What is a Modern Medallion Quilt?

Or more to the point, is there such a thing as a “modern” medallion quilt? What characteristics would make a medallion quilt “modern?”

To define one more time, a medallion quilt is one which is designed with a central block or motif, surrounded by multiple borders. Borders may be plain, elaborately pieced or appliquéd, or a combination of plain and fancy on the same quilt.

First, do me a favor and google “modern medallion quilts.” Look at Images. What do you see? I’ll wait…

My questions about modern quilts have to do with how those called “modern” break from the definition above.

To try to answer that, I checked again on the website of the Modern Quilt Guild, to see how they define the term “modern” as it applies to quilts. Their definition has evolved over time, which is natural and right. Currently it says this (emphasis in bold added by me):

… several characteristics often appear which may help identify a modern quilt. These include, but are not limited to: the use of bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, and alternate grid work.  …

The growth of the movement was facilitated by four factors: the cultural shift of quality design being recognized by the general public, affordable digital cameras, the changing fabric industry and the rise of social media.

Let’s take this apart, starting with “bold colors,” “high contrast and graphic areas of solid color,” and “minimalism.” This quilt was shown in 2012 on the See How We Sew site. It is an antique Amish medallion quilt in the pattern called “Diamond in a Square.” It was made around 1925. Modern…

What about “improvisational piecing“? The Modern Quilt Guild site gives a nod to the quilts of Gee’s Bend. Many modern quilters also are inspired by Gwen Marston’s “liberated” quilting. But in her book Liberated Medallion Quilts, Marston argues that liberated medallions are traditional. Her book begins with photos of a mid-1800s Welsh quilt and of a Martha Washington quilt made around 1800. Want more examples? See the search results from the Quilt Index on medallions from 1800-1849. Or look for examples on the Smithsonian site. Many early examples of medallions could be described as improvisationally pieced. Modern?

So perhaps what we are left with, at least with regards to modern medallion quilts, is that they are related to the use of digital cameras and social media.

I make medallion quilts. I do not think they are “modern.” Nor do I think they are “traditional,” by and large. They are expressions of me, not of an aesthetic imposed by a particular time or trend.

I do not accept the label “modern” as it applies to medallion quilts. I haven’t seen one yet that is new in that regard.

When we are willing to stop labeling our work to fit genres, trends, or styles, we are more free to express ourselves. When we are not dependent on public opinion, we can delve into and expose the deepest parts of ourselves. When we don’t care about whether our quilt will win at an AQS show or an IQF show or a QuiltCon show or a bloggers’ quilt festival, we build our artistic power.

Are you willing to stop labeling quilts? To stop labeling your quilting? To build your power?

Your comments, agreeing or disagreeing or questioning, are welcome. You are welcome to share or reblog this post as well. 


23 thoughts on “What is a Modern Medallion Quilt?

  1. Elizabeth E.

    Your post is excellent (as always) and the comments are insightful, and right on. I think for most of us old-timers (quilting longer than five years) we don’t mind the “modern” label, just the desire on the part of some to exclude those of us who work traditionally but with a modern slant, for not being “modern” enough. I laughed at the comment “Amish on white.” Classic! Since I really fell in love with quilting via the Amish revival in the late 1980s this comment brings truth to the discussion! Great post–thanks.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’m so glad you stopped by. I thought the comments were very good, too. They always bring me to thinking I hadn’t articulated before. There were a couple of comments on my reblogging of the book review, which I thought were helpful, too. I think we ended up agreeing that the real problem with the label “modern” is there is no agreed definition. It means whatever each person wants it to mean, which renders it useless as a descriptive term. Thanks again.

  2. Pingback: Another Modern Quilting Book | The Snarky Quilter

  3. KerryCan

    Really interesting post, Melanie! I think the whole discussion is made more confusing by the use of the word “modern.” In the world of fine arts, “modern” applies to a specific period that is over and, yet, in the quilt world, it gets used to describe something current (which I think should probably be called “contemporary” rather than “modern”). Either way, the labels seem to be used to assert, “this is not your grandmother’s quilt.” And in 50 years, quilters will be finding labels to make the point, again, that what they are doing is new and different.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I much prefer the term “contemporary,” but I’m not sure it’s more meaningful. While I wouldn’t call myself a “modern” quilter, I would call myself and my quilts “contemporary.” As to Grandma’s quilt, things are always changing. Look at the shift in quilt styles from 1820 to 1850, and it’s tremendous. I could point to other short times spans, too. No need for anyone to have a superiority complex on that aspect!

