On Modern and Traditional

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There are a lot of people in the quilt world who dislike the term modern quilting. While I often find the term inadequate to describe what is actually going on with a new generation of quilters, there is another word I find equally problematic: traditional. It is a word used as much as modern, and more often than not, it is used in a way that seems to assume that it refers to a singular, unified practice; that is, quilting as it always has been done, and by implication, should be done. Traditional frequently appears to lay authoritative claim to the quilting tradition. But just what is traditional quilting?

In my mind traditional quilts are those that are made to be used, made from whatever was available or suited the intended purpose. My wife’s grandmother, Mamaw, made quilts. Some of them are technically wonderful, but many more are simply utilitarian. The stitches are large and rough or the quilt is tied. The seams do not match perfectly, and many are purely experiments. Before she passed away she made a quilt for me: a simple quilt of blue and red polyester, using wool batting to make it extra warm. She tied it because 1) it was heavy and thick, and 2) her fingers were no longer as strong as they used to be. Made in 2002, this quilt exemplifies the vast majority of quilts made in history. The essence of quilting is not any particular form, but the reality of three layers (or sometimes two) stitched together.

It is my understanding that the term traditional became truly widespread in the1980s, as art quilting gained traction. Art quilts used exotic and impractical materials and techniques, while traditional quilts remained more usable, continuing the tradition of practical quilting. In many ways, traditional essentially seems to have been a term to facilitate talking about two distinct approaches and types of show entries: art quilts vs. traditional quilts. From there, though, the term seems to have taken on a life of its own: certain approaches became traditional while others did not, and divisions and hierarchies arose.

The word traditional is an incredibly loaded term. In popular speech, traditional is good and non-traditional is, well, not. We see older things as traditional, regardless of context; the word implies something that stands the test of time. It seems almost inevitable that traditional quilting would spur an explosion of reproduction fabric and patterns, and that traditional quilting would develop a historicist slant, one born of preserving the true craft of quilting. This approach increasingly prioritized the most complicated and difficult work over the basic act of making a quilt. As a result, the beautiful goal of preserving past quilting practices at times begets a degree of elitism that doesn’t necessarily speak to the many ways that quilts were actually produced and valued throughout history.

There are other terms to describe quilts that don’t fit within the purview of traditional.

Most recently the term modern has come into widespread use. I have a rather uncertain relationship to the word, but I see why it came into use. Within quilting the word traditional is often understood to denote a set of technical practices, at times emphasizing technique over practical reality. For many quilters there is a seeming disjunction between traditional as seen in quilt exhibits and the practice of quilters like my wife’s Mamaw.

Over time, as traditional increasingly indicated a particular genre of quilting rather than just a material reality as distinct from art quilting, a new generation of quilters sought a term that would indicate a different reference set, one born of aesthetic and technical practices drawn from modern art, culture and life. Many of these new quilters drew inspiration directly from Modernist art, though many more were simply drawn to an aesthetic and a practice that was different from what had become known as traditional.

Modern has long been used as an opposite to old-fashioned, but within the quilting world it has far too often been read as opposed to tradition. In many ways that is the nature of the word modern; its history is that of replacing what came before. The fact that many quilters read modern quilting as dismissive to older forms may indeed have less to do with the actual view of the new generation of quilters than with the problematic history of the word modern itself. The past half-century of marketing has used the word modern to denote improvement: fresh, clean, useful and appealing over stale, dingy, inadequate and unattractive. Whatever useful connotations the word modern may have, it also brings with it the baggage of generational conflict.

In the quilting context, the term was meant to denote a broad conceptual and aesthetic approach, but quickly became associated with particular stylistic markers. In this way modern and traditional came to be viewed as opposing sides rather than participants in a continuum. Quilts were branded as either modern or traditional, as was fabric; subtle distinctions gave way to crass generalization. And that is the most unfortunate part; for it seems to me that so many quilters – aided by remarkable resources such as QuiltIndex.org, Quilt Alliance and the International Quilt Study Center and Museum – are actively engaging in the rich, complex and varied history of quilting around the world. Quilting has long been a tradition based on variation and innovation.

The truth is that modern and traditional quilting are not so different. As much as words are valuable tools for conveying meaning, they can also get in the way. There are some significant ways in which many of the quilts currently being made are different than those that came before, but that is always the case. Modern quilting does not step outside of the quilting tradition; rather it is by and large a response to what the term traditional has come to mean. The differences in the practice today should not be dismissed or ignored, just as we new practitioners ought not ignore the work of those who preceded us.

What we have today is an example of the inadequacy of words, or at least words used poorly. Traditional and modern are just two words, and we do both genres of quilting a disservice when we fail to look beyond these generalizations and engage with each quilt on its own terms. I prefer to talk about quilting tradition, that large umbrella that encompasses everything we do, and then consider the differences that makes that tradition so remarkable.

Traditional and modern are likely here to stay. But that doesn’t mean we need be limited to or by these terms. Take these terms as a starting point to enter into a more subtle conversation that will truly enrich the extraordinary tradition of quilting.

Thomas Knauer holds Masters of Fine Art from both Ohio University and the Cranbrook Academy of art. Before he started designing fabric and quilts he was a professor of art and design at Drake University and the State University of New York. He began quilting in 2011 after leaving academia due to health concerns. He has designed fabric collections for Andover and Kokka. His most recent book, The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook, was published by Storey in 2016, and he is currently working with EverSewn and HandiQuilter to expand the quilting tradition. This essay was originally published in Quilters Newsletter in 2014.