Bonnie McCaffey




Bonnie McCaffey




Bonnie McCaffey


Gloria Answell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Karen Plummer


Glory Answell (GA): Where are you from?

Bonnie McCaffery (BM): Hawley, Pennsylvania.

GA: Pennsylvania. Well, welcome to Texas.

BM: Thank you very much.

GA: So, let's talk about your quilt. You made these?

BM: I brought two quilts. Yes.

GA: And, you made these? And, do you do Wearable Arts as well, also?

BM: I do a few vests to use as I travel and teach so that you have something that is representative of the class. So, I do vests or I do jewelry.

GA: Well, that's where I have heard your name.

BM: Oh, okay. Probably.

GA: As a teacher. Well, since you make such wonderful quilts, do you ever make quilts to sleep under?

BM: Well, I have made quilts for every body in the house. I have three daughters and early on--nineteen years ago, I made quilts for everybody so all the beds are covered so I don't do bed quilts anymore. Now I do wall hangings and teaching samples and book samples.

GA: That's a good idea. So you satisfied your inner most feelings first?

BM: Yes. I think I am satisfying my inner most feelings now. You know being creative more.

GA: Did you teach yourself?

BM: Pretty much. I mean I have taken some quilts classes along the way, but to begin with I did teach myself. And, I went to a friend and I said, 'Okay so, is this how you do it? Up down, up down?' And, she said, 'Yeah, just like that.' Yes, I am self-taught.

GA: So then, you have taken classes. Did you take any classes here at the International Quilt Show?

BM: Not this year. I did take some last year and I have been teaching here at Quilt Market so I decided it might be best to take those days off, but I have gone for a couple of lectures.

GA: That's good. Did you have any members of your family who were quilters?

BM: The only bit of quilting I have in my past is probably about three little yoyos that my grandmother did. So, no, I don't have quilting in my history.

GA: What did you do with the three little Yoyos?

BM: I just have them in a box that she gave me.

GA: Oh, you need to put them out where others can see them.

BM: They should be framed.

GA: They should. They should. I think that is great. But, no aunts, uncles, or cousins who quilt?

BM: No, I am it.

GA: You are it.

GA: So, have you been a member of a guild?

BM: I belong to The Milford Valley Quilters and I was one of the starting members. We celebrated our tenth anniversary this past year.

GA: Oh really.

BM: And, I find the quilt guild just one of the best ways to connect with people and to learn.

GA: Have you taught for your guild?

BM: Oh, they were my very first guinea pigs.

GA: Oh really. What do you teach?

BM: Well, I have taught a variety of different things, but right now what I am teaching is Fantasy Fabrics and that is a technique, and I have a book out on that called, Fantasy Fabrics, and it is a technique where you capture various things under a sheer top layer of fabric. It is along the lines of Shadow quilting is where it really originated from and for a couple of years I did craft projects for magazines. So, I would go to a craft trade show and by doing that I was exposed to a lot of different craft products. If you combined Shadow quilting and my love of curves and complex quilts without having to appliqué, and all that information that I gathered as a craft project creator, it comes into "Fantasy Fabrics" that is one of the workshops that I teach. I also have done some foundation kaleidoscope patterns.

GA: Have you?

BM: Yes. That was another thing that I taught. I still teach that.

GA: Do you have a book on that?

BM: No, I don't have a book on that one. Maybe some day.

GA: What is the name of the book you have?

BM: "Fantasy Fabric - Techniques for Layered Surface Design," it is a fun book.

GA: So this is "Fantasy Fabric?"

BM: Yes, absolutely.

GA: You just have explained it to me, but explain it to me as we look at it?

BM: Let me start with this other one first. This is "Out of the Darkness," and it is the quilt that was used on the cover of the book and what this is, is cut fabrics layered on a back ground fabric with a stabilizer underneath and then there is a product that is called "Tintzl." You see--here in the background--the sparkly and then there is a layer of tulle netting layered on top and layers are pinned together, enough to hold everything in place, and then you go to the machine and stitch the layers together. I use the YLI Invisible thread so you won't really see the stitching that holds the layers together.

