Sue Nickels




Sue Nickels




Sue Nickels


Janelle Archer

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Heather Gibson


Janelle Archer (JA): My name is Janelle Archer. I'm conducting an interview with Sue Nickels. It is Friday, November 3, 2000. Good morning, Sue, and how are you doing?

Sue Nickels (SN): I'm doing fine, thank you.

JA: It's a pleasure to meet you and see this beautiful quilt that you have here. I see that you enjoy making quilts. This is just absolutely gorgeous. Could you tell me a little bit about it?

SN: This is a quilt that I made with my sister, Pat Holly. It is a completely machine appliquéd, machine quilted and machine pieced quilt. It is a small version of a bigger quilt that we made together called The Beatles Quilt, which is in the AQS [American Quilter's Society.] Museum because it won best of show. We wanted to have a smaller version because we don't own the big quilt anymore. We wanted to have a smaller version of it so I can take it when I teach and travel and lecture, just to show the techniques that are in the original Beatles Quilt.

JA: So you do teach. Do you teach machine quilting or do you teach other forms of quilting? Appliqué?

SN: I teach machine quilting and machine appliqué classes and some machine piecing. All machine techniques.

JA: Everything is machine.

SN: Yes.

JA: You and you sister, then, made this quilt. When did you make it?

SN: We made it in 1999.

JA: Does this have a special meaning for you?

SN: Its special meaning would be that it is similar to our original Beatles Quilt. The meaning of the original Beatles Quilt was a quilt that we made reminiscing about the Beatles' music and how it brought back memories of us growing up together as teenagers and children. We wanted to put that into a quilt project so we made the original one, the large Beatles quilt as a joint project. It was for us, kind of a memory quilt. Through music, remembering our childhood. This quilt does the same thing. It brought back a lot of memories. It's all original design.

JA: Does your sister also quilt, I take it?

SN: Yes.

JA: Do you teach together?

SN: We have taught together, but she does not do as much teaching as I do. I do the majority of the teaching.

JA: Where are you from?

SN: I'm from Ann Arbor, Michigan and my sister Pat is from Muskegon, Michigan.

JA: You have lived there all your life?

SN: Yes, pretty much.

JA: How did you get interested in quilting?

SN: Probably a lot like most quilters in that I was a sewer before. I started to make quilts. When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter I wanted to make a baby quilt. I started to research quilting and just fell in love with it. Because I was a sewer and had been really comfortable with the sewing machine, it seemed natural that I would do machine techniques when that was becoming popular in the quilt world. I originally started out doing mostly handwork and have gradually done the reverse and do everything by machine now.

JA: Was there anyone else in your family, your mother or grandmother that quilted, or made quilts? Did you get this desire from one of them?

SN: My mother is a wonderful seamstress and has made some quilts, but I wouldn't call my mother a quilter. She's more of a sewer or seamstress. My grandmother did make quilts, but more utilitarian types of quilts. My grandmother died when I was quite young, so I don't think that it was her influence at all, although she did make quilts. I think it was more being comfortable with sewing, and we got that from our mother. I wouldn't say that that's where my quilting bug came from.

JA: Besides your sister, are there any other members of your immediate family or extended family that quilt?

SN: Not at this point. I would love for my daughters to but they haven't.

JA: How many daughters do you have?

SN: I have two daughters.

JA: You said you took up quilting when one of them was a baby. How many years ago was that?

SN: Twenty-two years ago.

JA: Someday maybe you can make one for a grandchild.

SN: Well, I think that's going to be a ways off. I would love for one of them to become interested in quilting, so I'm working on that.

JA: What do you find pleasing or interesting or something that really takes you and gets you revved up about quilting?

SN: My main interest in quilt design is that I'm very influenced by antique quilts. I love antique quilts and researching antique quilts. In the show at Houston, the Esprit collection with the beautiful appliqué antique quilts, when I see those kind of things that's what gets me excited and inspired.

JA: Have you ever published anything regarding your love of appliqué and machine appliqué?

SN: I do have two books that are on machine quilting patterns that I did with my sister, Pat. They are machine quilting pattern books and a little bit on the how-to. I am currently working on a machine appliqué book with AQS that is not out yet. It will be out soon.

JA: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

SN: Well there's an interesting question. [laughs.] I strongly believe that there is room in the quilt world for both machine and hand quilting. I admire both greatly. I started as a hand quilter, so I definitely appreciate hand quilting, but I love machine quilting. I am so happy to see that machine quilting has been accepted, so to speak, in the quilt world. I think that either technique, as long as it's done well, is wonderful.

JA: Do you think that machine quilting should be in a category by itself and hand quilting be in a category by itself? Is it okay that they are sort of all thrown together?

