The Modern Quilt: Revolution vs Evolution

After trolling the blogs late last night I came across Rossie’s process pledge and post on mutant quilting (don’t skip the insightful comments while you are there), and was inspired to consider my place in this movement.

I made my first quilt in 1988 and started quilting professionally in the early 90’s after being inspired by an exhibition of African-American improvisational quilts. Curated by Eli Lion,  Who’d A Thought It, included the work of Rosie Lee Tompkins among others. These quilts had the same amazing aesthetics as the quilts out of Gee’s bend, an overwhelming sense of presence and intelligence. Improvisational process and community have been the keys to my work as a quilt maker and an artist ever since. I guess you could say I am a mutant quilter, since improv is all about the process of mutation.

It seems to me that the term “modern” as applied to quilts is mostly about branding. It’s a label for the latest revolution, not necessarily evolution (or is it?) in quilt making. Re-imagining the lost traditions of our elders to find a more direct, hands-on way of life is a cultural trend. Today people in urban areas are into gardening, canning, and raising chickens in their back lots. We wrap our babies in cloth diapers and lay out our dead on the dining room table once again.  Whether it’s urban homesteading, natural burial, or modern quilting, we are searching the pre-tech era with hopeful eyes, for slower, simpler, more caring forms of existence. (My dad told me that all he did on Sundays as a small child in rural Indiana was attend church with his parents in the morning and wakes in the afternoon.)


There’s nothing wrong with revolving and turning the corner to find more sustainable and satisfying ways of living life. I’m for revolution AND evolution. Revolution is defined as the action by a body of orbiting around a center axis, like the moon, but it can also mean a sudden, radical, or complete change. Evolution is defined as a gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form, in other words, the process of development. Revolution and evolution are not opposites. They go hand in hand.  You can’t have one without the other.

I’ve been quilting for 22 years, but blogging for only a month. This blog is all about process, and I’m not talking about the design process. I’m blogging about craft as a life practice. I am very pleased to find this topic of conversation beginning to bud on the web, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Rowing the Boat:

Where do you place the modern quilt movement on the evolution/revolution scale? Or do you see it merely as a passing, pastime fad? How can we match revolutionary goals with evolutionary action? Any thoughts on the relationship between the two in your own process? Is it possible to evolve into LESS complex but better forms?… I hope to hear from you!

Post photos: details from Godseye, 1996 by Sherri Lynn Wood

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16 Responses to The Modern Quilt: Revolution vs Evolution

  1. alexia abegg says:

    What a wonderful conversation. I am really happy to have read not only your post, but all of the thoughtful words on the topic. thank you!
    Best,
    Alexia

  2. Emma says:

    I realize that I’m really late to this discussion, but I wanted to chime in, even if nobody will ever see it. I read this article and all of the comments, and have mulled over what to say for a while now. It almost seems to me that many who call themselves modern quilters and just make quilts from kits with a single line of fabric and maybe one solid fabric mixed in or, if not from a kit, at least they make their fabric choices based off of a single line or two of fabric, are afraid. Quilting is something that so often today is associated with grandmothers. Grandmothers who sat up late, working on incredibly intricate blocks just like their grandmothers. In our society, we are taught to fear aging – you should look like you’re 20 for the rest of your life, right? Botox, cosmetic surgery, all of the age-defying products on the market…we as a culture in the US, anyways, are afraid to seem old. So why would we want to do something that our grandmothers did?

    While we love quilting, we also want to separate OUR quilts from THEIR quilts. We want a way to say “I quilt, but I don’t do it like old ladies…I’m not old, I’m modern!” so that our friends, when they find out we quilt, don’t instantly think of us as shriveled old women. We use fabrics bought at the store specifically for a quilt so we’re not scrimping and saving everything the way the quilters of old did. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against buying fabric for quilting…quite the opposite, if you look at my stash. I have a problem with the way we don’t push our boundaries. We’re lucky to live in a world where quilting isn’t a necessity anymore. We don’t have to make a quilt in order to keep our newest child from freezing to death in the middle of the night. And that’s great. But that has changed quilting.

