Are You Traditional or Artsy?

Thai Handwoven Textiles
February 10, 2017
Craft Nomad Podcast Episode 4
February 25, 2017

Wall quilt inspired by traditional New Zealand wood carvings.

I caught the quilting bug in the early 1980s. I had seen handmade quilts made by aunts and other distant relatives, but did not get excited about making quilts until I had my own home. I remember, too, that my mother had a paper piecing project that she worked on all through my childhood. I don’t know if she ever finished that quilt, but she took up quilting seriously about the same time I did. In her case, it turned into a business, which she carried on with until she was in her 70s. Mine took a different direction, but my interest was there from an early age.

Mother was an avid sewer and after having two boys was thrilled to have a girl to sew for when I came along. She made all my clothes until I asked for a store bought dress for my first day of school. That must have hurt her feelings, but I did get my first store bought dress that year. She saved all the scraps from the dresses she made for me and passed them on to my Aunt Jo, who eventually made a quilt entirely from my dress fabrics. I remember seeing it when I was very young and being able to remember some of the dresses. I asked to see it again in my teens, but it was long gone by then. Quilts are made to be used and it had worn out.

That’s why historic quilts have become important collections nowadays. Quilting was a common sewing skill in the United States from the early colonial days, but of course not many of those early quilts have survived. As is often the case, the earliest surviving quilts are from wealthy families where it was not the custom to keep things until they were worn out. If you watch the video from the Smithsonian Institute, you will see some quilts from the 1700s. Most of these earlier quilts from the upper classes were whole cloth quilts. The artistry was in the beautiful hand quilting, as we can see from the collection of the National Museum of American History. The quality of this type of quilting cannot be duplicated by a quilting machine. Embroidered and appliqued quilts were also held in high esteem and although we often do not know who made quilts from this era, probably a group of the household ladies and their help; we do sometimes have a record of the designers. There were people who were well known for quilting designs and these designs could be ordered from them and traced off onto the a quilt before it was stretched for the quilting process.

Although the Smithsonian Institute does have one early patchwork quilt among the first three quilts that were donated to its collection; in general, patchwork was not recognized for it’s artistic value until the 1800’s. From those days we start to have patchwork patterns that were exchanged between quilters, with the most popular ones becoming permanent designs in our folk art history. Because they were geometric patterns, one pattern square could have an infinite number of ways it could be designed in the whole quilt, depending on the layout of the squares and combinations of colors used.

There are hundreds of these traditional patchwork patterns that have been preserved in books such as Ruby McKim’s 101 Patchwork Patterns, which was my first quilt book. It was originally published in 1900 and is still in print today. This book gave me my start and I made three quilts with traditional patchwork patterns and my own layout and color design before I ventured into designing my own quilts. I began taking art classes in the early 1980s and designed my first quilt as a final project for an art class. From then on, my quilting focused on art quilts. The featured design you see in this article was a project for an art history class focused on art of the Pacific. It features the traditional New Zealand symbols of mother earth and father sky, which are often seen in their wood carvings. I gave up quilting when I began my nomadic lifestyle, but I managed to keep this quilt and one other because they fit in a suitcase. It’s a fiber art form I love and I hope to get back to it someday.

Do you quilt? What was your first experience with quilting? Was it through a family member or a quilt show? Did you take any classes or are you self taught? Are you in a quilt group or guild? What’s your favorite quilt? Share answers or any comments and photo you like in the comments section.

Joy Harmon
Joy Harmon
A crafter, a traveler, and a scribbler


  1. Nancie says:

    I don’t quilt, but I have two quilts that my grandmother made me. She made quilts for all of her granddaughters. One needs be refurbished, but the baby quilt is still in good condition (at least it was the last time I looked at it.) Quilts can be gorgeous, and it’s a tradition that I hope never dies. Thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday

  2. budgettraveltalk says:

    I’d like to make my deceased mothers clothes into a quilt and am going to look up how to do that in the near future.

    • Joy Harmon says:

      Budgettraveltalk, that will be a wonderful tribute to your mother. You could get started by going through them and taking them apart. Launder them first and cut out and throw away any parts that too worn out to use. You can them bundle them in like fabrics and colors and put them away in a safe place until you are ready to start cutting. This will give you an idea what size the pieces can be. You might want to purchase fabric for the backing with extra to use as a blending color in your blocks. You would be surprised how a lot of unlike colors can go together if there is one matching color that appears in each block.

      I hope you’ll post your progress and maybe pictures, too. I’d love to see how it progresses.

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