International Quilt Festival: What’s a Modernist to do?

by Weeks on 14/04/2006

in Quilting

Among quilters in North America, the semi-annual International Quilt Festival is a Mecca of sorts. There are several quilt shows on display sponsored by sewing industry giants, technical classes offered by teachers and a whole slew of vendors with seemingly endless trays of fat quarters and short-cut gizmos. We went last weekend because the spring show is half an hour from our house and there’s a part of us that thinks that this is the year, unlike previous years, we’re going to find something or someone interesting. At least this year there would be the added appeal of seeing our student Mary Beth Clark’s prize-winning entry about the loss of her mother at age eight in the “I Remember Mama” competition on display.

Some of the quilts, like Mary Beth’s, are unforgettable, but there are a whole lot that are excellent technically but uninspiring in terms of design. For reasons I don’t understand the show organizers will not allow images of the quilts featured to be published anywhere else so I cannot include the memorable ones here.

The show always makes us feel a bit lonely, wondering whether or not there will ever be a critical mass of really interesting quilters at one of these shows. There are some contemporary quilts on display but few vendors carrying fabrics or books we would buy. Mostly there were a whole lot of versions of 19th century patterns and predictable novelty fabrics one might expect to find used in pediatric nurses’ uniforms. Need any tea-stained lace? How about a CD you can stick in your sewing machine so it can automatically embroider a Disney character onto your quilt? Lonely, very, very lonely. And yet we always wonder if we should set up a booth there to offer a different voice? As artisans and business owners it seems like a bad gamble or is it an opportunity?


Marcia Derse detail
Marcia Derse of Text Tile fabric and design decided to take the plunge. She had an exquisite little booth, elegantly designed and filled with her hand-dyed fabrics. She’s using the show as an opportunity to learn and we admire her bravery. Surrounded by other hand-dyers with neon colored, rainbow dyes or the “Look! I used every color I could find all at the same time” aesthetic, Marcia’s fabrics were a breath of fresh air. Amid a lot of screaming fabrics, hers whispered poetry. She doesn’t have a website yet but you can email her at if you are interested in purchasing any of her fabric.

In the community of our students, several great quilting blogs out there and whipup and amid the thousands of visitors to our website every month we feel as though there is an incredibly exciting new generation of quilters on the horizon, but when we attend these shows, it’s hard not to wonder whether or not it’s all a mirage. At some point I wish we could all just get together in one place just so I know it’s for real.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 admin April 14, 2006 at 6:32 am

what a fab idea – you could start your own quilt festival – get together all those new and interesting fabric designers and modern quilters – ah how I would love to attend such an event


2 Dave Daniels April 14, 2006 at 7:08 am

It’s true, there is a great wealth of Quilter Knowledge out there. We could create our own universe!


3 boogaj April 14, 2006 at 7:50 am

I’m a brand new quilter and I hear you! You know what is getting me excited right now? Kona Cotton. Yep. Plain old solid colored fabric.

I walk into a quilt shop that has hundreds of prints and I’m lost. My mind is overwhelmed and I end up walking out 45 minutes later dazed and empty handed. I feel like this is very wrong, but maybe not? Is there hope for me?


4 rooruu April 14, 2006 at 8:46 am

Without the alternative at quilt shows and beyond the quilting uber-cognoscenti, how will the wider world know the range of possibilities? Myself, I’m an eclectic quilter and can hyperventilate with as much joy at a bunch of new (print) fabrics (from reproduction to modern) and a book of antique quilts as at the modern simplicity of your work, or other quilters using a less busy palette and more graphic shapes.

My three most recent projects included a lairy bright quilt using Kaffe/Butler etc prints, a country-fabric quilt (and won’t that sell a lot of tickets for the charity which will raffle it? – I’m really happy to put my skills to work in a way that turns into new plumbing and kitchen equipment for the volunteers at the rural fire service) and repurposing second-hand finds into a weekend-away bag. I love the multifarious possibilities of quilting. It’s a broad church and a journey with many destinations.

The value of fabrics such as the torrent of novelties is that, for a significant number of usually women, making a quilt for a baby or child is their road into quilting. It may not be where they stay, but it gives them an easy in with a purposeful, useful, justifiable object. And then… if they’re happy making I-spy quilts forever, then that’s OK too, and a whole bunch of children will be happy and feel loved. But that’s not where they all stay.

I’ve not been to the large quilt shows in the US, but have been to large ones here in Oz. And equally here you get the range, in the quilts on display and among the vendors, from the predictable predictable predictable to the wondrous and imagination-stirring.

But there’s the thing. What stirs one imagination may leave another cold. A lot of quilters are perfectly happy with prints and short-cut gadgets and the stuff that isn’t elevating your heartbeat one iota. I’m sure my work has elicited just as many pasted-polite smiles as I’ve conjured, looking at the work of others, if not more. And yet see the light in their faces, their pleasure in their creativity? I may not like what they do, but I’m glad they’re doing it and having fun. Heck, it beats an addiction to TV soaps or housework hands-down!

