Twisting the Traditional

Let’s talk modern quilts.  And let’s talk traditional blocks.  While at first glance those two may seem like mixing oil and water (there’s a bit of agreement, but then graduation and distinct separation), quilters can marry them off (quite happily, may I add), with a few twists. 

For years whenever anyone mentioned quilts and quilters, what came to mind was the traditional look:  Baltimore Album-type quilts or quilts that had the historically traditionally looking pieced blocks, such as churn dash, nine-patch, and stars.  And for years we quilters delivered on these preconceived images in our quilts.  Once in a while there would be a pattern designer that would shake things up a bit, but overall, we tended to stick with what we knew best.

Enter the Modern Quilt Movement.

In my opinion, nothing else has shaken up the quilt world more than the modern quilt movement and the internet.  I know that in the past there was some upheaval when we began quilting our tops on machines instead of by hand.  And I realize that Art Quilts also caused a stir when they were introduced.  But overall, I think the Modern Quilt Movement and the internet have done more to change the quilt arena than anything else in at least the last 50 years.  This is a good thing.  Modern quilting has introduced new colors, new designs, and a return to simplicity and negative space.  The internet has opened to the doors to products, patterns, and classes that we may not ever been exposed to otherwise.  But with this blog, I want to talk about Modern Quilting and how we all can embrace some, if not all, of its characteristics. 

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m more of a traditional quilt gal.  That’s the way I (along with everyone else) was taught in the early 1980’s.  A lot of us weren’t even introduced to rotary cutters until the 1990’s.  I still gravitate towards the traditional in both blocks and quilts.  A lot of us old farts are like that.  However, today I want to show you some ways we can take those traditional blocks and give them a modern twist. 

Modern Quilt Fabric

The first (and the easiest way) we can take a block and change it up is with our fabric choices.  The Modern Quilt movement has gifted us with some wonderful fabric.  The colors are bright and clear.  The prints are fanciful and current – while flowers still grace a lot of material, gone are the tiny, old fashioned renderings. You’ll find everything from bacon to butterflies on this fabric, all in a crisp modern palette. In addition, Pantone’s Color of the Year is predominate in a lot of it.   Gray and white are the workingng neutrals.  While designing the illustrations for this blog in EQ8, I surprised myself on just  much using a modern color scheme could change the way the block looked.  Take for instance this block, done in traditional fabrics.

Monkey Wrench in Traditional Colors

This is the monkey wrench block and one of my very favorites.  Now let’s take this sweet, little block and use some of the new fabrics:

Monkey Wrench in Modern Fabrics

Very different.  Set it on point, and it contrasts even more.

See how it can change the entire look of a quilt top?

Another way we can give our blocks a modern spin is to only use part of the block.  I call this block deconstruction, and it’s really a lot of fun.  For instance, take this block:

This is a great, traditional block used in the Double Wedding Ring Quilt. 

An entire Double Wedding Ring Quilt looks like this:

However, Victoria Findlay Wolfe took this pattern and put a Modern Quilt twist on it, and designed this:

It’s still a Double Wedding Ring.  But instead of using traditional fabrics, she went with a modern palette.  And then she substituted solids and her neutral in the rings where normally one would be piecing them with all kinds of material.  Instead, she pieced the rings’ inner centers and the outer “footballs.”  This gives a traditional quilt a completely different look.

While deconstructing a block is not difficult to do, it does take some pre-planning.  From what I can tell from just looking at Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s block, there still is a great deal of piecing going on, but neutrals are playing a larger role than normal in the piecing process.  So, let’s try this on another block. 

Let’s try this block: 

This is one of the antique mosaic blocks found in EQ8.  When you chose a block to deconstruct, you want to pick one that has several pieces of varying shapes – in other words a nine-patch or a four-patch will not make the same impression that a block like this would.  At this point, it may be a good idea to either sketch this block out or access it with a software program such as EQ8.  Either of these processes will allow you to play with color before cutting into your fabric.  For this first attempt, I will take all the colors and reduce them into a two-color palate – a bright and a neutral.  This immediately changes the look. 

Now let’s pull out some more of the print fabric and substitute with a neutral. 

This is even more of a dynamic change.

And just for fun, let’s add another color.

It’s still the same amount of piecing and the same traditional block, you’re just changing the number of fabrics used and the color placement. 

Keeping with the traditional block theme, another way you may want to twist those traditional blocks is to either blow them up or shrink them down.  Again, pictures are really telling the story with this blog, so let’s look at a Friendship Star Block:

I like Star Blocks.  They tend to lend themselves nicely to either traditional piecing or paper piecing.  They have a long history in quilting and there are numerous books and patterns written solely on Star Blocks.  When I’m making a quilt that uses one of these, my blocks tend not to be any larger than 10 ½-inches unfinished.  But look what happens if you enlarge one of these blocks to make up most (if not all) of your quilt top:

Completely different way of looking at a Star Block pattern.  And while in my opinion enlarging these patterns too much (like  a queen-sized quilt) does make them lose some of their beauty, for a wall hanging or cuddle quilt, this is a new way of looking at a traditional block.

