Gabrielle Swain




Gabrielle Swain




Gabrielle Swain


Karen Bennick

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Joanne Gasperik


Karen Bennick (KB): Quilt Festival in Houston Texas. It's November 4th, 2000 and I'm going to be interviewing Gloria Swain.

Gabrielle Swain (GB): No, Gabrielle.

KB: Gabrielle, I'm sorry. Wasn't Gloria Swain a famous movie star [laughs.], Okay. See? I know nothing about names; I'm not a name dropper. [laughs.] [sighs.] So we can get started. Your quilt is hanging out in the exhibit. So, I really--I'm starting from scratch.

GS: Okay.

KB: [inaudible.] I'd like to get to know you better and know your quilting. What is the quilt? Could you describe the quilt to me?

G S: Sure, I'd be happy to. It's a quilt called "Even Change." It's a 4-block oak leaf design that is rotated 90 degrees as it turns. Reverse and direct appliqué. And it has color temperature study for the basis of the color work in it. So I am alternating warm and cool with each one of the leaf designs as they jog over each other. It is hand appliquéd, reverse and direct, hand quilted and machine pieced.

KB: And machine pieced?

GS: Mmmhmm.

KB: What is the background color?

G S: The backgrounds are two different colors, red and blues to be the temperature and they're on a black background and then the leaves are all dyed fairly true colors on the top.

KB: When did you start making this quilt?

G S: I started in this quilt in probably 1998. And I travel and teach all year long about 23 weeks out of every year. So, it took me until '99 to finish the quilt.

KB: When did you first start quilting?

G S: In 1983. My youngest son was 6 months old when I started quilting. I used to have a big managerial job in arts management and when I retired from that job I didn't have anything to do, so I started learning how to make quilts. [inaudible.]

KB: You were pretty self-taught?

GS: I was self-taught, completely. There was nobody really locally, you had a couple of quilt shops but it was still very new, just coming back. I have a big advantage in that I can read things and understand them and translate them, so was devouring technique books, and taught myself.

KB: What was the first quilt you made?

G S: The first quilt I made was from the Sunset book of patchwork quilting and they had a castle wall block, a fort that was the one I wanted to make and so I made like six or something like that for little lap quilts.

KB: You still have it?

GS: Yes I do still have it. [laughs.]

KB: How many quilts do you think you've made?

G S: I happen to know. I've made 68 quilts since I've started because I have always worked with my hands a lot. I like to be close to the work and not separated by the machine so hand appliqué is what I'm doing-- [inaudible.]

KB: Do you document each quilt that you make? Do you have a scrapbook or--

G S: Ah, yes I do. I'm a professional quiltmaker so I have slides taken all of my quilts upon completion and I have slide sleeves that I keep them in and document.

KB: You have given quilts as gifts, so you don't have all of your quilts in your possession.

G S: No I don't. But that stopped several years ago. [both laugh.]

KB: You don't give them away anymore.

G S: Don't give them away anymore. The last quilt that I gave away, I have four sons, I made each one of them of speed pieced log cabin, put polyester batting in it and machine quilted it and said, 'Leave me alone. This is all you're getting.' They were teenagers when that happened, [laughs.] so that's the last quilt I'd given away.

KB: Do they use them?

G S: I don't even know where they are any more. I think they took them on picnics and they're all mostly married, and gone now.

KB: You have evidently taken classes from other people in the meantime.

G S: Yes in the beginning yes I did. Probably in 1985, I took Michael James' color class. I've never taken many technique classes, just design and color, because I knew that stuff. And I took a class from Francois Barnes who was a very well-known art quiltmaker at the time on a design theory.

KB: What do you think is the major thing that developed your talent?

G S: Doing lots of work, doing lots of work. I think that I'm not really affected by trends in quiltmaking. I don't have to make whatever new pattern or new fabric line has come out. I started designing my own work by 1986. That has really been the driving force behind developing, developing skills.

KB: No other quilters in your family, so--

G S: None of all. I come from an absolutely non quiltmaking tradition. My grandmother was a seamstress and made hats and things like that. But no one in our family ever quilted. My husband's family has a quilting tradition, so I have some of their older quilts. No one at all in Mom's family, we were city girls I guess on my mom's side.

