A new perspective on traditional v modern quilting

I’m a recycler.  I hate throwing anything away that can be re-used or re-purposed.  The less going to landfill the better.  So when I started sewing a few years ago I began to save old clothes that were unwearable but made from nice fabrics.

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When I started quilting I thought “Yey!  I’ll be able to use all these lovely old clothes!”

When I’d made a couple of blocks I realised that this quilting caper was much easier when using made-for-quilting cottons.

When I’d made a couple of quilts I realised that this quilting caper produced far better results when using good quality quilting cottons.

When I proudly launched my little business “The Baroness Designs” I realised that this quilting caper was a greater pleasure when using gorgeous designer prints.



And then one day I suddenly stopped.  And thought.  And was appalled at myself. Somehow I had been sucked into this world of buying brand new, made for purpose fabric, in order to cut it up and sew it back together.  Madness!

I felt like I’d completely lost touch with the origins of quilting.  The recycling, reusing, repurposing of old, worn-out clothing into useful quilts.

To salve my soul, I dug out a pile of The Baron’s old shirts and decided to make a simple quilt out of them.  I was so pleased with myself.  I was going to reconnect with the roots of quilting.  It was going to make me a better person.  A better quilter.

I called this quilt “Square Root”.


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It was such a disappointment.  Not the quilt itself, but the process was not in the least bit satisfying.

Doing a fabric pull is often one of the most pleasing aspects of quilt making, but in this case I had to use what I had and only the fabrics that complimented each other.  So even though I started with my favourite shirt, I couldn’t include it in the final selection as it jarred horribly with the others.  Pink and purple are my least favourite colours… and just happen to be The Baron’s colours of choice for shirts!  So reluctantly I had to settle for a predominantly pink and purple quilt.

The energy I had to expend in order to get the maximum usable pieces of fabric from the shirts, taking into consideration grain direction, wear and tear and the shape of the shirt itself, really took it out of me.  Never has cutting taken so long or been so much of a challenge.

Sewing the quilt together was also far more difficult than usual.  The fabric had been washed and ironed so many times that, even cut into squares, it was not quite “stable”.

So although I ended up with a quilt that I kind of like, the experience of making it had left me stone cold.  (I haven’t even finished the binding.)




Six months later, I’m lying awake in bed at 4am with a serious case of jet-lag and I have a ‘eureka’ moment.  “That’s the difference between traditional and modern quilting!”

From this perspective, modern quilting is technically superior.  We have the tools, supplies and fabrics to play and create whatever our hearts desire.  We have no real need for the quilts we produce.  We are doing it simply for pleasure.

On the other hand, traditional quilting was essential.  They needed quilts to keep them warm.  They had old clothing to be repurposed.  Money was scarce and products were out of reach either geographically or financially.  They had to make quilts.

And this is why my Square Root experience left me cold.  It required a level of skill that I have not needed to master during my brief quilting career (and actually will never need to).  I found it displeasing because I was doing things the difficult way when I didn’t have to.  I couldn’t love the resulting quilt because it wasn’t something I’d made with love.

Those who visited the Making The Australian Quilt 1800-1950 exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria last year will appreciate the incredible level of skill required to make a quilt in the traditional way.  We all gazed in amazement at the tiny pieces perfectly cut with scissors, not a rotary blade.  We were in awe at the mix of different fabric types and weights they had somehow made sit nicely together.  We giggled at some of the hideous prints that you could see close up, but gasped when we stood back to take in the beautiful effect of the whole quilt.  The skill required to make something so spectacular is outstanding.

And this, my friends, is the ‘eureka’ moment…

Traditional quilting is using skills, tools and supplies that the majority of us would balk at today, to make something useful.

Modern quilting is utilising the fabulous array of co-ordinated fabric bundles in gorgeous designs, made-for-quilting cottons, rotary cutters, sewing machines etc to make something beautiful.

That’s the difference between traditional and modern quilting.

aka The Baroness



7 thoughts on “A new perspective on traditional v modern quilting

  1. Hope says:

    It was interesting to read your thoughts on the subject, even though I don’t agree. 😉 When you talk about making quilts out of necessity, what particular time period and place are you talking about?


    • modernmakersretreat says:

      Hi Hope, and thanks for your interest. I didn’t have a specific time or place in mind. My thoughts were more along the lines of looking at “traditional” and “modern” quilts from a skills perspective, rather than a time period. I appreciate there is cross-over – there always is when we discuss the difference between “modern” and “traditional” quilting! – but this post was about a new way for me personally to think about the question.


      • Hope says:

        Ah, I see. I’ve made a quilt and blocks from old, unwearable clothing too but found it a fun puzzle to find the ‘good bits’ and cut them out. I usually make quilts from commercially available quilt fabrics though, and have never really thought of either as modern or traditional. As I said, really interesting to read your views – probably more so because they differ from mine.

        I agree that it is definitely harder to work with well-worn fabrics. They’re so ‘shifty’!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Annie says:

    Interesting article and it makes me look at my own quilting journey. For me the joy of quilting is the evolution of it in my own life. My quilts change as my abilities and tastes change. And social media adds another aspect to that change with the challenge and inspiration dangled in front of my eyes! Thanks for that…I really mean it!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Xanthe Grundy says:

    Quilt making is most definitely a creative exercise for me! I definitely don’t do it out of necessity, because otherwise my family would freeze in winter as I’m so slow, and also because I would definitely lose interest if it was a chore haha! For me it’s about creating something new, doing something I haven’t done before, and making something of structure and substance from items that were previously just sheets of fabric (and pretty useless in their original form!). I love how collaborative the act is too, even if you aren’t in the same room as the other person and don’t know them from a bar… I’m taking fabric someone else has poured themselves into while design it and then I’m pouring myself into it too. It’s an exciting process that I really love!

    Liked by 1 person

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