(Note #1: this post was written quite rapidly following a few emails and the like that I’ve received over the past 24 hours. The entire post was written in about 15 minutes without editing. I just need to put this out there.)

(Note #2: I actually think the categories of modern, traditional, and art each have value, but they need to be used in a careful and considered way, just like all words. Far too often they are thrown around thoughtlessly or asked to do more work than they are capable of doing. Sometimes one needs to use a lot of words and not just a simple label.)

QuiltCon was exciting. At times it was entirely wonderful, and at others it was wholly nerve-wracking. It gave me a big, wide view of the community in a lot of ways, which was truly remarkable, but as I flew home it all still felt kind of small. I still feel like this is all just stuck in the same impasse of the false dichotomy of modern versus traditional. Perhaps it is time to be truly blunt.

When modern quilters say they like bold colors and big shapes and clean lines the traditional quilters say something along the lines of “erm, we’ve been doing that for years.” The moderns define traditional largely as fussy and stuffy, which pisses the traditional quilters off because that just dismisses the actual history of quilting. Then the traditionals disparage the technique of the moderns because they don’t do “show quilt” quality work all of the time, which ignores the actual history of most of the quilts in the world, which are really poorly made according to current show quilt guidelines.

Then everybody talks past each other and digs into their aesthetic and technical characteristics and nobody actually talks about the quilts and what quilts mean. In the end everybody just wants to feel good about what they do and holds on to a set of ill-defined terms in order to forge a sense of belonging, or whatever.

To be blunt, as I think I stated in my lectures, I think that both words modern and traditional are being completely botched. I mean they are being used in ways that completely drain any potential meaning out of either word. I think they are largely misused and set up false dichotomies that do little more than fuel marketable subsets, which may be good for the sale of stuff, but doesn’t ever really talk about why we make quilts.

Modern is, and always has been, an idea. What was once modern is no longer modern; that’s just the nature of things. On the flip side, what is no modern will one day be traditional. Again, it’s the nature of the universe that these two things are true.

It ain’t rocket science. We are all making the same things, but are reasons vary, and those reasons matter. Quilts that reproduce the look of century old quilts really aren’t modern, not for aesthetic reasons, but because they are fundamentally backward looking. They are in no way bad; they just aren’t particularly modern. If you just like pretty stuff, well, that kind of misses the entire notion of modern-ness. Nothing wrong with pretty, but the very concept of modern—historically speaking—is entwined with the idea of getting beyond decoration to substance (hence the modern slogan “form follows function”).

But to me there is a question that most quilters are forgetting to ask themselves: why the fuck am I making this quilt? You see it is so much easier right now to just go buy a blanket from a chain store, and a hell of a lot cheaper. So why are you making that quilt? If the only reason is that you like pretty stuff I am pretty sure you are deluding yourself. There is a reason you do this, and that reason is the path that explains your relationship to quilting.

For most of us—definitely myself—there is a socio-political impulse behind it all. I want the things in my life to be resonant. I would prefer to not purchase branded objects made using exploitative labor practices that will fall apart quickly requiring an endless loop of consumption. I want my stuff to matter to me; I started sewing at all because I did not want to buy crappy clothing with cartoon logos on them, or even worse the “Future Mrs. Beiber” crap that was actually selling for toddlers at that time. Every quilt I make, before I even decide on an idea or a design, is already knee-deep in modern politics.

100 years ago most quilts were made out of necessity. After WWII there was a massive industrial complex that supplied the country with cheap products, handmade ceased to be a true necessity for large segments of the population; quilting became a hobbyist’s activity, and it remained as such until rather recently (at least for the most part). Lately a new impulse has arisen, the imperative to reclaim that vital relationship to the things that populate our lives. This impulse never died, it has always been a part of quilting, but the internet and the local & DIY movements have spurred an explicit re-examination of object-self relations. In my head this is the real center of the modern quilt movement, not the existence of the relationship, but the way it has become an express element of it. If the social, political, and economic implications of making quilts become part of the conversation then it is just a few steps to a truly deep understanding of why any particular quilter makes the quilts he or she makes, that the aesthetic choices are manifestations of something deeper, not just the patina of received aesthetic practice. Those choices become vital and living rather than redundancies.

To be blunt, I don’t think it matters what the hell a quilt looks like. I made both of these, and personally I think the quilt with the Jo Morton fabric is eight steps further into postmodern than the barcode.


