Sara Nephew




Sara Nephew




Sara Nephew


Jo Francis Greenlaw

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Houston, Texas


Heather Gibson


Jo Francis Greenlaw (JG): It is November 3, 2000. We are interviewing Sara Nephew from Snohomish, Washington and it is now 10 o'clock in the morning. Now Sara, now that we've got your name correctly pronounced. We are going to discuss your quilt today in the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. We are focusing on our twentieth century quilters since we have just passed that line. This is going to be a documentation so that in the future people can access the information that you will give us today. It would be wonderful to know what our grandmothers were thinking when they quilted and since we don't have that information, we will have it for our information in the future for our children and the next generation that's interested. We were just going over the things that you have said that you do. You're very active in quilting. You do not sell your quilts. They're so precious to you that you keep them on hand. What have you brought for us to see today?

Sara Nephew (SN): It's a quilt from one of my books and it's called "Nova."

JG: A quilt from one of your books. It is a quilt called "Nova." It is a pieced quilt and what would you call your design?

SN: A six-pointed star variation.

JG: This is a six-pointed star variation, and it is pieced. The size of it?

SN: I guess 65 by 75 or something like that.

JG: And you have machine quilted--

SN: No, I hired someone to machine quilt it for me.

JG: How wonderful.

SN: It's wonderful that there are people who do that.

JG: The fabrics that you've used are--

SN: All one hundred percent cotton and I see there is some Concord that I can identify, Concord Fabrics.

JG: Concord Fabrics. Can you stipulate a little more about that. It's a brand?

SN: I just recognize them. It's a brand. I've got some P & B in here. That's another brand. Since I'm a professional, I write books on quilting and it's a good idea to get the newest fabrics so that people who may want to make that quilt can go to the store and get exactly the same fabric from the store. The wonderful manufacturers will occasionally give us fabrics to use in the quilts. You get to know the line or what you used that year or what you had left from the previous year when you put it in the book.

JG: Tell me about your book. What are you writing?

SN: Okay. I'm working on my sixteenth book, I think. I originally started with a couple of books that Patchwork Place published then I self-published most of the rest of them. What I'm known for is equilateral triangle designs which this is. Six pointed stars, tumbling blocks, that kind of thing. I've also got a line of picture quilts based on squares, but the triangle stuff is what I'm known for. I have a line of rulers that I originated. They're equilateral triangles so you can cut fourteen different shapes or units. It makes these quilts.

JG: You sound like a real leader in the quilting world. I'm most impressed. Where do you do all of your quilting?

SN: In my home.

JG: In your home. You have your own studio.

SN: Well, I have what used to be my son's bedroom. When he got old enough to get out of the crib, he was old enough to get kicked out of the room so that's where I sew. What used to be our dining room is the shipping room and the computer room. I've taken over the living room. There's boxes of books upstairs and boxes of book downstairs in the basement.

JG: Where do you do your teaching?

SN: Wherever people hire me to go. I've been everywhere in the United States, well the four corners. I've been to the Midwest and the New York area; lots of California. I live in Washington, so I've been in Canada, up there. I haven't been to Florida. I've been to Australia.

JG: How do people find you to invite you to teach?

SN: Word of mouth is really strong in the quilting industry, I think. If you've got some books out there, they contact your publisher. In my case, that's mostly me. They talk to each other. They come here. They take classes. They go home to their guilds.

JG: Are you an active participant here at the festival every year?

SN: They have a policy of two years on and one year off. I kind of let my business go down for a while so I'm doing a bit less teaching. But yeah, pretty much since '91 I've been here. If I'm teaching here, I have a booth. I'm at spring Quilt Market all the time.

JG: You are a merchant as well?

SN: Yes.

JG: And you are selling your books?

SN: Right, and my tools.

JG: And your tools, okay. As far as your quilt goes, have we not asked you something about yourself that you'd like to tell me, just personally?

SN: Go for whatever. [laughs.]

JG: Okay. In your quilting, what gave you the inspiration to focus on the six-pointed star?

