Nancy Pearson




Nancy Pearson




Nancy Pearson


Pauline Salzman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Elaine Johnson


[tape begins at mid sentence.]

Pauline Salzman (PS): ..-nine and I'm conducting an interview with Nancy Pearson for the quilt oral history program in Houston, Texas. Okay Nancy, tell me about yourself.

Nancy Pearson (NP): Oh I'll tell you how I got into quilting.

PS: Great.

NP: My daughter was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1975, and I went to Memphis, Tennessee, with her for three months while she was under treatment at St Jude's Children's Hospital and I happened to be in the lobby of the hospital and found a Family Circle magazine with Jean Ray Laury's quilt-as-you-go quilt on the cover and I thought, 'I need this,' so I went to the local quilt shop and bought my material and at that time it was all solid and colored polyester [laughs.] and started out. But I have to tell you when I brought the fabric back to the motel it had this horrible musty smell and I've decided all of Memphis smells musty at that time. I washed it and started to work on it and didn't have any trouble with the appliqué, but when I got to the quilting part the magazine just said, 'and now quilt' and didn't tell you how. I had never seen a quilt up close at that point and my mother always told me that if you were really a good seamstress your stitches never showed. So, I had quarter inch stitches on the back of this quilt and tiny little dimples all over the front. [laughs.] But it was my start.

PS: Tell me about the quilt you brought in today?

NP: This is called "Jack's Congregation" because [loudspeaker announcement interrupts interview.] It's called "Jack's Congregation" because it has a jack-in-the-pulpit in it. I have narrowed my quiltmaking down to floral appliqué, I teach floral appliqué and so it's all flowers and it's just a fun thing.

PS: When did you make it?

NP: It was finished in 1998. I started the center block probably three or four years ago and stuck in a drawer and pulled it out recently to work on it or think about it.

PS: Does it have a special meaning for you?

NP: Well, it was done in memory of my daughter. My daughter passed away two years ago, but we had twenty-two good years.

PS: That's nice. How do you use the quilt now?

NP: Actually I don't hang it. I take it around when I teach and it's been in a few shows. I just put it away when I'm at home. I think I'm afraid that the fabric is going to fade. I think it's a major worry among quiltmakers today that if they hang the quilts they're going to fade. So I just pack it away.

PS: Tell me about your own interest in quilting?

NP: Well I have an art background. I was a graphic artist for seven years. And then once I got into the quilt world I realized that I would much prefer to design quilting patterns and appliqué patterns rather than get back into the graphic arts world after my children were grown. I have four children and I was of the era when you had children you stayed home. We had the luxury of staying home with our family at that time. And afterwards I fell into, or I tripped over quilting at that time. I think a lot of people did. But it's a wonderful world. The bicentennial seemed to help stir interest. People wanted to get back to the old crafts.

PS: So, you're connected to quilting by your design?

NP: Yes, I design floral appliqué patterns and I teach.

PS: And you teach all over the country?

NP: All over the world. I've been very fortunate. I've been to New Zealand and I've been to England and all over Canada and the wilds of Vancouver Island and to Montreal and I'm going to South Africa next year to teach and so the quilt world has been very good to me.

PS: So, are you a self-taught quilter?

NP: Basically, yes. Going back, I had a class. I don't know how long ago, in basic sampler quilt type and did the sampler blocks. I got acquainted with the old patterns which I love and a little bit of appliqué. I had a friend whose mother made the Paragon and Kirshner quilt kits. And I remember when I was in high school I used to like to sit and watch her do that, because it was like putting a large puzzle together. All the pieces had numbers and seam allowance you had to match up with the background. But that was really the first time I had seen appliqué.

PS: So what are your first memories of quilting?

NP: Probably of this woman, Mary Boemmel was her name, and I think that was the first time I ever saw appliqué.

PS: And what do you find pleasing about quilting?

NP: Just creating something with fabric. I think a lot of the challenge to putting floral appliqué together is to find the right fabric for the shading of the flower and combining them – it's kind of the architecture of quiltmaking.

