but also those who tell us we just don’t get it, we’re not hip enough, not educated enough, don’t hang out with the right crowd.  I’m not sure which is worse, but I do know that it’s not good for quilting.  It is, however, a snapshot of our culture these days.  We’ve become class conscious and tend to put people in categories.  Just when we thought that quilting stripped away the barriers.  Don’t we just want to have fun?  Don’t we just want to do what we love, how we want to do it?  That’s me, folks.  Modern quilter?  Yes and no.  Modern traditionalist?  Why do I have to be labeled.  Aren’t I just a quilter?

Here’s the good news. You don’t have to be labeled.  I probably am not young and hip enough or creative enough  to actually create a modern quilt.  If you are, good for you.  But aren’t we really trying to tear down barriers?  Deep breath now and repeat with me—“I’m a quilter and I can make whatever I feel like making however I feel like making it, and I’m proud of it.”




The “Quilt Rule Police” vs. the “Modern Quilter”

Thanks to all of you who responded to our informal survey pertaining to machine binding vs. hand binding.  Everyone agreed that if hand binding wasn’t in the rules, it should not have been used as a criterion to disqualify a quilt from consideration for the grand prize. Most of you had a story recounting a similar experience which was highly annoying.  Most of you also believed that it didn’t matter whether the binding was done by hand or by machine.

In reviewing your responses, it occurred to me that this type of issue is one of the reasons behind the “modern quilt” movement.

Smarter people than me have been studying this phenomenon of “modern quilting.” The Modern Quilt Guild website lays out the reasoning for its existence and many people have weighed in on its site with their own reasons for being “modern” quilters.  I even read a doctoral thesis posted online which explored the reasons for the modern quilting movement. (Click here to read the thesis)  Luckily, I’m not writing a thesis, so I can express my opinions and conclusions freely without the need for rigorous academic research standards (kind of like a “modern” researcher or blogger or  . . . wait, I am a blogger! Oh my, I didn’t realize I was getting into such deep matters of modern culture).

In my opinion, the vast majority of the people considering themselves modern quilters (or who would be considered “modern quilters” whether they call themselves that or not) because of their attitude rather than because of their design sensibilities.  “Modern” quilts might have a certain look, color scheme, simplicity, minimalism, or design criteria.  In fact, it appears that the term was adopted as a result of the book entitled “Modern Quilt Workshop” by Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr.  Ironically, their books do contain quilts having very specific design elements and patterns.  Their “modern” quilts emphasize a certain design and color sensibility.  The modern quilting movement, while in some respect incorporating their sensibility, is much more based upon the “attitude” aspect of freedom from the “same old same old.”

Here’s how the Modern Quilt Guild website puts it:  “Modern quilters are a diverse group of woman and men, young and old, experienced and novice, yet each of us feels the need to differentiate ourselves as modern quilters by how we work, the fabrics we choose, and the aesthetic of our quilts. We create in a way that supports our individual creative needs and our lifestyle preferences.  Modern quilters resist the imposition of hard and fast rules for making a quilt.  We pick and choose traditional techniques and methods that work for us and at the same time feel free to redefine or reinvent what is possible and allowable in making quilts.”

To me, the “modern” quilts on the MQG website being used for Quiltcon promotions (themodernquiltguild.com) bear a striking resemblance to Gee’s Bend quilts.  Admittedly, I am no artist and have no training in this type of thing, but I know what I see and I can tell what it looks like, and it seems to me that this “minimalist” trend started by necessity with the gals making these “Gee’s Bend” quilts this way because it’s all they had to work with.  This design continues now with people trying to simplify things in an ever increasingly complex world that overloads us with information, ideas, media, designs, etc.  It exhausts us, and we are looking for a simpler, less exhausting alternative.

One of the stated casualties of modern quilting is the “rulebook” of quilt making.  Modern quilters revel in saying that the only rules are that there are no rules.   In fact, no matter whether it is traditional or modern, a quilt is fabric sewed together in pieces, then three layers (top, batting, back) are connected by stitching or tying on top (the so-called “quilting) and the edges are bound with other fabric that is sewn in such a way to keep it from fraying and to keep it all together.  You can put paper in the quilt, but that certainly reduces its utility, and maybe lets it be considered “art.”  You can use different types of “nontraditional” fabrics which makes it cool and unusual.  You can use just two large pieces of fabric, one on the front and one on the back, and it’s a quilt—so long as there’s some “quilting” done to hold it all together.

Now, one of the problems with quilting these days is that new and sometimes experienced quilters find that the old rules and the people guarding the rules tend to take the fun out of quilting.  Incidents like the machine binding snafu we described in our newsletter make people say that they don’t want stupid nonsensical rules (especially those known only to insiders) to interfere with their fun in quilting.  The wholesale discarding of rules, though, gives rise to anarchy.  Some anarchy might be a good thing, but in fact, we all need some rules and guidelines within which to operate.  It’s comforting.  It’s why we tell our kids they can’t cross the street when they’re 5 years old, or they must do their homework before they watch TV.  They need to learn safety and responsibility (eat your spinach before desert).

Not exact analogies to quilting, I admit, but there are certain rules we must learn in quilting, nonetheless.  Like, how to operate your sewing machine (because it breaks otherwise), a quarter inch seam is necessary because the top falls apart if you don’t have it (which I found out the hard way when my wife grew weary with my constant complaining as I was learning how to quilt and I questioned the need for an exact quarter inch seam and she said “then, go ahead and make it with whatever seam you want.  I don’t care.  See what happens.”  Yes, I’m a bit of an anarchist myself).  You get the point.

So, it’s not “the only rule is that there are no rules.”  It’s actually “we’re tired of stupid nonsensical rules that suck the fun out of quilting.  We just want to get together and have fun and make beautiful things and try new stuff and see how it comes out and if it doesn’t come out, we’ll unsew it and try something different, and don’t tell us ‘you’re not doing it right!’ because we don’t care that you don’t think we’re doing it right—we like what we’re doing and we’re having fun and it looks good to us.”  And this describes a good number of quilters we know both young and old(ish, if you count us).

Oh, and if we’re entering a competition, we’ll follow the rules, but make sure they’re set out clearly—like binding must be finished by hand.  Don’t assume that we know all these unwritten “that’s how it’s always been done” rules.

Are you a “modern quilter?”  Or, like me, do you hate being pigeonholed into some category because someone has “discovered” some new trend or attitude which you knew about all along?  Last year at the International Quilt Market, I attended a workshop run by a fabric manufacturer gal from New York who gushed about having “discovered” through her use of community eating establishments by single women in Manhattan that women are crying out for relationship these days, and that quilting guilds and quilt shops satisfy that need!  Well, really . . .   We out here in real American didn’t need someone to tell us about that “discovery” because we knew it all along.  Likewise, we don’t need to be told we’re “modern” quilters because we keep trying cool ideas.  We’ve always done what is fun in our craft/art and loved sharing it with other people who love it, too.

Having said all that, Ann and I plan to attend Quiltcon, the Modern Quilt Guild’s first convention in Austin, Texas in February.  Since we are clearly a shop that doesn’t deal in the “same old same old” and since Ann’s never met a pattern or been taught a technique that she doesn’t question or throw out the window, I guess it’s right up our alley.  We’ll keep you posted.  Meanwhile, keep doing things differently.  Maybe we’ll even set up a Modern Quilt Guild here in the Black Hills. What do you think?