Now let’s take this to the other extreme and shrink a traditional block.  I love shrinking Star Blocks as much as I do enlarging them.  When constructing a traditional quilt, I often use Star Blocks as cornerstones.  This causes your sashing to do wonderful things like this:

Likewise, I also will use a small nine-patch block made from the top’s scraps as cornerstones.  This helps pull all the colors in the quilt together.  And to be completely honest, the Star Blocks and the nine-patch block are used by a lot of quilters in this manner. 

However….let’s look at a block you may not of thought about shrinking – the log cabin block.  Before you blow a gasket about how difficult this could be (lots of small pieces, etc)., remember this block lends itself beautifully to paper piecing.  And with paper piecing, all small things are possible.  The point I want to make is that this isn’t a block most traditional quilters would think about shrinking much smaller than a 6-inch x 6-inch block.  But look what happens when you do:

These log cabin blocks are 4 1/2-inches square.

Talk about interesting cornerstones (for you traditionalists) or a way to spice up negative space (for you Modernists).

The point is, when you enlarge or shrink a traditional block, it gets a completely different look.  And thanks mostly to the Modern Quilt movement, we’ve seen how great this works.

Another way you a give your traditional blocks a twist is to alter the layout.  I make no bones that my favorite  way to layout blocks is on-point.  This is a personal preference, and it’s not that I don’t like regular horizontal and vertical rows, I just think an on-point layout is more interesting.  But if you do some research on Google images or Pinterest, you’ll discover that Modern Quilters don’t necessarily do either type of layout – at least at first glance.  Instead of blocks marching in rows or columns across the quilt top, there can be more breathing room between the blocks.  And in many cases, there aren’t as many “blocks” in these quilts, either.  There’s lots of “breathing” room between these blocks for the eye to rest.  So, there is at least one of the “traditional” layouts used (rows or on-point), but the setting squares, triangles, borders, etc. are in the same neutral used in the blocks.  This makes the blocks appear to float (an effect I absolutely love).  One word of caution here.  If you use the kind of layout, please note that your pieced blocks will need to shine.  But since there are fewer of them in this layout, you’ll have the time to make sure all the points match and that they’re perfectly square. 

Since we’re talking about negative space at this point, let’s park it here and discuss another aspect we can borrow from Modern Quilting to put a twist on traditional looks –the actual quilting process.  Most traditional quilts use one to three of these quilting components:  feathers, stippling or meandering (including micro), echo quilting, and some kind of ruler work, along with what I call “connecting units” (swirls, swags, and lines – both straight and curly).  Modern quilters use these, too, but they’ve changed them up a bit.  You’ll see more “matchstick” quilting:

I love this look and it’s easy to do on either a domestic or long arm. 

They’ll use simple quilting juxtaposed against geometric work.

There’s “pebbles” or “bubbles” and curved cross hatching.

And the technique I really love if I’m quilting on Big Red:  Straight line.

Straight Line Quilting has more space between the quilting rows than Match Stick Quilting

How much easier can it get?  Use some painter’s tape and just quilt. 

The best thing about these “new” quilting motifs is that they play well with everything traditional quilters like to use.  But they really do give a traditional quilt a unique, new look. 

The last characteristic I want to discuss is throwing the center of the block off.  Instead of placing it square and center as normal, make it off center.  And don’t play it slightly off-center (because then it just looks like you were sloppy in your construction) – throw it really off center.  This is different from what we discussed earlier – changing up the look of traditional blocks by replacing colored fabric elements with a neutral (see deconstructing a block as mentioned earlier in this blog). With this technique, you’re using all the elements in the way they were designed, but you’re playing with the block’s layout.  Not all blocks lend themselves to this change – they must have a dominate distinct center like this one:

Now look what happens when we move that center off kilter.

Completely different look.

The easiest block to use for this technique is the Log Cabin.  Since this block consists of strips of fabric that surround a center square, you can shift that center block to the right, left, up, or down and changes the block’s look

Now look how you can play with the layout!

This is an easy way to change up your quilt and unleashe the inner designer in you.

If you’re a traditional quilter like I am, let me challenge (and encourage) you to try some of these Modern Quilt techniques in your traditional blocks.  Start small – one thing a time.  Maybe begin with the fabric and then move to deconstructing the block.  I think you’ll be surprised at how much this alters the look of your quilt and how much fun these techniques are to try.

Until next week, Level up that Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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