What Kind of Quilter Are You? Part 1: Understanding How We Categorize Quilts

Nomenclature is a system of names, or terms, and the rules for forming these terms in a particular field of arts, or sciences. The principles of naming vary from the relatively informal conventions of everyday speech to internationally-agreed upon principles, rules,, and recommendations that govern the formation, and use of the specialist terms used in scientific, and other disciplines.” – Wikipedia

Picture1 I’m often amazed by the difference in the actual meaning of a word from the ways some of us actually use and perceive that word. Nomenclature is a system of names or terms used in a particular field of arts or sciences. It is a way of naming things within a particular genre. Take the following words for example: traditional, art, modern, and contemporary. When we use them in the quilting arena, their meanings are often misconstrued. This is probably because the quilting world has grown so quickly since the 1980s. A lot of quilters feel the need to describe themselves and the quilts they make using one of several different monikers, calling themselves either a traditional, contemporary, modern, or art quilter.

Picture2 In most dictionaries, the words modern and contemporary are synonyms. Both mean “of our time,” however the modern quilt movement doesn’t use the word contemporary very often. A lot of the quilts coming out of the modern quilt movement share the aesthetic of the “Mid Mod” or “Atomic” age of style and decorating that is very popular now, and is a rebirth of the styles heavily used from the late 1950 s through the early 1970s. This aesthetic is minimalistic with clean lines, bold solid colors, lots of geometrics, large prints, repetition of shape, and a high percentage of negative space. These three small quilts pictured here have a modern aesthetic with bold use of color, simple shapes with lots of repetition, and somewhat plain backgrounds. However, they are wall pieces and lack the usefulness that the modern quilt movement prefers.

Picture3 As for the word contemporary, everything we make right now is contemporary. If we make a log cabin, it is our contemporary version of a log cabin, even if we make it in reproduction fabrics. However, most of those who call themselves contemporary quilters simply mean that they make contemporary versions of traditional quilt designs using fabrics designed for the current trends rather than reproduction types of fabrics.

The bigger misconception is often found in the difference between traditional quilt making and art quilting. It is within these two categories that lines are crossed and heady discussions are forged. I’ve heard many, many people claim that all quilting is art and though quilt making can be artistic and creative, most of it is craft rather than art. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with craft and there are many highly skilled craftspeople making quilts, however there is a difference and that difference can be important. We could argue about the difference between art and craft from now until eternity, in fact you can find many online discussions on that very subject. However in quilting, as in many other art mediums, it really comes down to two questions: is the work original to the maker (not made using instructions from a book or pattern), and is the work meant to be viewed only (most often hung) or used, such as on a bed or table top. The answers to these two questions can help us understand the difference between art and craft but it may not help us differentiate between the quilter’s terms of traditional versus art quilting.

The Essence of a Quilt

Basically any quilt that is made only to be hung on the wall and is a culmination of the original ideas of the maker is an art quilt. But that does not mean that all other quilts are traditional or “craft” rather than art. There are many bed size quilts being made that are forged from original ideas that are art, made by artists. What we can safely say is that any quilt that is made, whether it is for the wall, table, or bed, using instructions from a pattern or book is craft. These quilts, as well as quilts that are made by artists, and art quilts can be stylized in lots of different ways. What we currently call traditional is anything that is based on or is a simple variation of a time-honored historical block or technique. The people who make these types of quilts often call themselves traditional quilters. These quilts often utilize a symmetrical, grid-based design. A common traditional variation is to use a medallion or radial setting where rather than rows of blocks, the design radiates from the center. These quilts often have backgrounds made of just one fabric or one color, and various fabrics. The confusion comes in when we are unable to easily discern whether a quilt’s design is original to the maker or a copy of a quilt designed by someone else. If the design is original to the maker then it is art (though it may not be considered an “art quilt”), if it is a copy, then it is craft.

Picture4 This quilt, which I made more than a decade ago, is made from traditional looking fabrics and the vintage Burgoyne Surround sashing technique. However, the center of each square features fabric folding and manipulation, and the “X” border is made from flattened tubes of fabric. Both the blocks and border are dimensional. These techniques take a quilt that may have been traditional and make it more stylistically contemporary.

Continue reading…

More in this Series:

What Kind of Quilter Are You? Part 2: Defining Art vs. Craft

What Kind of Quilter Are You? Part 3: Sticking to Our Roots

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3 Responses to “What Kind of Quilter Are You? Part 1: Understanding How We Categorize Quilts”

  1. Louise

    Please unsubscribe me

  2. Nan Karin

    I am very new to quilting and have been unsuccessful in finding what I enjoy doing. I hope to learn enough to be excited about the process of learning to quilt. This forum appears to raise matters I should explore to find success. Thank you!

  3. Word Painter

    I love this page. I find it very encouraging. thanks so much for letting me into your world.