    I’m not going to lie, I get sick of looking at flickr pools that are all full of the same quilt designs – they’re great designs, but the quilts aren’t really unique. I’m not going to name any because I don’t want to make anyone mad, but there a few that have been showing up almost daily in the FMQ pool. Traditional designs, sure – everyone recognizes a 9 patch quilt, and it’s one of the simplest ones out there. I just don’t understand why, after seeing umpteen other quilts that are identical, just with different fabric, you’d want to make it yourself. Maybe I’m just jaded, or too stubborn and independent, but I’ve made a few quilts with traditional designs (Log Cabin, Disappearing 9 Patch, pinwheel, Trip Around the World, etc.) and am rather proud that I’ve never made someone else’s quilt.

    At the same time, my quilts are still in the FMQ pool. I submit them to a lot of different flickr pools, but every time I submit a traditional-designed quilt to the FMQ pool, I feel like I’m being a rebel. After all, my quilt isn’t modern – there are quilts hundreds of years old with the same design. The first few times I submitted images to the FMQ pool, I wondered if my quilts would make it in, since every other quilt had white sashing, multiple borders, and designer fabrics. I’m not using designer fabrics, either – I think I have 2 Moda fabrics. Maybe 3. I have less than a yard of each, as I picked them out based off of the color and design, only later realizing that they were made by Moda. I have FQs from Joanns, Hancocks, Hancocks of Paducah, and all sorts of other stores. The fabrics aren’t even usually bought as bundles – I don’t really do coordinated stuff, I just pick out a few individuals that catch my eye and work them into my future quilts.

    I’m not trying to bash Moda or any other fabric line, but too many times other quilt bloggers buy tons of it, post pictures of it on their blog generally with the caption “delicious” or “yummy” something similar, and never use it (or it’s a “Wordless Wednesday” post, but I just laugh as I don’t even know what fabric it is). They complain about never using it, too, which bugs me. What’s the point of a fabric if it never gets used? I have trouble finding homes for some of my fabrics, too, but with each quilt I design, I try to use at least one untouched fabric. I’m a scrappy quilter, so I might have as many as 10 or 15 different fabrics of one color (say, brown) in a baby quilt, let alone in a larger one! It might take a little more time for you to pick out your fabrics if you don’t just pick up a charm pack or layer cake or jelly roll or whatever, and you’ll probably spend a little more time cutting since your pieces of fabric aren’t already partially cut for you. But it’s not that much longer…trust me, I work full time, and I still manage to do it!

    My challenge to “modern quilters” out there – try something different than everyone else is doing. Make a quilt that doesn’t involve pre-cuts. Make a quilt that doesn’t have sashing in between the blocks and a narrow and wide border. Make a quilt that you designed – it’s not that hard, even if you don’t have EQ software. It takes a little longer to count how many squares you’ll need, but it’s totally doable. For me, maybe I’ll try some of those things…sashing, or borders. I don’t use them at all, so it’d be a step out of my comfort zone. Because that’s what modern quilting really is – it’s us trying something new, and knowing that we won’t be rejected for it. After all, if a traditional block with no sashing and no designer fabrics can make it into a modern quilt pool, break out of the wonky log cabin rut and try a real log cabin!

    • Sherri Lynn Wood says:

      Thanks Emma for your passion. I agree that it’s important to continue to evolve by breaking out from the crowd sometimes and doing something new, and sometimes that new is reinterpreting something old.

    • Cathy A says:

      I know I’m late to this, but felt compelled to say something. I think modern quilting is the way we quilt in modern times, making use of modern materials and methods–that’s just my own definition, and it doesn’t matter too much to me what the rest of the world thinks about my quilts.

      And that’s my point in this reply to your response…Who cares what everyone else is doing and whether they use precuts or not? It’s their work, not yours, and I don’t understand why everyone wants to judge everyone else’s resources to time, or their motivation for quilting. We all quilt for our own reasons. Who cares if it’s modern or traditional, wonky or not? It all has meaning to the individual who created it. Is that really your place to decide whether it is “good enough”? And that, I think, is the important part about quilting. Not whether it fits some idea of what is worthy to be called art or modern quilting or whatever term others might want to judge it by. Some of us quilt just for fun.