PS: It was a joy when the new fabrics came out, right?

NP: Oh, I remember in the very early eighties all that was available were the primary color calico prints and everybody you knew had a log cabin vest made of all these fabrics. So, I have seen the fabric world move. I remember probably in the middle or late seventies my little quilt group that I was in decided that we were not going to quilt any more because fabric was now $1.57 a yard. [laughter.] I think now the average is now running about nine or ten dollars a yard. It was a good world.

PS: And what aspects of quilting do you enjoy the most?

NP: Designing.

PS: Designing. Do you like cutting out the pieces?

NP: Oh, yes I do. I like planning the colors. I teach a class in creating dimension by the placement of lights and darks within the flower. And that is the challenge to find the right fabric for the right spot. And I really do enjoy that part of it.

PS: And what aspects of quilting do you not like?

NP: Well, I'm not going to say that I don't like to hand quilt, I just don't do a really good job, so I usually try to find somebody that will quilt for me and I had a friend who has now passed away who would quilt for me and I would appliqué for her and that worked out nice.

PS: So you really don't quilt that many of your pieces any more, you design.

NP: I quilt family quilts, but when it's something that I'm going to take around from place to place and when I teach I usually find someone who is willing to do that for me.

PS: And what do you think makes a great quilt?

NP: Probably the graphic appeal, because that's what's going to catch the passerby's eye. I think the design.

PS: So does that make the quilt artistically powerful?

NP: Normally it does.

PS: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection because you're in the Greatest American Quilts?

NP: I think the quality of workmanship is very important if it's going to be a museum quilt but also the color, the design, the eye appeal.

PS: And why is quilting important to your life?

NP: It's opened up so many doors; I've met so many wonderful people. The people that I've met in the quilt world are so friendly and sharing and I've seen the world because of my quilting.

PS: Earlier you mentioned how you came to come to Houston and the quilt show here. Why don't you tell us about that?

NP: Well at that time I had three quilts that I had finished and I had never had them in any kind of competition and I wondered how they would hold up against the others and so I entered the three quilts in Houston, I think in 1984 and I think I won five ribbons that year on those three quilts and that's all I needed. I've kept going since then and riding on that.

PS: What were those quilts?

NP: It was one that's in the show that won the Founder's Award and I think it won first place appliqué and then I had one that was called "Techny Chimes" that was about 54 inches square and it again was floral and it now resides in the Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Hospital in their ante partum ward because it's pleasing to look at because they wanted it for that reason – makes people feel good. And the other one I gave to my daughter and her husband has it now.

PS: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or religion? How do they reflect you?

NP: I think that they please me and I'm pleased to make them because they are a beauty that I like to be involved in - the color, the flowers – I love flowers and I worked at one time as a flower arranger in a floral shop in the area and I kind of carried over into my quilts. I like color. I like the challenge of putting it all together and making it work.

PS: Do you want to tell us a little bit about this particular quilt?

NP: The original center block actually is in the book that I wrote in a more simplified form. I put it away and came back. My daughter had twenty-two good years and then was diagnosed again with cancer and so I went to live at her house during the week to take care of her and so I dug this out of my dresser in my workroom. I took it with me and decided I was going to make quilt out of this, but I decided to disassemble before I assembled so I changed quite a bit of it. And it just grew and she was interested in it. She was a quilter the last few years and so she was great at critiquing. [laughs.]

PS: How big is this quilt? It doesn't seem very large.

NP: I think it's probably maybe forty-five inches square.

PS: Okay. And any particular reason you chose these colors?

NP: Yes. I like to work with a multicolored fabric that sets the color scheme for my quilts and that's what this fabric is right here. That's the one I planned the color around and I just kind of built it from there. I wanted to make the block a little larger so I set it in a circle and let the flowers flow out of the circle onto a multicolored fabric.

PS: I noticed you used metallic threads?

