Carol Soderlund


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Carol Soderlund




Carol Soderlund


Joyce S. Johnson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda/ United notions


International Quilt Festival
Houston, TX USA


Rachel Grove


Joyce Starr Johnson (JSJ): Today's date is November 1, 2002. It is 9:17 a.m., and I am conducting an interview with Carol Soderlund, S-O-D-E-R-L-U-N-D, for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Houston, Texas. Carol, I'd like you to tell me a little bit about your personal interests: how you started, where you learned?

Carol Soderlund (CS): Well, I started quilting about 1975. I've been quilting for a fair length of time, and I was only about twenty-two years old when I made my first quilt. I really began. . . In my twenties, my mom died. She died of lung cancer, and it was of course very traumatic. When my sisters and I were going through the closets and making the decisions-- 'What are we going to do?' 'What goes to the Goodwill?' 'What do we want to keep?'-- and all of that, and we were putting everything in the Goodwill box until we got to the very end of my mom's closet, and out came these old cotton skirts that, oh my goodness, she wore those everyday when I was a little girl. So I grabbed them, and my sisters were like, 'What do you want those things for?' and 'We wore those when we were teenagers.' And I say, 'Well, Mom wore them when I was a little girl,' because my sisters are older than I am, and that was my mother of course. You know, reuse, make do. You know, keep it going. So these were worn cotton skirts, and I had to have them, and my sisters were like, 'What are you going to do with those?' So I said, 'Look, I'm going to make a quilt. It'll be for Mom and Mom's memory, because she taught me how to sew' So I had to do it. [laughter.] I'd never quilted before, but at right about that time you know the bicentennial was starting to heat up, and interest in quilting was reviving, and so I got a magazine and a manila envelope, and I traced myself a little template, and I made my first quilt from my mother's clothing.

[inaudible because Carol and Joyce are speaking at the same time.]

CS: Oh yes, they did. I slept under that for than thirteen years, and--

JSJ: What pattern?

CS: I made the quilt a Missouri Puzzle, and I changed one triangle in the other direction, so it's really my own design. [laughter.]

JSJ: Very bold for your first quilt.

CS: Very bold, very bold, but I like the triangle going the other way, so I did it. [laughter.]

JSJ: What are your plans for that quilt?

CS: After I was sleeping under it for so many years, because it was made from older fabrics to begin with, I decided to take it off the bed and preserve it. It has a few little holes and a few--but it's still an absolute treasure to me. I didn't quilt it right away. It wasn't the first quilt I ever quilted, because when I finished it, the top was so precious to me, but I really wanted to do nice quilting on it, so I waited until I learned how. I went to a group of ladies who were quilting. I kind of joined them, and we quilted around the frame every week until I learned how, and then I quilted it with feathers and with cables and all that traditional quilting that was the first quilt that I ever entered here in Houston, and it was shown. I forget what year. It was about early eighties some time--since that was the first quilt I ever showed here in Houston, and from then on I was just like so hooked, and I immediately started making my own designs, and they were traditional based designs until about 1988. In 1989 I had children, and I stopped working fulltime, and so while the babies were young, you know, then I could take more time to express myself in quilting, and then I really started doing some of my own designs kind of seriously. Then came "Covenant," which was the title of the quilt that I entered in the show in 1989, and it did win Best of Show, Master's Division. Then they had an Amateur Division and a Master's Division, and I had previously won some awards, so I had to enter in the Master's Division, and it won Best of Show for [inaudible.]--the biggest thrill of my life.

JSJ: And that quilt represented a change in your quilting?

