Quilting is a traditional art form with deep roots across Europe, India, Egypt, and Eastern Asia, to name a few. Commonly seen in modern times as bedcovers or wall hangings, the craft has been used for centuries to celebrate various milestones and convey one’s culture, wealth, and social standing.
Now, Toronto-based artist Justin Yong is getting in on the action. By incorporating his keen eye for composition, detail, and colour, the photographer turned quilter creates one-of-a-kind, graphic quilts that, while nodding to the medium’s history, are indisputably modern.
It all began when Yong saw his work slow during the early days of the pandemic. In the lull, he decided to take up a new hobby: quilting. His mom had been quilting for as long as he could remember, but the craft had never grabbed him. “I had the idea that I think a lot of people have: that quilting is something grandmothers do at church,” he says. “But then I found this one book at an antique store called Great American Quilts and I started flipping through it and thought, ‘Wow, this is actually pretty cool,’— it was a bit of an epiphany.”
The only catch: Yong didn’t know how to sew. Lucky for him, his mom dropped off a sewing machine and some rolls of fabric at his house, and after a quick lesson on the basics of stitching, he was hooked. “There’s a versatility to textiles that’s different from photography. It involves different senses — more touch and feel, which I like,” he says.
Stitch by stitch, Yong has been busy creating his own little quilting empire ever since, exploring various colours, fabrics, and textiles and drawing inspiration from organic shapes. His vibrant colour palettes and use of patterns are reminiscent of the medium’s tradition, yet they’re undeniably fresh — bold, graphic blocks of colour with edges that are often slightly askew. “I still pull from traditional quilting, but I like to play with sizes and the ratios and relationships [between] blocks,” says Yong. “In quilting, there are a lot of rules and guidelines. [But] creating something modern and unique is all about taking a tradition or a technique and putting your twist on it.”
What started as a patchwork passion project has turned into a business — and fast. “I started showing my friends [my quilts], and then I posted a few online,” he says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yong’s quilts found an audience on the most visual of all platforms: Instagram. “People kept reaching out saying they wanted one and it just kept going from there. More people started seeing them, more people started sharing them,” he says. Now, he’s busy with commissions, making custom quilts of all sizes and colours for clients all over. “It’s weird how the Internet works. You could post stuff forever that no one really sees or that never catches on. It just takes one little thing, I guess — and for me, it was this.”