GA: So, back to the backing. This swirley different shades of purple and aquas and lavenders is one piece of material?

BM: Well, this one is a hand painted fabric that I did on the front lawn. And that is the background that you start with.

GA: That is the background? The pale lavender:

BM: It has lavender, turquoise and green.

GA: Oh, I see, it sort of blends into one another.

BM: And, then I have cut shades from transparent fabrics--from the blues, and the purples and this teal--layered that on the surface and then there's some crescent moon shapes cut from my metallic fabric and that is layered on top.

GA: Now layering these--you appliquéd these?

BM: They are not appliquéd at all. They are just layered on the background fabric.

GA: How do they stay there?

BM: When you put the tulle netting on the top, you pin as often as necessary to hold the layers together, so either you are pinning through a shape or around a shape and then you are going to take it to the sewing machine and stitch. I believe there is a line of stitching right here. That is not quilting. It is just through the shapes to hold the shapes in place. And, after that is done, you tear away the stabilizer, add borders and quilt it. "Fantasy Fabric" could be just framed and done as a wall hanging or it could be cut apart and pieced and appliquéd used in clothing, used as a background.

GA: That is fabulous. I love it.

BM: Do you want to talk about this one?

GA: Yes, let's talk about the second one. Let's do this. Let's lay this here. Oh, I like the back as well as the front. The back is a solid piece of hand dyed fabric and shades of lavender and this is where you can really see the stitching.

BM: This is the quilting that you are seeing.

GA: Yes. You don't see the stitching on the front.

BM: You see shadows a little bit. Just a little bit because it is with the clear thread.

GA: That is interesting. Now, this one?

BM: This is a piece called "Grandmother's Dogwood." It is named that--because my grandmother had a Dogwood tree in her front yard and she just loved dogwoods and I love my grandma. And what it is is twisted brown fabric for the branches and then there are blossoms from a Dogwood silk flower branch. So you go into a craft department and buy a branch of silk flowers, take them apart; put the flower petals and leaves underneath the layer of tulle. Before I put the flowers under the tulle, in this case what I did was I mixed a mixture of different colored seed beads, put glue in the center of the flower, dipped it into seed beads and then layered underneath the netting. Also, twisted in the branch are some of candlelight yarn for just a little bit of glisten and in the background is once again, the Tintzl. [sparkling tinsel for embellishment.] T- I- N-T-Z-L.

GA: T-I-N-T-Z-L? Alright. That is a brand name, I presume?

BM: Yes, it is.

GA: Well, I think this is charming. Now has this hung in a show?

BM: It hung in my local quilt guild show. I have not done much in the way of entry--I mean I did for a period of time--a little bit of quilts for entries, but I have not done it for a while because I focused on teaching and books and I didn't focus in that direction, but after seeing these award winning quilts, I am ready to try to see if we can get one in.

GA: I think so, too. I think you have a very wonderful technique here.

BM: This is actually the basis for the second book that I am working on which--I am not sure what the title will be, but it will be with fantasy fabrics and using the silk flowers in a lot of different ways.

GA: Well, this is really interesting. When you say these came from just a bunch you bought at the craft store, tell me about the way you decide on twisting this? The branches.

BM: The branches--the first thing that I did, is that I needed to select a fabric that when you twist it, both the front and the back work. So a brown print on white fabric does not necessarily work. This is a black print on a brown fabric so that when you twist, and the back of the fabric shows, it also adds another color to the twisted branch. And, the way it is done, is to start by twisting out on the end tip and twist a ways to pin it and then you start a second branch, pin and twist and then where they come together, you join them, just like in nature--a branch is thin, as they come together, it gets fatter and as they join another one, it becomes fatter still.

GA: So, this would be--this is the top?

BM: This is the top. This is the top of the quilt. It is inspired by a painting by Van Gogh--cherry blossoms not dogwoods.

GA: Okay. Let's go on to the next section here. I don't know if they told you, but this is all divided into sections where we touch on a different part of your life. What made quilting become a part of your life?

