Cynthia England




Cynthia England




Cynthia England


JoAnn Russo

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Schiffer Publishing


Houston, Texas


Heather Gibson


JoAnn Russo (JR): I am JoAnn Russo. This is October 23, 1999 and we are here at the Houston Quilt Festival to interview Cynthia England about her piece that she's chosen to show us called "Peace and Quiet." First of all, your quilt is just a beautiful, scenic pieced quilt. Would you tell us about how you did this? What was you idea for this?

Cynthia England (CE): Well it began from a photograph. I worked from a photograph and tried to get things to look as realistic and to match the photograph as closely as possible. It's done in sections and it's a freezer paper technique that I developed. I work with freezer paper but not in the traditional sense. It's not a foundation-piece method. I actually sew next to the paper, not through it. And I work from the right side of the fabric, not the wrong side so it's a little different than what most people think it is.

JR: I forgot to ask you where you're from.

CE: I'm from Houston, Texas. I am a native Houstonian and I've been quilting for about twenty-five years. When I made this quilt my kids were very small. They were one-and-a-half, three and six. So the name of the quilt is "Peace and Quiet" because most of it was made at night when they were asleep.

JR: All of us can relate to that. Now this being a pictorial quilt of a river or stream through like a forest, where did you start? Do you start at the bottom and work up? Do you start in the middle and work out? How do you go about creating this that simulates a photograph?

CE: When I made this quilt I had never made anything like it. I learned a lot of things as I made it. What I did was basically work above the horizon line first. I didn't draw the whole project out first. I took an outline drawing and enlarged it full size. Then I would break off a piece of it and then sew that, and then go to a new piece and break off a piece and then work on that. So I didn't have the whole thing worked out before I began.

JR: Is it hand quilted, machine quilted, quilted in-the-ditch?

CE: It's machine quilted. This is really the first large thing that I ever machine quilted. It has too many seams in it and it just would not lend itself to hand-quilting. I used to do a lot of hand quilting. I basically worked the upper part above the horizon line and then I did the lower part, the lighter part. And there's a lot of in-the-ditch quilting. There's a lot of wavy lines in the water and angular lines to give it some texture.

JR: One of our questions is, how did you choose this quilt to bring? But obviously we need you to talk about this being one of the "Hundred Best."

CE: I can't believe it is, but yeah I was included in one of the "Hundred Best Quilts of the Century." [special exhibit and book.] And I think one of the reasons it got in was just it was really different from the other quilts that were put in over the years. It's more painterly, I guess. I'm thrilled. Really it's changed my life. I'm going around lecturing and teaching now, which I never dreamed I'd be doing, and it's all due to making this quilt.

JR: Do you use this quilt? Is this something you use in your home?

CE: Yes, it's right over my couch. In my living room, I did the colors to go with it. And I use it in my lectures, because when I made it I took in-progress pictures. So I have in-progress slides of it, and I can show how it was made. And so that can take away the fact that it looks difficult. When you can see how it's done it's not quite so overwhelming.

JR: Really? It's quite beautiful. How long have you been teaching?

CE: Since I made this quilt.

JR: In '93?

CE: Yes. What happened was I made it, and everyone wanted to know how I made it. I now have a pattern company due to this quilt because everybody wanted to know how to make it. So I made a pattern to teach at a shop and then another one and another one. And now I have a pattern company and that's what I do.

JR: What is your first memory of a quilt?

CE: I guess the colors. Just the visual impact. If it makes you feel something.

JR: Was there quilting in your family?

CE: Yes and no. Both of my grandmothers had quilted, but both had passed away by the time I was about six. My mother's mother died when she was ten, so she didn't really learn to quilt. I made my first one when I was thirteen and my father talked me through it because he remembered how his mother made it. And then my mother's embroidery skills that helped a lot. But I'm really a self-taught quiltmaker. I just make mistakes and try to remember not to the next time.

JR: What do you find most enjoyable about the process of quilting?

CE: The piecing. I used to like to do jigsaw puzzles. I still like to do jigsaw puzzles a lot, but then there's guilt involved because then I just put it back in a box and I've wasted this time. What I'm doing now is similar to putting a puzzle together. But I get to touch my fabrics and then I have something when I'm finished.

JR: What parts of quilting do you not enjoy?

CE: Blocking. Probably blocking the most. Binding. But the rest of it I like. And that's just with anything. There's always something you like more than the other.

JR: What do you think makes this a great quilt?

CE: Well, probably the color. I think it looks realistic. That was my goal to make it look real. I have a couple of animals hidden in it. There's a deer right here and there's a wolf over there on the water's edge. I put those in there because my kids like the "Where's Waldo" thing, and so they like to find things. So now I try to put a little something in all my things for them to find.