CS: That was more contemporary looking than any of my previous quilts. It kind of looked like a globe in space, and it was very three-dimensional looking, and it had a full rainbow of colors shooting through. It was a pieced design that would kind of curve away, and so it was my own design based on a traditional block that I altered to be angled so it would look curved. Then also that quilt was kind of groundbreaking for me in a way, because to create the dimensionality of that quilt I had to have many, many shades, and so I shopped, I shopped, and I shopped for like four months. I live in a fairly remote area, so all of these shopping trips represented hours of driving, and I had small children, so it's, you know, a lot to do, and then at the end of the time I just--I still didn't have the fabric to make that quilt. I said to my husband, 'There just isn't the fabric in existence now that,'--you know all the grays that I needed for shadows and shading, and so he said, 'Are you sure?' because he loved the design. He thought it was the best design I'd ever come with, and said, 'You really need to make that quilt you know.' I said, 'Well, maybe I could dye the fabric.' I had never dyed fabric before, and so I got an article from a magazine that had just out a couple months ago by Jan Myers. Well, now she's Jan Myers Newbury. In it she said where to order the dye from and what to do, so I just followed that little article, and eight hours later I had all the fabric I needed. So I used what I had bought over the months plus what I dyed myself, and I made "Covenant," which was, you know, really kind of a groundbreaking quilt for its time, and you know still very precious to me.

JSJ: And so you still own it?

CS: Yes, I do. I still own it, and I was invited once to have in the collection at the Museum of American Quilters' Society, but at that time I was--you know it's kind of like giving up your children. You don't always want to give them up, and so right now it's traveling in Germany. It's at a show in Germany, and it's this summer at the Columbus Museum of Art, so it's still being shown and exhibited, and [coughing.] and so that's nice. I really enjoy sharing it with people.

JSJ: Well then we'll jump ahead to the quilt that won an award this year. [3 second pause.] You have--

Unidentified Person (UP) [Scribe Judy Holley?]: [inaudible.] right here.

JSJ: Tell us about this quilt.

CS: Well, this quilt I call "Queen Anne's Lace" for obvious reasons, because there is a lacy flower on it. It uses more of my dyed fabric. Once I started, of course, I could never stop. It's so much fun to be creating your own color, and it has a little bit of commercial fabric in it as well. It kind of started with the inner fabric, the fabric in the background of the center portion, which I was painting, and I used a resist on it, so that there were white areas that were preserved if I painted over it, and as soon as I saw those white splotches on that fabric they just reminded me of Queen Anne's Lace, and so I kept telling everyone the quilt was about "Queen Anne's Lace." I have a little series going of quilts about flowers that grow all by themselves, because I love flowers, but I'm always quilting, and so I don't really take up time to tend the garden, so I really appreciate flowers that grow all by themselves without any help from me, and Queen Anne's lace is one of those that is absolutely gorgeous with absolutely no assistance from the gardener! So I had this piece of fabric that looked like Queen Anne's lace to me, but it didn't look like Queen Anne's lace to anybody else. I designed the whole quilt and the pieced frame and all the rest of the composition, and still it was only me that knew it was Queen Anne's lace, so I decided, well, I'd better do something so other people can understand as well, and that's what led me to do the thread work on it. It's machine quilted in a variety of designs, but the Queen Anne's lace is created with heavy thread, various kinds of pearl cotton. I created the lacy look from winding the pearl cotton onto the bobbin with my machine and hooping up some water-soluble stabilizer and then stitching the lacy part. Then once I rinsed away the water-soluble stabilizer I have these units that I could arrange in a composition where I wanted the blossoms to be. Then I stitched them onto the quilt when it was still a quilt top. Then I layered it, quilted it, and then I stitched the leaves and stems with hand dyed silk thread. They go all the way through to the back of the quilt, so that part of the embroidery is all the way through the quilt.

JSJ: And it adds a dimension?

CS: It does. It adds dimension. There was a lot of stitching, you know, behind and around the blossoms and that kind of puffs them up a little bit, gives them some more shaping, and so that was a very enjoyable quilt to make for me.

JSJ: You mentioned before about your mom's quilt and how important it was to do really fine quality hand quilting--

CS: Right.