NP: Yes, I've been experimenting with them to see what happens. I like to embroider, especially appliqué lends itself to embroidery and the metallic thread was too good to pass up. I've been trying it. I like to work with silk fabrics and there are some silk fabrics in this quilt and I like especially to embroider with silk threads, because you get a sheen that you don't get with a cotton and I really like that effect.

PS: How do you think those elements will hold up?

NP: Well I remember reading an article in "National Geographic" about silk, quite a few years ago and it said then that if there isn't anything added to the silk it will hold up longer than people expect. I have no doubt that it will hold up as long as the cotton fabric. I hope I'm right.

PS: You mentioned before that you don't do most of your quilting. Did you quilt this?

NP: No I did not. It was quilted by Judy Roberts from Kansas City, Kansas. She's a good friend.

PS: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

NP: I think that they're a nice cross between utility and beauty. And if you look at the very old quilts I am always moved by the fact that as difficult as life was then women always brought beauty in?

PS: Do you think it did other things for their lives besides bring beauty to their lives?

NP: I think in a lot of cases it gave them some self esteem, especially those women who had the time to add the beauty to their quilts. But when you see some of those very old quilts you can't help but wonder where they've been and what they've seen. I love old quilts.

PS: Do you think that these quilts express inner feelings?

NP: I don't know if mine do, but I know that once they're finished I like them. I find that very pleasing and comforting.

PS: Are you commercially motivated to make your designs?

NP: Not really. I have a pattern company that is run by a distributor out of Oregon and I just worry about designing the patterns and again that is one of my first loves – doing the designing. After that he can do what he wants with them.

PS: How long does it usually take you to do that?

NP: The design? I can usually put a design out in four days. It's a pencil design. I don't get into color at all as far as commercial patterns go.

PS: When you're designing for a quilt that is not going to be a commercial pattern, do you then go from a line drawing?

NP: Yes, I do. I go from that line drawing to color--start planning the color and again I use a multicolor fabric as a guide and pull the colors from that--pull the family of flowers together.

PS: Which comes first the fabric or the design?

NP: The design.

PS: Any preconceived ideas about color when you're there or do you just go pull fabric?

NP: I normally don't think color until the design is completed and then sometimes if there is a particular color I want to work with in this block I will start there and go on from there.

PS: How do you think your quilts can be used?

NP: Well, I don't make too many full sized bed quilts, but when I do I have some that are made particularly for beds. Most of them are for eye appeal to hang on the wall. And of course baby quilts for grandchildren. I think most older quilters have had that experience some where down the line.

PS: Do you machine quilt at all?

NP: No, I don't. I am just getting acquainted with machine piecing right now. I've always done handwork and I feel most comfortable with handwork.

PS: How do you feel about the machine work?

NP: I love it. I think it's wonderful. I am so impressed with what can be done with a machine, but I always remember that it takes great skill to do that. I think it's wonderful.

PS: Well, it takes great skill to do what you do. How does your family feel about your quilting?

NP: I think they're very pleased. And my daughter was especially encouraging and she did a lot of needlework, a lot of counted cross stitch and I brought her to Houston one year and she caught the quilting bug and so we had a good time together.

PS: Do you have grandchildren?

NP: Yes, I have nine grandchildren and I'm teaching a nine year old and a fourteen year old how to piece now and it's wonderful. It's wonderful to be able to have members of the family involved.

PS: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

NP: Well, I think first and foremost to keep them from fading. That is a concern I think and to pass them on to someone who realizes the importance of them.

PS: What has happened to the quilts you've made for your friends and your family?

NP: They have taken very good care of them. The baby quilts are well worn, but I feel that's important too. I want a baby quilt given to a small child to be used not to be hung necessarily. But, the rest of them are getting respect.

PS: I noticed you said you don't quilt your own quilts, do you do the basting of putting them together.

NP: Yes, I do and I mark the quilting patterns in most cases design the quilting pattern, but I find that hand appliqué takes so much time that as much as I'd like to stay with the quilt and quilt it, I move on to more appliqué.

PS: Since you've been quilting for a long time you've gone through a lot of changes in fabrics and battings and things that newer quilters have not had experience with. What have been the differences in battings as you've come through the years?