JR: How old are your children?

CE: Now they're eight, eleven and thirteen. So when I made it they were small.

JR: What do they think about your quilting and about your success as a quilter?

CE: Well I don't know if the kids are touched as much. They really don't know. But I've had some things in the magazine and the paper, and they do realize now that it's a big deal for quilters. Well actually my son's high school teacher had taken a class from me this year. So when he went in there the first day of class, she really surprised him by saying she was in one of my classes. He kind of looked at me different after that. [laughter.] So that was kind of funny.

JR: What else would you like to tell us about making quilts? What period of time do you suppose was involved in making this quilt?

CE: Just about six months. I basically made it because in my quilt guild one of our speakers dropped out in January for September and they needed someone to do a lecture. I had made quilts, but nothing specific that I could speak about. I didn't feel like I had anything. Then a friend said, 'Well take pictures of the quilt as you make it, and then you'll have slides and you'll have something to talk about.' So I really did not know that this was going to come out as well as it did, but I really was making it to fill in for that lecture. So it's just a happy coincidence and it turned out good. [laughter.]

JR: Well it certainly did turn out good. It's beautiful. What do you think makes quilting so appealing to so many women?

CE: I think it's because there are so many variations on what you can do. You can do something real simple, or something real complex. And so you don't get bored with the process. I've done lots of different crafts. I've done stained glass and jewelry making, cross-stitch and needle-point, crewel embroidery. And you get into them, but then you lose interest after a while and you come out. Whereas with quilting I've never lost interest because of the variation in the craft is so different. It also crosses age groups. Like with my quilter friends, it doesn't matter how old they are. It's this pull that doesn't matter how old. It's very nice.

JR: What do you think of the importance of quilts in American life today?

CE: It's changed. I think it's definitely changed and become more of an art form and appreciation has changed a lot. I think it has a lot to do with their reason was utilitarian, you know, a long time ago, and we don't have to do that now. We do it for a creative outlet. That's the change. That's the main thing.

JR: With the stitching and the piecing there's an awful lot of love and reflection here. And it makes you wonder what was going on in your life at that time.

CE: One thing, my daughter, the year-and-a-half one, when she was two she had heart surgery and I took this in with me to work on it. So it was very comforting.

JR: That's sad. A form of therapy almost. I think all of us find that in quilting. It's a peaceful thing to do. What else can you tell us about your quilt or your life? What quilting means to you?

CE: Well, I think of myself as a quilter before anything else.

JR: That's wonderful. Well now, how long had you been quilting before you made this particular quilt?

CE: I had made traditional quilts up until about two years before this quilt. But I'd done a lot of appliqué and hand work. I stumbled upon the technique when I was doing something else. And I did it wrong, and then I found out this way was easier. Actually there's a lot of cheating in this. You can actually pick the paper up and move it over and fix it. So it's not a very precision-type thing that you might think it is. So when I found out it was more freeing and easier to do, I wanted to do the next one all like that. So this is the first quilt I made entirely in that technique. But I used to do a lot of hand work. Basically, what I always liked about appliqué is it looked realistic. I was always trying to make something look real. That's my main goal.

JR: Have you gone back to traditional quilts since you started this technique?

CE: I still make traditional quilts. I think there are different reasons to quilt. I'll do a hard project and then I'll go back and do something real simple. It's a release. It's just easy and you're not thinking about it. So one time I'll tax my brain and the next time I'll just do something repetitive because that's what a normal quilt is. You're repeating the blocks and it's comforting, and you know what's happening. So I do both. I finish doing a hard thing and then I'll go do an easy thing.

JR: How many quilts have you made?

CE: I don't know. That's a hard one. Wall-hanging size I would probably say about a hundred, I would say. Large quilts, maybe twenty, twenty-five; something like that.

JR: Do you use quilts on any of your beds?

CE: On my children's beds, they all have a quilt. On mine, I don't because it's under a window. [laughter.] I hang most of my quilts. I do have things hanging around the house.

JR: How do you think this will be seen a hundred years from now?

CE: Well, I look at the other quilts in the exhibit that are a hundred years old and I enjoy them just as much today as then. So I think probably just like anybody would see it now. That's what I would hope.

[pause as the interview is moved to the floor of the quilt show.]

JR: We are standing before the "Power of Houston" quilt that Cynthia made with Libby Lehman and Vicki Mangum. Tell us about this one.

