Margaret Docherty




Margaret Docherty




Margaret Docherty


Jana Hawley

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Schiffer Publishing


Houston, Texas


Jana Hawley


Jana Hawley (JH): Want to tell us about your quilt?

Margaret Docherty (MD): The quilt is called "Little Brown Bird," and the name came from a nursery rhyme that I used to know when I was a small child and I found myself humming it while I was making the quilt. I put several little brown birds in the quilt and thought, 'right, that's what I'm going to call it'. The quilt came about, and it must be all of seven years ago now, when my younger daughter picked up a copy of Quilters' Newsletter Magazine, looked at a very pretty bride's quilt on the front, and said to me, 'Mummy, why can't you make a pretty quilt?' My quilts to date had been innovative rather than traditional, so I played around for at least a couple of years, researching Balitmore's, [Baltimore Album quilts.] researching antique quilts that had lots of small blocks set together and eventually came up with a format for one that I would like to do. I worked out the setting of the blocks--[interruption in interview.] And decided on the setting of the blocks. Then I started collecting fabrics, and eventually, after two years, started drawing the blocks and started making them. I drew a block every week and made it that week, until I got the right number of blocks. Then I put them together using some machine piecing; actually, the appliqué is all hand appliqué. It's heavily detailed with inking and embroidery, but the blocks are only eight inches, at least they were before they were quilting, they quilted down to about 7 ½. I needed a lot of detail on them, and it was the only way I could get it, with embroidery and inking. And then when I got it in one piece, I looked at it and I decided I needed quite an elaborate border. I was hoping to get away with a plain border. [laughter.] So, we did the elaborate border. Making the body of the quilt took about a year. About three months into the border, I really felt I had enough, and I think my stitching was starting to get sloppy. I put it away for six months and made another quilt. Then I got it out again and finished it. Finally, I did the quilting, which took another nine months on top of that.

JH: Is this your favorite in your collection?

MD: This I think must be my favorite. It's been such a big prizewinner in several shows. And of course, this is the best of the shows. This is a lovely one to win.

JH: This is an incredible--how old is the quilt?

MD: The quilt was finished in '97. [JH: Okay.] I was sewing it from '94 until '97, but I actually started thinking about it back in '92. I learned how to do appliqué doing this quilt. [laughter.]

JH: And so, did most of it come from your research on the Baltimores?

MD: I started I think, probably way back in '92. I'd only been quilting for about three years, and I looked at Baltimores with awe. You know, they were just absolutely incredible. I think what I eventually did was that I started looking at them with a critical eye, which was the only way I was going to be able to--by a process of elimination to tell of what I liked and what I didn't like, I was going to be able to--

JH: Can we wait just a second? Thank you. [announcement over the loudspeaker.] We are pausing for the p.a. announcement to get it out of the way.

MD: I can't remember where I was now. [announcement over the loudspeaker.]

JH: Okay, do you remember where you were?

MD: Yes, I was saying that I started being quite critical about Baltimores and thinking what I liked and what I didn't like about them. And the other thing for me, it is most important that I design my own quilt. My previous quilts have fallen into that innovative rather than traditional category, and even though I was making a traditional quilt, I wanted it to be my own design. So, I just worked forward, block by block and I think I had about five shots at designing the border until I hit the one, I wanted.

JH: So, on each block, what served as your--I mean, where did you get your inspiration? I'm sure it came from several sources. Can you describe some of those?

MD: Well, I think we must credit original Baltimores, and a lot of the birds are English birds that I see in my garden every day. The flowers, also I see them in my garden or nearby my home in the countryside. And a lot of the leaves, I actually pick leaves in the garden and press-dry them for my templates. I just worked from there with, let's do a basket or let's do--I think I got some ideas from greeting cards, I probably saw something and thought, 'that's nice, we'll do something like that'.