KB: What do you think made the transition between making this little castle wall quilt and getting to the point that you're at now--

G S: I'll be real honest with you, I don't piece well. [both laugh.] You know the frustration of trying to make all these intersections and geometric shapes match up and I wanted it to look exactly like the pattern. I discovered really early on that if I could do my own pattern, nobody would know that it was right or wrong. [laughs.]

KB: So, that's how that happened. Appliqué is very forgiving.

GS: Appliqué is very forgiving, and very painterly, that's what I liked about it most.

KB: How do you share your work other than in shows like this? Do you belong to guilds?

G S: I belong to some national guilds and organizations. But I am represented by a gallery and I've published two books.

KB: What are the names of your books?

GS: My first book was "Appliqué in Bloom" which was published by Martingale and Company- That Patchwork Place. And my second book was "From a Quilters Garden," same publisher. And then just recently the quilt that we're talking about was on the cover of "Quilting Masterclass" which is a British publication that Martingale is distributing in the United States. It is very exciting, very exciting for me. But I do travel and teach. Guilds hire me to come and they have me teach at conferences so I try to always bring quilts with me as opposed to the slide shows, so they can really see the quilts.

KB: I think that's very important. I'm glad that should do that.

GS: Oh thanks.

KB: Do you collect other quilts other than your own at all?

G S: No, I really don't. I knew early on that I really couldn't afford the antique quilts that I wanted. So I really didn't even start. I guess just monetarily I couldn't afford to collect quilts.

KB: But you do sell some of your own?

GS: Yes, I do sell my own work.

KB: And is this through the gallery that you mentioned?

G S: And actually through teaching, people will make contacts with you if they like your work. Or sometimes a student in the class will want a piece or, however, but also through the gallery.

KB: You feel that the general public realizes the value of quilting?

GS: Not all.

KB: Not all.

G S: Not all.

KB: You think this is changing at all?

G S: Definitely.

KB: Definitely.

G S: Yeah, I think that it's really changing, pretty quickly, too.

KB: You have owned or worked in a quilt shop?

G S: Yes I did. I worked in a quilt shop for 10 years in the area that I live in Colleyville, and managed it for the last five years that I worked there and then my book was published the last year that I worked there, so I had to quit working. But that is one of the things I do miss is not working at quilt shops and getting to see everyone's work and sharing with them.

KB: And you have traveled outside of your own area a lot of nationally and then internationally also?

G S: Yes.

KB: In what countries have you been?

G S: Just to Canada so far. I had small children still when I first started traveling and so I didn't want to go too far away. But all over the United States and I've really enjoyed that. And then I got to go to White Horse in the Yukon Territory. I was the first international teacher that they hired. It was a really exciting experience, kind of in the Outback.

KB: And they have a definite need for quilts up there.

GS: Oh boy, yes, there was still permafrost when I arrived in May.

KB: Have you one other awards leading up to this one?

G S: Yes, just this spring the quilt that we're talking about won the best hand workmanship award in the wall quilt division in the AQS [American Quilters Society.] show in Paducah. And I've won a couple of awards of merit here before they started giving away money darn it, and local shows and several things.

KB: This is the first time you've been involved in preserving your story for the historians and the academics to look up the information. Why do you think this is a good thing to do?

G S: Well I think because we have so many quilts that we don't know who made them. And it would be so meaningful to have the history of their lives and why these quilts survived; that's even more interesting to me. We don't know whose quilts are going to be left. I mean my quilts could not be here in the next 50 years. To have a across the board reference of many different quilt makers maybe it would help us know why these quilt survived, how they were cared for, what ever, so we could continue that in the future. And also, I'm very concerned that quiltmaking will die out again like it did early in the fifties. I think if we preserve the tradition then maybe it won't lose its popularity again.

KB: Yes, and we're trying to preserve the stories of the quilters themselves not just the quilts. And the finding out the reasons why people quilt and what keeps them going at it, once they've started and where you think it's going to be in the future.

GS: Right, right.

KB: Do you have any ideas about what you think the future of quilting is in this country?