JSJ: On there, and this quilt uses equal dedication to specific types of machine quilting.

CS: Yes.

JSJ: Is this more typical of your work now?

CS: Yes, it is. I was a hand quilter for many years. "Covenant" that I mentioned before was hand quilted, but as time went along I began to teach quiltmaking, and you know when I taught and I was creating samples and examples and making more quilts, just as I think happens to many people, my quilts were stacking up, and they weren't getting finished, so I needed a more efficient way to get them done than hand quilting. I just haven't been a person that really likes to give my quilt over to someone else to finish. I like to have my hands in all the stages of it, and I like to make those decisions about the quilting line, and what it's going to add to the quilt as I do it, and I often will change my mind and do something else or do something more, so I like to be there when that's happening, and I didn't want to have my quilts finished by someone else. So I decided, 'Time to learn machine quilting.' I was very inspired by what people are able to accomplish with machine quilting. I began doing that about 1995, and so many new threads were coming that really are gorgeous and really add to the quilt that I thought this is something I want to learn to do, so I kind of put my mind to it. It's a little harder to learn, I think, than hand quilting. There's more of a learning curve to it, and--

JSJ: I have a fat leg actually. [laughter.]

UP: Much more skill.

CS: Yes, and you know especially if you really want to do it well, and I've never really appreciated the machine quilting that just sort of tramples over the top. You need absolutely as much sensitivity in where your line is going to be placed in machine quilting as you do in hand quilting. So I enjoyed the opportunity to use a multitude of threads and also to finish quilts in little bit more timely fashion.

JSJ: Yes. We're going to have a slight interruption here as we take some pictures.

CS: Okay.

[tape recorder turned off and back on again.]

UP: [coughing.] Okay. Hi, Joyce.

JSJ: Alright, it's 9:32, and we're resuming our interview after our photo break. Just quickly before we move on to another topic, what are your plans for this quilt?

CS: Well, I do a fair amount of teaching, and I teach a lot of the machine techniques that I used in this quilt as well as dyeing, and so it will probably come with when I take for teaching, and I'll use it that way.

JSJ: Okay. You talked a little bit about your own quilt history and how you learned. Have there been other quilters in your family?

CS: I think my grandmother made quilts. She had nine children, and she made a point to make a quilt for all of her grand children. The problem was that there were about, oh, thirty of them, [laughter.] and she got a little bit too old and couldn't really see anymore to make the quilts by the time I came up to be the age. She tried to give them when the grandchildren were like sixteen or something, and so I never got one of my grandmother's quilts. My sisters each did, because they were older than I am. I didn't get one, and you know that always bothered me, because I loved my sisters' quilts, but they used them up. They really used them and washed them and all of that, and they kind of used them up, and I just kept wishing, 'Oh, I wish I could have a quilt from my grandmother.' What I did have from her some Grandmother's Flower Garden blocks that she never finished, and they were just stuffed in a little bag, and my mother let me play with them once in a while when I was a little girl, way before I could sew, like five years old. She would take them out, and I would just play with them and like pretend they were quilts for my doll and things like that, so I do remember doing that with my grandmother's quilt pieces. I do have a wool lap robe that she made out of old men's suits, and it's not probably an official quilt, because she just put two layers of wool together, crocheted around the edges, and crocheted the blocks together with some more yarn, and I'm happy to have that.

JSJ: You talked about how your quilting changed after having children, because you know you had more time, or your lifestyle changed.

CS: Yes, yes.

JSJ: So they've influenced your quilting, but how has your quilting influenced your family?