NP: Well, I think that the batting nowadays are better because they have researched and because you get a wider selection of the types of batting you might want to use in a particular piece. When I got into quilting years ago I knew of only two different brands of batting and it was one type of batting. Shortly after that, they came out with a low loft.

PS: And so what was the first type of batting?

NP: Fairfield's Cotton Classic is the one that I used all of the time and it was considered new.

PS: And what did you use after that?

NP: I like a batting that is fairly flat. I don't want a puffy quilt so I normally use a low loft batting. Whenever possible I use cotton batting, but the problem with that is I'm going to take my quilts into a particular place to teach and show the quilts you can't shake the wrinkles out of a quilt that has cotton batting as quickly as you can polyester batting.

PS: Does the polyester batting bleed more or beard more?

NP: Yes, I think it does, but then again it's not necessarily the batting's fault but maybe the fabric on top of it. I have a quilt that I'm working on now that has a black background and I'm concerned about using a batting that's not going to beard, so I'm talking to batting manufacturers and I'm going to try quilting with some of it to experiment, because I don't want it to beard once I finish it. I have to tell you that working on the black background is something new too to quiltmakers, that I'm familiar with, and we've found a transfer paper to transfer the design onto the dark background and it's called "Saral transfer paper" and it's used mostly for rose mulling and toile painting, but it's similar to a carbon paper but it doesn't have a waxed backing on it and you can put it under your pattern and just draw with a ballpoint pen on the pattern and it transfers a white line to the dark background which is a big help, because before that you really had to either freehand draw the design or use templates for it. But you wonder then with this dark background and bright colors on it how is it going to hold up over the years. That is a concern.

PS: I notice you use a lot of prints and a few solids. Are you still going in that direction?

NP: Yes, I am. I find that when I look for a fabric to use in a particular flower I look for the right color and in order to get the right effect I go from prints to solids, to hand dyed, whatever is available. I like the hand dyed fabrics for floral work.

PS: Are you learning to hand dye?

NP: I've tried it and it is really very messy and you never know, at least I'd never know what I'd end up with. I find that in the long run I'm better off buying someone else's hand dyed.

PS: Did you take some classes?

NP: Yes, I did many years ago I did take a class from Jan Meyer. It was fun but I would rather design and sew and use somebody else's fabrics. I use the lot of the backsides of fabrics in my projects. This particular fabric here is the backside of this one. And this was a combination of two different fabrics that I stitched together to make my own border fabric. And this center piece here is a muslin that was tea dyed.

PS: Did you do that?

NP: Yes, I did, but as you can see I didn't get the same effect over here, but I like the way it looks.

PS: Do you ever go back and add more stitches to the piece, because I noticed the embellishment here?

NP: No. The embellishing is done before I sandwich it and quilt it. But the use of printed fabric is very important to me. [loudspeaker announcement which is recorded for2 minutes.]

PS: Now we can get back to this. I had something in mind and now I forgot.

NP: I have some basic rules that I use with medallion quilts and most of the quilts that I've been making recently have been medallion style with the large center block. And one of the rules that I teach my students is that your completed quilt cannot be any larger than three times the size of the center block, because otherwise the block is not strong enough to hold the rest of the quilt. If you have more than one border around that center block you should carry the appliqué out into one of the other borders to tie it all together. And I like to use a dark fabric for the outer border, because it tends to be the frame for the picture. Quite often if I'm looking for a design for the border I will pick up several elements from the main center of the quilt and use them repeatedly as the border. I did that in the Nancy's Garden quilt. The borders are elements that were in the center of the quilt. And normally I don't know what I'm going to do with the center block until it's completed and then I just let the quilt grow and work on it from there. I have a lot of reference material for design. When I was working as a graphic artist I worked for a man who said that you were only as good as your reference material so I'd keep that in mind and find ideas on paper placemats or in books or magazines. I do subscribe to a lot of gardening magazines and so that helps too. I belong to the Chicago Botanical Garden and they have a very extensive library so if ever I have a problem with something I can go there. When I was going to New Zealand to teach I wanted to include some of the flowers of New Zealand in the patterns so I went there and they had all of the reference material that I needed so it's really wonderful to have that.

