Friday, February 7, 2020

modern vs traditional quilt designing

Hi everyone! Thanks for joining us today. I've decided to start blogging (on a regular basis) again. I would like to share my knowledge and experiences for those of you who wish to learn, experiment and better your own quilts. Here is one of my first Quilt Editorials for 2020 - #queditorial.

I would like to share with you my approach to modern vs traditional quilt designing.

As you might already know, I actually design a little bit of both. Although I truly classify myself as a modern-traditionalist, some others see me as a modern quilter. Where's the difference you ask? That's a tough question for me to answer. I don't think I can answer that. I don't really see where the difference in the two.

As defined by the Modern Quilt Guild (MQG),

"Modern quilts are primarily functional and inspired by modern design. Modern quilters work in different styles and define modern quilting in different ways, but 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. "Modern traditionalism" or the updating of classic quilt designs is also often seen in modern quilting." (

"So how is that different from traditional quilts?" That's my question to myself.

In my humble opinion, traditional quilts are very much functional, use high contrast, are graphic (almost every block uses some type of geometry) and some traditional quilts even use improv piecing (Gee Bend). What seems to be rather different in modern vs. traditional to me is the use of minimalism, negative space and bold colors. 

Let's take a look at those three points in more detail.
  1. The use of minimalism to create artistic designs is a key point in modern quilts. That's just it - art designs. If you approach a quilt design as a piece of art, you might start with an empty canvas. From there, you build up your artwork and layers of fabric. And, although many misinterpret minimalism as art from a five-year-old, a very successful and minimalistic quilt uses a lot of elements the untrained eye does not see, especially the use of quilting to make a second design especially playing on the piecing or original design itself.
  2. With more and more of long arm quilting machines hitting the mainstream market in the late 1990's, the use of negative space, which highlighted the quilting, jumped to the forefront adding to wonderful new styles in quiting. This allowed the use of negative space to take center stage in many modern quilts. Piecing, was once again, pushed to the second row of the quilt designs. Remember, whole cloth quilts in the 1930's? They also had an enormous amount of negative (light) space that was hand quilted.
  3. Bold colors in quilting fabric became readily available in the late 1980'-1990's. This is a moda and cultural trend in society. If you look at different periods throughout history, the fabrics and their luminosity changed over the last century. My mom's quilts used a very soft pastel mauve and blue which were very trending in the 1980's.There were many bright, almost neon prints in my early children's quilts in the late 2000's. At that time, you either found the "traditional" muddied reproduction fabrics or the bright, children's prints. The use of use contrasting, complementary colors or fabrics with varying values (light, medium, dark) will allow a quilt to sparkle. 

I've heard some say the difference between modern and traditional quilt is just the fabric used. Muted small prints personified the bi-centennial quilt revival movement in America (1975-1985) which a lot of people associated with traditional quilting while graphical designs in bold colors represent modern quilting.
So, for me, the difference between modern and traditional quilts is, quite frankly, the purpose. Is it to be seen and appreciated as art or used as a utility quilt? Here is my approach to each one when designing quilt patterns for each classification.

Modern Quilt Designs

When designing a modern quilt, particularly like the one above, I start with an empty canvas. I am free in my designing process. I add elements (usually graphical in nature) to the blank page and move, add, delete, change the elements until a pleasing design emerges.

This design, as well as most of my designs, was designed with Electric Quilt software. The quilt was designed in the custom set layout which allows you the freedom to really build layers of artwork. It allowed my to rotate my strips 45° with easy and place exactly where I wanted to on the canvas.
I am not plugging this software but mentioning it in case you were wondering. Some prefer to use Adobe Illustrator, CAD or even draw their own designs with pencil and graph paper. Use what you feel comfortable with, have access to and can afford. I bought the software at the EQ5 version and loved using it ever since. I would call myself extremely proficient, but there are still so many things to learn with this program. I have not found a limiting factor with designing with it yet. It is not perfect. There are some glitches, but it works well for me.

Then, the practicality and sewability start to jump in the design. Are those real words?? Is it possible to use a precut in this design? How would I sew it together? Is there a simpler way to sew it together? What are those angles? Are they standard angles listed on a quilt ruler? Would the intermediate quilter know how to use her ruler to cut those angles? Is there too much scrap fabric in this design? Which direction should those squares be pressed? Can this design be strip pieced? Those are just a few questions a quilt designer thinks about when desiging his pattern before writing.

Probably the last thing I put into a design is the fabric. What fabrics and color will allow this design to work? Does it only look good with the colors it was designed or can the colors be changed? I prefer to give more choices to the quilter. We all have our own tastes when it come to color choices and palettes.

Also, does the design work with prints as well? Does it work with large and medium scaled prints?

With this particular quilt design, I should have had it long arm quilted to really allow the quilter to accentuate the design. I chose to quilt the quilt myself instead and decided to play with the angles of the strips. I don't see organic quilting in this design, but who am I to say what is right? There are so many fantastic (long- arm and domestic machine) quilters out there who create masterpieces.

The above quilt measures 30" x 40". It was originally designed in 60" x 80" using precuts. It was published in Quiltmaker's Spring 2017 under the name of Pixelated. I had the pleasure of sewing this quilt and quilting it myself. I just love the beautiful photo the magazine made for their publication.