      • Sherri Lynn Wood says:

        I’ve been thinking about that lately too Cathy. Do I care how I fit in to a movement or whatever? I do what I do and I hope to find other souls out there that can connect to what I do and vise versa. Then we will have a community to share with and learn from.

  3. I just love the conversations around modern quilting! I think for most newer quilters that associate with the Modern Quilt “movement” (for lack of a better term) “modern quilting” just provides the freedom for them to express themselves through quilting. It’s sad to say but, so many newer quilters did not feel embraced by the more traditional quilting communities. I’ve had more than one experience myself and I’ve heard countless stories to this effect. The modern quilt community provides the safety and comfort to be able to learn and create without all the pressures of

    I assume that some people have rules to what modern quilting means to them but, to me, modern quilting is just a reflection of today’s quilter. The simplicity, color choices, etc. that are shown in the quilts of the “modern quilter” just reflect the aesthetic of the day. For better or worse we are a t-shirt and jean society. Long gone are the days of formal dress. This is reflected in many of the quilts of the day. Simpler colors, designs. Some modern quilters actually do like to hand quilt. Some don’t use lots of white space. Some are crafters that strictly follow the patterns of others. Some are artists who relish in the process of creating. Just like quilting for any generation – quilting is a personal expression.

    Is this a revolution or evolution? I don’t know. But, it is bringing a craft (and for a few an art) to newer generations that prior to this resurgence was virtually non-existent. If you look at the data over the last ten years or so the age of the average quilter was getting older and finally new blood and life is being infused into quilting by the newer generations of quilters.

    I don’t see it as a fad. I see it as a progression. Revolution to some. Evolution to others but, it is quilting for newer generations.

    I say ‘Yay’ for quilts being passed down to new generations!

    (Also, I don’t know if you know it or not but, it was one of your quilts that was used as inspiration for the Modern Quilt Guild logo! Check out Jane’s post here about it: http://fancytwo.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-project-modern-quilt-logo-design.html

    BTW, I LOVE your work. Always have. I’m so glad you have a blog now! Looking forward to reading about your process!

    • Sherri Lynn Wood says:

      Wow – Latifa – I absolutely had no idea that my quilt was the inspiration for the modern quilt guild logo. Thanks for letting me know and for your enthusiasm about my work.

      I appreciate your contribution to the discussion. I’m getting a much better picture of what the movement is about – the emergence of a new generation of people interested in making quilts. I’m sorry to report that I went to a traditional guild meeting recently with a friend of mine who is an older visionary artist. She has very little money, lives in the tenderloin in subsidized housing. I’m a member but the guild charged her $5 to come to the meeting as a visitor. I told the guild person in charge that she was on a fixed income and asked if they could waive the fee or if they had a sliding scale but they said no. So I paid for her. She really liked the meeting and I think she would like to come again but she doesn’t have the money and doesn’t want me to pay for her. I was quite surprised and disappointed. I don’t think all traditional guilds are like this and they certainly welcomed younger generations when I started making quilts 20 years ago. How did this happen? I wonder…

      I think your blog is terrific. I like what you say that basically everyone improvises differently. We can improvise the way we improvise.

  4. karen hendrix says:

    I’ve only started quilting this year – everything by hand as sewing machines make me cuss (and I’d rather my quilts contain the spirit of calm love than swearing!). Hand sewing (or any crafting) is revolutionary for me on a personal level. It is a way to steal back time from all the stuff I HAVE to do – jog, chores etc. So I guess I’m not so concerned with any movements in quilting, just enjoying my own little march against technology. I grew up in the deep South and slept under quilts hand sewn by my mama and aunts. I want my daughter to dream under covers I have made for her.

    Love your blog!

    • Sherri Lynn Wood says:

      I’m a cheerleader for hand-stitching too for just those reasons Karen. I hand-quilt my quilts, not only because I like the way it looks but because it allows me time to slow down in the studio and let my mind wander. It’s a kind of productive fallow time, like sowing a cover crop for the next year’s harvest. Thanks for your comment.