PS: Were you a graphic artist for a long time?

NP: I went to the School of the Art Institute back in the early fifties and the American Academy and I came out of there and went to work as a graphic artist and was very fortunate. And that was the days when graphic art was done not with the computer but with colored pencils and chalk and whatever. It's come a long way.

PS: So is it safe to assume you don't use the computer to draw?

NP: No, I hate to admit it but we don't own a computer and I am complete computer illiterate. I guess I just don't want to get into computers for fear that it's going to take time away from my designing and sewing. You know I find as I grew older you only have so much time and you have to decide how you want to spend it and I've spent it between family and quiltmaking.

PS: What else do you tell your students?

NP: To be very exacting when they do this. Take your time. When you're doing hand appliqué don't rush your project. Don't try to make a quilt for a particular show. Make you r quilt, put everything you have into it, if a quilt show comes along put it in if you want to but most of all make it for yourself.

PS: Do you have any other design element things that you tell them?

NP: Yes. I feel that a well done appliqué quilt is going to have so much detail that it possibly may look weak. To try to support this appliqué design with piecework. I like to see pieced work in with the appliqué. One compliments the other. There was a time when I did not use grid quilting in my quilt because I once heard Jinny Byer give a lecture about being in India and Nepal when she learned to quilt and when she came back to America she saw all the appliqué quilts on mattress pads and all I could think of when I went to plan the quilting was mattress pads so for a long time I only used curved quilting with appliqué and realized down the line that the grid quilting is a wonderful compliment to the curves of the appliqué and so now I use a lot of it in my designs. That really stuck with me for many years.

PS: Who's influenced you?

NP: This woman who was making those kit quilts was truly the one person who got me interested in appliqué, just watching her do it and putting all this together and see the flowers grow and she has passed away since then, but her daughter is still a very close friend. I see a lot of these old quilts quite often.

PS: Your story about Jinny Byer was interesting. Do you have any more stories like that where they were an influence, because that was an influence to you.

NP: Well, lately I've noticed that Hallmark has a designer Marjalene Basten who does a line of cards I think they're called nature studies or something like that and she has lots of beautiful flowers and she puts them together with garden implements and birds and whatever and she has influenced me. I've realized that you can put a quilt out now with a flowerpot and broken spade and it still looks okay and people will be interested in it. Flowers are my first and foremost influence.

PS: No little critters in this one?

NP: Not on this one, but I do put them in quite often. On Nancy's Garden there's a squirrel, and a parrot, and a rabbit, and a swan. I do and I love birds and some of my designs and quilts there are birds. I'm finishing up a quilt now that's the four seasons and in that I have a rabbit, and a snowman, and lots of birds. I like anything that ties in with nature.

PS: So you think you will stay in this direction?

NP: No. I'm looking kind of outside now. I would like to do quilts possibly with animals and with nature, not necessarily flowers but some other aspects.

PS: You do wonderful work.

NP: Thank you. I love to do it.

PS: Does it take a long time to do the stitching?

NP: Yes, it does. With the traveling I don't get a lot of time to sew. It's preparing it that takes a lot of time, getting the right fabrics, the right backgrounds, whatever. But I think the happiest moments of my day are when I can sit down and sew.

PS: Ideally how much time would you like to sew a day?

NP: I would like to sew probably four or five hours a day and that would leave me time to keep the house going, dinner and whatever. My husband and I are the only ones in the house now, but I do have family close by that I see all the time. I do my share of babysitting and love it.

PS: What does your husband feel about your quilting?

NP: I think at first he felt a little threatened by it, especially when I started doing a lot of traveling but now he is very encouraging and very proud. My three boys are fun, they always look at the quilts and say, 'Oh, Mom that's really beautiful. What's there to eat?' That's typical. I have a little six year old grandson that really enjoys my fabrics and my quilts and it's fun to have somebody that young interested in it and I'm grateful for that.