SN: I can tell you exactly. It was Jeffrey Gutcheon's book "Diamond Patchwork." [out of print.] I had decided to start a business because I was going to have two children in college at the same time. I had previously been a jeweler and sold jewelry at art fairs, so I was in a commercial frame of mind. I figured in quilting I could make something to sell. I decided I was going to make quilts to sell, which very quickly became wall hangings because a lot less work and a lot more sales. I was doing miniature log cabin blocks, four-inch log cabin blocks. No matter how many one-inch strips you cut, you never have the right colors, so you have to cut some more. I made about sixty of these and sold most of them over the course of a couple years, but you get bored. I ran into Jeffrey Gutcheon's book "Diamond Patchwork." You can take any square and make it into a sixty-degree diamond, and he told you these drafting ways to do it. I tried it on this log cabin block. I was doing it the traditional way, foundation pieces, the miniature block on a piece of old sheet. I did that, made sixty-degree log cabins. I was a garage-saler so I had Plexiglas and I cut myself some templates to use. So, I had these diamonds that were log cabins and you had to sew them together, but they were set ins, which was a real pain. This ended up being a very small wall hanging. I thought, you know this would be so much easier if they were triangles because then it would be all straight seams. It was just like this light bulb went on over my head. For Christmas I asked for triangle graph paper and triangle rulers in all different sizes, the kind you get like this, and I taped them together. I taped them together and inch-marked from the base to the top, which was the ruler. I still had sets of strips and started cutting them out with strips going this way and cutting out with the strips going to the top and just playing with it, and it ended up being the cover of my first quilt. I played with that for two weeks and I lost six pounds. It was quite exciting. [laughs.] My friend, Diane Coombs, owns a quilt shop in Everett, Washington. I was so excited and having so much fun, I took her the quilt top to show her. She said, 'You could teach a class.' She's an idea kind of person. She ran for the representative of Washington at one point. She's always full of ideas. I agreed to do it because it was fun and it would be fun to have other people have that fun with you. I knew you had to have a class handout, so I sat down and wrote what I had been doing for two weeks. It was thirty-two-page little booklet. Diane's next idea was that I publish that. I went to a printer to get prices and it was like to do a hundred of them or something it would cost a thousand dollars. I was right there by that Patchwork Place. She belonged to the guild. I had started sewing this little copied Nancy Martin's booklet at quilt shows and stuff. I figured she knew about it. When you do something there's a certain form that you follow. I figured I'd do this the right way. I put it in a brown paper envelope and took it to her office and gave it to the secretary. A couple weeks later they called and said, 'Yes, we would like to publish it.' That was the first book. Then I did my mother's quilt designs from the thirties. That was from the garage-saling that I had so many 1930s tops and fabrics and stuff. Once you know you can write a book, you can write a book so when Patchwork Place didn't want to do my next triangle book, I did it myself.

JG: You mentioned garage saling again and I am so glad because I think you're beginning to clarify for me what you meant. I wanted to know how garage saling affects quilting. Where does one go into the other? What do you mean?

SN: Quilting is an economical kind of thing at least it starts that way. You think you can decorate your whole house with a few scraps of leftover dresses or something. In garage saling, you can decorate your whole house. I was out there looking for stuff, and you find fabric, you find quilt tops, you find quilts, you find tins of old thread, thimbles, you know, measuring tape, old tools. You just don't know what you'll find.

JG: Well, that was really to clarify for someone fifty years from now who will have no idea what you mean by garage-saling.

SN: You have to look through a lot of junk, but you never know what you're going to find. I've found lots of '30's tops and fabric. You ask people, 'What is this,' and people kind of remember. People remember feed sack and flower sack clothing. I had a friend who was in her seventies and eighties, and she had things and I'd show her things that I'd found, and she'd tell me. I started gathering information that way and I thought that would make a great book, too. It's sort of right out of my line but in another way, it was in it.

JG: Are you the only quilter in your family?

