Blog · Inland Empire Modern Quilt Guild

“What is a Modern Quilt?” Series Recap

This seven part series began in October 2020 by our very own guild member, Lynn Hanna. She takes us through the elements of What is a Modern Quilt in great detail and follows with examples of beautiful quilts. This is a long post so grab your beverage of choice and enjoy!

Modern quilts are primarily functional and inspired by modern design.  Modern quilters work in different styles and define modern quilting in different ways, but several characteristics often appear which may help identify a modern quilt.  These include, but are not limited to:  the use of bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic area of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, alternate gridwork.  “Modern traditionalism” or the updating of classic quilt designs is also often seen in modern quilting.

Part 1 – Bold Color and Prints

One characteristic of Modern Quilts is the use of bold colors and prints.

BOLD means:

  • Courageous and daring
  • Not hesitating to break the rules of propriety
  • Challenging
  • Imaginative
  • Flashy and showy to the eye

Part 2 – High Contrast and Graphic Areas of Solid Color

One characteristic of Modern Quilts is the use of high contrast and graphic area of solid color.

High contrast could be from color complementary colors, saturated/pastels shape geometric/organic, variety of triangles texture quilting density, variety of fabrics value black and white/shades of grey size thick/thin lines, large/small shapes pattern floral/geometric, solid/busy detail.

Graphic means:

  • Giving a clear and effective vivid picture
  • The use of diagrams, graphs, or mathematical curves
  • The use of the written word or computer generated image

Part 3 – Alternate Gridwork

Modern quilts often use alternate gridwork. Alternate gridwork means arranging your quilt in unconventional or unexpected ways.

-Stagger blocks as you arrange rows and columns:

-Leave open spaces in place of blocks:

– Arrange blocks to float in negative space:

-Place all blocks at the top or bottom of the quilt:

-Add sashing between blocks to change the design shapes:

Part 4 – Improvisational Piecing

Modern quilts sometimes improvisational piecing.


“Improvisation is about exploring. It is about finding your own way and making your own decisions through noticing your own preferences and pattern of mind.” — Sheri Lynn Wood

“Improvisational compositions in quilting are similar to improv in jazz music; making things up on the spur of the moment and feeding off each other’s energy. Start with two pieces of fabric and sew them together. Maybe you like the colors together or the shapes created. You don’t know exactly what the final design will look like. Once the process begins, each choice of color or shape influences the next.” – Cindy Gisdela

Improvisation is:

  • Problem solving as you go; it’s all in the process
  • Free from perfection; shows the had of the maker
  • Working without a plan; responding to each new addition as you go
  • Making do with what you have
  • Taking risk, breaking rules and creating spontaneously
  • Setting your own limits

-Improv blocks assembled in grid formation:

-Improv columns, rows or other large shaped areas assembled together similar to the construction of a traditional quilt:

-Improv motive can be repeated in various scales, colors, or orientations:

-Sometimes the quilter plans the quilt to become an image or picture and improvisation is used in the cutting and assembly:

-Sherri Lynn Wood suggests using “scores” for improv quilting. These are parameters or rules you set for yourself to allow improv to occur:

-Irene Roderick teaches a technique she calls “dancing with the wall.” You make design choices as you go, putting elements on the wall and rearranging them as the quilt “directs” your dance:

-Improvisational quilts can be anything goes, break rules, and take on a life of their own:

Part 5 – Minimalism


  • The word comes from a popular art movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s
  • Art was characterized by extreme simplicity
  • Work glorified use of line and form
  • Well know painters who used this style include: Frank Stella, Gene Davis and Elisworth Kelly

Paintings from the Minimalist Art Movement:

-Minimalism in Modern Quilting:

  • Simple and impactful graphic designs
  • Often a limited color palette
  • Images limited to essential elements
  • Large scale piecing
  • Linear and echo quilting

Simple, Impactful Design:

-Limited Color Palette:

-Images limited to Essential Elements:

-Large Scale Piecing:

-Linear and Echo Quilting:

Part 6 – Negative Space

Modern quilts may use expansive negative space.

-Negative space is the unoccupied area that surrounds the objects, shapes, or forms in a composition:

-Ideas to consider as you plan to use negative space in your own quilts:

  • Negative space can be the space surrounding blocks:
  • Negative space can be within a block itself:
  • Negative space flows in, around, and between our quilt blocks:
  • Negative space does not have to be just one color:
  • Negative space can define shapes:
  • Sometimes the negative space also forms a design element that becomes part of the composition:
  • Sometimes the negative space and the figure are indistinguishable:
  • Negative space can create movement:
  • Negative space can draw your attention to a focal point or highlight emphasis in the quilt design:
  • Negative space can give the eye a place to rest:
  • Negative space can create a secondary design element:
  • Negative space can unclutter a design:
  • Negative space can be used to scatter or disperse a design:
  • Negative space can be used to concentrate a design in one area:
  • Negative space can be used to balance an asymmetrical design:
  • Negative space can be used to repeat a design element from the block:
  • Negative space can be a place to highlight quilting designs:

Part 7 – Update a Classic Quilt

  • Change the scale
  • Alter block shape or orientation
  • Use color placement as a design element

Change the Scale:

Alter Block Shape or Orientation:

Use Color Placement as a Design Element:

In summary, the elements of a Modern Quilt include:

  • Use of bold colors and prints
  • High contrast and graphic area of solid color
  • Improvisational piecing
  • Minimalism
  • Expansive negative space
  • Alternate grid work
  • Update of classic quilt designs

Please refer to this post as a reference any time you need inspiration and/or a refresher on what elements make up a modern quilt!

Thank you so much Lynn!!!