Quiltmaker Jul/Aug 2017 - "Pixelated"

UPDATED: This pattern is still available from Quiltmaker magazine. Click on the photo above.

I even made a smaller 1:2 version measuring 15" x 20". I would love to have an entire mini collection of my own designs.

Traditional Quilt Designs

When designing a traditional quilt, I change my thinking process. I start with a predefined canvas size and layout. Although, it will usually stay a rectangle or square, I think about the size for a usable quilt. What size would that be? It is for a twin, queen, king or a throw quilt? Is this quilt for a baby? Do I want to teach something with the design? Should it be simple? Do I want to show off a fabric line? Can you use precuts? Do you need a large border to fill the design to the requred size? I ask myself more practical question in the beginning. I start with contraints.

Let's look at my sampler quilt. The easypatchwork Advanced Sampler was designed to teach me all different techniques that you should learn about quilting from applique to curved piecing. I wanted to make 12", standard size blocks but also wanted to limit the number to a 3 x 4 grid. That meant I needed to push the design with border strips and sashing. I decided to go extra large on those, because it was supposed to be our bed (queen size) quilt.

I am also not very fond of sampler quilts, because a lot of them are just too unorganized and not uniformed for my taste. I love a balanced design which it hard to achieve with samplers. For sampler quilts, I think reducing the fabric palette to a limited number of 3-4 works best for a more uniformed look. Now, a sampler quilt is very traditional, is it not? Would you consider this a traditional or modern quilt?

This quilt started in 2012 and changed several times throughout the making stages. I hardly ever stay with the same design from start to finish. These were my favorite colors when I started the quilt - yellow, turquoise, and orange. I used white to balance or ground the design. In modern quilts, white, black and gray are considered neutrals and will give the eye a place to rest before moving on throughout a design.

With the use of the very large (fussy cut), prints for the corner blocks (Kate Spain, Fandago), it changes the feel of the quilt. Most traditional quilts would also use small scale prints which really sets off the piecing. Solids do the same thing in "modern" quilts as tone-on-tone or small scale, calico prints do. (The terminology has changed.)

When designing quilts, I like to download the swatches of fabric that I would like to use in the real design to see if the scaling of the fabric will really look like what I imagine. I will tweak the design and make fine adjustments on the mockup. When I actually start making the quilt, there is almost always a design change. Either a different fabric gets cut wrong, or it just doesn't feel right or quite simply, I grab the wrong fabric.

Still, would you classify this quilt as a modern or a traditional quilt? There's folkart appliqué, a Hawaiian block, a Mariner's Compass using templates, y-seams but also foundation paper piecing, straight-stitched applique with bias strips, and curved piecing.

There is a lot of negative space in this quilt as well. Does that mean it is modern? What if we look at the design with an additional border and a dark border in place of the white? Does it look more traditional to you now? If you use a muddy brown in a quilt, does it make it traditional? Likewise, if you use white, does it mean it is modern?

I really don't try to fit in one category or another, but the way I design is different. I consider a traditional quilt a quilt that has a purpose, a utility quilt. That purpose sets a framework of the design. A modern quilt, for me, is one that is designed for art purposes - to hang on the wall. There are virtually no limits and start with a blank canvas when designing.

So what do you think? Did I hit a nerve about modern and traditional quilting? Do you differ in opinion? We would love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment below.

Thank you so much for stopping by.


  1. I also use EQ- thanks for sharing your design process!

    1. Thank you, Sarah for dropping by! EQ has totally changed the was one thinks when designing quilts, don't you think?

  2. I'm taking my video camera to QuiltCon this month in Austin and will share the video on my YouTube channel. I'm also scheduled to interview the quilt show Director and I can't wait! I'm so excited to share "Modern Quilting" with my 10k+ viewers!

    1. Was that an advertisement? I would ask before I started filming the whole joint. I'm excited for you though.

  3. very interesting! Thank you! I agree with you : modern quilts are very good for wallhanging.

    1. Mini Moderns are great for trying out new techniques. You can hang them on the wall too. : ) Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  4. Such a thought provoking post, Karen. I appreciate the time and consideration it took to get your thoughts 'on paper', so to speak. I tend to agree with you that it’s a muddied distinction. Personally, I just like to sew, piece, create. Sometimes I like bright colors, sometimes I hit the old scrap bin and work in traditional (and often aged) prints. A minimalist by nature, I’m not always a minimalist in piecing quilts. If it strikes a chord, I’m going to make it, regardless. Utility quilts? You bet! When I gift them, the rule is USE IT until it becomes a rag. The directions I give are to call me when it needs repair because nothing would delight me more than to know you loved your quilt so much, it’s beginning to show wear and tear. Bottom line? Does it really matter? Modern? Traditional? Sew what you love, love what you sew! And I love everything you create! Looking forward to the next installment! XO

    1. Hi Karen!! Thanks so very much for stopping by and writing such a lengthy and lovely comment. You totally rock with your opion and actions! I love your "quilt directions!" I agree with you at heart. Let's jut make great quilts that will bring us joy from making them and joy for a recipient who loves using them! Can't wait to hear more from you. Quilty hugs!!

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Thank you so much for dropping by and leaving comments! You really make my day! - Karen

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