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Originally published Monday, March 7, 2011 at 7:47 PM

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Modern quilters break the pattern

New quilters rip at the seams of a tradition that required piecing together fabric into a grid system

McClatchy Newspapers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Lauren Hunt is quick to point out that her quilts aren't like your grandmother's. And her quilting skills weren't passed down through her family, either.

The 27-year-old refers to a fictional Aunt June as her teacher, but the truth?

"I learned by sewing badly," Hunt said.

Now a prolific sewer, blogger and fabric designer, she is hooked. As a founding member of Kansas City's branch of the Modern Quilt Guild, Hunt is in the thick of quilting techniques that are taking off.

Modern quilters like Hunt are ripping at the seams of a tradition that for hundreds of years required piecing together blocks of fabric, often by hand, into a grid system. New quilters are scrapping traditional patterns such as Double Wedding Ring and Nine Patch in favor of a contemporary or offbeat look, and some work without patterns.

Fabrics are lighter, brighter and bigger prints, with a lot of architectural or irregular florals, said Elaine Johnson, who owns Harper's Fabric and Quilt Co. in Overland Park, Kan.

Also popular are simple solids, especially when paired with large shapes.

Modern quilters can let "the fabric tell the story until they build confidence," Johnson said.

For many traditional quilters, discernible blocks may always define the term "quilt." Anything else just isn't the same.

Though some modern quilters use blocks or grids, they sometimes alter or eliminate them, said Jacquie Gering, president and one of the founders of the Kansas City Modern Quilt Guild. "It's really more about the design than adhering to a prescribed structure."

Modern quilts can be just as intricate as the trickiest of traditional quilts and are suitable for bedding, wall art or tablecloths.

"It is hard to put modern quilters in a box," Gering said.

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Denyse Schmidt of Bridgeport, Conn., is considered one of the pioneers of modern quilting with her contemporary patterns and fabric designs.

"We have altered expectations," Schmidt said. Where once "every corner had to match and every seam had to lay flat, now we can attempt, and it doesn't have to be perfect."

Schmidt also sees the renewed interest in sewing as part of a trend to be "reacquainted with traditional things" such as growing food, cooking, knitting and other crafts.

Yet new quilters also have a desire to mix it up. Schmidt said the quilts of the 1970s and 1980s did not appeal to her but did spur her interest in design.

"I saw beauty in idiosyncrasies," she said.

Sewing and craft magazines have taken note of the new niche, though most still appeal largely to traditional quilters. So, as with many trends, this subculture spread through countless blogs.

"But a huge part of quilting is community," Hunt said. "There wasn't a place for modern quilters to show what they're making."

Fresh from virtual quilting bees and into a community center, Kansas City's branch of the Modern Quilt Guild — only a year old — has 96 members and is already the largest branch in the country.

The freedom to freestyle draws novices and experienced quilters alike, but modern quilters should have a plan and "know the rules before you break them," Gering said. "We can do wonky quilts, but we can still do them well."

The pioneer woman made "beauty out of scarcity," Schmidt said. "Patchworks feel so distinctly American." Original settlers didn't have domestic fabric production, so they put leftover pieces together. "It was an economy of using what you have on hand and making something beautiful."

That principle of reuse is relevant in today's economy, too.

Hunt said the purpose differs from some traditional quilts as well because "we want people to see and use the things we make" and not just put them on a shelf.

In addition to designers like Schmidt, many modern quilters, including Gering and Hunt, are inspired by a group of African-American quilters in Alabama, in a region called Gee's Bend, named for a former slave owner.

The Gee's Bend quilts are a century in the making, yet they fit today's definition of modern. Many are brightly colored, with unpredictable designs and shapes.

"We used whatever we could to cover up and keep a family warm," said Mary Ann Pettway, 54, of Boykin, Ala. "From my torn dress, we cut out the best part. Or my sister's dress. Or my brother's pair of pants."

Pettway recalled working with her relatives and neighbors in various homes as a child to finish quilts.

The Gee's Bend quilters don't use patterns. "My mama taught me how to quilt with a nine-patch pattern," Pettway said. But today, "the designs come out of my head. I like to do what no one else has done before."

The latest craze is designing your own fabric. Producing custom fabrics used to be cost-prohibitive, but now printing them costs about $18 a yard, and you can buy as little as one yard at a time.

Many crafters use Spoonflower (www.spoonflower.com) to create their own fabrics and then sell them online. Users simply upload their designs.

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