JH: So, then did you freehand your designs, or--

MD: I sort of freehand them, but I need a basis to work from. In fact, I've written a book about this quilt which will be out in December which goes into a lot of detail about how I actually manage to pull the designs and how other people with as little art experience as I have can do it too.

JH: Do you have little art experience?

MD: No art experience.

JH: Well, you do beautiful, beautiful work.

MD: Thank you.

JH: So, you have baskets, and you have flowers can you talk about the other motifs that you have on there?

MD: We have the wreaths. Let's look at them. I have circles, I have hearts, I have irregular shaped circles, and I have what they call a crown, which is two crossing down the bottom. Where the stems cross, that's called a crown. I worked on those shapes and did about fifteen different wreaths. Pots and vases, we've got lots of pots and vases that I've just filled with flowers. I avoided doing anything that I would describe as pictorial. Most of the classic Baltimore quilts have pictorial designs in them, you know, they've got the house in it, they've got a famous building. They actually don't appeal to me, so I didn't put any of those on it. And the paper cut blocks, the four dominant blocks in the center, they're sot of reverse appliqué and--

JH: Oh, those are reverse appliqué?

MD: Yes, and that really sort of sums it up, doesn't it?

JH: And then, did you do the quilting yourself?

MD: Yes, oh yes.

JH: Do you always do your own quilting?

MD: Oh yes.

JH: All by hand?

MD: I don't like hand quilting, but I love the effect of hand quilting. The appliqué is heavily stuffed, to make it stand forward, and I've stuffed the quilting as well.

JH: And the berries.

MD: The berries are all stuffed, too, yes.

JH: How will you use this quilt? What life will this quilt have?

MD: This quilt has been designated by one daughter as the family heirloom. I don't get permission to do anything with it. It stays at home, and it stays wrapped up and rolled and well looked after. It may be shown at the occasional show from time to time.

JH: Do you have more than one daughter?

MD: I have two daughters.

JH: So, are they already arguing over who's going to get it?

MD: Well, no, one in particular challenged me to make a pretty quilt, so this is her quilt. But the other one would like a similar one, so I've started on another quilt. Not the same as this, but a pretty quilt rather than my usual. And I'm really enjoying it. It's been a pleasure making it.

JH: Do you find relaxation is quilting?

MD: It's my relaxation, yes. So, I come in from work and see to the dogs, see to food, and put my feet up and quilt all night. I love it.

JH: Okay and I understand that you're a physician, and that keeps you a very busy woman all day long.

MD: Yes, it does, but I like my job.

JH: Good. How did you get interested in quilting?

MD: Very interesting. I was rushing between morning and afternoon work, stopped to buy some bread at a local baker's and I saw a new shop had opened in a most unlikely broken-down little village in a mining area of Durham [England.]. It was just full of fabrics, and I'd never seen fabrics like them. I'd always sewn, and I looked at these fabrics and I just had to have them. Then I realized that nothing I did, either making clothes or I used to do dolls, I used to do a lot of dolls, and these fabrics were not suitable for that. But I had to have the fabrics, so I bought them. So, I had to learn to quilt to use them because it was the only thing you could use them for.

JH: And when was that?

MD: That was back in about--it was about ten years ago. Now I am really hooked, I mean after six months that was just it. I haven't sewed another thing. I haven't put a button on for anyone since then. I just quilt all the time.

JH: And as a child you learned to sew.

MD: I learned when I was in my middle teens. All my family were very good. They're all excellent needlewomen in their own right. But it was in fact an aunt who has no children, who really doesn't sew very well at all; she took the patience and time to teach me. You know it was her pleasure to have me around because she has no children. She taught me how to use the sewing machine.

JH: Have you taught your children?

MD: I have tried to teach my children

JH: Are they showing interest?

MD: I have. My eldest daughter is doing plastic surgery, so she's going to stitch. And the younger one promises me when she's older she really will quilt. [laughter.]

JH: How are you connected to quilters?