CE: This is a group project. We had four months to make it. I pieced the lower half, and I did all the buildings, all the pieced buildings. And Libby Lehman did all the fireworks. And Vicki Mangum added some spectacular quilting, real glitzy quilting and heavily quilted it. It was really fun. We didn't see what the others were doing. It's like I finished my part and then I didn't see it again until it was finished, and that for me was the best thing about making this because I didn't have to quilt it and I didn't have to bind it and I didn't have to block it. So I got to do what I like to best, which is piecing.

JR: Well tell us, for those who can't see, how would you visually describe this quilt? What does it depict?

CE: It's the city of Houston. It's the skyline at night. And there are fireworks blasting off, and we have a big laser-light show here. It's all the laser-lights and the glittery fireworks all up above in the sky. It's night colors and dark, rich colors.

JR: And this was made as a gift?

CE: Yes, this was made as a gift for the city of Houston. The Reliant Energy Company helped finance it. The IQA [International Quilt Association.] also was in--It was Karey Bresnahan's brainchild. She had the photograph and we worked straight from the photograph. It was her idea and she got us all three together. We had never worked together, and she said, 'Here's the photograph. Get us a nice quilt.' So, we all worked together, and it was a lot of fun to do.

JR: She gave you a photograph of the Houston skyline?

CE: Yes, and it had been computer-enhanced because this year there are laser images that they had put on the buildings. And so we could see exactly what was going to be on for this year. There was an astronaut and Mount Rushmore and a flag that they actually put laser-light on the buildings. So we put those on our quilt using a photo-transfer method and then quilted around them. So those things are on there. It says "2000" on the buildings also to commemorate the year 2000.

JR: And this will be used in various places?

CE: Yes, I'm not sure where it's going to finally wind up but it's supposed to travel to different parts of the city of Houston, to different buildings. I believe they said it might be in the George Brown eventually as it's home. A couple of weird things about the buildings, or interesting things, is to get windows, to get many, many different little windows, I went to Home Depot and I got some rabbit-cage wire and I stenciled over the wire in order to get the look of the windows. Then I used quilter's quarter-inch tape to mask off some of the buildings in order to get the look of some of the windows so some of them have some painting details on them. Some of them are entirely pieced. One kind of interesting thing Libby told me is that some of the thread work is actually fishing lure stuff that she got from her son, and then she couched over it to get the real fuzzy, glittery look of the fireworks.

JR: It's beautiful. Quite extraordinary. Tell me again how long it took you all to make this.

CE: It took us four months. We gathered at a quilt store and picked out fabrics that we liked, at Great Expectations, [Karey Bresnahan's quilt shop in Houston, Texas.] and then we added our stash and decided on some fabrics that we would both repeat in the quilt. But we did not see each other sew any of it. It was sewn totally separate and then it was joined, and then the fireworks overlapped the two parts.

JR: And then it was quilted.

CE: Yes. So, it was really exciting to see, after I passed my part off, I didn't see it until it was all put together and quilted. And it was really exciting to see what had happened to it in the meantime.

JR: And it is machine quilted?

CE: It's all machine quilted. The only hand work on the quilt is where is says "2000." It's appliquéd on. And the rest of it is hand done.

JR: Were you there when the quilt was presented to the city?

CE: Yes, I was. I got to get my picture with the mayor. That was real exciting. It was very interesting to see exactly what a news conference is. So it was quite an experience.

JR: You've certainly been well represented in this festival with something in the "Hundred Best" and this spectacular quilt.

CE: Thank you.

JR: What else would you like to tell us about your life as a quilter?

CE: I just want to continue making things look as real as they can. I want to make a lot more larger quilts. I have the pattern business now, the company, because my kids are young and I'm trying to get college out of the way and everything. But then I kind of see myself later on as doing more just art quilts to show. But right now this is what I need to do, and I'm having a good time doing it and I enjoy teaching.

JR: What would be your advice to someone who is just beginning and doesn't have any idea which way they want to go?

CE: What I would do is every quilt I made I would try something different that I didn't know how to do whether it's just on the border or just some new technique that you don't know how to do. By doing that you'll find out what you enjoy the most and what you want to pursue. And always keep trying new things to see what happens.

JR: Good advice.

CE: Well I'm in booth 23 if you need anything at all; if you have any questions or anything.

JR: I've been interviewing Cynthia England, and she has so graciously given us so much information. Thank you so much.

CE: Well, I didn't tell you how old I was. I could tell you that. I'm forty. I turned forty this year.

JR: Wonderful!

CE: I think that's an interesting thing to know.

JR: I think so, too. People will want to know.

CE: When I made the big quilt I was, well that was six years ago, so I was thirty-four. So, it was really a big deal and I jumped up and yelled when I won.

JR: I bet you did. That's wonderful encouragement for all of those who are starting a little late. Thank you so much. So, this interview is ended at 9:35. Thank you.



“Cynthia England,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,