CS: Well, that's an interesting question. I think my children have just always grown up knowing this is what I do and that this is an extremely important part of my life, and they--I don't know--they just come in, and they will comment on things on the board, and a lot of times they'll just totally ignore it. I have two sons, and so I don't really have the daughters to pass down the art and all that kind of thing. I tried to get them interested. When they were about seven they each made a pillow top, and then they actually got more interested in counted cross-stitch, but then by the next summer--We did that in one summer. By the next summer, they found out that boys don't do that kind of thing, and they weren't interested anymore, [laughter.] but I got to them a little bit before they got the socialization to discover that. But they've always been interested in watching what I do. I have one son that's just very artistic, and he--you know he really appreciates it, and he'll come and talk to me about the colors. One time, one the greatest compliments I had from him is I had a piece of dyed fabric up on my wall that I was planning how I was going to use, and he came in the room, and he said, 'You're not going to cut that up are you?' I said, 'Well, of course I am.' [laughter.] 'You can't cut that up. That's the best fabric you've ever dyed, and I have to have it!' [laughter.] And so I agreed--Well, I first tried to talk him into a different piece, but he wouldn't have any of it, so I promised that I would save that, and I think I'll be making a whole cloth quilt out of that for him, because if the--you know if he's responded to that so strongly. . . . Every now and then he still comes into the studio, and he'll say to me, 'You haven't cut that, have you?' [laughter.] So I guess that'll be his quilt at some point.

JSJ: Okay. You travel as you teach, and--

CS: I do. You know--

JSJ: Does that impact your family?

CS: Yes, yes, yes, but the children are older. While they were younger I didn't want to travel to teach very much. I did teach in my local area and in my region in New York State, around New York State, but I didn't accept jobs farther away until--Now they're both in college and fully self operational, so I'm more free to travel, and I'm starting to enjoy that.

JSJ: What part of quilting do you like the most?

CS: Oh, that is one of those hard questions, because there are so many parts of the process that I really enjoy, so while I'm doing any given part of the process I'd probably answer that part, but probably has to be making the colors. I absolutely love dyeing the fabric, doing surface design techniques as paint on it or print on it or stamp on it. That would probably be my top favorite, and then designing the quilts. That's just such an interactive process. I love that too, so you know--

JSJ: Is there any part that you just really hate?

CS: The basting.

JSJ: Basting.

CS: You know I really hate basting. I think I'm in that kind of that universal answer probably, but basting spray has made life easier, and now I'm going to--one of those fusible bats just to see if--you know the shortest time that I can devote to that aspect of it the better [laughter.] and just get on with life. [laughter.]

JSJ: Have you used quilting in any particularly difficult times of your life or particularly dreadful things in your life?

CS: [tearing up.] Well, I'm always using quilting for something. Of course the quilt that I made in my mother's memory was really kind of a cathartic quilt. I really think that quilt was a true comforter. It was wrapping my mother around me, so that would definitely leap to mind, but really ever quilt that you make in your life I think expresses something that is personal to you when you look at that quilt. You know what happened when you were making that quilt, and in some way they reflect what you're doing, thinking, and feeling while you're making the quilt, so all quilts have that to a certain degree I think for the quiltmaker.

JSJ: Do those feelings that you remember when you look at a quilt and you remember your life at that particular time have any bearing on what eventually happens to that quilt? As you mentioned before that you don't want to sell a quilt, or you didn't want to give it to a museum. Do those kind of feelings--is that part of the determination of what happens to a quilt?

CS: Yes, to a certain degree. I mean as time goes along I get a little bit more detached, and I'm able to look at my quilts with more objectivity, and so you know there will be certain ones that I'm willing to sell and things like that. I do sell quilts occasionally, although it's not usually my main focus as I just enjoy teaching so much that that's really more my focus, and I like to be able to show people my quilts when I teach, but so some quilts I do feel closer to than others and just depending as you said on the time of your life and what you've put into it of yourself and what it means to you, so I guess then the answer's 'yes' sometimes it determines how much you want to keep that quilt. I know that my family has certain favorites, because they know that this quilt relates to things in their life as well, and there are certain favorites that they have, so I'd be more reluctant to give those quilts up, because I think, oh, it would be nice to pass this down.

JSJ: Is there a specific example?