SN: I think it's okay that they're thrown together. I truly believe that the quilts should stand up for themselves. I like the idea of having awards for a machine quilted quilt and a hand quilted quilt. I think that there's definitely room for that, but I think that all quilts should be eligible for the big best of shows and all that.

JA: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful or makes you stand and look at it for a length of time?

SN: I think that anything that brings me back to a quilt--I love all styles of quilting. I love contemporary quilts. I love traditional quilts. The quilts that I'm really drawn to are the ones that have something a little different that makes me want to look at them and come back and look at them again and again. That's what I'm looking for- beautiful workmanship to come back and look at, beautiful color and design. So there's not one thing that interests me totally. I think that's something that really sort of grabs me and it's either workmanship or something that's a little different in the design and the color, that kind of thing.

JA: You said earlier that the larger version of the quilt you have here today is in the museum. Would you tell us a little bit about that and where it is?

SN: The larger version of this is called The Beatles Quilt, and it is 95 inches square, so it's a pretty large quilt. It was a best of show winner at the AQS show in Paducah in 1998. That is a purchase award, so it was purchased then for their museum. It's in the museum of the American Quilter's Society. Again, the quilt is all original design and it was developed around the group The Beatles. It just has lots of symbolism. To me, it sort of has the qualities of a Baltimore quilt in that it's very detailed, but it's definitely more whimsical in it's approach versus a more fussier kind of a look. It has those kinds of things. It has the great symbolism that's in some of those antique Baltimore quilts or folk art sort of quilts that were made in the late 1800s.

JA: You can tell from looking at it that it has that. But you've used more vibrant colors.

SN: In choosing the colors, I do really bright, unusual color combinations. Our main focus for the color was the 60's. We went back to The Beatles era since it was about the group. We looked at album covers and we chose colors from the album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had the sort of psychedelic colors of the 60s, which was the feel that we really wanted for the quilt.

JA: By looking at this I can tell some of the colors you have in here, like the chartreuse, the oranges and the red combinations that were used widely in the late 60s and early 70s. They make an impact on this quilt. In the center of the quilt you've got a pear tree or a peach tree?

SN: Good try. It actually is a tangerine tree. The original quilt, the set and the design of it is based on an antique quilt that we like that had a center tree of life. In this quilt we wanted a tree, also, in the center as a center medallion. This was to represent "tangerine trees on marmalade skies," which is from a Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band song. Everything on these quilts has symbolism that relates to a song or image from The Beatles' music.

JA: Why is quilting important in your life?

SN: Gosh, that's such a good question. I think it's a lot like an artist. It's my form of showing artistic expression. It's just such a part of my life that it's hard to answer that. I wouldn't be who I am without quilting. It's just part of me.

JA: When you first started quilting did you take classes or did you teach yourself?

SN: I think originally I was pretty much self-taught, but then I have taken classes over the years to learn new techniques. I'm a little bit of both. I think that would be the way to answer that. My machine quilting techniques were self-taught because I started it early enough that I didn't have access to teachers that were teaching it. So I was influence by some of the early books that were out on machine quilting, Harriet Hardgrave, Robbie Fanning, but I only had the books. I didn't have actual classes, so I just did a lot of reading and research and practicing. So that part of it was pretty much self-taught. When I was hand piecing I took some hand piecing classes. When I started to machine piece I took machine piecing classes. So, a little bit of both.

JA: I see from your questionnaire that you do belong to a guild. Are you still involved in the guild in Ann Arbor?

SN: Yes. I belong to the Greater Ann Arbor Quilt Guild, which is, I think, the largest guild in Michigan. It's a guild of over four hundred members. I did participate real heavily over the years. Right now I'm not active as far as being a committee member because I'm traveling and teaching so much. But I'm still a member, and I still attend meetings when I can. I think it's very important.

JA: I see you've owned a quilt shop. Do you still own it?

SN: Actually I've worked at a quilt shop. Is that what it says?

JA: Oh, have you ever owned or worked--okay. You worked.

SN: Yes, I worked at a quilt shop. I've done a little bit of everything. I've taught at some of the local quilt shops and done a little bit of working one day here and there, but not like full time.

JA: Like filling in?

SN: Exactly.

JA: Has your book come out or are you in the process of publishing it?

SN: The machine appliqué book is in the process is at the publisher and we're waiting for it to arrive. Then we do have the machine quilting pattern books that are available.

JA: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life? Do you think they play a part?

SN: It's sort of a hard question since we're so involved in the quilt world. It's so important to us, but to look at it as far as the general public, I don't think they have as much of an appreciation for quilting. As I travel around and sit with people on airplanes and they ask you what you're doing. You talk about quilting and they say, 'Oh, you make blankets.' So there is not as much appreciation in the general public but I think since quilting has grown so popular that there are so many quilters out there, we're working to bring more appreciation for quilts.

JA: In line with that, how does your immediate family feel about your endeavors in quilting?