SN: My mother was a '30's woman. Still is. She made quilts for the two twin beds that my parents own. She made that before they were married and [inaudible.] then the war came, and my dad was a machinist and he worked continuously. My brother and I came and so my mother didn't have time to do quilting. Then I have triplet younger sisters. Once they came, she didn't have time to do anything for a long time. After I was married and moved to Washington state, she decided she was going to make me a quilt. She made me a Grandmother's Flower Garden that was mostly bright red which I thought was just gorgeous for our queen size bed. It was in large hexagons because she didn't want it to take too long so they were big. There was an old wool blanket inside of it that it was hand quilted through. It wasn't what I would consider now an heirloom piece, and we have used it up completely. It was such a thrill to get that to put on my bed. I definitely was given a push, but I was trained as an artist. You notice color and design and you see what you want so quilting was interesting from that point too though they surely didn't mention quilts in school.

JG: Do you think the artwork that you studied, or your arts experiences helped you in what you're doing?

SN: You bet.

JG: Somebody that does not have the training you have may have a little trouble creating--

SN: Someone who has taken art classes, much less gotten a degree in art, is way ahead. But I also think quilting is like a school of design. You can start not having taken any classes and start making other people's patterns using other people's colors, and you can learn and work your way through it and end up hanging a quilt as an artist in an exhibit hall depending on where you want to go with it.

JG: Do you want to tell us something about your art and design in this quilt? Color choice?

SN: Okay, I'm easily bored and so it's really hard to just pick a few colors and make a whole quilt. My plan was to do red and blue and to grade them from white to dark. The idea of this quilt and of the book is to make these concentric hexagonal blocks. The other half is to make pieced setting triangles. Any block could be combined with any pieced triangle. When you do that, you get all these subsidiary designs. It's kind of like a two-block thing going on. So, my color scheme meant that I made some blocks that were red and some blocks that were blue and I made some lighter blocks and some darker blocks. Then when I laid it out on the floor it was really jumbled up, but I found that by laying it in diagonal rows of alternating red and blue I sort of was able to organize it and pull it together. I tend to make about two-thirds of the quilt at random without laying it out then I put it on the floor and see if I need darker ones, lighter ones, a different color, or if I need to throw something out and put something else in instead.

JG: So, you really didn't start with a colored picture and then follow it?

SN: No, and if I do start with a color picture it's liable to be the wrong colors and so then I might go to the store. I pick whatever colored pencils may appeal to me at the time; color in half of it so that I have an idea of what's going on but not the whole thing then I go in to pick out my fabric. Now they don't necessarily have the same colors or maybe I don't want to do the colors that I colored. I pick the fabrics that I like and work with those.

JG: Tell me about your fabric sources. Is that a problem? Do you have a lot of choices? Do you have to order? Are things available in town?

SN: In Seattle we are lucky. We have lots of quilt shops. I try not to keep a really large stash although I've got my two big, deep shelves and I have my piles on it and stuff. As I said, for books I like to use the newest, so I use the quilt shop as my stash. Sometimes it is true, I have to travel to three or four to find exactly the right thing usually it's not much of an issue. This was one; I did a guest quilt for Bethany Reynold's next book "Stack and Whackier Quilts." [Collector Books, August 2001.] I used a high contrast rose fabric and I ran out. It just kept going and ended up this really big quilt which I hadn't anticipated. I kept going back and getting a different fabric because of course they didn't have more of the first one.

JG: So, you purchase your fabrics in the colors that you desire. You do not try to dye your own colors?

SN: No. You can't do everything. [laughs.] I don't do my own machine quilting either! I do some hand quilting. I like to hand quilt one quilt for each book. If I've got fourteen quilts in a book and it has to be out by January or something for photography, I have to find quilters to do this but I like to do one myself for each book. I'm a pretty good quilter.

JG: Why do you want one hand quilted? Does it show up that way in the book, as a hand quilted piece?

SN: Not necessarily. One, I think it's more valuable if it's hand quilted. Maybe it's more valuable if its hand quilted by me. There are some quilts that when you're done with them you feel that they deserve to be hand quilted. Hand quilting is expensive if you get someone else to do it but I can do pretty good hand quilting.

JG: Why do you use the machine quilting?

