Mastering a new quilt block is like learning to ride a bike. You may feel a bit intimidated. Your uncertainty might cause a few wobbly stitches.
Then, just like magic, you’re soaring across the fabric without a care in the world, cranking out quilt blocks like a pro!
This week, Jenny is working on a modern black and white asterisk quilt, and just you wait and see! Once you’ve conquered those first few seams, you can ride off into the sunset with a trail of beautiful quilt blocks in your wake!
Click HERE to watch the Ditto quilt video tutorial!
As we begin to celebrate National Quilting Month, it is important to look back upon our history and appreciate how the art of quilting has evolved throughout our past. Each of us has a special responsibility as a quilter (whether you realize it or not!); we are tasked with keeping an ancient art form alive and well and with every stitch of fabric, we’re sewing the threads of the craft’s future. Whether you learned how to quilt in the traditional way of having the skill passed down from previous generations, or if you’re just finding your way today in a new world of online innovation, you’re now bound within the fabric of your creations. Take some time to celebrate National Quilting Month today and learn a little more about the History of Quilting.
Quilting has a long and storied history stretching back as far as ancient Egypt, piecing together a timeline of humanity from which we draw our crafting skills. While the quilting we know and love today is worlds different from the functional quilting of our past, it still holds a unique place in our hearts and in our history. For generations we’ve warmed ourselves and our families beneath quilts. They’ve been there to protect us, remind us of our past, and comfort us in difficult times.
While it’s not possible to capture the complete history of quilting in one attempt (and we’re by no means experts on the subject!), this guide can serve as a very broad overview of our craft—a guide to remind you that with every stitch you create, you create a stitch within the fabric of time. Many cultures in our world have used quilting as a means to document their history, survive harsh environments, and bring comfort during times of strife. For generations, careful hands have passed down their gifts until they have finally reached us and it is now in our hands to continue the quilting journey. Looking back on our past may be important, but it’s the quilters of today that will keep our craft alive.
Medieval Europe offers some of the clearest glimpses into the early history of quilting. As with many creative processes, quilting was utilized as a method of storytelling as well as a functional necessity. As cinema has given us the opportunity to visualize a story, early quilts allowed the creator to embellish and decorate with stories from both written and oral traditions. Two of the earliest known decorative quilts are from the 14th century and both capture the legend of Tristan and Isolde. Quilts throughout history have been used and created as both functional vessels of warmth and beautiful works of art.
Quilting Comes to America
Practicality was key for early American settlers. In a new environment, isolated from the known world, quilts found their purpose in the form of warmth. Most of the early American quilts were not focused on aesthetics, but rather were created from the limited resources available. They used whatever materials they had on hand, recycling outgrown and damaged clothing (and at times, even other, older quilts!) into new quilts. These quilts were purely for functionality and keeping warm.
If protection from the elements wasn’t beneficial enough, quilting developed another function in early colonial America—social interaction. As we all know, quilting is no easy task. The laborious process is well-loved by many, but before modern revolutions such as pre-cut materials and sewing machines, quilts had to be made entirely by hand.
The quilting bee, a social gathering where women came together to socialize and quilt, was a way for many early settlers in America to not only continue working on their projects, but interact with their community and have fun while sewing during the long process! For many, quilting was a relaxing activity and something to look forward to, especially when able to gather with their fellow quilters. These social gatherings, along with sewing at home, allowed the opportunity for quilting to be passed on as a generational skill. Mothers would teach daughters the basic stitches and then in turn, would pass those skills on to their children, creating a lifetime of heirloom quilts with nostalgic memories layered within the fabric. Quilting became a popular activity for major life events in which entire quilts were completed within a day due to limited time with neighbors whom early settlers might have only seen a few times a year. The Victoria and Albert museum states, “particularly in north America … there is a tradition of a quilt-making ‘bee’ for a girl about to get married, with the aim of stitching a whole quilt in one day”.
These gatherings and the first boom in quilt popularity gave birth to many of the vintage blocks that we still use and gain inspiration from today. Early American crafters, much like the earliest quilters, told stories with their projects by sewing the world around them. The pinwheel block utilizes motion, demonstrating the prairie winds of which they traveled. Star blocks captured the night sky and the importance of light in a vast, unexplored wilderness. These blocks have been passed down for centuries until they became the staples of quilting that we know and love today.
Today, quilting is more accessible than it ever has been. We live in a world of pre-cut fabrics available at the press of a button and instructional videos that can be watched online from the convenience of our homes. Quilting isn’t entirely a necessity as it once was, we can instead use it as a creative outlet and pastime.