SN: Again, I think it's hard to know that because I've done it for so long that they just sort of take it for granted that that's what I do. I don't think that they understand the scope of it. They of course think it's wonderful that I do this for my job, but I don't think that they quite get it, as passionate as we are.

JA: But on the other hand, I'm sure they're very supportive?

SN: Yes, very supportive. I love to come here. I called my daughter and said, 'Well I'm going to be leaving,' and she said, 'Where are you going now? Oh, you're going to be in Houston?' It's just one of those things that they just accept it's what I do.

JA: Do they ever travel with you?

SN: Actually, no they have not traveled with me. My husband has been busy with his job. As of yet they haven't done traveling with me.

JA: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and our experience in America?

SN: I think that's what it's all about, basically. I think that that's, to me, just doing this is a connection with the quilters of the past. It was an expression, when there wasn't a way for women to express themselves then they did it through their quilts. Those are the quilts that I love, the quilts that people put stories into their quilts and meaning.

[announcements over the loudspeaker.]

JA: Now we will continue. We were talking about the special meaning and women having history with quilts. In line with that, do you feel that this new insurgence in quilting is going to play an important part in history, say, fifty years from now and a hundred years from now when some of our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren?

SN: I think so. I think that it will be historically significant. I do. It's such a huge amount of people that are doing this now and documenting things, quilts being in museums. I do think that it will have a significant impact.

JA: Do you think that we should be documenting all these things?

SN: Yes. Definitely.

JA: It probably should have been done--

SN: Absolutely, absolutely. How sad to look at some of these beautiful, beautiful antique quilts and not know stories behind them and the women that did that. This is very important.

JA: Do you think quilts should be used? Should they be looked at? Should they be packed away?

SN: All of the above. I think that they should definitely be used. I think that's what quilting is all about. I want my babies to have quilts. I want my kids to have quilts. I want to sleep under a quilt. But I also think that there are heirloom type of projects that should be cared for specifically and put under beds. I do think that we should be careful with some of those.

JA: The quilt that you brought today, I know it's a small version of a larger one that you did. Do you use this or do you just use it in your teaching?

SN: At this point I use it in my teaching, basically. I take it with me and have the ability to show the techniques that I use. But it's a quilt that I would hang on my wall, and eventually...

JA: Because it's small and it's not something--unless you had a small child that wanted to cover with it.

SN: Its purpose will not be, it will not go to a grandchild to cover up with. [laughter.]

JA: How do you think that we can preserve the quilts that we have today, even by using them, for future generations?

SN: I think careful washing and keeping them out of light. All of the things that we should be doing with our fine works. They should be cared for carefully. But again, we want to use some of the quilts. That's important, too.

JA: Do you make quilts for family and friends and give them to them?

SN: Not as much as I'd like to, but I have done that. It's kind of like, what do they talk about, the shoemaker's kids have no shoes. Well, my kids don't really have quilts on their beds at the moment, but I have good intentions to do that someday.

JA: Do you travel a lot outside of Michigan?

SN: I do. I have been traveling frequently.

JA: International?

SN: I have internationally taught in England. That would be my one international trip although I do teach in Canada. We live so close to Canada that that's hard to consider that International.

JA: What do you find pleasing about quilting? Does it make you feel good?

SN: Is that question more what part of it do I find pleasing or just--

JA: What makes you feel good while you're doing it?

SN: Oh gosh. I love every part of quilting. I think it goes back to that I love designing. I love being part of a tradition. I love fabric. I just love the feel of working with fabric and manipulating fabric. I just love sewing.

JA: I know that the Beatles quilt was inspired by the Beatles. Do you have other quilts that have themes in them that you could tell us about?

SN: One of my early quilts that is a special quilt to me is a quilt I made in memory of my grandmother. It's been a while. I did the quilt to enter in the Museum of American Folk Art's contest, it's been many years now, but it was for Memories of Childhood. I made a quilt called "Wild Roses at Grandma's." That is a special quilt for remembering specific things about my grandmother.

JA: Do all your quilts or designs have themes?

SN: Not necessarily. I have a quilt in the show here that actually has won an award. That quilt is a quilt that I made after my trip to England I had visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. I had done some research in their textile department and seen a 16th century cutwork embroidery piece that was very small, but to me said it could be a quilt design. So that quilt is inspired by that, so it's not really a theme quilt. I'm very inspired by antique quilts, and all of our ancestor's handwork.

JA: So you have taken handwork that our ancestors did or something that you have researched and brought it in to the modern--

SN: With machine techniques, exactly. That's exactly how I like to put how I do my work. I'm using today's technology but connecting with the traditions of the past, so to speak.

JA: Are all of your quilts machine quilted?

SN: All of my recent quilts. When I started twenty-two years ago making quilts I did everything by hand, so I have a collection of all hand pieced and quilted and appliquéd quilts. Then about twelve years ago I rediscovered my sewing machine and everything I'm doing now is completely machine done.