MD: Well, with working all day and quilting all night I have not time for associations. But we have one quilting group in Durham, called Alington House Quilters who are based in a house a stone's throw from the Cathedral which is a beautiful sight. They are very traditional quilters and they wanted to make something special for the millennium, so I designed them a quilt. They can hand quilt, but they were very much novices with appliqué. So, we worked on this together, I taught them, and they did it. Then they quilted it, and I finished it off for them. It got juried into Houston and it's just around the corner, and they're absolutely over the moon about it. Six of them have come over to see it.

JH: Oh, that's exciting.

MD: But it is. It is just two aisles along there, so they're over the moon.

JH: Ok, well I want to see that as we leave. This technique is primarily appliqué, is that?

MD: It is hand appliqué with hand quilting.

JH: Okay, is that what your other quilts are? How does it compare to your other quilts?

MD: Last year, the quilt that won the innovative award last year was a pieced quilt, it was hand quilted, though. I'm actually working my around all the different techniques, but generally I'm known for hand appliqué, that's what I like, what I'm comfortable doing.

JH: Is that your favorite?

MD: Yes, it is it is.

JH: What makes a great quilt a great quilt?

MD: The judges saying so. [laughter.]

JH: Ok, let's get rid of judges in your opinion, what makes a quit a great quilt?

MD: It's the quilt that stops you, you look twice at it. I think the workmanship is important because if the stitches are sloppy, it spoils even lovely color and lovely design. But I think it is just a combination of color, design, and just a feeling you get about it.

JH: And what makes a great quilter?

MD: I think that is something you're born with. I think some people are natural, natural with color, use of textile, use of texture, and design.

JH: We in American think that the quilt is an American phenomenon.

MD: Well, it came from the U.K. originally.

JH: I know it did, I want you to speak about that. [laughter.] Can you speak about that?

MD: Well, in fact the area I live is steeped in history of whole cloth quilting. And of course, we have the same history down in Wales. And the Irish have been quilting for years, too, so I presume it came over at the same time as the Mayflower. All these people moving from, well, east to west across a new continent needed something to keep them warm, and cut a new history of patchwork, and made their quilts on the way over. It became more of an art form over here, didn't it? And middle-class ladies took it up as a hobby, really, the Baltimore ladies making these exotic quilts and then of course the Amish with their famous use of color.

JH: And how about quilting in the U.K. today?

MD: It's taking off. It's been in the doldrums for, I would think, three or four decades, kept alive by only one or two people. And I think these people who have sort of been steeped in the history of quilting and have always quilted are totally overwhelmed with what is happening in the U.K. I don't think we can actually keep abreast of the changes that are going on. A lot of art quilting is taking place. They have a City and Guild exam, which is teaching them many, many different techniques to use, and they're all producing these art quilts. I think the traditional whole cloth quilt is dying out in the U.K. There are only one or two people who still do it.

JH: And you would count this one as what? Art form? Innovative tradition?

MD: I put it in a traditional category because it is a traditional format to make a Baltimore. But I wouldn't call it a craft; I would say it was an art to have made it rather than a craft. I think you get your separation line between craft and art; a craft is if you buy a kit, all your bits are cut out for you, you've got a pattern and you make it up. I think that is a craft. But I think when you start moving into the realm of designing and use of your own color and choice of fabric, I think that you must start to call it an art whether or not it resembles modern art or something more traditional.

JH: What's your first memory of a quilt?

MD: I have an antique one. I have several antique ones, but one in particular I can remember one my grandmother had inherited from the family way back and I can remember seeing it when I was a little girl. That's my first memory of a quilt.

JH: Was it a utilitarian quilt?

MD: No.

JH: It was a--

MD: It was kept for best.

JH: Okay.

MD: Yes, and I still have that in pristine condition.

JH: Do you remember utilitarian quilts as a child?

MD: We didn't use them. We have not used quilts--in England people do not put quilts on their bed, we use duvets.

JH: Ok.

MD: But I'm starting to go back to blankets and quilts. [laughter.]