CS: A quilt that made called the 'The Fathoms They Abide.' That was a quilt that again had had a lot of my dyed and painted fabrics in it, but it was about the ebb and the flow of tides and tide pools and you know the color. It was an abstract quilt, but the colors in the quilt really evoked the time that our family spent at Rockport, Massachusetts on vacation when the boys were smaller, and they are both very, very fond of that quilt, because it really brings back those memories for them.

JSJ: So [inaudible.] had an impact on your life?

CS: Yes, yes. They liked that quilt a lot. Then I had hung that quilt on loan at the medical center in our town, and so they're always like, 'You're not going to like sell that to them, are you?' [laughter.] but no it's just on loan.

JSJ: If you had to write a book about what makes a great quilt, what would you put in it?

CS: Oh, well, they are so many ways to make a great quilt. I mean there are--there's so many different kinds of quilts that I think are really great, and so I'd have to think for a long time about just how to define that in a simple way. I think it would have to be a quilt that has a lot of the heart of the quiltmaker in it, whatever techniques she's using, and whatever way she wants approach the imagery the quilt, whether it's abstract or whether it's pictorial or appliqué or--you know I think there's room for so many kinds of quilts in the world, and I think it's absolutely incredible looking at the creativity that comes through from quiltmakers, so I'd have a very hard time making a small definition of a great quilt has to have this, this, and this, but of course I think heart of the quiltmaker would be the first thing and then skill in executing her ideas, you know, a way to get it across so that other people can get a glimmer of that passion, and sometimes if you see a quilt that has--I don't know--even a quilt that's very poorly made you can still feel so much passion of that quiltmaker. You just kind of overlook all those mistakes that are in it. Other times mistakes might be the first thing that you notice, and it doesn't quite--it lessens the impact of the quilt if you can't get past--and so it's a fine line, but I think we all want to do the best job that we can with our quilts that convey our ideas.

JSJ: If you're the curator for the museum, how would you go about picking your quilts for your museum?

CS: Oh, you're hitting tougher and tougher now. [laughter.]

JSJ: I warned you.

CS: Yes, yes. Well, I suppose I would look for quilts that are looking forward, quilts that are interpreting the past but have a lot of the present in them, that have the present minds and thoughts of the quilter that's making it, and that sort of has a vision of the future and what the future might be to that person or just really expresses that person's ideas. That's probably what I would look for.

JSJ: Uh huh. We've talked a lot about your own quilting history. In a broader sense, what do you think quilting has meant to women?

CS: Oh, and I've been quilting now for a long time, and I've attended conferences and show, and I've taught a lot of women various skills in quiltmaking, and I just think quilting has a huge influence on the lives of women today. Women are finding quilting as--it's kind of a sisterhood, because quilters are so welcoming, they're so friendly, they're so warm, and there's so many ways to express yourself in quilting no matter what kind of quilting you're doing. Even the very first quilt you make is going to have your own expression on it, because you're going to be choosing the fabrics yourself, and you're going to choose them according to what appeals to you, and you might pick a particular fabric that just, 'Oh, this would be so much fun, because this fabric has frogs on it, and my son is so into frogs. I'm going to put that it here,' and you know every quilt is going to be so personal. I think it's really opened for women a way to express their creativity, and many have taken that on and on and on 'til you get to see the wonderful things that we can see in shows today and then there's the social aspect of things too. It's a wonderful place for women to get together with each other and to share aspects of their lives together, and that happens in classes. You know people are sharing the experience of being alive and being a woman today, and we let men in every once in a while, [laughter.] but the men have to put up with a lot from us. [inaudible because Joyce is speaking at the same time.]

JSJ: We eventually have to, and we let them in, right? [laughter.]