But really, I don’t care if a quilt is modern or not. I just want to see smart stuff being made. The truest words I said at QuiltCon were these: “There is only one really bad question in all of this: Am I a modern quilter?” Never, ever put the cart before the horse. Figure out what you make and then go from there.

I do think words matter, and that they are useful in helping us converse and learn and think about what we do. But really, just go make shit. Don’t worry whether it is art or modern or traditional. Don’t worry whether it is any good. Make stuff. Do what you do. Find your own practice. Do not chase acceptance into some perceived clique, because I am willing to bet a crapload of money that the people you think are “in” or “cool” or whatever are struggling to figure out what they are doing. Do not project your insecurities or needs onto other people and their practice; figure your own shit out and if that ain’t working ask for help, but do it with openness and a willingness to hear things you don’t want to hear. Go big, think big; trust me, things work better that way. If you want to make art or modern or traditional or whatever do the work, the hard work, the years and years of work it takes to do whatever you want to do well. Do not just grab a label and claim it to be yours; shit ain’t easy. If you do that you are just going to end up insulting a lot of people and that isn’t going to get anybody anywhere.

So, go make shit. Stop stressing about fitting in. Trust me, nobody fits in and nobody ever feels like they do. At least I don’t. We all make stuff for different reasons; those reasons are ours. Those reasons can never be wrong. That said there are differences between modern and traditional, conservative and radical, unique and generic, and everything in between, just as orange is different than green. Not everything is modern. Not everything needs to be modern. And modern is not inherently better than anything else. It is all just stuff. To be honest I don’t really even care about the stuff itself that much; what matters to me is the conversations, the reasons why. It is in those that I learn something…


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34 Responses to Impasse…

  1. 1
    Lynn says:

    Another great post.
    I feel like you pulled these thoughts right out of my head. I just want to make what I like. Don’t put a label on it. I learn something from each thing that I make. It may be something about the sewing technique, or skill, or sometimes I learn something about myself and what is in my head. I may learn more about what I like or don’t like. For me, it’s more about the process.

    I just like to make stuff.

    • 1.1
      Brenda Curtice says:

      Yes…there is meaning in this quilt! The material matters, yet lacks in meaning without the metaphysical.

  2. 2
    LoriM says:

    Brilliant. Just perfect.

  3. 3
    Skye says:

    Thank you once again. Right on. I love the idea of having the dialogue about our *relationship* to what we make. Why do we create the way that we do? What I am trying to forward? How does this work make me *feel*?
    Within those kinds of questions lie the heart of our individual creative paths.
    Inquiry is all. Curiosity and creativity are devoid of labels.
    Let’s go make some shit.

  4. 4

    Wow-what you have said in its essence could be a whole lot of what we do and say in life. Very timely and wise thought as they directly link to the modern vs. trad. quilters but oh so applicable to much of the verbal arguments had about all sorts of topics. Go you!

  5. 5
    Penny says:

    Thank you so much for both this and the “Wager” post. It helps me make sense of my conflicted feelings about QuiltCon–enjoying a number of the quilts, and loving seeing young people involved, but also resenting the narrow definition of “modern” that governed the quilts juried in, and the resulting similarity across so many of the quilts.

  6. 6
    Kate says:

    Thank you. False dichotomy is so right – them and us. Why not both? And as for definitions – some just make me laugh out of sheer pain – eg “modern” = “anything goes”. Really? But SOMETHING is bringing younger people into the whole quilting thing and energising those of us who’ve been around for a while. Fabrics? Colours? Designs? Don’t know, but there DOES seem to be a new breath of air out there. I think that’s what people are trying to capture and what is making people get excited. Finding your own voice and bravely making things that have meaning for you despite what everyone else is doing – ah, there’s the scary bit. But, oh so worth it.

  7. 7
    Marie says:

    Waycoolkid is onesmartdude!

  8. 8
    Colleen says:

    Yep I agree, go make stuff. Among other practical reasons, I stopped quilting for about ten years because the ‘rules’ of the quilt world paralyzed me. I was frozen in my inexperience. I didn’t have the modern sensibility of no rules. I think we quilt because as humans the act of creation is wired in us. For some quilting is the manifestation of this need. Besides I love my studio with its colorful fabric, many machines, and the ability to make something pretty. Thanks for another great post. PS. Whatever happened to those blocks some of us made for you?

  9. 9
    Corinnea says:

    You are an interesting human being. I appreciate a lot of the thoughts you have expressed.