I’m glad to be quilting now. Just look back even ten years at the available fabrics, colours, the quilts celebrated as masterpieces and see what is to be seen, what is being made now. The internet has vastly facilitated our access to quilting ideas, the ability to share ideas and works across continents and countries. It has more space for variety and originality than can be economically possible in a big quilt show or a mass-market quilt magazine.

Why not try that show, and see if you feel lonely?


5 Anita April 14, 2006 at 9:11 am

We have all sorts of quilters in my neighborhood – traditional to modern. I think you should take the jump and have a booth at the Market. I think the response would be better than you think. My LQS couldn’t keep enough of your books in stock when it first came out. There is definitely a demand for something other than the usual traditional quilt.

Boogaj – there’s nothing wrong with liking solids. Everybody has their own taste. But it can be difficult to identify and then defend that taste if everyone else around you likes something else. I happen to love a lot of prints, but it wasn’t always that way. My tastes have changed and expanded as my quilting knowledge grew. I say, go for what you like. Otherwise you won’t enjoy the process as much (or the finished product) if you don’t work in a medium you enjoy.


6 Amy April 14, 2006 at 9:23 am

Amen. The glut of same old same old is a turn off and extremely disappointing. There are exciting fabric designers out there for the modern quilter (methinks FreeSpirit offers the best of the best). Younger sewers come into the quilt shop in which I work and they are looking for these new designers. We are buying more and more and they are SELLING. The biggest difference is that the younger sewers have their own wonderful ideas about what to do with the fabrics. The quilting industry needs to find innovative ways to market to these sewers–they are its future.


7 takinanap April 14, 2006 at 9:41 am

bravo! great words and beautifully spoken. i have been quilting for 30+ and couldn’t agree more. what’s out there in the mainstream is all very tiring…and uninspiring. congratulations to marcia for being brave. your work is refreshing. keep an eye out for new work by sarah templin of the excitement is just around the corner!


8 Kristin April 14, 2006 at 10:23 am

Oh, I feel your loneliness! I’ve gone to market before and felt very lonely indeed. When I wrote my business plan for my store, I had a lot of discouraging comments from people who felt like I’d be alienating the majority of quilters by not carrying the traditional (boring) botanical prints and ditzies (ok, I actually like ditzies.) Well, to hell with them, I’ve felt alienated walking into fabric stores for years! (See me heading to the one rounder of cool prints in the block-long warehouse full of “quilter’s cotton”.)

As for what the pp poster said, I was at Trends recently (fabric market in Portland) and one of the Free Spirit reps (no surprise) gave a talk about “capturing tomorrow’s quilter today”, so I think there is hope!

Count me in for an alternative quilt fair!


9 Kristin April 14, 2006 at 10:27 am

I have to say one more thing because I just read the comments again. Boogaj mentioned solids, and I have to tell you that Avlyn has a group of organic cotton dyed with plant-based materials that is coming out this summer and it is an awesome group of 22 colors! It will be very exciting to see how it received.


10 jac April 14, 2006 at 10:29 am

Yes, often at the quilt / craft shows there are things which don’t inspire me or aren’t the things I’m looking for … do it! Take a booth! The few ‘modern’ booths at the craftshow I went to recently (@ Caulfield in Melbourne) were swamped!


11 joelle April 14, 2006 at 10:32 am

Here here! My first visit to the big Houston show was last October. I went, all excited and ready to shop for enough fabric to fill a brand new shop! While we did eventually find a lot of wonderful stuff, I was very worried for the first hour or so. I kept wondering where all of the beautiful fabrics were. It was fake tea dye up one side and novelty fabric down the other! Freespirit was just a breath of fresh air, among many others that we eventually found. It is out there, and I think we’ll only see more and more of it.

I think this blog is a wonderful testament to the growing critical mass of creative minded quilters and sewers. I visit it everyday, and I always feel inspired and encouranged.

And by the way, our shop is open! Please feel free to check us out here:

We’ve got a few fabrics online for now – the rest will be coming this summer.



12 Caitlin O'Connor April 14, 2006 at 1:06 pm

Okay, now just STOP that whingeing!! Cos I’m gonna whinge even LOUDER and HARDER! You think you’ve got it bad? There are more *quilters* in the USA than POPULATION here in Australia. Think about that. So when we go to quilt shows, what we see is largely – well, what you’re seeing, but with the good bits already picked over, and in a strange time warp so that we’re about 10 years behind. Seriously. If I see one more cutesy wootsy made from someone else’s pattern right down to the fabric choice twee little faux “country” quilt, I’m gonna puke. Sure there are really cool Aussie quilt artists, but they are in such a minority. And because cutesy wootsy florals SELL, and the fabric buying decisions of quilt shop owners are based on that, if we DO get to see glorious modern prints (or even a good range of quality solids) then it’s a rarity. (And they wonder why we buy online!!)