BM: When--about nineteen years ago when my first daughter was born and as a new mother, for some reason, something happens and you have that need to do something with your hands, and I created a few cross-stitch squares on gingham blocks that I worked into a quilt for some reason. And, that took me three days to quilt which was pretty quick I thought and I liked the process and eventually I met up with a friend of mine--she wasn't then, she is now and that's how our friendship really started was that we would go to quilt shows and quilt shops and quilt together.

GA: So, she started quilting about the same time you did?

BM: Yes. Her name is Nancy Morgan.

GA: Has Nancy gone on to quilting as fabulously as you have?

BM: Well, she has two younger children than mine so she still focuses a lot on her mothering, but she certainly takes some time to do some quilting for herself.

GA: For herself. But she has not branched out as much as you have.

BM: No. Not really.

GA: How far and wide do you go with your teaching?

BM: Oh that is exciting. It started locally and eventually expanded I think, to Florida, Alabama and out to California and then this past March, I went on a trip to Europe to travel and teach. And, I taught in England, Scotland, Ireland and France. The way that it came about was that I decided I wanted to go and I am a positive thinker. I think you can do anything that you put your mind to so I put the word out on the Internet that I was coming to Europe and that I wanted to teach while I was over there searching for quilt shops and quilt books and I was there for five and a half weeks. Met incredibly wonderful people. My middle daughter joined me for two weeks and traveled around with me and then my husband joined me in Ireland. It was an exceptional trip.

GA: So, how many places did you teach?

BM: Well, I had seventeen gigs as they call it sometimes. I don't know how many I traveled to. I traveled around London, out to Bath as they say, over to Karen Halleby's, Quilter's Haven in Suffolk and up to Leicester and Towchester, then up to Scotland and to the Stitchers Patch.

GA: Where is the Stitchers Patch?

BM: Aberdeen, Scotland.

GA: Is it?

BM: And, then over to Ireland where I did a lecture and a workshop for the quilters there.

GA: And what town there?

BM: That was in Cork, Ireland.

GA: You have had some good experiences.

BM: Oh, it is incredible.

GA: And, with the Internet.

BM: And with the Internet. It is an amazing tool.

GA: I think we are all learning that.

BM: Yes, it is. And I am planning a second trip back there next summer. Most of the groups that I went to wanted to have me back. So my youngest daughter will join me over there for that.

GA: So what did you teach over there?

BM: Um. I tried to limit it a little bit. I taught the "Fantasy Fabric," the kaleidoscope piecing class, a layered flower class which is a dimensional technique and also, a free form appliqué which is a machine appliqué, but freely playing with fabric, and cutting it out and laying it on the background and it is more traditional in that all the edges are turned under.

GA: Oh.

BM: Yeah, well that was before "Fantasy Fabric." Now I found an easier way. [announcement over the loudspeaker.]

GA: When you were in Europe, did you find fairly sophisticated quilters or were you dealing mostly with beginner quilters?

BM: I would expect that the quilters that I came in contact with did have more experience. It wasn't a beginning quilt class although the "Fantasy Fabric" is fairly easy to do. I would say it was a mixture, but basically it was people who had done some quilting before. Before I started to teach, I had an illusion that the English quilters would be held back and reserved and proper and I thought 'I am not sure I can be that way for five and a half weeks,' but my first class there, they were playful. They were fun, adventurous and I knew that for five weeks, I would be just fine.

GA: But, you have that personality, though. It is open. Very friendly.

BM: You know, it lets you meet a lot of nice people.

GA: Back to the purpose of quilting. You told me how it is important in your life. I am sort of getting ahead of myself here, but what do you think really about the importance of quilts in American life? We read so much about how many we have now--quilters we have, but how do you feel this affects the American woman?

BM: Well, I guess I want to take that broader than just American women because I do think it is important and even more than just for women although it is a woman's sport. I think that quilting offers people an opportunity to be creative. And, I think in today's life any more, we get so caught up in life and everything that we have to do that we don't take time for creativity and that is almost a meditative time that you can go within yourself and relax and learn about yourself and I think that is where quilting is really important and the fact that it is fabric gives us that tactile fun. So I think quilting and creativity are important to mental well-being.

GA: And, they pretty much go hand in hand?

