Modern Quilts or Traditional Quilts: Pick Your Own Path

Is it Modern or Traditional?

That is a current hot topic within the quilting industry as the lines between modern and traditional quilts become more blurred and the current trend of modern traditionalism comes into play. Can a quilt be labeled modern only if it uses brightly colored prints and solids, or does the label depend on the design concepts of negative space, improvisation, asymmetry, and scale? So what happens if a modern quilt pattern is made with traditional fabric? Is the resulting quilt suddenly traditional? In many cases, it is up to the viewer.

Detail of “Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly featuring fabrics designed by William Morris

Detail of “Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly featuring fabrics designed by William Morris

The importance of design

Artists and designers from the past continue to inspire textile artists today. Industry professional and “Quilting Arts TV” guest Luana Rubin from eQuilter.com shared her perspective of how the quilt world is influenced even to this day by the 19th-century textile designer and Renaissance man, William Morris.

William Morris was an English Renaissance man, dabbling in many different genres, from textile design and poetry to politics and painting. He created murals, studied the classics, and was trained as an architect. It was from this deep understanding of the arts that he and his associates founded a British decorative arts firm that we now know as Morris & Co. in addition to starting the Arts & Crafts movement.

“Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly

“Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly

We’ve all seen quilts from the last century that defy their traditional roots and are strikingly modern in so many ways. It only takes a few clicks of the mouse to find examples that could have been made today. Hawaiian appliqué designs can be unexpectedly bold and fresh while staying true to tradition. The quilt makers of Gee’s Bend created amazingly complex contemporary pieces of modern art using clothing and scraps. Amish medallion quilts are bold and colorful, often with unexpected value changes and color placement.

Morris’ central tenet of design was that everything in a home—from the wallpaper to the furniture to everyday tools—should be beautiful, useful, or both. This belief guided his actions and informed his work in the decorative arts and beyond. From the standpoint of Victorian England where manufactured goods were prized, he and his followers maintained that functional pieces made by hand were of great value—a radical opinion at the time. His influence extended to the very heart of the textile industry, from learning about dyeing, weaving, and textile production thoroughly, and taking an interest in improving the lives of the textile workers.

“Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly

“Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly

The maker’s movement and the Modern Quilt Movement favor similar ideals—handmade pieces, exquisitely fashioned for home beautification.

“Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly featuring fabrics designed by William Morris

“Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly featuring fabrics designed by William Morris

“The most remarkable thing about William Morris is that he dared to dream that everyday folk could live with aesthetically beautiful surroundings, and spent his life making that dream possible. I have taken his immense creative energy and inspired output as a jumping off point for my own humble efforts. He fills me with the desire to achieve a similar dream every time I view his designs.” –Kaffe Fassett

“Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly

“Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly

Using traditional elements in modern quilt design

These examples of “modern” quilts steeped in tradition all have one thing in common: good design. Isn’t it true that good design is what it all comes down to? If a quilt is designed well—with a balanced use of color, value, negative space, and scale—then it will work with any number of fabric variations. We asked Jen Carlton Bailly to put her design skills to the test and create a single modern quilt design that could be interpreted in two different ways: traditional and modern. And her results are stunning! Jen made the same pattern in different fabrics— one is truly traditional incorporating a line of fabrics designed by William Morris more than 100 years ago, while the other is clearly modern and uses solids.

Detail of “Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly

Detail of “Owl Eyes” by Jen Carlton Bailly

While Jen’s personal aesthetics lean more toward modern, by the end of sewing with the William Morris collection she was smitten with the beauty of the fabric design and how well it worked in the quilt design. And the quilt made with solids has an entirely different feel—more calm and peaceful— while still playing on the tradition of a Drunkard’s Path block. So what makes a quilt modern or traditional? Good design. No matter the fabric you choose, you’ll be an expert at the Drunkard’s Path block by the time you finish!

Want to learn more about modern quilting? Check out Modern Patchwork Home, a book chock full of modern quilts as well as modern traditional patterns! Try one of these patterns out in your favorite traditional fabric collection!

Sew long,
Katie

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