SN: Because it's less expensive and it's done faster.

JG: For the time--

SN: Right, right.

JG: In your backing you have a beautiful label.

SN: This is designed on the computer and traced onto muslin using Pigma™ pens, which are permanent.

JG: Very attractive, about five by eight inches in the lower right-hand corner. We are looking at the reverse so that we have a dated 1999, the name of your quilt.

SN: "Nova." Exploding stars.

JG: Exploding stars. Have your children or your sisters, your triplet siblings, taken anything from you and quilting?

SN: Absolutely not. [laughs.]

JG: You're the only one. You're unique in your family.

SN: Right, right. My granddaughter says I'm the most famous person in our family and I said, 'Yes.'

JG: How do you feel about the history of quilting? Does this influence you?

SN: I had a friend who interviewed me once because she's putting together a slide show. She wanted us to talk about our philosophy, the meanings of our quilts, the meanings we put into our quilts. I said, 'The quilt has a meaning all by itself. Why do we have to add a meaning to it?' When I grew up--I was born in '41. They taught us that if they dropped the bomb that we could roll under our desks. They showed movies of how it flashed and talked about how it melted people and everything so when I moved to the country--we have three acres. We were a little more rural. I planted an apple tree. It was like 'wow, I must think I'm going to be around in seven years to see this fruit.' Quilts are like that, too. You can make them fancy and hang them on the wall but if something happened, you could pull that down and wrap yourself up in it if you were cold. I think it's really a sign of caring for your family when you make beautiful things to put over them. You think of how they'll enjoy a cute quilt that's fun. How the children will enjoy it. In one of my picture books, I made "Mustangs" and they were horses. I just had the blocks. I didn't have the quilt and I went--and to my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter. You want to show somebody. 'Does this look like a horse? Do you like this?' I laid them out on the floor. Taylor was probably about four. She looked at them and she ran and grabbed them all up and ran into the bedroom with the horses, so I gave it to her for her birthday. She said, 'What, a quilt?'

JG: Have you given away many quilts?

SN: I think you start out giving them away but after a while you don't give them away.

JG: Where are all your quilts? You said you don't sell them.

SN: They're in big piles in my house [laughs.] except my children are starting to get them now. I have three children and I have two granddaughters. Two of them are married and settled kind of. My daughter is an artist, and she appreciates the artistry of it. I'm starting to hand them on. This is…[indecipherable.] I'm keeping some for now.

JG: The quilt you brought us today is decorative. It will hang on your wall or some wall.

SN: When it gets to be winter, I go get a quilt for the bed and when I get bored, I change it. Otherwise, I teach quilting.

JG: We are trying to cover a lot of things today so that somebody can see you in their mind as good as they can. If they can't connect with you on the Internet, they can listen to what you've said and have a visual feeling of what you've been doing. Your influence in quilting is coming from a lot of different places, I presume. Do you have some source that you like to refer to? Are you an astronomer since you tend to like stars and the six-pointed star design?

SN: No, I think because I have a little niche. I like that niche but when you have it you kind of stick with it as long as it's working for you. I do like the pieced geometric patterns. I like the grid. I feel that tends to give you an automatically better design. I think appliqué, for example, is like out there. If you can draw a curved line that goes anywhere and that might be a good design and that might be a bad design. Or some of these crazy quilt things where they're all little pointy pieces. It's just my personal opinion. They just end up real sharp and pointy and not necessarily looking good on the bed or anywhere depending on your taste. I really like graph paper. I like the grid. It makes you feel like you have a good, strong structure to build your design on. A designer is what I think I am. I'm not a painter. I'm not putting a lot of emotion in it. I put pictures here to look at. I'm just making something to be decorative. I like it if people like to make the quilts that I design. I don't want to make a one-of-a-kind that hangs in a show, even if it won money or an award or something like that. It's more fun to do these instead of that. [laughs.]

JG: Why did you choose this quilt since you must have a large selection to choose from?

SN: Because I'm also using it to teach my class tomorrow and we could only carry so much.

JG: That is a good reason. Do you have a favorite of the quilts that you've made?