  10. 10
    Jessica says:

    i don’t even quilt, but what you’ve written here still resonates with me. “So, go make shit. Stop stressing about fitting in.” Indeed.

  11. 11
    Alice says:

    “Making matters” stuck in my mind from one of your posts. Labels, not so much. Modern? Traditional? It’s still a quilt and I love to see the creativity that comes through each one. I don’t want any quilter to be stifled by trying to fit into a certain narrow definition.

  12. 12
    Emily says:

    Amen! I love what you’ve said here. It resonates so much after an event like QuiltCon. We’ve had a weekend saturated with pretty things, quilts, friends, and a lot of discussions that don’t always lead to any real conclusions. I’m going to just go make shit and see what happens. It makes my heart happy to do it so I will. Thanks for speaking your mind.
    PS- it was great to meet you in real life this weekend!

  13. 13
    Laura says:

    Really enjoyed that post. I shall take your advice and go make shit and I will have a lovely time thinking about why the hell I’m doing it! Because it’s the thinking about it, and the process of making it that is by far the most exciting bit after all.

  14. 14
    angel says:

    Lots of people who know that I quilt ask me often why I don’t sell my stuff. It is inconceivable for many that I quilt and sew hand-crafted items for my own personal reasons. I don’t produce items to profit. I am intimate with the fabric, the process, the result. Whether it be a hot pad, a wall quilt or a bed quilt, I choose the components to please myself. I have no desire to take something so personal and sell it. I have no problem gifting those items to people I know will treasure them and understand that a part of my soul is sewn into them. I sew to relax, to satisfy a burning desire to create that no other medium fulfilled, to weave my reality into some future, to be connected with a niece, and grandchild, a nephew, a woman or man far into the future. Thank you for opening this conversation. I am neither a modern or traditional quilter. I would say I am simply a girl who makes quilts.

  15. 15
    Cynthia says:

    Keep writing. The world of quilts need words like yours rather than the sacchrin speel and/or commercially motivated hype. It is important for people like you to keep us all grounded. Thank you.

  16. 16
    Ralitza says:

    Great post! I was happy to see the modern movement emerge and all the beautiful contemporary quilts appearing. I am not into dull tones and super complex piecing. But “modern” seemed to be something out of the blue to me like “divide and conquer”.

  17. 17

    Thanks, again, for another clear and thought provoking post. I have never felt myself limited in the making of stuff, and make what I like and what I want. However being the owner of a quilting related business and just startingout, in the sharing of that stuff to a larger audience of potential customers, it can be really daunting to share something that blurs the lines between narrowly defined categories, and as that someone just starting out as a professional, my former could-give-a-rat’s-@ss has become more careful? nervous? cautious? concerned? hopeful? excited? all of the above? I would love to have had some classes or lectures or get togethers for the quilting-related business people who attended. Maybe I’ll suggest that for next time.

  18. 18
    John says:

    You hit the nail on the head, I was thinking many of these same thoughts in regards to how we approaching the actual quilting of the quilt.

    In short – you have to be true to yourself, don’t try to be someone else or do what someone else does. Do what comes from within.

  19. 19

    Thank you!! You have put into words what so many people feel. I really enjoyed both your lectures and came home thinking, “I will make great quilts. Not modern or traditional quilts, just great quilts.”

  20. 20
    marilyn says:

    Thank you for saying it and saying it so well. Your last paragraph particularly resonates with me–the conversation, and also for me, the process and what the process stirs up in me.

  21. 21

    […] or you are intrigued to understand it at least – I found this really thought provoking blog post by Tomas Knauer, followed by another addition just […]

  22. 22
    Marsha says:

    Well said, my friend, well said!!

  23. 23
    Mary Ann says:

    Oh Thomas, since I have known you I have learned much form an academic stand point. But more important I think is the introspection you have stirred. Why do I love some quilts more than others? Why do some get stalled and end up on shelves or in boxes? What is it about making shit that draws me so even without a specific purpose? And the labels…I hate them. It divides the community rather than bringing it together in any meaningful way. Perhaps that’s the true purpose, so some folks belong to the in crowd and the work of others is scorned. It makes my head hurt so I am off to make shit.

