Modern Quilting versus Traditional Quilting: Two Different Worlds?

Modern Quilting versus Traditional Quilting: Two Different Worlds?

Today I want to talk about traditional versus modern quilting. These styles can seem totally different at first glance, but they’re actually very similar. Modern quilting builds on traditional techniques and patterns that have been developed by skilled craftspeople over centuries. While I’m most interested in making quilts that look more modern, I’m also fascinated by the history of quilting and how techniques have developed and changed over time. 

Traditional Quilting

For non-quilters the concept of quilting probably brings to mind a quilt made by a grandma or a stack of faded textiles in an antique market. Quilting has long been both functional and decorative, but the ways its decorative function has been expressed have expanded over time. Today when we refer to traditional quilting we’re talking about motifs and patterns that have been passed down over time, typically using a subdued color scheme and consisting of a set of repeated motifs arranged symmetrically. 

Image shows a traditional quilt made of 12 star quilt blocks made in pastel colors.

This traditional quilt is made of 12 identically sized star blocks arranged symmetrically. Canva stock photo. 

Modern Quilting

When we talk about modern quilting, we’re referring to a category that continues to grow as makers experiment with creative techniques and materials. Modern quilts often feature bold colors and intentional variations from traditional quilting practices. For example, where a traditional quilt may repeat the same block 12, 18, or 20 times depending on size and then arranged to create a symmetrical quilt, a modern quilt often abandons symmetry. Perhaps a large focal motif is placed off-center, or a quilter will abandon repetition entirely to create a piece that more closely resembles an abstract painting.   

Image shows a modern quilt made of small circles placed on a gray background to form a spiral.
This modern quilt simulates the look of pebbles arranged in a spiral against a dark background. Photo credit: flickr user Sakè Puppets.

Common Techniques

The anatomy of a traditional quilt is exactly the same as a modern quilt. In both cases, you’re constructing a quilt sandwich consisting of the quilt top, batting, and backing fabric. The sandwich layers are then secured together. This process is also called “quilting.” The simplest form of quilting is done by hand using thick thread or yarn looped once through the fabric and tied into a knot. These knots are evenly spaced across the quilt. Today’s quilters, whether their work is more traditional or modern, often opt for machine stitching that spans the entire piece. The stitching is meant to complement the pieced design. Some makers choose to add decorative stitching by hand, though this process obviously takes much more time!

In applying the quilting stitches, modern quilters often make decorative stitching choices that vary from the decorative motifs on traditional quilts. The stitching may factor in more prominently by using contrasting thread colors.

Illustrating Modern Quilt Technique Variations

I wanted to take a few minutes to compare traditional and modern uses of the same basic quilt motif. The star pattern is one of the most widely known and adapted quilt blocks. This example is a reproduction based on a quilt from the mid-19th century.

Photo shows closeup of single traditional star quilt block.
Traditional star quilt block. Photo credit: flickr user Quiltexplorer

For another example, take another look at the first photo I shared on this post. That quilt uses the same star motif and arranges them symmetrically to create a finished quilt. This is a timeless motif that quilters continue to embrace today.

To show how a modern quilt puts a spin on the star block, take a look at one of my new favorite quilts: the Live Boldy Pattern by Charisma Horton. 

Photo shows Live Boldly Quilt Pattern displayed hanging in a door frame.
Live Boldy Quilt Pattern by Charisma Horton

Live Boldy hits you right in the face with its bold colors and contrasts. Horton bases the design on the traditional star block. However, the stars are enlarged and arranged asymmetrically so that no single star is fully shown on the quilt. The asymmetry is unexpected and creates visual interest. But the core concept of the motif is exactly the same as the earlier examples. 

We can also learn about decorative stitching choices from this Live Boldy example. Photo shows detail of Live Boldly Quilt

Detail of Live Boldy Quilt.

When you look closely at this quilt, pay attention to the quilting stitches. The field of half square triangles is quilted in horizontal lines (which could easily be done on any sewing machine). The stars are quilted with a flowing pattern which would require a longarm (or could be done by hand). The contrast between the straight line stitches on the background and the flowing pattern on the stars further emphasizes the modified motif. 

Quilting is for Everyone!

I hope it’s clear that even though traditional and modern quilts can look very different, they actually have a lot in common. I love this about quilting– that we can all make choices to suit our preferences. We choose which pattern to make, and which fabrics to use. We choose how we want to quilt our sandwiches– will the decorative stitching be invisible or prominent? 

Are you interested in more examples of modern quilting? I have several patterns available in the shop- take a look:    

 Live Boldly Quilt Pattern 
Modern Building Blocks pattern book by Brigitte Heitland
 Flying Colors Quilt Pattern    Sweet Tooth Quilt Pattern


Did you know that whether you're drawn to modern or traditional quilting, either way, your hobby is good for you?! Read all about it in Quilting Makes You Feel Good.

Soul Stitchery is your home for education, inspiration, and supplies to create modern quilt treasures and heirlooms. New here? Watch me take projects from start to finish on my YouTube channel. Learn more about me and my journey to become a quilter. I'd love for you to join the Soul Stitchery Crafty Crew on Facebook!


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