GS: Well, being an appliqué person my hope for the next century is that appliqué becomes as popular as piecing [laughs.] Big hope. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. But I would like to see just as an artist, a little bit less consumer driven quiltmaking and a little more personal expression. That would be one of my hopes. But other than that just keep on going, it's great to have venues like this where we can all be together.

KB: So you do a lot of teaching, you're helping all lot of people to learn the craft. What do you get out of that experience for yourself?

G S: Well, the fellowship of course, being with other quiltmakers. I think as an artist you become very isolated in your work. When I'm home I'm not doing anything but in the studio, working. So the fellowship is the main thing, but also I don't think that anyone who teaches doesn't learn from her students. When they do something, I go "Ahhh, why didn't I think of that," kind of thing. And it continues to keep me inspired about my own work, their attitude toward my work keeps me inspired to do more. So, it's a wonderful exchange.

KB: What about the quilting itself? What is your favorite part of the quilting experience?

G S: Oh, the process!

KB: The process.

GS: Well, the designing part is my very favorite, it takes me the longest but it's also the most exciting to me. The sewing part is just getting it done so you see what it looks like. But, I guess it's the building of it, the selecting the fabrics and seeing what works where, and what doesn't. Quilting is the only thing I've ever done that you could not tell what the piece was like until it was completely finished. Everything affects it, the quilting, the binding, everything affects it. And I used to be kind of a dilettante at stuff. I'd start and stop and start and stop and don't finish, till it came to quiltmaking. So I guess to me, seeing the whole product finished is --

KB: Where do you get your inspiration?

G S: I work from nature. I'd do a lot of leaf, tree, flower, plant kinds of things. I believe real strongly in designing where you live, and because I'm a native Texan, and live in Texas, I am trying to show who I am in the environment that I live in.

KB: And what about the quilting? Excuse me, the color, how does that affect you?

G S: That's all we've got. The color is the most exciting part to me. The more color you have, I think, the more exciting the work is, and the way that you manipulate the intensity, it's my favorite part. It's the most exciting.

KB: What do you think makes a great quilt?

G S: One that stops me dead in my tracks. One that I cannot walk by. The overall impact of it. I think that a quilt should stop you at 10 feet, make you want to see it at 3 ft., and excite you when you get your nose up on it, with the detail in it. So if I keep walking down the aisles and you don't stop me. [laughs.]

KB: What would you think would make a quilt appropriate for a museum collection?

GS: That it be exquisitely crafted because to me quiltmaking is still a craft. I think it's very important that we not lose that tradition. That the fabric speaks for itself, that we're not trying to make a quilt a piece of paper. That it be quilt-like I guess, is a better phrase. And that it be the defining piece of an artist. Possibly one of the premier pieces of work that they had done especially new quiltmakers. Antiques are a different thing. I have a whole different idea about antiques, but the new quiltmakers, our current, contemporary quiltmakers, I should say, that would be--

KB: What do you think about antique quilts?

G S: Oh, I love antique quilts. I think that we learn more from them than what we realize. The use of color, and the spontaneity, and putting unusual quilting designs over a geometric pattern. They were very free and we aren't.

KB: Are there--you said, no other quilters in your family, except on your husband's side, what about your friends and other teachers and things, how have they inspired you or affected your quilting experience?

G S: They usually get me in trouble. They're usually telling me I can do something that I can't do, or that I don't have time to do or something like that. They are my constant inspiration. Most of the quiltmakers I am really close to now are professional quiltmakers, because we have so little time to see local quilt museum. I don't belong to a bee; I don't belong to a meet-every-month-guild kind of thing. So we try and network when we travel. They are a constant inspiration because they are pushing their work to the limits of their skills and I appreciate that.

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

G S: Because they were considered women's domestic work, to me, in the beginning. I think that quilts were the only way that women could without bucking the system, so to speak, express their creativity artistically. I think that they helped us record moments in our lives and work through grief, many different things and so historically it has great meaning to us now, who kind of are cavalier about our quiltmaking. It doesn't hold as much emotion for many of us as it used to. So I think making that connection again to the heartfelt, so many quilts are cold now, they don't have any feeling, they are technical but they aren't felt. So, maybe if we made a better connection there from that historical reference.

KB: Of the 60-some quilts that you've made, which one is your favorite?

