Quilting with a Modern Slant



I rarely struggle with writing but I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to figure out how to approach reviewing this seminal book on the Modern Quilt Movement. Although light in tone and visually beautiful, don’t be fooled. If you care about modern quilting, this is a must-read book.

Let’s get the obvious issue out of the way: Author Rachel May has written a very flattering essay about our work over the past 15 years so it would seem self-serving for me to write a rave review about it for that reason alone. I will also add that prior to her calling us for an interview, we had never met the author. However, the most interesting, relevant and refreshing part of this 224-page book has nothing to do with us. Rather it’s about getting the story straight and telling the whole story.

There has been a tremendous amount written about the Modern Quilt Movement. Some of it has been accurate but most of it has not been consistent with our experiences during the past 15 years. The biggest discrepancies involve describing who modern quilters are, when the movement began and the breadth of it. This is why it’s perfect that Rachel May authored this book. She wrote this book while pursuing her PhD in English and Cultural Studies. May isn’t making a career in the quilting industry and isn’t trying to use this book to sell a fabric line or workshops. May is a founding member of the Boston Modern Quilt Guild but has the academic chops to see that movements aren’t defined by a single person or group.

We began teaching modern quilting in 2001. Since then we calculate that we have taught around 10,000 students. Fewer than 500 of them are part of the Modern Quilt Guild. The Modern Quilt Guild has done a wonderful job organizing guilds and supporting its members. However, most of the quilters we know who make modern quilts are not part of the Modern Quilt Guild. They make modern quilts within the context of a local guild. They tend to make a variety of quilts and belong to guilds that support all types of quiltmaking. Some belong to the MQG as well as a local guild. They range in age from 20-somethings to 80-somethings. Most do not have blogs and do not aspire to anything in the quilting world other than making great quilts. They are just phenomenal quilters doing their thing, their way. Some are active in social media but many are not. Some live in rural areas and some in urban. Although some are new quilters, others have won prizes in traditional quilting categories at Paducah and are looking to add to their repertoire by learning more about modern quilting. Some have enormous stashes and $9,000 sewing machines while others use their mom’s Singer from 1952 that doesn’t even have a zigzag stitch and buy only project-specific fabric. I bristle when I hear generalizations about modern quilters because our community is just more diverse than the articles I’ve read elsewhere would suggest. Stereotypes make for a good story but they just bear no resemblance to the reality that we’ve seen over the past 15 years. By showing us the range of people inspiring us to make modern quilts, Ray is acknowledging (finally) the diversity of age, experience and interests in the modern quilt community.

Quilting with a Modern Slant will become the book on modern quilting by which all others to come will be measured because Rachel May introduces us not just to the work of those you already know but also to those whose work you may not know but whose work is a significant part of the Modern Quilt Movement. May profiles over 70 artists, many of whose work is foreign to me so I have some learning to do as well.

So here’s what I hope you’ll take away from Quilting with a Modern Slant: Ideas develop and most people don’t take the time or care to learn the history of a particular movement. Rachel May is getting you started. She’s prepared a Smorgasbord of modern quilting for you; interviews, photos, patterns and a little background on how this all came about. It’s all there. Read every page. Try new techniques. Learn the history. Pass it on. Become part of the history. Modern quilting will be defined by the quilts people make and that includes yours.


21 thoughts on “Quilting with a Modern Slant

  1. Thanks for the review, it sounds really interesting. I agree with your comments about the diversity of “modern” quilters, and how many of us work all along the spectrum.

    1. Yes, Becky. We did an informal survey on our Facebook page asking people which of the following categories described them: 1) only make modern quilts, 2)make modern, art and traditional quilts, 3) make only traditional quilts. All but one person out of the 100 or so answer #2. In lectures I explain that it’s one more choice on the creativity buffet. It’s another option. It’s not a religion in which you’re expected to forsake all other types of quilting for goodness sake!

  2. What a coincidence: I got the both book in my physical mailbox and this blog post in my email this evening. It looks like a very pretty and well-done book, and I hope it will help me as I restart sewing interests again.

  3. Weeks, since I trust you immensely, I feel the need to buy this book immediately. As an old-school quilter (is that the opposite of modern?), I struggle with the definition of this movement and wonder where and if I fit in. I love to read about the historical aspects of quilting and am always looking for new sources. It sounds to me like Rachel May has written exactly what I need to read next. Take care, Byrd

    1. Byrd – Everyone has a different definition of Modern. To us, it’s about new forms and new techniques that are expressive of the time in which we live. So you will never see us do a log cabin quilt for example because we feel that there needs to be new patterns for our era and fresh ideas to expand the art form. Craftsmanship and function are universal. It’s where the ideas and techniques come from — the past vs the present that is the difference. From my point of view, if you are interested in trying new ways of doing things and exploring possibilities, you’re a modern quilter. If you’re interested in making things based on designs and techniques from the past, you’re a traditional quilter but the truth is that most people go back and forth between styles so perhaps its better to focus on the style of the quilt as opposed to labeling the quilter. Hope that’s helpful.

      1. That’s exactly what I needed to read – “focus on the style of the quilt as opposed to labelling the quilter”. I’m really looking forward to exploring this idea more. Thanks so much!

  4. Your review is extraordinary! I am sure she has captured your unique approach to quilting today, i.e. modern quilting.

    Your review alone is all the encouragement I need to purchase the book. Thanks so much!!

    1. I just finished reading the book last weekend and was so pleased to see such a diverse group of quilters and styles presented. I have long admired your work and am also a huge fan of Kaffe Fassett along with some of the other quilters highlighted in the book. I find myself becoming more and more resistant to some of these quilting style labels. After years of quilting I now realize I simply need to follow my own inspiration and be me regardless of labels. I hope this book will open the eyes of many to the rich diversity of styles, methods and history involved in the wonderful world of quilting.