SN: That I've made, okay. I made one for my daughter's wedding that's also in this same book that turned out just beautiful. I struggled with it. That's probably one of my favorite quilts. I have to say that some of my favorite quilts are the ones I made for the thirties books. I like the antique quilts. [announcement over the loudspeaker.] Actually, that gave me a chance to think about the answer to my question.

JG: Good and I think it gave you at least two more minutes than you thought you had. [laughs.]

SN: My favorite quilt is usually the one I'm working on in the most recent book but thinking about it, I think my isometric 3-D quilts. Probably one from the book I'm working on now is going to end up being my favorite.

JG: What is the name of the book you're working on now?

SN: "The Big Book of Building Block Quilts."

JG: And you've published how many?

SN: This is, I think, number sixteen. I haven't published sixteen myself.

JG: In your quilting, have you entered quilting exhibits and shows? Have you won awards?

SN: In Quilt Art Quilts I won best traditional wall hanging for a little house quilt that I made before I actually started publishing any of this. I also won a blue ribbon at the fair for a quilt or two and I made a paper pieced hexagon pincushion. I decided that if that's what you have to do to win a blue ribbon then I don't want to. I don't care. Been there, done that.

JG: And that used to be the only prize.

SN: A blue ribbon and twenty-six dollars.

JG: And today you could win?

SN: I don't know. I'll have to think about that. Maybe when I retire, I'll try to put all my 3-D designs in a quilt and see what I can come up with.

JG: I'm going to add that there are quilts here today that are exhibited that are winning amounts of ten thousand dollars, five thousand dollars. Well, do you also collect old quilts?

SN: I try not to because they are so expensive, but I have occasionally purchased one at an antique store or a top.

JG: Would it be because it's influenced you that you wanted to own it?

SN: It's because I love these angles and when you see a thirties or earlier Grandmother's Flower Garden which I am probably never going to piece and it's within your price range and in unusual colors. You know, somebody was with me and we both sort of went a little crazy.

JG: In your opinion, what makes a quilt really fine or really great? What do you look at in a quilt?

SN: I like the color and design more than I care about the fine handwork. I hear that perhaps the Japanese ladies value it if it's made by hand because the longer it takes to make the more valuable it is. I don't necessarily follow that idea. I like something striking in color and design.

JG: So, this is almost a contrast to what we'd see in a museum. Do you think so?

SN: Even in what you may see winning prizes, occasionally it seems as if the more tiny pieces that are in it or the sharper, many different kinds of design and more pieces in the quilt, the more elaborate it is, the more likely it is to win a prize. I don't think that's true here. That doesn't necessarily mean that it ends up being a great design, so art quality has a lot to do as far as I'm concerned. Shall I say that a fine art quilt isn't my thing either. You know, they go further than man has ever gone before. It's interesting. I love the quilt that won best machine quilting, the gentlemen who did that. That's a gorgeous quilt. There's fine handwork there but the colors and the design. It sort of seems simple in a way but everything about this quilt is just so--All I know is that if I like it, it's probably really expensive.

JG: You mention a man having quilted. How do you feel about that?

SN: I used to not like it. I didn't realize that until a gentleman came up to me. I was participating in a quilting bee at the fair to advertise the Busy Bees, another guild I belong to. He wanted to know what guild it was and things like that and he asked if he could join. I said, 'As long as you don't mind that most everyone there is a lady.' He kind of must have picked it up in my voice that I resented--It was sort of like, they've got everything else, why do they want this, too? But I think things have changed or at least my husband and I have changed. I don't feel as protective anymore about it. I still don't want them to take it over.

JG: That's a good indication of how most women would feel about this sort of thing. Would you think that quilting has really elevated women in what they are able to do?

