Putting a fresh spin on an old tradition

By Jessica Ritz / Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — When Alissa Haight Carlton and Latifah Saafir organized the first Modern Quilt Guild meeting in Los Angeles in October 2009, they hoped they would find a few other like-minded quilters who wanted to get together. They weren’t alone: The modern-quilting group today has more than 100 chapters and 5,000-plus members nationwide.

Thanks to a movement that’s putting a fresh spin on an old craft, the time-honored tradition of quilting is shifting. And in the process, it’s attracting a new generation of sewers.

DIY culture got a big boost in the wake of the 2008 recession, but the seeds had been sown earlier. “Quilting is the new knitting,” Carlton says, referring to the craft popular in the early aughts. “Sewing took a little longer to find its way.”

Interest in modern quilting started to grow after the 2002 debut of the museum exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” a collection of stunning graphic designs by African-American quilters from a small Alabama community. Modern quilters like Denyse Schmidt began to publish books about the style, and quilters linked up online to share ideas and work.

That’s where Carlton and Saafir first connected. Both had regularly visited Rossie Hutchinson’s popular Fresh Modern Quilts Flickr group, an early form of social media for quilters. Then in 2009, Carlton wrote a blog post lamenting the lack of visibility for the burgeoning modern style at a Long Beach quilt convention. Saafir had attended the same convention and suggested they meet and start a modern quilting group.

They did, and word of their group soon spread via the Web. Chapters formed across the country. “Modern quilters were already very eager to start meeting, since we were already talking online through our blogs and Flickr,” Carlton says.

Today, Carlton is executive director of the national Modern Quilt Guild. She has written two books about modern quilting and last year released a line of fabrics. Saafir, a mechanical engineer, has a website called the Quilt Engineer and teaches quilting classes at Sew Modern in West Los Angeles.

Practitioners say there’s no cut-and-dried definition of modern quilting. But characteristics of a contemporary quilt can include an emphasis on solid colors and bold, Minimalist designs; experimentation with negative space; a reworking of traditional fabrication techniques; and an improvisational approach to pattern making.

Handmade endeavors generally aren’t about efficiency, and quilting is particularly time-consuming. Design and technical mechanics require skill and patience, so getting feedback and occasional help from others is a part of the quilting experience. Being around like-minded people who share a passion for designing with fabric also is a big part of quilting culture.

Though Carlton and Saafir achieved their goal of getting modern quilters to meet in person, guild members continue to connect digitally, too. Instagram is now a popular forum for sharing work. And the Modern Quilt Guild website offers webinars and an online community.

The definition of modern quilting may be fluid, but there is a common approach to the craft, guild founders say. “More than anything, the attitude of the modern quilter is, ‘I can dive in and try this,’” Saafir says.