G S: Oh, I can't believe you ask me that question! [giggles.] I don't have a favorite quilt, I'm sorry. I don't have a favorite quilt. I like the one that I'm working on now the best. Once they're finished I'm not as connected to them as I am during the process. So it's always the one I'm working on now.

KB: Was there any of the quilts that you've made, that you made for an emotional or a healing experience for yourself?

G S: I was working on a quilt when my mother died. It wasn't made because it that, it had been started prior to that. But because that was my comfort during the time that she was dying it does hold a great meaning to me still. It's one of the quilts I will never sell. It really helped me through that process, sitting and quilting 12 hours a day like a mad fool, just so you wouldn't have to deal with what was going on in your head.

KB: How do you think quilts can be used? We're sitting here in the middle of the International Quilt Festival and were seeing them displayed, what other ways do you think quilts can be used in the United States?

G S: Well, there are a lot of great programs that I see guilds doing when I travel around and teach that put quilts in the community for children, for women's centers, abused families, in police cars, with children that might have had accidents or have been taken from their homes. The reason I'm a quiltmaker instead of a painter, is because quilts are warm and comforting and you want to touch them and feel them. And I think that any way you can put a quilt into the community, in that respect, is really honoring the tradition of quiltmaking. So I like those programs. But I also like the programs where quilts are being placed in public spaces, commercial or government, or just as visual art in the community. So I'm really in favor of both of those programs.

KB: How does your family accept your quilting, your children? Do they think 'well mom's making another blanket or are they aware totally of your--

G S: They're totally, totally aware that it's quilts. And I'll tell you a little, brief story if I might. Two middle sons, who are now 25 and 23, and married with children, were in middle school and we used to go to the parent meetings. One of their teachers told me, she says 'what do you do for a living?' And I told her, and she said, 'your boys are the only boys that think that what their mother does is just as important as what their father does.' So I guess I succeeded. [Both laugh.]

KB: That's wonderful. Is there something else that you'd like to tell us about, some more stories--?

G S: Oh. There are too many wonderful traveling stories. The great thing about traveling and teaching is you meet so many wonderful people and we all share the same common interest. It doesn't matter what our nationality, politics, anything like that is, we're all quiltmakers, and it's almost like there are too many wonderful stories to tell you. Never met a quiltmaker you didn't like, kind of thing. But I just will say how much I appreciate this project and what you're trying to do. I'm really tickled that you guys are doing for all of us and for the future.

KB: You think you'll ever go back into the archives or it'll be on the Internet someday, and look up your own story, of course, but other quilters' stories also.

G S: I told one of my sons that I was going to do this and he goes, 'Please say something important. You don't want your great-great-great-great granddaughter looking this up some day.' And I went, 'this is the scariest thing I've done since I've been at quilt festival, because it is a record that's going to be there', and I'm kind of going 'Gee, I hope I don't say something stupid.' But yeah I probably would, and I know that my family, they're archiving everything. 'Did you save this little thing, did you save the calendar, that,' you know, they're saving everything, because they really, they do appreciate everything it, and they want their families to know what happens, so I'm sure they will, I'm sure they will.

KB: I'm very happy that you're getting that recognition from your family. How're we doing time wise?

G S: We're fine, should we go out and take a look--

KB: Just to look at the quilt, I bet we can do it. I'm going to stop this tape till we go out to the quilt. Sure [tape shuts off briefly.] we're now at the click quilt on the floor at the International Quilt Festival with Gabriel Swan--

G S: Swain.

KB: Swain, I'm sorry.

GS: That's okay, don't worry

KB: We're looking at the backside of her quilt now and label that's on it and it's very colorful, very Technicolor. Could you tell us more about how you picked the backing?

G S: I can tell you exactly how I picked the backing. The quilt is 54 in. square and I wanted a piece of 60 in. wide fabric, so I didn't have to piece it, because I knew I was going to hand quilt it. So I went to Cloth World and bought a piece of dress maker fabric which is 100% cotton, and it afforded me the privilege of just basting and layering and going, so I didn't have to seam anything. I like to put really nice fabric on the back of my quilts. I like to use stuff that's easy to quilt through, like Bali batiks, and I use a lot of Balis on the back of my work, so anything that is equal in weight and content. I think that more expensive fabrics last longer over all, in the quilts, so I'm very concerned about that, oaky.