BM: I think so. I think people will be happier if they have time to be creative. And I think that is critical.

GA: The question is, how do you think quilts can be used which is a pretty basic thing, but explain to me how you feel about the difference in the person who is just doing this to satisfy himself and the person who is doing this for show to exhibit? Do you feel there are a lot of differences there?

BM: I think that quilting serves a lot of purposes to a lot of people in different ways. There are some people that just want to come home and do a pattern with fabrics that have already been selected and that is a wonderful way for them to sit down and relax and just stitch and once again, getting to know themselves. I think there are people who use the creativity because that feels good and as an artist, I feel like it is a way to connect with other people or to pass on maybe some messages and some of my quilts have a philosophy that happens in them and it is not necessarily something that I know ahead of time. You can make the piece and then the piece has a message. I have a quilt that is a peacock feather on some luxurious fabrics and there is a beautifully sparkly velvet as a border and the name of the piece is called, "Wealth and Pride" which are things that we often aspire to and I don't think these are bad things to aspire to, but there is a narrow burlap border that goes around the inside to remind us from where we came. I don't think that a viewer has to necessarily look at a quilt and get the message and I don't think there is anything wrong with telling them what you meant or what came through in the quilt or having a card posted to state it. I think art sometimes has a message and if you don't get it, then tough. But, I don't see any reason not to say, 'You know, this is the message.'

GA: You are an interesting person. Let's see what else we have here. How are we doing for time? Oh, we have lots of time here. I can pick your brain once more. What do you think makes a great quilt? Maybe we have sort of touched on that, but let's go over that again. The way this is set up is--What do you think makes a great quilt? What makes a quilt artistically powerful? So, let's go back and take the one question. The great quilt.

BM: Well, that is a very broad question. I think a great quilt can be the first quilt that anybody has ever done and it is not necessarily visually great, but boy, did that woman feel good doing it. That's a great quilt. Visually, is it a great quilt? Then you get into art things--I think color happens to be the most important thing to me, personally. [announcement over the loudspeaker.] Okay, what makes a great quilt artistically? As I said, color is very important to me and I enjoy color so I want to see color. And the second thing that we often look at in a quilt is the contrast in design and it is the contrast that will make the design show up. And I think that helps to make a great quilt. While craftsmanship is important, I think you have to be very careful not to let that get in the way of being creative. If we wait for perfection, we will never quilt. 'Cause you don't start perfect and I am not sure that I will ever be perfect, but I think that you should accept the very best that you can do at that time.

GA: Do you do this when you are teaching? Do you instill, sort of--make this one of your points?

BM: Absolutely. When I teach, my first goal is that they enjoy the class. My second goal is to help them become confident and of course, thirdly, it would be great if they went away understanding what you were trying to teach, but that is not to say that if they come into my class and they come there for the friendship and camaraderie and they don't want to do what I am doing, that's fine. If they come in and say, 'Well, I want to do it that way.' Well, I don't think there is just one way to do things. I say, 'What ever works for you.' If you want to give that a try, that would be great. And, I think that is more important than saying, 'You must do it my way or you must leave.'

GA: Well, you are building self-confidence.

BM: And, I think that is important, but because creatively, women tend to not be confident. And, I think we need to build confidence in women.

GA: Here, here.

BM: Absolutely.

GA: Let's see now. What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection? Another difficult one.

BM: Yes, that is a difficult one. Well, I don't have a lot of experience with museums, but I would expect at that point that craftsmanship does come into play. I think that it probably should be technically better, not perfect, but better than most. Then the other aspect, is that it might be historically significant where the craftsmanship is not as critical, but I think in order to be a part of a museum collection, it does need to be technically better and visually good and it needs to be strong in all aspects.

GA: How do you feel about early quilts versus the modern day versions of the wonderful art pieces like you have?

BM: Well, the early works are certainly something that we have built on. I tend to prefer the more contemporary style and my goal is to create visually pleasing quilts. They are kind of art quilts but sometime when you say, art quilts, some artists as well as quilter artists, take it so far that they almost step over the line and they aren't enjoyable anymore and I think is so important to be enjoyable, visually enjoyable.