  24. 24
    Sharon says:

    Its interesting that you would write about this because I was just having the ‘modern’ quilting discussion with the owner of a local quilt shop and another customer. They told me that the things that we are making are things that they made 15 years ago. They also said that bright and bold fabrics have been around forever. They were more than nice about it so it was a very good conversation.
    After listening to them I started thinking about the modern movement. One thing that I have always thought is that ‘Modern’ is what you make it. If you think it’s using bright and bold fabrics then that’s what modern means to you. If you think it’s making quilts that are different than traditional civil war era quilts then that’s what it means to you. I think the ‘modern’ quilt guilds that are popping up are mostly a different type of guild, at least mine is run differently that the traditional guilds in the area. We don’t have all the committee type of reports at our meetings and are more focused on quilting with friends.
    Then I started thinking about why someone (myself) would actually quilt. For me it gives me a creative outlet, which is essential in my life. I am interested in learning as much as I can about quilting, I am a sponge when it comes to learning. I am also a natural born teacher and sharing what i have learned is another thing that is essential in my life. If it’s a quilt for someone I think about them a lot while quilting it, which in itself could be a reason to quilt. Although I don’t worry about if they will like it, since in my opinion they should love it because it’s from me and made by me.
    Thanks for starting this conversation 🙂

  25. 25
    Stefanie says:

    Great post, Thomas! The members of my modern guild struggle with answering this question about whether they are modern or not. My response usually is “who cares?”. If you love what you do, it truly doesn’t matter.

    I just have to ask… when/where can i get a “just make shit…. -thomas knauer” t-shirt?

    • 25.1
      Barbie K In NC says:

      Ditto, what you said …what he said!
      History recycles itself.
      People label everything.
      Just make shit indeed! or epic shit even!

  26. 26

    […] then, I read the three posts by Thomas Knauer on just this: My Wager, Impasse, and One More Thing.  I remembered the lecture given by Denyse Schmidt about her journey, and I […]

  27. 27
    Timna says:

    Well said. Thank you.

    And when you have the “just make shit..” t-shirts ready, let me know and I’ll buy one.

  28. 28
    Lorraine says:

    “So why are you making that quilt? If the only reason is that you like pretty stuff I am pretty sure you are deluding yourself.”

    “We all make stuff for different reasons; those reasons are ours. Those reasons can never be wrong.”

    These two statements of your’s seem to be contradicting each other.

    • 28.1
      thomas says:

      If you take them out of context, then perhaps. But within the larger framework of my argument I don’t think they do. If the only goal were pretty stuff, then simply buying something pretty is universally easier and much of the time cheaper. What I am saying is that there is always (and yes I do mean always) another reason behind making a quilt whether that be the pleasure of making, the connection to a tradition or family, the respect for the history of quilts, political, social, socio-economic, or a million other reasons. There is always more to the story, otherwise it makes pretty much no sense to invest the time in making a quilt.

      I truly believe that quilters who think they are just making something pretty are ignoring the genuine depth that is inherent in their own practice, and that is very much what I hope the community will truly foster, the profound act that it is to make a quilt. That is why I hold the work of Quilt Alliance in such high regard, because they work to get behind the surface of the quilts to the stories and resonances that are invariably there.

  29. 29

    In response to all this I have to refer to two of my favorite “modern” artists…Stussy always says, “don’t want static, don’t make none” and Dr Seuss in his marvelous story about the Sneetches makes the point that there is room for all of us on the beach regardless of a star on our belly or not. It is best if we all regard all quilters as equal and throw our arms around each other as we rejoice to have found such a marvelous past time full of self expression, diversity and skills! If we all did the same thing it would be so BORING!!!Any kind of quilting makes me happy! We can freely admit that we are doing what we love and be proud of what we do. Bring it on…ALL OF IT! Thank you for your voice which makes people think and that can’t be all bad either…. kathy

  30. 30
    Cherrie says:

    Well said. I just follow where the material takes me but I am really too lazy to be a traditionalist. I just want to enjoy the process.

  31. 31
    ramona says:

    I’m in my 50’s, have sewn for as long as I can remember, but only started quilting a couple years ago. I got into it because of what I was seeing on the internet and it was ‘Modern’ that drew me. The tension between ‘Traditionalist’ (dug in deep where I live) and ‘Modern’ makes my stomach turn (literally). As Quilt Con was coming to a close I heard a paraphrase of this post…basically ‘don’t quilt to fit a style…quilt what you love and let your work define itself’. thank you for that. I only do this because I love the fabrics and patterns we can create. And because my girls and I still have quilts my mom made and we treasure them.
    Sorry for the long post. I just wanted to thank you for attempting to remind us why we do what we do.
    My prayers are with you through your illness.

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