The journey to modern

By Bonnie K. Hunter

profile1Me? A modern quilter?

Why, yes, I am!

It’s true, I do love the connection to designs from the past – the blocks, the names, the history.

But I also believe in making a quilt my way – with fabrics and colors that excite me. I love to change up layouts, throw in little surprises and give things an updo.

But you know what? It wasn’t that long ago that I did not consider myself a modern quilter. Until one fateful moment in time back around December 2012, when I found out the modern quilt movement hinstagram1ad jumped on what I thought was my “not-so-modern” Scrappy Trip Around the World pattern that I have had free on my Web site since around 1999. It took off like wildfire – it went viral, as the saying goes – and if you check Instagram (#scrappytripalong), Twitter or Pinterest, you will find Scrappy Trips quilts by the hundreds in every colorway and style you can imagine.

I was floored. I always thought of it as a “charity” type of quilt block that would use up everything and anything, the dregs of the stash – and I found myself drug full force into the modern quilt world.

flickr1_thumbScrappy Trip Along on Flickr.

What made it cross over into the modern realm?

Just what is it that makes a quilt modern? To me, it has a lot to do with the graphic quality, the visual impact of a quilt, no matter the techniques or fabrics used to construct it.

My first bed-size quilt (top) was a crazy patch I made from worn denim jeans in 1980 after high school graduation. Hey, I had one segment of quilting instruction in home ec my senior year of high school – I thought I was ready for it! I cut random chunks, sewed them together, until my “block” was big enough – and I used a Sharpie marker to trace around a record album cover (Supertramp, “Breakfast in America”!) so I could cut my blocks to size with scissors. I don’t remember whatever happened to that quilt top, but I suppose by today’s modern quilt movement, it would be considered pretty dang modern. But I thought I was being traditional.

I used to pooh-pooh explanations I heard from others attempting to explain what a “modern” quilt is and what it isn’t. I shook my head over confusing statements like “You can make a traditional quilt with modern fabrics, and it’s a modern quilt – but you cannot make a modern quilt with traditional fabrics.” What?

I’ve thought and thought about this conundrum, and these are the things that keep running through my mind:

Just who is the designer of your quilt? You or the home dec industry that decides what is current this season and out the next? Is your quilt more a reflection of you as a quilter – or an advertisement for a certain pre-cut and pre-matched fabric line?

If we lay hold to the belief that it is solely the fabric that makes the quilt modern, then a few years down the road, will what we made as modern today lose its modern status as styles and fabric lines change and become outdated?

blueksiesfull1I love movies. One of my favorites is “Far and Away” with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. In the movie, Nicole’s character is aching to be set free from her conservative upbringing and be considered modern. In the 1800s. And yet today, we would look at her idea of modernism as old-fashioned.

I can only surmise then that modern is really a fleeting thing – and the most important thing is that we enjoy the creative process with an open mind and a free spirit and find just what it is that brings us joy. I am not worried if my quilt becomes dated a few years down the road. Every quilt I make captures the memories of what was going on in my life during the time period it took to make that quilt.  For that brief moment in time, that quilt was modern.

So what brings this modern quilter joy? Freedom to combine styles and colors and fabrics without rules. Yes, I can sew a batik to a Civil War print to a modern geometric to a solid and throw in those 1990s calicoes in such a way that they all blend together and become a study in color, or in value, or in contrast and texture. To me, it’s not the print on the fabric that matters. It’s how it plays with the others around it. Of course, my favorite rule comes to play: “If it’s still ugly, you just haven’t cut it small enough!”

I can work with recycled shirts and clothing from the thrift shop and combine them with modern fabrics such as Kaffe Fasset and solids – it’s my quilt.

I can study the free spirit of quilters past, loving the make-do frugality that brought about artistic ingenuity in history’s Amish quilts. They weren’t trying to be modern, but so many of them are heralded as being modern in their own way.  Of course, for me, the scrappier the better, and the more I like them.

I can marvel that the quilts of Gee’s Bend are thought now to be so aesthetically modern when they were made of the simplest of ingredients found at hand and made quickly to be warm through the winter, to cover loved ones. It was “Art not made as Art.”

String and crumb piecing has always been a deeply rooted passion of mine, and combining string piecing techniques with traditional patchwork units gives me an updated look with a leg in each camp – traditional, and yet modern.

strings 002_thumb

I can choose which rules I want to play by – and which way to go off on my own journey. I can sew very modern looking scrappy blocks (which are rooted in tradition) while stitching on my 1911 treadle machine. In 1911, that machine was the latest thing going – modern all the way.