GA: So you were an artist before you started quilting?

BM: No, not really. I had a couple of high school art classes and there was about a two-year period of time when I quit quilting and I don't know what happened. I didn't want to quilt anymore and it was scary because quilting was who I was and if I am not quilting, who am I? An interesting thought. And during that time, I did take some college courses in graphic design which included some basic design classes and interestingly enough, I had done one design in that class that turned into a quilt which brought me back to quilting and the piece is called, "Synchronicity" and there is a book out called, "Celestine Prophecy" [James Redfield, Warner Books, Nov. 1997.] and one of the insights is about synchronicity when similar things happen in your life where people cross your life and it happened for a reason and we don't always know what that reason is but sometimes it is to lead us on the path in life so this quilt and this class sychronistically brought me back into quilting.

GA: Well, it probably made you more conscious of design, too.

BM: And, I got some wonderful information while on that little respite. There is a book called "The Artist's Way," [Julia Cameron, JP Tarcher, July 1992.] that talks about taking artist's dates and the point is that when we are creating we empty the reservoir and we need to take artist's dates in order to refill the reservoir. So I think that that two year time of period when I quit quilting was really just a reservoir refill.

GA: That is a marvelous philosophy. It really is. A wonderful experience, too.

BM: It wasn't at the time. It was kind of scary.

GA: Were your children at a particular age at that time?

BM: The oldest one was fourteen years, which I think is a turmoil time.

GA: So, that may have been one of the reasons that you withdrew from your creativity.

BM: I have no idea what happens. It is around the age of 42 for me and I think that there is something that happens for women at 42 and they really need to do some scientific research to find out what is going on.

GA: I think that is great.

BM: Yes, it is.

GA: Let's see. Let me get back here. Back to the questions. Now, have you gotten involved in any other quilt related activities in your life? I know that you are teaching and you are writing, but are there any projects that you join such as, "The Ronald McDonald House" or the cancer victims to get into something of that sort?

BM: No, I haven't, but I do feel that part of my purpose in life is that as I travel and teach, I can touch people's lives and I can share my philosophies and they are not necessarily mine, but the things that are behind me, and maybe they will touch their life and visa versa, you know, so I can learn from them, so I think it is a connection thing and that is where I chose to make my connection rather than a formal program.

GA: That's good. Deeply involved with people.

BM: I love people.

GA: It shows. Let's see. What do we have from here?

BM: Let me take that part of, I love people. This experience here at quilt festival is incredible because you have these thousands of people that come in and sometimes you will be standing at breakfast and somebody will say, 'Would you like to join me,' and you get to meet somebody. So you meet people like that and you meet people in classes. You will see them throughout the festival and, you know, you will be saying, 'Hi,' to these people over and over and the fascinating thing is that people that I have met at Innsbruck, Austria, four years ago, on the Jewel Pierce Patterson scholarship--

GA: Oh, did you get that?

BM: Yes. I have seen again in Strasbourg and then again here and it is almost like you meet and connect with people that you might never ever have met with.

GA: It is a whole different world.

BM: It is incredible. It really is.

GA: I thought I was the only one who felt that way.

BM: I go down and sit in the Hyatt lobby just so I can meet people.

GA: I think that is wonderful.

BM: Yes, it's fun.

GA: And, it gets bigger every year. Incredibly so. So you told me that there are not any family or friends--friends who are not quilters. Is there any aspect of quilting that you don't enjoy? In the process?

BM: Well, I don't enjoy hand quilting anymore. So I machine quilt. I like to buy fabric. I like to design. Maybe the actual doing of isn't as much fun as the designing process. Now, I can't say there is any that I don't enjoy because I would have thought there was.

GA: Because sometimes we take it from the beginning of this process and in there, somewhere along the line, there is one spot--where we say, 'I can't wait to get through with this--to get on with the next.'

BM: And, I do feel that way and that's why, the fantasy fabrics are so good because you can create and do it in a relatively short amount of time so that you are not thinking, 'Oh, I wish this was done.' I can't devote six months to a project. I have tremendous focus, but I don't have the longevity of it. It does not keep my interest long enough. I need more instant gratification.

