Contemporary Quilt Art

Beautiful traditional bed quilts have been made in this country since colonial times.  Many of them are now regarded as remarkable creations, reflecting the refined eye and skilled hand of their makers.  For a long time, however, quilting was seen as little more than utilitarian “women’s work” or a “handcraft” creating “collectibles,” mostly bedcovers; not works of art.

On July 1, 1971, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York jolted the art world and changed the conversation.  On that day, it opened the first-ever quilt exhibition in a major art museum, Abstract Design in American Quilts. The fine arts community awakened and began to recognize quilts as unique pieces of art.  Quilting, suddenly presented as a serious art form, has not been the same since that exhibition. From that breakthrough moment, artists, art critics, and the public began to understand that quilters not only create useful and pleasing household keepsakes but also “paint with fabric,” working throughout a rich spectrum of artistic activity. Like artists in other media, quilters are concerned with matters of design and composition; balance, color, and form; light and shadow; texture and movement.  

Since the 1970s, more and more visual artists, enlivened by the seminal Whitney exhibition and eager to stretch the boundaries of this traditional American genre, began to explore quilting as the preferred way to express their personal visions.

Now, there are more than 21 million active quilters in the U.S., and over 30 million worldwide, with the numbers steadily growing. Some still create traditional bed quilts, featuring exquisite handwork.  Many more are making art quilts as wall hangings, equally stunning in their effect. Most quilt artists create their own designs, ranging from abstract to representational to mixed media, using sewing tools and machine techniques unknown to earlier quilters.  

The lives of many contemporary quilt artists still embody the communal nature of earlier days. Today’s quilters are generous with their time and talents.  Forming guilds and professional associations, they willingly teach and support each other as they continue to learn. They are passionate in pursuit of their artistic visions as they hone their skills and develop their personal styles. They rejoice in each other’s achievements, and they encourage new artists to join in this evolving revolution in the art of quilting.

--Betsy Abbott (2016) 

Over the past four decades, artists around the world have seized on the quilt as a unique and vibrant forum for expressing a wide range of personal, artistic, and societal concerns. Their uninhibited, free wheeling explorations of materials, techniques, and imagery have quickly transformed quilt making from a centuries-old, tradition-bound pursuit into an open-minded, up-to-the-minute transcultural fusion of expertise and ideas.    

— from an exhibition at the American Textile Museum in Lowell, MA, August 2004.