CS: No, actually I've had some men in my classes, and I've had a couple of husbands and wives take my classes together, which is a really interesting experience. It's fun to see them choose fabric together and the differences, and they both sometimes work from the same stashes, but they won't make the same choices even if they might in the same class be making the same quilt design. It's a very interesting thing to see this happening, and I've kind of enjoyed that a number of times, and you know stereotypes don't apply. You might think, 'Oh, okay, men are going to be like more mathematical and more exact about quilting,' or this or that, or like they're going to take to the machine or something like--You might have some of those stereotypes that you would think, 'Well, what if a man quilted, what would it be like?' and I don't really see any of those stereotypes up front, and I think every man who begins to quilt is as individual as all the women who quilt, and I think that's very interesting too.

JSJ: How do you feel your own teaching activities fit into quilt history? [3 second pause.] Is that why you teach?

CS: Why I teach is because I--well, I was a high school teacher for many years, and I taught French in high school, and so I've always been kind of a teacher by nature, and I've learned a lot of skills teaching teenagers. Those skills are very easy for me to translate into teaching quiltmaking, and so the reason I teach is really because I love to show this joy. It's my passion, and so it's sort of natural for me to teach others how to have this kind of fun that I have and to use their creativity. To get back to your question, 'How's it going to impact quilt history?' I think the willingness of quilt artists to teach others to do the things that they're doing is really some ways unparalleled. I mean there are art teachers teaching art, but painters who become famous don't usually go and teach someone just how to do that type of painting. You know they'll kind of, 'Oh, this is my technique, and I'm sort of holding this technique,' and those techniques aren't always known at that time, not learned until considerably later. I think quilt artists are--even the most famous and the most world-renowned quilters who are in museums and not just quilt museums but also museums like in New York City, American Craft Museum, and those quilters are sharing their techniques, and they're sharing their thought processes, sharing what they do, and I think it's pretty incredible.

JSJ: Why is that? Why is that so different from all the other--

CS: Well, it may have to do with that quilt history, you know what has happened over the ages, women trading patterns and trading techniques. It may have something to do with that. It may also have to do with economics. If you want to make your living, if you want to do this 100% of the time, you have to find a way to support yourself and to support your fabric buying habits [laughter.] and you know all of those things. So it may have something to do with that. 'Well, what do I have to give people?' and that is something that they do have to share, and but their willingness to share is still--whether or not they're paid to give a class, I think their willingness to share is so wonderful thing, and they could decide to work at the bank instead.

JSJ: I'm pretty much done with the areas that I need to cover, but everyone has something important about quilting that's unique to them. Is there anything else that you'd like to share about this quilt or quilting in general that I haven't asked you about?

CS: No, I think you've asked some really good questions [laughter.] and so made me think hard, and I think this project is a really, really wonderful thing in that you're recording the histories of so many women and so many approaches to quilting and quilters who like to make so many different kinds of quilts, and I think it's a really interesting thing to hear all those points of view and how it's all coming about in this day and age, so--

JSJ: It's fun to be a part of.

CS: I bet it is, yes.

JSJ: The last question: What would your life be like if quilting wasn't a part of it?

CS: [3 second pause.] It's really hard to imagine that you have been quilting for, you know, almost three quarters of my life now, so I can't imagine what it would be like-- [announcement over loudspeaker.]

JSJ: Note to transcriber you can delete that last announcement. [laughter.] I'm sorry. Were you able to finish?

CS: I forgot. [laughter.]

UP: What would your life be like without quilting? [inaudible because Carol is speaking at the same time.]

CS: Oh, yes, and that's just so hard to imagine. I--

UP: I know you've been doing it for two thirds of your life.

CS: I've been doing it--yes. That's not mathematically correct necessarily, so nobody try to do any calculations. [laughter.] [inaudible because Joyce is speaking at the same time.] long time, yes. Yes, I've been doing it all my adult life, but I would have to be doing something to feed my creative soul, because that to me is what quilting does.

JSJ: [sound of papers being shuffled.] Okay. [interview ended at 9:52.]


“Carol Soderlund,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,