At 51 years old, I’m sure my kids do not think of their mother as modern in anything – but I’ve come a long way, baby!

Bonnie K. Hunter is the author of Scraps & Shirttails: Reuse, Re-purpose and Recycle! The Art of Quilting Green, Adventures with Leaders & Enders: Make More Quilts in Less Time!, Scraps & Shirttails II: Continuing the Art of Quilting Green and String Fling: Scrappy, Happy and Loving It! Look for her new book in the  spring. Follow her on her blog, Quiltiville. 

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54 thoughts on “The journey to modern

  1. Evelyn Greene

    I couldn’t agree more. I too consider myself a modern quilter and I’m a lot older than Bonnie. I feel sorry for those quilters who are afraid their colors don’t match perfectly. They live such a restricted life. Modern is the freedom to choose what you like.

  2. Theresa W

    I agree with you 100%, Bonnie! I really don’t think that “modern” looks a whole lot different than what I was doing 30 years ago. Now I use lots more fabrics and more complex patterns while the modern look is large pieces of one fabric line. Yes, fabrics are different now but they change all the time and we can date quilts by what fabric was popular and available during any era.

  3. Patricia Cartwright

    I just recently found Bonny on line and I have learned so much in a short time I loved her article. It says just what I feel in my heart when I make a new old quilt.I have made a sewing friend that belives what we do should be used and loved.

  4. Mary Ann

    I am older than Bonnie too and I think of myself as a transitional quilter…I use all sorts of fabrics, all sorts of patterns and techniques and am open to new ideas. Does that make me modern? Well some days! Does that make me traditional? Yea, some days!

    1. donna sciandra

      I like to think of myself as a “scrapper” I have gotten on the Scrappy Trip bandwagon, working on my first and it wont be the last. Love all your ideas especially the quilts you made for your nephews.

  5. Chris Wells

    The Quilt Police should listen to you. Anything goes if you are happy with the results. Pleasing to the eye and the joy of making a quilt are the most important. Well written article.

  6. Mimi

    Modern quilts have gray or white in them, big open spaces, lots of solid color. LOL Some have great design and some are just bla. I know when I am looking at a modern quilt even if I can’t put it in words….. and I know when I am looking at a bad modern quilt. If it is a marketing gimmick to get the 20’s and 30’s into quilt shops buying and sewing, wonderful. Time will tell ….. Amish was a big deal when I first started quilting….. it has a place in the tradition of quilting…. I think modern will have a similar place. In the mean time, let’s sew!

  7. Debbie

    Loved you in the spotlight Bonnie! You deserve it. Bonnie gives her heart and soul to quilting. She travels and teaches her knowledge of quilting all over.She gives us that can’t travel some of her FREE time through Quilt Cam FB,Blogs,etc.I love everything she teaches and she also lets us know that she always takes time for her family and friends that may drop in. Love everything about Bonnie.I feel like she is a friend and everything comes from her heart.

  8. B

    I considered myself dressed in “modern” clothes in the ’70’s and now my kids want to know “how could you wear something like that!”? So, I agree, modern is changing all the time and evolving over time. Fun to remember the “old” modern in comparison to the current modern which will become old in a couple of years!

  9. svqgail

    Thank you Bonnie, your eloquent, thought provoking and encompassing ideas on modern quilts and quilters is exactly on point. I need to share this with my newly formed ‘modern’ quilt group. We spend too much time trying to define what we are when modern isn’t an age, style, design or color. It is an “idea” that is just for a time and in time; maybe next year, the definition of modern will not be the same as it is right now, Subject to change. This is why I love making quilts.

  10. Andee in AZ

    As Bonnie’s # 1 fan (aren’t we all?) I love to hear she has one foot in modern and one foot in traditional quilting as I do. Bonnie does so much for us quilters–she is the most generous person I have ever met and she is talented beyond belief! It is so nice to see her featured here!

  11. Tami Chaulk

    I think Bonnie hit the nail right on the head. Modern is whatever is popular at the moment. At one point in time, the Crazy Quilts were considered very modern, but that was a long time ago. I love almost everything Bonnie creates. I say almost, because I’m still a beginner and some things are a little hard for me. I’m currently working on my 4th Bonnie Hunter quilt and am itching to start on the next. Thank you Bonnie for all you do for the quilting world!

  12. malinisquilts

    Wonderful post and summed it right. It is a fleeting thing and accepts with open arms and free spirit. Love all your patterns, especially the scrappy trip along.

