TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, October 26, 2009

Quilting Trends and Their Impact on Quilt Shows by Donna Hussain

When I first became a quilter in 1990 I learned how to sew traditional patchwork quilts and how to quilt by hand.  I delayed learning to machine quilt because I was told that  judges favored hand quilting and would penalize show entries that were quilted by machine. How times have changed... The photos in this post are examples of the use of commonplace machine quilting and thread play in quilts today.

Recently I attended the Pacific International Quilt Festival (PIQF) in Santa Clara, California, featuring more than 1,000 quilts.  Approximately half of the quilts were in a juried competition: the others were displayed in special exhibitions.  The artistry of the quilt makers impressed me as did their sewing skills. Unfortunately there were few quilts in the competition that were hand-quilted.

The new trend is to cover the quilt surface with machine stitches and thread play. Instead of having soft quilted patterns with hills and valleys, the quilts in the show were flattened by line after line of machine stitching, which cost them their suppleness as well. I surmised that most quilts with heavy thread decoration were quilted on long arm sewing machines. If jurors in quilt shows continue to reward quilts made using expensive high tech tools will quilts sewn on domestic sewing machines cease to be competitive?   I quilt because I value the comfort, warmth, and beauty of quilts in the past and the love that is sewn into their seams. I wonder whether these values will become passe.

Another trend noticeable at PIQF this year is that more art quilts than usual were juried into the show. There were few traditional bed quilts on display. I didn’t see a single Baltimore Album quilt.  Perhaps the reason for this shift from the traditional is that more people with formal art training are turning to fabric as their medium of expression. Their work is inspiring traditional quilters to be more innovative.  In addition, a flurry of books and videos on the topic of art quilts are currently on the market. These explain basic art and design principles, suggest exercises to implement these principles, and introduce a variety of surface techniques to use in making art quilts.

Or, maybe the surge of art quilts comes from quilters having a stash of fabric.  The making of an art quilt is a new avenue of cost-free creativity luring traditional quilters from patchwork patterns and templates.  The experimentation is fun, the commitment to a small art quilt is short-term, and our first art quilt project energizes us.  I know that I have returned home from the PIQF show with many new ideas swirling in my head for future art quilts of my own.

The increased numbers of art quilts of all sizes at quilt shows is creating new problems for show organizers.   Should art quilts be entered in the same categories as traditional quilts or should art quilts be judged against one another in categories of their own?   The quilting world is quite diverse today.  It includes hobby quilters, quilters who place their work on sale, and professional artists who work with fabric and thread. Should these three groups compete for the same prizes and monetary awards?

The use of long arm sewing machines and growing presence of art quilts at shows are hot topics among quilters.  What is your opinion on these subjects? I hope you will write your views in the comment section at the end of this blog post. 

California quilter, Donna Hussain, has exhibited in major quilt shows around the country, authored books, and is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus. Click on her name to see all of her past articles.

The photo shows Donna with her husband, Pascha.



  1. The art quilts are absolutely beautiful and so creative. The article was very interesting, I learned a lot and I loved looking at the examples.

  2. i found your observations interesting. i think there is more machine quilting because of all the marketing going on promoting gadgets and because people don't take the time to hand quilt any more. also i think that stitching itself is the trend and most folks cannot imagine stitching that much by hand. personally i find it interesting and i suppose machine stitching is a challenge but i don't like the look or feel of it up close and in general we are getting way from the nature of the cloth. and although there is great achievement in the design concepts, it seems somewhat empty to me.

  3. I just commented on this on the Quiltart list. While I love the creativity and talent of the art quilters, I am saddened that the traditional quilts are being pushed out of "quilt" shows. The big shows have become art shows. Our local show (which is huge, by the way!) has a separate category for art quilts. I think this is the best compromise. I love the new work, but it should not be judged along with traditional work, which cannot hope to stand up to the artistry of the thread painting, heavy embellishment, and other attributes of the art quilt. I am all for progress in the quilting world, but we seem to have forgotten that many of us make quilts, not art pieces. Perhaps the big shows simply need to add new categories. Thanks for the opportunity. - Gale

  4. Tradition has always undergone change, and a lot of what is being seen now as art quilts in quilt shows is actually well on the way to becoming contemporary traditional by the time it is appearing there. By that I mean, someone introduces something very new, it takes a while for teaching, magazine project articles, books and equipment suppliers to catch up, and then time for people to make these gee whizz textiles using whatever new equipment or technique it is, and so much of it is no longer considered reeeally innovative and certainly not cutting edge. It's inevitable that some will always follow the latest trend and the newest technical developments - the quilting industry depends on it ! But I think many of us know nothing will ever take the place of a well crafted quilted bed cover - now the design of the top may well undergo changes, but the function will always be there. And as you point out Donna, intense needlepainting and close machine quilting makes a stiff, non-comforting textile. I don't really like the current thread painting fad even in wall hangings, but like all things, it will pass as the hoard moves on to the next craze. There's an assumption that you need a fancier machine to do more amazing work - but it isn't really true. Some of the most innovative stuff is being done either by hand or very plain sewing machines - but most of it you won't find in 'quilt shows' - you need to also look in mixed media art shows or small group and solo fiber and textile exhibitions.

  5. I find this post really interesting. I too have seen how trends have influence the quilt shows. That said, I feel that people's work should drive what the show display. If more people are making art quilts, then by all means change the categories. Art is not stagnant. I'm one of the few quilters I know that does traditional and art quilts equally. I love the beauty and benefits of both - so I do both. I will NEVER stop hand quilting.

    One thing I disagree with is why more people are making art quilts. I feel that it is driven not by the marketers but by the need to create something unique and original. Most people create art to communicate - maybe quilters are just branching out into other lines of communication.

  6. My friend and I went to the Washington Stars quilt guild biennial quilt show last week and commented on how heavily quilted so many of the quilts were. Neither of us cared for the stiff look and probably feel of these quilts. We sought out the hand quilted quilts (there weren't many, though one woman had five queen sized bed quilts entered and she had hand quilted all of them) and thought they were all lovely and would be quite comfy to snuggle under. I enjoy doing small art quilts for the techniques you can try out, but when I do a large quilt, I want it to be soft and nice to touch. I love the art quilts, but think they are a completely different category from the traditional style of quilt and should be judged on different criteria.

  7. Hi Rayela. I enjoy your blog immensely.

    I am not a quilter but find it helpful to look at quilts and read about quilt making because the design principles apply to other textile media.

    Your post was provocative. I hadn't thought about it, but do agree that line after line of stitching may create a beautiful design but it does so at the expense of function. Functional items can be very artistic, but pieces of art are often not at all functional. I wonder if competitive quilt shows should have art quilt and functional quilt categories.

  8. Since Jude is my hero with her slow cloths and total hand quilting, you already know where my tastes lie. I don't like those stiff cardboard quilts, but I do love the art quilts. I guess I have a foot in each camp.

  9. I machine quilt but I like the feel of hills and valleys in quilts that I make for myself.

    Too much quilting will make the quilt feel stiff.

    I quilt the way my clients like it.
    IF they want a lot of stitching, that is what they get.

    I don't hand quilt because of bad hands and the price is double for what I charge to machine quilt.


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“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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