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  6. amy says:

    I am fascinated that your work was also influenced by Rosie Lee Tompkins. When I saw her work at the Whitney Biennial I knew I wanted to work with fabric. I was a design professional at the time on the brink of burnout. I realized that I had diverted all of my creative energy to serve the needs of people who did not respect what I did and did not leave any room for me to creative – in or out of work. Quilts seemed like the best way to have an individual-driven (as opposed to client-driven) design project. The revolution for me, and perhaps for the others involved, was that I could fully own the project. I could afford the materials, drive the process, and end up with an object that didn’t need a gallery wall or client to be seen and appreciated. These things seem so obvious now, but it was a revelation at the time.

  7. Sherri Lynn Wood says:

    Thanks for these comments! I would also love to hear from folks who think of themselves as modern quilters. How has this movement created a revolution or evolution within your work or life? When I was first introduced to improvised quilts 20 years ago I was blown away. On a personal level a revolution was triggered that changed the course of my creative work and my life path.

  8. caron says:

    It’s hard for me to say revolution, since it’s not clear to me what’s being revolted. The same patterns are being created with the fabrics that are available today, just like at any other point in history.

    I can’t say evolution, because it seems to me to be a step or 3 backward. Everything set in white solid was a necessity of the time in the thirties – they played with pattern and color when they had it. I don’t often see anything new or inventive in the modern quilt groups.

    Solid white between all your blocks made from a single designer line looks really boring to my eye. But, my eye has been looking at quilts for over twenty years. It;s possible I’m jaded.

    I often find myself feeling angry at modern quilters because it feels like a misuse of resources ( great fabrics segregated, and not allowed to synergisticly mix with others) or a misnomer maybe…. I wouldn’t care if they called themselves clean and spare quilters. They do use clean looks and design is often spare… I can’t yet place my finger on why exactly i get so annoyed with them.

    I must say however, that there is room in quilting for anyone who wants to play, and that I am really impressed with the way new quilters jump right in and try things out themselves, learning from each other over the web.

    I have been consumed with a large weighty project for quite some time and miss spending time playing in the studio, instead of working there – maybe I’m just jealous….

  9. judy martin says:

    I’m embarrassed.
    I hadn’t realized that the term ‘modern’ quilting had been coined. Slowing down and appreciating the old but with a simple and clean modernist aesthetic – is that what you mean by that phrase?

    I’d say evolution rather than revolution.
    I’d say young people quilting with simple shapes, intuitively is creating a buzz.
    However, for me, I’m just doing what I’ve done for over thirty years. Obsessively hand stitching large quilts. I’m using larger pieces of fabric now, which looks modern I guess, and I’ve been wondering why. Maybe you’ve told me in your post.

    Thanks for your blog. It looks as if it will be very interesting and I will return.

  10. Kristin L says:

    I guess I’d call it a revolution, but only in the sense of a turning, not a rebellion. I see just as many “rules” in modern quilting as in traditional (lots of white, or linen, or Kona cotton, nothing that hints at Jinny Beyer or Thimbleberries or anything from my stash that is more than three years old, simple, geometric, liberated). I see it as the current fashion just as rainbow hand dyes and heavy machine quilting, or country cottage looks have had their day in the sun. Not that there is anything wrong with a lot of that — each trend has it’s mavens and I see a lot of wonderful reinventions or reimaginings of classic quilts and patterns out there right now. And there are definitely a few who are pushing their work to amazing places — there always are a few in the lead of any pack.

    I have a quilt or two posted in Rossie’s Fresh Modern Quilt pool, not because I see myself as a “modern” quilter, but because in order to get an audience for my work in this computer driven age, I need to put searchable labels on it and “modern quilt” works as well as anything else – if not better, since my work is mostly not quite traditional, not quite show stopper, not always arty. I see Modern Quilts as the moniker for what’s hot right now.

    And yes, I do think it is possible to create less complex but better forms — the zen gardens of quilting! Of course, after a few years of zen gardens we’ll all get antsy to start creating lavish topiary filled estates. ;-) Everything is always reacting to what came before it.

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