JH: What makes a quilt historically or artistically powerful?

MD: Artistically powerful. I don't know. I think it's something you can't describe. It's when you look at a quilt and think, 'that is good'.

JH: Stops you in your tracks, doesn't it?

MD: Yes, you just stop and then you think, 'that is something else.' And you can't walk past it. The small art category here is wonderful. They're all wonderful, but I stopped at one particular quilt, the judges liked it, too. I think it's different for each person. Each person will find something really powerful. Just as well or we would all have the same picture on our walls, now wouldn't we.

JH: For you, which comes first the fabric or the design? It's a chicken egg question.

MD: Difficult to say. When I first made a quilt, I had my design and I knew the colors I wanted to do it in, but I didn't have any fabric. At one point, I made a quilt purposefully to use a particular fabric. But I now have so much fabric that it doesn't bother me what I do because I will be able to pull the fabric for whatever design I'm doing.

JH: Is that little shop still open?

MD: No. It closed down. And I wouldn't use the fabrics that I bought there now. [laughter.]

JH: Okay, of all the design elements, color, balance, technique, which one seems to be your most powerful inspiration?

MD: I think, I like the texture of fabric, I like the texture of fabric--and I can paint with fabric because I use a see-through template and see what I'm doing. It must be the color. It is color. Color and design of fabric for me does the trick.

JH: What's your favorite batt [batting or lining used in a quilt.] that you use?

MD: I like a hundred percent cotton batt, and this quilt has in fact got Fairfield Soft Touch of which I am not a total devotee, I am actually still trying out all the cotton batts.

JH: Okay.

MD: So, I wouldn't endorse any particular batt, but I do like the hundred percent cotton


JH: So, a cotton batt is not a cotton batt, they vary from manufacturer [MD: Yes.] to manufacturer.

MD: Yes.

JH: Okay. Why is quilting important to your life?

MD: I don't think I could live without it. I don't know why; it is so relaxing. It is so different from what I do during the day, and I get so much pleasure from seeing the finished work.

JH: How does it affect your family?

MD: They're very tolerant. [laughter.] Very tolerant. He's a very good cook. And the girls are always pleased when I've made a new quilt. They like to show their friends my quilts. They love it if I win a show somewhere, and they like to look at them. In fact, my younger daughter is--well both of them are actually very artistic--but the younger one in particular is very patient. And if I said, 'Would you draw me so and so?' She will oblige. In fact, I've just finished what I would describe as a contemporary quilt. I had all the elements that I wanted in this quilt, and I really couldn't get them to sit properly. She did me a tiny little rough sketch that got it just as I wanted it. And I just then, you know, redrew it in a large form. But yes, they participate.

JH: Are they young adults yet?

MD: Yes.

JH: Okay. So, they're not still children.

MD: No. I actually didn't start quilting until the little one was ten. Otherwise, they might have had rickets or something dreadful. [laughter.] You know, totally neglected.

JH: That's not the first time we've heard that on these interviews. Sort of takes over our lives, doesn't it? We are drawing to the close of a millennium. How do you think quilts have impacted in the past millennium? Who have they impacted and how?

MD: They are impacting, over the last twenty years, so much, you know, they're just becoming an art form, just becoming an accepted art form, so many women are doing it. I think this is partly because of the fabulous range of fabrics we're getting. Making quilts is your justification for buying fabrics, and having the fabrics is justification for making quilts, so that's a catch-22. And I think it's just really, really taking off over the last twenty years.

JH: So, what will its future be?

MD: I think we will always have a hard core of traditional quilts, but we more and more will see contemporary art quilts and we more and more will see machine quilting. We will see quilts being made quicker because the manufacturers wish to sell their goods and the more quilts, we make the bigger our turnover, and the more they will sell to us. So, we will be encouraged to make quilts quickly.

JH: Do you think that has anything to do with what a woman's life is like these days?

