Tag Archives: modern quilting

Why I Battle With Labels

If you read here regularly, you may have noticed me railing against labels. I’ve condemned the notion of “modern” medallions and objected some to “liberated” quilting. If you get me started on “traditional” quilting, believe me I can object to that label, as well. Are we talking about the tradition of using quilted material as body armor in the Middle Ages? Or as petticoats? Or wall-hangings to buffer the stone walls from the cold wisps of winter? Maybe those aren’t the traditions people mean by that term.

One of my main objections is that the labels are artificial. In particular, it’s hard to find meaning in the term “modern quilt” when even modern quilters don’t agree what it means. For some it is in the colors or patterns used; for others it’s in the amount of negative space; still others point to the creation of new blocks. For me, personally, modern quilting is that which breaks the grid. But even that is a poor conception, when we look at crazy quilts from the 1880s and wonder where the grid went in those.

Liberated Quiltmaking  was introduced by Gwen Marston in 1996. In her introduction she specifically cites African American utility quilts as a source of inspiration. She also notes that “Liberated Quiltmaking is guided by process, rather than published pattern. Process gives you a way to work, but it does not dictate a destination.” (Her whole chapter Significant Concepts is worth your reading to understand what Marston actually means by “liberated.” By her definition, everything I make is liberated. I agree…)

So what’s my problem with labels, other than that they do not mean what some people think they mean? Labels are a natural result of how humans’ brains work. Humans categorize and label almost everything, from food to animals to style of house to species of tree. Even poor Pluto has been classified a planet and reclassified as a dwarf planet. Astronomers continue to debate the right way to label it. We want to separate things by type in order to make sense of them. It’s like having an index card file — only if the thing is labeled correctly can you find that card again, and relate it to other things appropriately.

Labels are natural, but labels can affect how you see yourself and how you fulfill that vision, both for good and for bad. They affect other people’s expectations of you, too. What label did you have growing up? If you had siblings, you may have each had labels. I was “the baby,” setting expectations for how competent I was (or not) in a variety of ways.

There was a day not so long ago when I first called myself a “designer.” Though I have always designed my own quilts, never before had I thought of myself as a designer. Surely that was someone who had studied art or … maybe even design! No. Just as a writer is someone who writes, a designer is someone who designs. But simply relabeling myself in a more expansive way changed the way I think of myself and my quilts.

If we label ourselves in confining ways, that has an impact, too. How many times have you told someone you are “just” something — just a mom, just an accountant, just a volunteer? I have a friend who used to say “I am just a plumber.” He does not say that anymore, at least around me. After being scolded more than a couple of times, being reminded of all the things he is and does, he does not say that anymore. He seems to have a more expansive view of himself than he used to. Having that broader view feeds his willingness to try even more.

If you call yourself a traditional quilter, does that mean you can’t try a different approach? If you think of yourself as a modern quilter, are you willing to try using historical blocks and formats? If I am a medallion quilter, does that mean I only make medallion quilts?

In my case, I will say “no.” I reject that notion. I am a medallion quilter and I have expertise in medallions. But I am not afraid to try new things.

Here is the punchline: I am not afraid. I choose not to be afraid. I choose not to let labels limit my work by format or style.

Recently at a family party, I mentioned that I want to try skydiving. And zip-lining. And rock climbing… Someone asked me if that is my mid-life crisis. No. I’ve had my mid-life crisis, and it was the scariest thing I’ll ever go through. None of these things could be as frightening as that. As compared to that, how scary is it to try a “modern” quilt when I’m not used to working that way? Honest to pete, what’s the worst that could happen? I learn something from it?

Why let labels define me, box me in, determine what I will or will not do? Labels don’t get to decide. I do. I get to decide, and I am not afraid.


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. 


Happy St. Pat’s to the Modern Quilt Guild of Ireland!

You might remember that the Modern Quilt Guild of Ireland is running a quilt-along this year, and they’re using my medallion work as their “textbook.” I wrote about their project here.

I think St. Patrick’s Day is the perfect time to wish my Irish sisters well, and to check in on their progress. Follow this link to see some pix of their work. Be sure to peek in on the thumbnails at the bottom of the page. When you do, you’ll see the quilters’ comments on their design processes. When you have no pattern, it really is a matter of trying things out. I think you’ll agree they’re doing fabulously!

Modern Irish Medallion Quilt Along

I’m SO excited! Today marks the official kick-off of the Modern Irish Medallion Quilt-Along. Members of the Modern Quilt Guild of Ireland are using my medallion work at Catbird Quilt Studio to guide their projects.

Though my style tends to traditional rather than modern, the techniques apply just as well both ways. Bright, fresh colors lend a modern flare to any design.

For example, here’s my most recent finish:

Sparkle. Finished in January 2014 using Medallion Sew-Along Track #1. 48″ square.

So WELCOME to my new, Irish friends. I can’t wait to see their work and feel inspired by their modern take on one of the oldest quilt forms.