When I bought “Modern Quilts” I was BEYOND excited – look, no TWEEEEEE!!!! – but the prevailing aesthetic at quilt shows and shops here is the antithesis of modern, and Modern Quilts and the ideas of fabbo unfussy elegance therein are a lonely beacon. LONELY.


13 Heather Bailey April 14, 2006 at 2:29 pm

Let’s brainstorm it right here, right now. From a products or display standpoint, what does everyone want to see in the quilt stores to feel inspired and spoken to?
Ideas? Let’s get it going!


14 herhimnbryn April 14, 2006 at 3:44 pm

What do I want to see?????………………….Well, living in Oz, I want to see Australian colours ( deep reds and ochres shot through with copper and gold, pale blue, green, smokey teal, brown, orange, burnt black, bronze ………..), slubbed silk, rough cottons, linen, hand dyed fabrics, knitted fabric, prints of Australian native flora and fauna ( trad and modern designs), aboriginal design and dye and the opportunity to meet others in a space where we can try out our quilting ideas.

Think I’ll stop now as am foaming at the mouth!


15 Amy April 14, 2006 at 10:55 pm

I also attended my first IQF in Houston last fall. I was completely awestruck by the the numbers — number of attendees, vendor booths and exhibit quilts. Surely, with the sheer numbers, a more than a few modernists or modernist-wannabes were there. But more would be better, and I would certainly be stopping by a FunQuilts booth! Truth be told, I believe traditionalists too have a very valid role in quilting — anchoring the craft to the patterns and techniques of the past. What better venue to show the two side by side — neither being wrong, both being valid.


16 boogaj April 15, 2006 at 12:09 am

Okay — I actually woke up thinking about this, believe it or not. What about an *online* modern quilt festival?


17 kelly April 15, 2006 at 12:20 am

It’s not nearly as large, and I don’t think they have vendors, but for inspirational quilt viewing, I would like to suggest that you check out Quilt National in Athens OH. It is a biennial contemporary art quilt show that is truly amazing. Their site is somewhat difficult to navigate, but you can find more information here:

If you can’t make it to Athens, you can also buy a fantastic book of all of the quilts on display at the last festival (’05. Next show: ’07) at their site:

Meanwhile, as for the Chicago show, I tried to view it as a “Treasure Hunt,” seeking out unique and inspirational items amongst all of the traditional (can I say “boring?”) stuff. Working for art makes it better, right? (Let me have my fantasies…)


18 ani April 15, 2006 at 12:27 am

i want to enter the world of fabric arts (applique, quilting, fabric collagey) but when i went to the LFS this weekend–i walked out empty handed and totally bummed out. i want to start a fabric stash but everythings was just countrified or just cutesy/goofy (i love kawaii, but this was just bleh). i’ve seen fun stuff online but was hoping to avoid shipping costs–oh well!

i’ve only been to one local quilt show and while i wasn’t necessarily into the weird quilted coats or red white and blue patriotic quilts, i still was able to think about methods and how i may be able to tweak them for my own purposes. maybe that’s because i’m a total neophyte and haven’t made a single quilt yet!

love the ‘online quilt festival’ idea! what inspiration that would be!


19 Kim April 15, 2006 at 12:32 am

I’ve made hotel reservations for the International Quilt Festival in Houston this fall, so I’m sad to hear your disappointment. I think absolutely you should have a presence at events like this, if only so I can meet you and have something to interest me there! But really, you represent a distinct and growing market. I think the quilting community at large would respond very well to FunQuilts even though you/we don’t necessarily reciprocate the feeling. Of course I have no clue whether it would be in your best interest financially, but artistically — you are the vanguards and your presence will undoubtedly help wake up other companies to us modernists.


20 Kathie April 15, 2006 at 4:13 am

I’m an art quilter and I attended the IQA show in Chicago. I found plenty to love–a number of hand-dye vendors, wonderful beads, buttons, and other findings, evocative ethnic fabrics, and other idea-generating sights.

If you are thinking of becoming a presence on the vendor circuit, I would say to be the change you hope to see. There are many of us art quilters out there and we will find you. There are more “interesting quilters” around than you might think.


21 Angie April 18, 2006 at 4:21 am

As I age, I find myself more drawn into design and function than sentimental reproduction. I can love my Grandmother’s quilt patterns while exploring a new direction that includes inspiration from my childhood in the 70’s, a love of modern architecture and an excitement with the new fabrics and patterns, such as those from Japan. I love her cooking, too, but I make more international, low-fat fare. The quilts that exist from the past will always exist. We have a duty to make our own patterns and designs for our grandchildren to cherish.


22 kelly April 19, 2006 at 10:46 pm

Like Kim, I plan to be in Houston this fall, although maybe just for market… I would love to see FunQuilts, and other like minded folks, at both festival and market – the more (styles) the merrier. Perhaps this new generation of quilters has not yet been attending the quilt shows en masse, but I’m thinking this is going to change… what will keep them interested, inspired, and challenged if there is no one there to peak their curiosity?


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