      1. Springleaf Studios – My guess is that it’s the judgements (and cliquishness, perhaps?) that sometimes come with the labels that are the problem as opposed to the labels themselves. To me it’s like differentiating between being an architect who designs houses inspired by classical architecture vs one who is interested in contemporary buildings. I’m on very friendly terms with Darlene Zimmerman (who specializes in 1930s feedsack quilts) and Jo Morton (who specializes in Civil War quilts). I value their work and use their fabrics in our work. I wouldn’t want them to do what we do. We need lots of voices and influences to continue to expand the sources of inspiration. One is not better than another.

  5. For the last few years I’ve been an avid reader of countless quilt books both traditional and modern.
    I borrowed this book from the local library and have enjoyed reading the interviews of many of the artists profiled. Even although my current quilting projects are based on traditional patterns – one a Lone Star and another an Amish style Ocean Wave, I am influenced by many of the modern quilters and their treatment of traditional designs.

  6. Weeks — I just picked up this book at the library yesterday. Your review makes me want to drop everything and read it! I love how you explain that modern quilting “…is one more choice on the creativity buffet.” I love when quilters create new perspectives by blending quilt styles and moving this particular fiber art forward. It’s what makes (and always has made) quilting such a dynamic art. Variety might be the spice of life, but it’s the glory and joy of quilting, too!

  7. I think it’s important to distinguish between modern quilts and what, at times, seems to be more of a marketing movement. I have been disappointed in the re-written histories of modern quilting sometimes presented and probably wouldn’t have picked up this book because I expected more of the same … until I read your review. Thank you for your thoughtful article.

    1. Oh did you see me banging my head against the table again? ; ) In the environmental/sustainability movement there’s something called “Greenwashing.” Greenwashing refers to everyone pretending to jump on the bandwagon by claiming that their product is “green,” when in fact it isn’t or the very small part that is green (the recycled bottle) disguises the fact that the rest of the product isn’t. I have spent a fair amount of time trying to explain to the PR dept of various publishers why I’m not comfortable writing reviews of certain books. The authors just slapped the word “modern quilts” on the cover of the book when in fact the designs have NOTHING to do with modernism and the publishing company/authors haven’t thought for a second about what defines modernity. They just used a bunch of Tula Pink fabric and made a churn dash series of blocks and called it modern, hoping to make a buck. Then there are the “There’s nothing new under the sun” people who don’t see the essence of modern quilts as we define it which is that we are not using traditional patterns, techniques or motifs. Although I feel as though I’ve been trying to explain this for 15 yrs, most people have just repeated what they’ve heard without thinking through whether or not it makes sense. I’m already planning a series of educational posts on this topic that I’m hoping will be read and digested.

  8. As with all things that come from your studio the review is well done and thoughtful.
    Thanks for all you do for the quilting world.

  9. I bought this book on impulse awhile ago and was pleasantly surprised by it. Especially by the number of quilters that I had never heard of. I only wish we could have had a few more pictures of each of their work, as well as more insight into techniques they use or design inspirations.

    I have become discouraged about the current modern quilt “movement.” It seems that social media has allowed it to rapidly morph into a marketing machine with the popular bloggers becoming free advertising for the newest fabric line for the cost of a fat quarter bundle. I am a fan of Aurifil on facebook and I have almost daily post from them featuring a blogger who mentioned them in a post. I like and use Aurifil thread, but this is annoying. Effective though. You won’t find many young quilters who identify as “modern” who don’t aspire to use Aurifil even though it is too costly for those on a tight budget.

    I realized I had a problem when I was thinking about my scrap pile. I thought “I’ll make a scrappy trip along” a la Bonnie Hunter. My next thought was “no, that’s so last year, I should make an economy block.” Even though I hate making economy blocks and like making scrappy trips. Even though the quilt is for me and I’m not a blogger and nobody cares what I make. Could I really have gotten caught up in the personality cults which have grown up around the “modern quilt movement” so that I would make what was popular, and not what inspired and delighted me? Indeed, and it’s not good.

    I don’t want to BE LIKE anyone else! I want my quilts to reflect me, my times, my creative vision. How can I do this if I am constantly filling my brain with other peoples’ versions of what quilts are supposed to look like?

    Along those lines I have some new plans:
    1. Limit consumption of social media – no more daily blog checking, no more flicker groups with 800 versions of the same thing, no more quilt alongs or virtual bees or block swaps. These are not bad but they limit my ability to get new ideas.

    2. Time daily really looking carefully at stuff. Any stuff. The world around me, all sorts of art, people’s faces, a tree, anything really. What shades of colors are there? What value contrast, what proportions? Why do I have the emotional reaction that I do to what I see? Even 5 minutes a day of this would give me insights way beyond my current understanding.

    3. Start a sketchbook of ideas.

    4. Try to avoid making quilts with one line of fabric. Ever. Unless its a charm pack baby quilt I need in 2 hours. Even then, I can probably come up with something more interesting that I will be happier with.

    I’m done now. Sorry about the length.

    1. Krista – When we teach we emphasize that we don’t want you to aspire to making quilts identical to ours, we want the patterns we publish to inspire you to take them in your own direction. In our lecture at QuiltCon we emphasized the need not to limit the definition of Modern Quilting lest we limit the possibility of inspiring the next yet-to-be-named quilt movement. To our minds, modern quilting has always been about freedom to explore new ways of doing things. There are lots of people who want to sell you things to be sure. What I hope you’ll look for, however, are those things which will inspire you to become the best quilter you can be.

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