  13. Subee

    I consider myself one of Bonnie’s earliest fans. I found her website by accident and was mesmerized by her variety of free patterns. I was there in the very beginnings of her teaching career. Traveling by car and never knowing what type of sleeping arrangements were waiting on her arrival. Some rough beginnings have led to a well seasoned traveler and she knows what she needs when she gets to her destinations!
    She has influenced me to try scrappy quilting and a fabricholic was born. I also believe that anything can be combined…animal prints with Civil War reproductions and of course Batiks go with everything!
    Thanks Bonnie!
    XOXOOXXO Subee

  14. Pat Land

    I believe Bonnie Hunter is a modern quilter because she has promoted using readily available resources to make wonderful quilts. Old stash, up-cycled shirts, it’s all good and that is very liberating.

    1. Mona Ortego

      Great article! Scrappy blocks and quilts are the easiest system to use. After all, it will make every quilt “Beginner Perfect!” Thanks Bonnie for all the inspiration to new quilters no matter the age or skill level of the quilter!!!

  15. Louise

    I’m not sure what “modern” means to me, but if it get the younger women involved in quilting, then I’m all for it!
    Great blog post, Bonnie! It’s very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  16. Carol Sc

    Nicely said (written) . I think you covered the subject from many angles and I agree with you. I’m looking forward to seeing this “new” line of books.

  17. Lynda from Chicago

    Love the column. It speaks volumes not only to the quilting world but to life. Everything old is new again, no one knows that better than Bonnie! Thank you Bonnie for sharing your life and your quilting skills so very freely, your the best.

  18. Anne

    There is a “old” saying ……..what’s old is new again! Wonderful article, you’re simply the best Bonnie

  19. Dar in MO

    I too am a big fan of Bonnie Hunter and her way of approaching quilt making. I started as a scrappy quilter, using what was available from old clothes and discarded fabric from others. I went through a short phase of buying some “in” fabrics of the time, but I still have the most fun and love the quilts that use my large stash of everything. As someone earlier said, it is very liberating to make a quilt with no rules on which fabrics to include. To me, that makes YOUR quilt very modern and original – even if using someone elses pattern. There will never be another one exactly like it — anywhere. Take any of Bonnie’s quilts, for example. Many hundreds make them from her free patterns, but no two are exactly alike or using the same fabric like a pre-cut kit would be. Nothing wrong with pre-cut kits, but I’m in the “do your own thing camp”. Great article Bonnie.

  20. Christina in Cleveland

    Rock on Bonnie!! SO many great comments. I especially like your analogy to the movie Far and Away. And everything old is new again isn’t it? Bell bottoms are flairs and hip huggers are… who knows what. Hugs to all my fellow quilters, piecers and fabric junkies.
    ~Christina in Cleveland

  21. Faith H

    Great article, I have embraced the scrappy quilt since your visit to our guild in Tallahassee. Love how the old and new work together!
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  22. Patricia Hinkle

    Love it, I consider Bonnie to be a traditional with a twist quilter, to her fabric is fabric and when the fabric came out doesn’t matter. Really enjoy her methods and challenges, who else takes the stress out of the holidays by giving us a mystery that is completed on the new year.

  23. Marietta Gartner

    Thank you Bonnie- you make us all feel SOOO happy with your thoughts. Basically: do what feel POLICE are watching- its our hobby, recycling fabrics, whatever! thanks again!

  24. Carolyn Solomon

    It’s like you got inside my brain and gelled my thoughts into a well written article. Modern in fleeting and there are no quilt police, so sew away. If you love it, that’s all that counts. Thanks Bonnie!

  25. Pauline Kennelly

    Fads come and go. I do what pleases me, and I think this is what you’re trying to say in your article. It’s obvious that you appreciate the old methods and the time spent gathering materials then sewing for the family on very primitive machines. As circumstances and material permitted, early quilters began expressing themselves with some very artistic and beautiful quilts. It’s amazing how they made their quilts balance with none of the modern rulers and templates. Such artist! Bonnie I know you are in a position that you have to be very precise and accurate in your patterns, but you also recognize and encourage self expression in following your patterns. You seem so pleased and amaze when one of your patterns is made using colors completely different from your original. You’ve instilled in me a desire to explore different designs and colors. I feel when you asked for opinions on your article you really want opinions and are not trying to see how many answers you can come up with just to impress sponsors, as some bloggers do. So this is my answer: Great article, it permits rebels like me to go ahead and use the color combinations that please me, use re-purposed materials, allow a flaw and don’t worry what others think. Thank you.