The world of quilting continues to change as the world we live in evolves. Modern quilting utilizing bold color designs and prints, once an impossibility due to limited technology and supplies, has brightened the artform in unimaginable ways. Geometric and fractal quilting are growing in popularity as a new generation of quilters piece their first works, many of which have learned their craft online rather than through the traditional in-person learning process. As the world changes, so does quilting. Regardless of what the quilts of tomorrow look like, we can remember where they came from and keep their memory alive within our patchwork. So pick up an old pattern today and try something new— replace the background with a bold, modern color or add some abstract designs into your block but remember that with every stitch, you’re continuing the timeline of quilt history.
Almost 20 years ago, the tiny, rural community of Gee’s Bend was brought into prominence when their quilts were discovered to be works of art, not just the simple bed coverings they’d always believed they had been making. Their quilts were purchased by collectors and displayed in art museums across the country causing quilting to be elevated from folk art to masterpieces. In one of the first reviews of their artwork in 2002, Michael Kimmelman of the The New York Times called the Gee’s Bend quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced” comparing them to renowned artists like Henri Matisse and Paul Klee.
The exceptional modern art style of Gee’s Bend quilts might be attributed in part to their unique community. Their isolated town is nestled in a crook of the Alabama River, surrounded on three sides by water without a bridge or ferry. Being a close-knit group of only a few hundred, the quilters of Gee’s Bend have passed on their knowledge and skill to subsequent generations, untouched by outside influences, allowing their patterns and variations on patterns to live on. In their insular community, they have taken traditional quilt blocks and molded them to fit their own preferences with astonishing results.
Another reason the Gee’s Bend quilters’ style is so unique is their utilitarian spirit. They are a make-do group of women who have taken old work clothing, worn out blue jeans, scraps of corduroy left over from a sewing contract with Sears in the 70s, and just about any kind of fabric they could get their hands on, to make their incredible abstract quilt designs. Without the means to simply buy fabric, they made their scarcity into a feast for the eyes.
They design innately, inspired by their surroundings and what they have on hand, creating organic quilt compositions that go far beyond the precise, mail-order quilts they had once produced back in the 1960s for the Freedom Quilting Bee to sell in department stores like Bloomingdales and Saks 5th Avenue. They allow their quilts to wibble and wobble. The colors alternate as they see fit. They don’t have straight borders. These quilts don’t play by the “rules.”
It’s such a pleasure to marvel at the improvisational prowess of the Gee’s Bend quilters—a surprising addition of yellow blocks in a mostly blue, brown, and maroon quilt is a welcome sight. A half-log cabin quilt with blocks turned this way and that feels so freeing. Rows and rows of blue jeans with faded knees turns into a master work when discarded work pants are pieced together just as they are, allowing them to speak clearly of their origins.
In the Gee’s Bend quilts are innumerable variations of the well-known “housetop” quilt block, that many of us might recognize as “courthouse steps,” a variation of the log cabin. They take this block that is built strip by strip, and add vibrant centers or ignore the centers altogether, focusing more on the contrast of light and dark in the strips themselves. They add a few pieces of striped fabric for interest wherever they please. Patterns and solids are used in wildly varying combinations and the colors just seem to work.
After taking in such freely interpreted designs, we hope you feel yourself filled with the desire to play with fabric again, cut it without squinting at the markings on a ruler, and sew it together without a pin in sight. Why not? There are no mistakes to be made when you simply allow yourself to create.
Souls Grown Deep
Ever since their quilts have been discovered to be the works of art they truly are, the quilters of Gee’s Bend have experienced a renaissance of creativity in their community. Those who had long since put down the needle and thread have picked it up again in the fervor of renewed quiltmaking, and those who had never been interested in the art of making quilts before suddenly found themselves longing to be a part of this vibrant group of quilters. All were welcomed in and during the past 20 or so years, more quilts have been made than ever before. And they’re just as beautiful and inspiring as we remember.
To help this community continue to promote their art and to protect the livelihoods of these quilters, Souls Grown Deep has partnered with Nest to help the quilters of Gee’s Bend. The Nest team has spent time in Gee’s Bend with the quilters there, building relationships and getting to know these wonderful women to help them market their world-renowned quilts and make sure their unique stories are heard.
Gee’s Bend has an average annual income of $12,000 and more than half of their population struggles with poverty. Many don’t have internet access in their homes and as a result, it has hindered their ability to connect with those outside their community and reach a wider audience to sell and to display their quilts. Souls Grown Deep, with their partner Nest, is working with these wonderful quilters to help them receive fair payment for their quilts and build a strong foundation for future financial success.
What are fellow quilters making? Why are these designs and fabrics so popular? Are these trends new or are traditional styles making a comeback?