MD: No. I mean, I have a very busy existence, but I will spend three years making a quilt. You know, it's just my pleasure to sit and sew. But I personally don't feel satisfied ever with something I've made quickly. I look at it and I feel a little deprived if I haven't sat at it for at least six months. But I think a lot of people like to make a quilt, 'I want to make a quilt for a particular purpose, a utilitarian quilt. And here's a pattern, we can do it in a weekend'. And yes, sure, the machine quilting holds it together. Whether it will still be there in one piece in a hundred years, I don't know, [laughter.] we'll have to wait and see.

JH: But when you think about young people, for example your daughters, is there a future--I mean, when we think about the fact that young people are not so interested in it, do you think that that will come around and they will be?

MD: I think yes because young people are not only busy working, but they have other leisure interest in mind. My two are both at University. And if they're not working hard, they're socializing hard, or they're playing sports. But when you get older, and you're settled, you're married, you're no longer going out socializing every night, you need an interest in life, and I think that is when you start your quilting. But I have heard many women say, 'I wish I'd discovered it twenty years ago'. And I always say, 'Just as well you didn't, just think of the neglect your children would have suffered from.' [laughter.]

JH: Well, I teach at the University and find young people who've come into textile classes that I teach, and they've never been around textiles in the home. And I'm curious as to what's going to happen in the future with all the needle arts. But we'll wait to see, I guess.

MD: Do you think they will fizzle? I think it's surging up at the moment.

JH: I hope it's surging up.

MD: But I think at the moment, some young people do, I think particularly girls or boys who are involved with textiles and arts in their school exams.

JH: So, it's more of an artisan or arts rather than crafts, do you think? The future will be more on the art form.

MD: I think so. Yes. Do you?

JH: Yeah, I do. Less utilitarian and more of an art form.

MD: Yes, yes.

JH: And it will be the creative energy that keeps it going.

MD: Yes.

JH: Does your husband travel with you when you go to shows?

MD: No, he doesn't travel with me ever, but he knew it was the third time in a row that I'd won a big prize. And he knew I was coming alone for the third time in a row, and he just managed to get a house sitter, a dog sitter, and get someone to get his surgeries and he just hopped on a plane. I didn't know he was coming; he just turned up last night. I was happy to see him.

JH: So, he surprised you.

MD: Yes, yes, I didn't know he was coming. I just happened to see this chap who looked like my husband walking by. [laughter.]

JH: Sure, enough it was.

MD: Yes.

JH: Well, can you speak to why it tends to be considered in the women's world?

MD: I think you need to go back to--if you go back to the time Michelangelo was painting. If you think how many famous female sculptors, artists, were there. How many of them can you name? And you can't name any, because there weren't any. I think because it was deemed as--it was high art; it was deemed unfit for women to dabble in high art. They had to express their artistic tendencies somehow, and they've done it through needlework. Is that not true?

JH: That's eloquent. You spoke eloquently.

MD: But I'm pretty sure that's what happened, and also as the years have gone by, we've actually found, we like a bit of sewing, it's relaxing, and you're not scrubbing floors or peeling potatoes or doing heavy work in the garden or something like that. You know your sewing is your pleasure time as well.

JH: Is there anything else that you'd like to speak about on your quilt or your philosophy of quilting?

MD: No, I just hope the traditional side stays of it, because I do love the beautiful traditional quilts. I do hope we still have some people doing it.

JH: Well, when they get inspired by work like yours, I'm sure that they will want to go home and try it. I don't know. It's going to be a big step to make something even close to that that's absolutely beautiful. Would you tell us the award that you won, please?

MD: I won "That Patchwork Place" sponsored Best in Show.

JH: Okay. And it's an absolutely exquisite piece--[MD: Thanks very much.] and I congratulate you.

MD: Thank you.

JH: This is Jana Hawley, and we are closing our interview with Margaret Docherty from Durham, England, and we thank her for her time. Thank you very much.

MD: Thank you.



“Margaret Docherty,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,