PS: Does your husband ever come to you to the quilt shows?

NP: Locally he does. He doesn't normally travel with me. He traveled so much during the war years, he's not a traveler. So, when I went to New Zealand, I was there about ten days teaching, my daughter flew over to meet me and then we did every nook and cranny of the country and I did enjoy that.

PS: Do you have any grandsons you might teach how to quilt?

NP: Yes, I think this little six year old grandson would be interested and fortunately his father is very encouraging. I was afraid maybe he would object to that, then again my granddaughters who are learning to quilt now are very enthused but I don't push it. I wait for them to call and ask if they can work on the quilt. I don't want for them to feel it's a chore. And they do such a good job. I was impressed with the nine year old, because my daughter-in-laws are very wonderful people but they don't sew at all and she had never threaded a needle and seen any stitching being done and she took to it right away and does a very good job. And the older one is working with the machine that I inherited. It was my daughter's and it's overwhelming to me but she takes it in her stride and it doesn't bother her a bit and she does a good job. I hope that they'll be quilters in years to come, but at least they'll know how.

PS: How do you feel about men in quilting?

NP: I think it's wonderful. I think there is a place for everybody in quilting. There was a time when hand quilters felt a little intimidated by machine quilters, but I don't think that's true today it's such a big world there's room for all of us.

PS: You said you don't do the quilting. Do you do the finishing? Do you do the binding?

NP: Yes I do, I do.

PS: Do you do it by hand?

NP: Well, I assemble my quilts by machine, the borders will be stitched on by machine and I'll stitch the binding on by machine and then turn it over and hand stitch it down. I've always done it that way. The appliqué is all done by hand and the quilting is by hand, but I put the trim on by machine.

PS: And these pieces on the inside are they put on and machine stitched in all these areas?

NP: Yes, this border that is two fabrics was done by machine. I have a little early 1950's Singer sewing machine that works fine and I used that to put it together.

PS: So do you sew on your daughter's new machine now?

NP: Well, I'm just learning to now. It took me two days to find out how to take the lid off of it. It's a Bernina and I'm looking for a latch on the bottom of it and there is no latch – the cover just lifts off, you just straighten the handle on it. It's intimidating but it does things that I could never imagine could be done by machine. I'm going to stay with hand work at my age I don't plan any major changes in my quiltmaking.

PS: Well, I don't think you need to, you do beautiful work.

NP: I love to do it.

PS: Anything else you'd like to tell us, Nancy, about your quilting?

NP: I have to say that I was in the art world for a long time and met with artists in guilds and groups, and whatever. I found they were very hard on one another and very critical, never sharing and when I got into the quilt world the people are so willing to share that it's almost overwhelming. I've seen this in my classes, if someone needs something there is always another person in the class who has it and is willing to share. That's encouraging. I don't know if it's because they are women or not, but they are very sharing and caring. I've had men in my class too and it's been a bit intimidating. [laughs.] But it's a good world

PS: Do you belong to a quilt group?

NP: Yes, I do. I belong to Illinois Quilters which is north of Chicago. And I belong to the IQA [International Quilt Association.] here and I belong to one in Paducah [American Quilters Society.].

PS: In your area are you seeing more young quilters coming along?

NP: Yes, I belong to a guild that is about 350 people because it's an urban area and there's primarily young quilters in this group. I think that young professional women find quilting relaxing and creative.

PS: And how is their direction going?

NP: Surprisingly a lot of them are doing hand work. I expected because their time is limited that they would be using a machine. Some of them do, but a lot of them do handwork and I think that's nice. Again, the bicentennial in 1976 turned the corner for quilting.

PS: Well, Nancy I want to thank you for coming. I want to thank you for doing this.

NP: Thank you for your interest in my work. I appreciate that.

PS: It is now 10:35 and we are concluding this interview.

NP: Thank you very much for your time.

[tape ends.]



“Nancy Pearson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,