  4. snarkyquilter

    I’ll be curious to see the evolution in the work of the current modern quilters over time. Here I’m thinking of changes in work by quilt artists who’ve been at it a while – Nancy Crow, Michael James, and the like. Modern quilting has brought in a bunch of new quilters and energized many quilters, even if they dislike modern quilts. One disgruntled long time quilter I know called it Amish on white. And I’m thrilled that modern quilters have become such a vocal online community that shares ideas and techniques. Many quilters of all persuasions do the same, but some of the older quilters I know view the internet as something to read, not something to participate in.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The evolution of the internet and of the “modern” movement have been concurrent, making it hard to separate which has had more influence on quilting trends. The last two or three years have made a big difference in quilting, with new quilters making more effort to upgrade their skills, which is very exciting for all of us. And yes, I look forward to seeing where we go from here.

  5. jeanswenson

    Great thoughts and perspectives. I too had been on hiatus from quilting when the “new modern” (?) quilt made an appearance. As a professional marketer, I wholeheartedly agree that it is what we call in marketing “hype” for the purpose of creating an audience for a “new product”.
    I recently undertook what I considered a modern quilt. I considered it to be modern due to its asymmetry. While it was super fun and I was pleased with the results, I too love all forms of quilting when the design and color palette speak to me. And, therein lies the heart of the matter: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, particularly when it relates to art. I am fortunate that I don’t need to sell my quilts so I don’t particularly care what the market wants or thinks. This is a rather liberating place to be when making quilts, as I find more joy in the craft in creating what speaks to my heart!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’m most inclined to agree with the label of “modern” for quilts that break the grid — are not made in a block format, or medallion, or all-over like hexies. To me, that is where the innovation comes in, using space in a different way. *I* need to make a bigger effort to use space in a different way, so I appreciate the leaders in that charge. But otherwise, yes, a lot of hype. Thanks much.

  6. Cindy @ In A Stitch

    Why do we care what label, modern or traditional, is placed on our quilt? I don’t aspire to attain either. I just like to quilt. The pull between the two is similar to that of the competition between family generations. The elder generation thinks their method or way of life is the best because it’s the tried and true standard. The younger generation wants to flex their wings and try things a little differently. Neither is wrong. The important thing for the older generation to remember is that you were young once. Perhaps you too were inspired to bend the rules a bit. When people put one method or another down because it’s not the one they like I think they are being a bit snobbish. It’s time to grow up and learn from all quilters.

  7. Katie Jean

    This is something I have been thinking about for a while now, triggered by being labelled a “Modern Quilter” by someone based on one of my quilts (just the one quilt, not the full range). The modern quilting label seemed to have popped up while I was on a hiatus from quilting, and I am wondering if it has more to do with the internet and the way that quilters have connected, rather then the process side of quilting.

  8. katechiconi

    I refuse to be labelled. I truly don’t care about definitions and categories. I don’t enter quilts into competitions, so it doesn’t matter if they don’t fit into categories. I’ve seen one or two medallion quilts I’d class as ‘modern’ but I didn’t like them much, not *because* they were modern but because, well, I just didn’t like them much! This has been an enjoyable series, and I thank you for the work and research you’ve put into it.

  9. farmquilter

    I think things are defined as “modern” when they are different from the style that was in fashion just prior to its appearance. Just like the modern crop pants of today are the pedal pushers of my youth! The drive to label quilts in specific categories is really driven by quilt shows that need a category to put the quilts in for judging. If the wrong category is chosen by the quilter, the quilt will not win the same ribbon it may have won if it was in the correct category. I love quilts that allow me to play with the quilting, so I really like quilts that use lots of solids 🙂 I just love to quilt and create something that is beautiful as well as useful, I don’t care what category or label it is given!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Good point — I do think that categories are by their nature artificial, and largely driven by marketing. But I also know that our nature as humans is to categorize! We WANT to drop things in boxes so we know how to think about them.

  10. kathyfaust

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. Defining all to often limits. I do think the “modern movement” brings a fresh perspective, as does the “art quilt” movement. As long as I can do my own thing, I am happy to learn from others and continue to create quilts I enjoy sharing, without being defined!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I am glad for the modern movement and all the new quilters who are excited to join an old tradition. And there is a lot some of us old farts can learn from a fresh perspective. But some of the labels do grate (including perhaps “old farts.”) 🙂

      1. zippyquilts

        Ha! I’ve thought all along that “modern” quilting is 80% chutzpah! And Amish quilts are one of my favorite reasons why. If you look around the web, the answer to “what is modern” really is, “It’s modern if I say it is!” I do love modern quilting, but some of the rampant self-promotion is a bit much.

        1. Melanie McNeil Post author

          I sometimes wonder if I made the exact same quilts with a lot of white or grey, and bundles of fabric from the same designer/line, would they be modern? It would be — if I say so! 😀


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