    1. Lisa Lilly

      Hi Bonnie, I agree with you 100%!!!!! What is modern today will be old fashioned down the road, just as it has always been when we look back in history. I love history, especially women in history, their stories, how they lived etc. In every aspect of crafting, quilting, design, home furnishings etc. there are always trends, I think we all need to watch them, like what we like and then use what makes us happy and design what we like. What a boring world we would live in if everyone had the same colors, fabrics etc. in their homes and in the clothing they are wearing. There are no rules, just enjoy and keep creating. Thank you for all you do for all of us.

  26. Sonia

    Every quilt ever made was “modern” when it was made. Modern, to me, means now. Even traditional quilts were modern once. I agree 100% with Bonnie’s article. sonia

  27. Carole S.

    In my previous quilting life, I did what I thought would be “accepted”. This time around, I quilt for ME, even if it is a gift for someone. I can’t do a good job unless I am pleased with the materials and designs I’m working with, so if that’s what makes a person modern, I’m getting there.

    While I may not have a total appreciation of all the quilts in the “modern” movement, I’m so grateful for the new generation of people who are learning the art and craft of quilting, and keeping it going strong. We can’t ask for any more than that.

    Bonnie is one of those very valued links to that new group, with her generous sharing of patterns and techniques.

  28. Diane Pickthall

    Right on, Bonnie! I’m another old-fashioned-modern-quilter. LOL The important part is, we are quilting and we are happy to do so.

  29. Ciar

    Glad I found this article. I’m new-very new to patchwork. When I look at a “modern” quilt
    with lots of negative space and plain colours they don’t appeal to me.
    When I look at scrappy quilts I feel happy and confident that I could try
    making this. I hate the feeling of “colour control”. in some quilts What I like about Bonnie’s quilts
    there’s no gimmicks, no promoting this ruler or that template, and no promoting
    a certain line of designer fabric.
    Bonnie’s guidelines leave it up to the quiltmaker to plan her own colour scheme.
    What I don’t like about some modern “quilt bloggers” is the claim I only started
    quilting yesterday and here’s my book or my friend’s book and my fabric range is used
    for the quilts in this book.
    Just look at Bonnie’s Easy Street or Blue Ridge Beauty “There not of an age
    but for all time” Modernist or Traditionalist?

  30. Kerry

    I’ve started teaching myself this wonderful craft. I’ve purchased FQs simply because
    I don’t trust my colour choices at the moment. That confidence will come with time.
    Not all of us are in the happy position to own a big stack of plaid/striped/check shirts
    or a whole cupboard load of “vintage sheets” . There’s a lot of negative attitudes about
    most things nowadays. At least with quilting or knitting people should be encouraged
    to master these great crafts regardless of their fabric/yarn choices.

    I went to a quilt guild it was a horrible negative experience.
    The people involved in the guild, since it’s foundation, were crying out
    for new members, but they didn’t have the right attitude to encourage people to join.
    People who have been at patchwork/quilting along time may not realise it but they
    can be very judgemental, critical and dismissive of newcomers. They seem to forget
    they too had to start somewhere and may not have produced a perfect quilt with
    their first attempt. It would be a very dull world if we all liked the same colour
    schemes and same patterns.
    As long as people are happy with their choice whether its modern or traditional
    what’s important, is their helping to keep the craft alive. When people bemoan
    the fact that crafts are dying out, do they ever think of looking at themselves
    and see if their attitude has something to do with that?
    Bonnie’s new leaders and enders project tells you use every colour
    you have in the stash it reminds me of the Harry Chapman song
    “Flowers are Red”
    I know we need calm but there’s a lot of vibrancy in a quilt which has a riot
    of colour this vibrancy is lacking in modern minimalist quilts.

  31. Kaye Littles

    I still have quilts my Mama made from my Dad’s overalls. I would not take anything for them. They certainly were not considered modern when she made them. She had to keep her kids warm in the winter.

  32. Kristin Shirley

    Bonnie you have taught me so much since I met you a couple of years ago in Beaumont, Texas. You are one of my inspirations with scrappy quilts. I admit I still buy some material but NOT AS MUCH. I’m using up my scraps. Keep on Quiltin’. Kristin Shirley

  33. Sharon

    Thank you for the “explanation” of how you “became” a modern quilter! I appreciate your honest reply and your willingness to share what you have learned. Using what we have, and still aiming for beauty is certainly your major addition to quilters everywhere.

  34. Anita

    It has been interesting to me as well the double talk about what exactly is modern. I still don’t get it. I just love the art of making quilts regardless of the style.


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