KB: What inspired this quilt?

G S: These are post oak leaves. And in Texas we have tons and tons of post oak quilts, because they grow native here. They used to use them to make the fence posts on the farms and ranches. So that's why it's called "Post Oak." What I did was take actual size leaves, here's a small leaf and a large leaf, off the ground and just make a sketch of them. Then I enlarged that, basically it's just blown up, to do the larger leaves. I just have a real affinity for trees and leaves. They're sometimes more human than we are. They grow in very formidable circumstances and seem to build their character well in those formidable circumstances. So there's something very serene about trees to me.

KB: The colors are stunning in this quilt, the blues, the pinks, reds, greens. I mean its almost every color on the color wheel. Do you dye fabrics or something yourself or--

G S: I used to dye all of my own fabrics but since I've been traveling and teaching so much I don't have time to do that and you can only be wet and purple, you know, so many times before you're tired of dying your own fabric. So I'm willing to buy from anybody now that will sell it to me. I know how difficult the process is but the way I'm currently working, is I use commercial fabric for backgrounds and settings, and hand dye and hand painted it only to create the surface of the work because that affords me the privilege of a very painterly image in the end. And then I add, I don't know if you can see from there, I add pen and ink stippling to the surface to do shading, over all little dots you see are done one by one; and I do colored pencil over the surface to change the shading slightly in things. For instance this red leaf, it was almost too even of a red when it was dyed, so I would take the colored pencil and make this red darker, highlight the orange with a colored pencil, and then heat-set it. And it's really undetectable from dye.

KB: Tell us how you made the veins in the leaves.

G S: That's a technique called reverse appliqué. I drew a single line on to the leaf in the shape that I wanted the vein to be and then I layer it up with the color that the vein is going to be underneath, baste them together and then slit that line open, and needle turn back to reveal the fabric underneath. There's also reverse appliqué leaves in the border. The only difference is the picture fabric what you want the design to be is underneath the background fabric as opposed to be on the surface, on the top.

KB: OK. The quilting is very, very nice on this quilt.

GS: Thank you.

KB: What inspired you to quilt it the way it's quilted?

G S: The inspiration comes from the feeder lines in leaves and flowers. I don't know if you've ever looked really close, but they have these little veins in them in that look almost like capillaries and its how they are fed from the tree and the plant. So I took that idea and combined it with the idea of old fashioned feathers. So what I did was make an S curve with a loop in it, and then keyed off of that in many different places either from the loop or from parts of the extension to the S curve and then just did other S curves. So in a way it was like making feathers, but almost my own interpretation as it applied it to the feeder lines in the leaf.

KB: Can you explain some more about the temperature in this quilt?

G S: Okay. Temperature is whether a color is warm or cool. It has absolutely nothing to do with how bright, or how dark, or light, no value, anything like that. And on one side of the color wheel everything is warm, the reds, oranges and yellows, on the other side of the color wheel everything is cool, the blues and green and violets. So what I decided to do was pay no attention to value, no attention to hue, and no attention to intensity, which is how true, or gray a color is, and pay only attention to the temperature. So in this particular block that were looking at, I started out with a cool background and to alternate on that, the temperature, I had to place a warm leaf, but the vein lines in that warm leaf had to be cooled to keep the alternation going. And then on top of that I placed, because this was the greatest part of the color being warm, then I place a cool leaf on top of it, that had all warm in vein line in it and just continued to alternate. Even going so far as where the background shifts colors, I shift the temperature there, where the sashing meets whatever the background fabric is, I shifted the temperature there and further out. I even quilted the warm fabric in cool thread, a cool fabric in warm thread, like 'give it up, so obsessive.' [both laugh.]

KB: Well it's so wonderful, heart warming quilt.

G S: Thank you.

KB: It's not how warm it would be on the bed, it's how warm it makes our hearts [G S: laughs.] and I really appreciated talking to you--

GS: Thank you.

KB: And seeing this wonderful work of art here. Houston International Quilt Fair. It is now 20 minutes to 11 and thank you so much.

GS: Thanks, Karen.

[tape ends.]



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