Not long ago, I attended a meeting of the Dufferin Piecemakers Quilt Guild and came away with inspiration for an article.  The Traditional Quilt.  On this particular evening, my friend Beckie, her daughter and her granddaughter were giving a presentation of their family’s quilts.  Three generations of quiltmakers, four generations of quilts, for Beckie had recently inherited her mother’s quilts from the old family farm in Indiana, where she had been born and raised.  Fourteen bags of carefully folded quilts sat on tables at the front of the room waiting to be shared with the guild.  Excitment rippled through the audience as we waited for the evening’s programme to begin.  And we were not disappointed, for we were shown the most beautiful quilts that night, some of contemporary design but more of the historical traditional quilt patterns of design.  Interestingly enough, the warmest response was reserved for those wonderful old traditional quilts.  I wondered then, what it was about traditional quilts that could still engender such warmth and loving admiration in quilters today.  As the presentation ended, I watched as a determined group of quilters rushing to the front of the room where the quilts were spread out on tables to inspect the quilts.  I wondered what it was that had attracted quilters so strongly to the lovely old traditional quilts, for in this changed world of quilt designs today such as art quilts and modern quilts, quilts are not just the old fashioned quilts we knew and loved.  The designwork on quilts has changed and changed, drastically. 

In a more recent speaking engagement, I mentioned my concern about the apparent loss of interest in the traditional quilt.  One quilter in the audience held up her hand and asked “what is a traditional quilt?  It was time to write an article on the Traditional quilt. 

                           The Traditional Quilt 

                   has it been overtaken by the non-traditional ‘art’ quilt?

The Traditional Quilt patterns of design go back more than a century ago, some to the days of pioneer women who made quilts for warmth on family beds.  Lost in the mists of time as to who designed these quilt patterns, they are called still, by their original names….the Log Cabin, Dresden Plate, Lone Star, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Wandering Foot, Jacob’s Ladder, Trip Around  the World, the Churn Dash, and so on.  They were repeated designs in square blocks and set into a geometric grid.  Or, they centered around one design element expanding circularly around this centre outward with repeated shapes.  Not only are they beautiful patterns of design, they are most often symmetrical or bilateral symmetry or radial symmetry which is very pleasing to the eye.  Keep in mind, that there is good visual balance to a traditional quilt design.

In the early to mid-nineteen-seventies all this began to change.  Formally trained artists and designers became attracted to quilts and cloth as a means of expressing their own creativity.  Some played with the traditional quilt pattern, changing an element here and there, refashioning the design still on a square grid concept.  Others, particularly using the applique method of sewing quilts, created their own images, playful, whimsical, they often told a story.  And then there were those who created quilts using asymmetrical balance of design, where nothing was repeated, where images were created and used as abstract designs and these new designs began to be referred to as ‘art’ quilts.  Quilters seeing these new designs on quilts, joined in and began creating their own non-traditional designwork on quilts.  Soon, the traditional quilt was forgotten.  But not entirely.  There were still quilters who liked the old traditional patterns of design and were happy to hold onto tradition.   But they are more and more in the minority of quilters who make what are called, modern quilts, or ‘art’ quilts today.  However, looking at the quality of design in the traditional quilt versus the ‘art’ quilt, one will sometimes notice a discrepancy between the two.  The traditional quilt is always, well-balanced in visual weight, symmetrical or bilateral symmetry employed.  Formal balance it is called.  The non-traditional ‘art’ quilt employs the use of informal balance, abstract, assymetrical in visual balance.  How well the latter is done depends upon the skills of their creators.  And sometimes, this is where the non-traditional ‘art’ quilt falls down, is in the quality of its design.  So, in creating non-traditional quilt patterns it is very important to have a sense of design principles and visual balance in creating such a quilt.  However, creating our own quilt patterns is fun and it’s creative, so this trend towards non-traditional quilts will continue, hopefully with an understanding that a good design just doesn’t happen, it needs to be thought out, carefully.  And where does this leave the traditional quilt?

To overlook the traditional quilt by focusing on ‘art’ quilts, both in exhibits and magazine publications is something I hope quilters will consider.  There is a place for both types of quilts in the quilt world of today.  And it is vitally important to keep the tradition of quiltmaking alive, by using traditional quilt patterns of design.  They are a part of our historical legacy of quiltmaking and one that every newcomer to quiltmaking would do well to begin with in learning the many needed technical skills of quiltmaking. 

The reason traditional quilts were so loved and cherished, aside from being made by a family member, is that they are visually well-balanced in design and the eye definitely searches for visual balance in what it looks at.  This, the Traditional quilts have in abundance.  Come to think about it, traditional quilts are why many quilters fell in love with quiltnaking.  © Sandra Small Proudfoot 2021