GA: Well, there you have it then. You have accomplished this and you have worked it out.

BM: Right, so maybe I have done enough quilts and I have figured out how to do it so it is mostly satisfying for me.

GA: So, how do you think you will be preserving your quilts for the future? Or, how do you think we should preserve quilts for the future? You know, what has happened to the quilts that you have made or your friends have made?

BM: Well, for me, I used to say, I can't go to a gallery till I have a body of work. Now, I probably have a stack of quilts that are probably eight or nine inches high and they are not folded and I do have a body of work now, but I use those for teaching samples which is-- quilters want to see quilts, so the more quilts you can bring, the better. And, these are not big quilts, they are wall hangings. So preserving them, I just try to keep them as flat as possible.

GA: But, for the future, though, with all our quilts, how do you think we ought to do this? What kind of repository should we have? We are all thinking in terms of the future with these quilts we have today?

BM: I don't know. I think that is not in my expertise at all. I am sure there's people who know how to preserve them, but then, you know, we can't preserve them all because that would be astronomical and I am not sure and I don't have the answer to that one.

GA: Well, all right. What do you do with your quilts? Now, you are building a stack for teaching and hopefully for a gallery at some time. But, in the past, what have you done with all the bed quilts? Did you give those away?

BM: Yes. I gave my daughter's bed quilts--they were probably about three years old and of course, they were all hand pieced and hand appliquéd and hand quilted and my advice to any quilter in the future is wait until they are much older to appreciate them. And our own bed quilt that I did early on was a sampler that, you know, once again, hand pieced, hand quilted and I even hand pieced the backing because that makes it more valuable. How valuable is it after you use it for ten years and it is worn. Have I preserved those? No.

GA: What are the conditions of the ones you gave your children at age three?

BM: Oh, we have marker on some of them; a bloody nose and they are well used.

GA: Do they still love them as much?

BM: I think so. I think so. They still have them and I am sure they will keep them because I will make them keep them.

GA: But, you haven't made any of them for the future such as the wedding quilts?

BM: Not yet. And, I don't know that I would ever do a bed quilt for a wedding. I might do a wall hanging. I am not sure. I don't give quilts away too easily because I have given them away in the past and never heard that they were received so I am more careful to make sure that anybody that I would give a quilt to, would appreciate it. My mother appreciates it so she does have a couple of my pieces but there's not many people who get quilts given to them.

GA: We are nearing the end. Is there anything you that we haven't discussed that you would like to discuss?

BM: We probably want to document that I was a recipient of the Jewel Pierce Patterson Scholarship that sent me to Innsbruck, Austria.

GA: What year was that? This is 2000?

BM: Let's do the math. I haven't a clue. Let's see, Strasbourg was in March 2000. I probably went in 1998.

GA: 1998.

BM: So I took classes with quilters from around the world, met quilters from around the world, learned about European travel and came home and taught a class in order to have an exhibit that was part of the requirement for the scholarship.

GA: That's part of it. I didn't realize?

BM: Yes. You have to submit ten quilts. Up to three of them can be yours. The rest have to be your students' quilts. So I taught a class called "Inspiration and Creative Play," that I also just taught this last week. In other words a number of students in my local area did the class and ten of them committed to doing a quilt and the commitment is that it needs to be at least a fifty inch quilt which is not a small quilt and the second thing was that it was a design workshop. And these were--most of them were very traditional quilters and it is a contemporary design workshop and they did the exercises and they stretched. They did incredible work. It was so neat for them to have stretched and done something beyond their boundaries.

GA: For you?

BM: And it was for me.

BM: And what was really neat is that several of them actually came out to Houston in order to see the exhibit so it was a wonderful experience.

GA: Now, is there anything else that we have not touched?

BM: Not that I can think of.

GA: Well, Bonnie McCaffery, it has been a delight to meet you. It really has. I have read your name, seen your publications, but I hadn't met you. This concludes our interview of Bonnie McCaffery.

BM: McCaffery.

GA: McCaffery. There is another syllable in there. I am Glory Answell and the time is a quarter to ten on November 3, 2000.



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