SN: I think so. A lot of us teachers have the same story to tell each other. When we're in a class and a lady says, 'I don't know if my husband is going to let me come to the conference next year.' We say, 'Doesn't he have any hobbies? Does he have a truck? Does he have a gun? Does he have a woodshop? Does he go fishing?' We try not to be too outspoken. I do think it can give women a lot of confidence- quilting then they can actually do it. I think, in many cases, our culture or their husbands or the people they know are taking it away from them. They see that they can do it. They produce something beautiful, and people are going to say, 'Wow, a quilt. Look what you did.' One lady told me she used to do cross-stitch. She'd give a little box or a cross for a Christmas present. People kind of looked at it and said, 'Oh yeah, we got the Christmas present out of the way.' But she switched to quilting, and she makes a little quilt, and she gives it to them and it's like, 'You made these and gave it to me, wow.' A lot more visual impact, for one thing. She said that when she switched to quilting, she gets a lot more appreciation.

JG: So, you see that as an elevation?

SN: I think so. I think it depends on what happens in a woman's life, the fact that she can do this, and it turns out to be something beautiful that she made. Not only that, but it's this idea of self-respect from her. It's something that is acceptable for a woman to do, and she will get praise for it and she learns skills. It gets her out of the house. She isn't just a house person. In another way, it's accepted as the sort of thing that a house person can do. It's an easy way to sort of slide your way into some other areas.

JG: In quilting in our lives, do you think it's right that we use them up?

SN: Yes.

JG: What are we going to do with all the quilts that we're making and hanging and saving? What would you think we should be doing?

SN: Some people are going to take them and put them away and not use them and they're going to end up as collector's items if they are beautiful. Some people are going to use them up like baseball cards and just enjoy them and they're going to be tatters and get thrown away. In the end, who's got more out of it? The person who's enjoyed it and used it up or the person whose grandchild inherits it and it's worth four thousand dollars?

JG: That's a good statement. I like that because quilts can be many things.

SN: This is like talking about religion. It's kind of close to people's hearts in a way.

JG: It is. Do you think that in your quilting, as you are traveling around, do you see different influences or focuses from different people in different areas? Could you look at a quilt and know where it came from or who might have done the work? Have we become homogenous?

SN: We're homogenous to some extent, yes. The influence of the teachers has definitely shown when you go to quilt shows. I hear that, too. So, I go somewhere to teach at a conference and the next year there are fourteen quilts hanging in the show that were started in my class. Quilting was kind of homogenous anyway in the United States because women shared with each other. Maybe things like the Baltimore [Album.] quilt, maybe that group wasn't cross-homogenized. Maybe they sort of stuck to each other and didn't get out as much, so they did the kind of thing that their little group was doing, and it turned out really great. But now, they're watching Simply Quilts with Alex Anderson on television. European quilts are different than American quilts. I see a different sort of thing going on there. Japanese quilts are, too. They imitate American quilt. They are inspired by or started by--I think you're going to be able to tell that. I don't know if you're going to be able to tell different parts of American--I went to Amish country and I took an extra day to go out. They said, 'You're going to love it.' I loved the food, but I mean--Stop at somebody's house and look at the quilts that they've done, and they are made out of. I mean, they might be made out of blends and they're just popular patterns that you can buy in the quilt shop, like the bride quilt. There are a lot of bride quilts in Amish Country for sale. A white blend that's not--this queen size quilt that's going to get stains because its blends. You can look in the museum and see the old quilts that they made, but the ones they're making to sell--

JG: Well, we are coming to the end of our tape. Would you like to talk specifically about your quilt that you brought today? Have we missed anything in what we talked about?

SN: I like the little star in the middle. [laughs.] That's about all I can say.

JG: In other areas, is there anything you would like to make sure that is said today that we may have skipped over?

SN: I think on my tombstone it would be nice if it said something about 'she made beautiful quilts,' rather than 'she kept a clean house,' or 'she had a cute little figure.' [laughs.] Or 'was a leader in the community.' I think that would be a nice thing to have 'she made beautiful quilts.' Wouldn't that be nice?

JG: It would be nice to be remembered for the work that you have done. Quilting is a good epitaph for any woman. If you want to be remembered, make a quilt. We'll conclude our interview today at the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project in Houston, November the third. We've been talking to Sara Nephew from Washington state and we thank you very much.



“Sara Nephew,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,