Don’t worry, we’ve found the answers. We’ve taken a close look into the world of quilting to find out what’s trending. Here are are the top five:
From Memorial Day to Veterans Day, a star quilt can find itself taking center stage all throughout the year and when we aren’t stocked up on red, white, and blue; quilters find stars to be quite innovative. Five points or ten, stars can be adjusted to fit any style from traditional to modern. Thus, the trendy star takes the cake.
Hexagons are as old as time – well, as old at 1770 from what we can find in written quilt history. Over the years, quilters have transformed the way we create hexagons and with English paper piecing, fussy cutting, and quilt-as-you-go projects, today’s hexagon quilts are full of unique possibilities.
We’ll put a hex on you with these amazing hexagon items, but don’t worry, this is one spell you won’t want to break:
Everyone knows quilters are resilient so what do we do when life throws us a curve ball? We make a quilt! Lately, sewists are embracing the challenges that curves bring, and becoming more confident in piecing them together.
Start conquering your own curves with these ideas:
Sometimes your quilt just needs that extra cute factor and what better than adding an appliqué animal! A perfect addition to a soft, cuddly baby quilt or to add a little fun and imagination to your next project, appliqué animals are so popular because they’re so easy to create!
Check out how these appliqué animals make these projects pop:
Sheri Cifaldi-Morrill is the founder of Whole Circle Studio, LLC which specializes in the design of custom modern quilts, patterns and other licensed products. She is an active member of the modern quilt community and recognized from her many outstanding awards from several major quilting events. Sheri also teaches and presents her creative skills all over the world, but works mostly from her home studio in New Haven, Connecticut.
When did you first conquer the curve? How long into your quilting journey was it?
I decided to make a modern flowering snowball quilt as an entry to a challenge back in 2014. The inspiration for my quilt, Picnic Petals, was the fabric challenge collection, entitled Petal Pinwheels. Going into the challenge, I looked at a lot of photos of pinwheels, flowers and sketched elements of these objects to study how I could convey organic shapes and movement in a block quilt. As a relatively new quilter at the time, this was the first time I worked with curved elements. This challenge encouraged me to work with fabric patterns and techniques I might not normally work with. Out of 750 entries, I was one of the three winners!
What are the staples/must have tools in your sewing studio?
First and foremost, a space that I’m comfortable in. I love having natural light, so whenever possible I keep lights off… I also love having a design wall that I can put up random swatches, blocks or quilts that I’m working on. It’s amazing how different things can look from hour to hour or day to day. Sometimes if I’m stuck on something, I’ll walk by it days later and figure out the next step.
What gets your creative juices flowing?
I’m usually either listening to a podcast or have a video streaming through my computer, ALWAYS coffee, and sometimes salty veggie chips, cashews or chocolate chips!
Why do you think people find curves so terrifying? Are there any misconceptions about sewing them that you can clear up?
I think people are scared of curves because it looks difficult. The truth is, it’s super easy. I teach this technique all the time and there is always at least one skeptic in the room who thinks they can’t do it. I’ve never had a student NOT be able to sew a beautiful curve by the end of class. All you need is experience sewing a ¼” seam, pins and patience! Seriously!
When did you start quilting? What brought you into the quilting world?
Wanting to make a quilt, I bought a sewing machine for $100 and my first quilt pattern book in 2006. There was only one problem—I didn’t know how to use a sewing machine. Busy with work, that book sat on my shelf for seven years until I needed a distraction from a stressful situation in my life. My first few quilts I made for others—to celebrate the births of babies, weddings and friends moving into exciting new phases of their lives. I became addicted to quilt making and then realized that with my graphic design and technical skills I could design my own quilts. After sharing my work with others online and in quilt guilds, I was asked to share my patterns. In 2015, I started Whole Circle Studio, LLC. Whole Circle Studio specializes in the design of custom modern quilts, patterns and other licensed products.
Where do you find your inspiration for new products?
Inspiration for my work comes from my everyday life… I believe design and content have a symbiotic relationship. Both need to support one another and require a strong concept to fuel them. My quilt designs start with a concept and the content (research, backstory, color, fabric selection and technique) which help shape the design. Never without my camera and sketchbook, I’m always taking photos and sketching from everyday inspirations… My mission is to enhance people’s lives through beautiful, meaningful design as well as to empower and inspire others to enjoy the process of making.
What’s your favorite tip to share with new quilters?
Don’t be afraid to experiment! Rarely is there ever just one way (and often there is never the “perfect” way to do something in quilting. If a specific way of doing something doesn’t come naturally to you or isn’t fun, see if there is a different way to do it. Quilting should be fun!