JA: Going back a little bit, at what age did you start quilting?

SN: Twenty-two years ago, so let's see, how old am I? In my twenties? I guess in my mid-twenties.

JA: Did you take up quilting just to have something to do?

SN: I had a very colicky daughter, my oldest daughter, and I needed something to do so that I could get out of the house for one evening a week. I left the baby with her dad. I got out and was able to recoup and get reinvigorated to deal with my little crying baby. I was drawn to quilting just in that I wanted to make quilts. I think that a lot of us quilters were sewers, crafters, so I had done macramé and knitting, and all of those kind of things. Then once you make your first quilt you're sort of hooked. I have not done any of those other things since then.

JA: Do you consider quilts in the category of art or crafts?

SN: I don't consider it as crafting. I don't think it's a hobby. When I hear people say, 'Oh, it's your hobby.' It's not my hobby. It's my artwork. It is an art, definitely, it is.

JA: In your travels do you find that if somebody asks you what you do and you tell them, what are their reactions?

SN: Most people don't understand, 'How do you make a living doing that?' 'Is there that much interest in it?' You know, those kind of things. 'Oh, isn't it interesting that you can take your hobby and make it your work.' Those kind of things you get from the general public, so to speak. I feel like it's just as much as a profession and a job as what anybody else does to make a living.

JA: Have you ever participated in anything like this in preserving quilt history for this?

SN: We in Michigan have a Boxes Under the Beds™ [a project of The Alliance for American Quilts.] project going. I have been in progress doing an oral history interview project with that through our quilt guild.

JA: Your friends and family that you have made quilts for and given them to, do they use them? Do they pack them away?

SN: I would say that they are used.

JA: They are used. Is there any type of information that you think would be important to this that I haven't asked or haven't dwelled into today?

SN: Probably the only thing that I haven't said enough is that what I find the most rewarding about what I've done in the quilt world is working with my sister. Making a quilt with her and winning an award. I always like to give her credit, too. Although you're just talking to me. She's not here, but she is just as an important part of what this is all about.

JA: Do the two of you collaborate on many things?

SN: Yes.

JA: What is her name?

SN: Pat Holly.

JA: Are you all working on a quilt now?

SN: We are, actually. We're working on a quilt for an invitational exhibit. I'm not sure of the exact name of it yet, but it's an artist and quilter project that Rod Buffington has organized. He does paintings of quilt patterns. He invited quilters to submit a pattern to him and the fabrics that you're going to use to make a specific quilt. Then he's interpreting it into a painting, and then the quilters are making a quilt. Then they are going to exhibit it side-by-side. Actually, it will be here at Houston next year. The project that Pat and I are working on is a joint project, a collaboration.

JA: That will be very interesting. We'll look forward to seeing that. Sometimes do you find a piece of fabric that would inspire you to make a quilt? Or do you get a design and then you go look for the fabric.

SN: Probably the latter of those. I'm always inspired by the design of the quilt I want to make again I love looking at antique quilts and being inspired by that. I love appliqué right now. I sort of get the idea for the design that I want to do, and then I start collecting the fabrics. I'm not a huge stash fabric person. I know a lot of quilters find that hard to believe. I don't have a huge stash. More work per project. I have found that I end up buying lots of fabric that I never use, and then I'd rather focus on the one project and buy lots of fabric for that.

JA: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SN: Oh gosh. I think that a great quilt, again, is one that has wonderful design qualities that draw you in, wonderful color combinations. I also think that workmanship is very important, too. It's kind of a combination of things. As with any kind of art, it's visually what you see first. So the design and the color is what draws you to the quilt, but I like to see more than that, too. I like to see innovative techniques and good skill level in quilts.

JA: Is there any aspect of quilting that you do not enjoy? That you do not like?

SN: I don't like basting quilts. I don't love marking quilts, but it's a necessary evil. I love designing quilting designs, but the actual physical marking of quilts, which I do mark all my feathers. Those would be my least favorite parts, but you do them.

JA: That's part of it.

SN: Yes.

JA: I know this quilt reflects your younger years. Do any of the quilts that you do now or any that you have done, do they reflect your community or Michigan? I presume that you've lived there most of your life.

SN: I have. Probably not. I'm trying to think. No, I don't think so.

JA: Like the lakes of Michigan. Some quilters are influenced by nature around them or the fact that maybe you have more severe winters there than in the South.

SN: That isn't a huge factor in how I design my quilts.

JA: Is there anything you would like to add to this interview?

SN: No, just that I'm really happy to be part of this, and I think it's a wonderful thing that you're doing. This is great.

JA: Okay, we're closing this interview with Sue Nickels. It is 10:30 on November 3, 2000. My name is Janelle Archer.



“Sue Nickels,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,