Tomme Fent



Tomme Fent




Tomme Fent


Kay Jones

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Houston, Texas


Lori Miller


Kay Jones (KJ): [inaudible.] Today's date is November 2, 2002. It's 8:22 in the morning. And I'm conducting an interview with Tomme Fent for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Project, in Houston, Texas, at the International Quilt Festival. Good morning, Tomme.

Tomme Fent (TF): Good morning.

KJ: You've brought a picture of a lovely quilt. Would you tell us about it?

TF: This is my quilt called "This Is My Country." That was my very first quilt, ever, and it was selected to hang in Paducah, in the 1999 AQS [American Quilters Society.] show. I picked up a magazine on a newsstand, Quilter's Newsletter Magazine. I wasn't even quilting in 1998. I'd been making clothing since I was a teenager and making doll clothing since I was a little girl. And my grandmother had quilted. So, I bought the Quilter's Newsletter Magazine and there was a contest in there called "Expressions of Freedom," to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I got on the Internet and downloaded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was reading through it, and I was just very inspired. And I thought, 'Well, I could do that. I could make a quilt.' This quilt ended up being so intricate and so difficult, it's a good thing it was my first, because I doubt, I'll ever make anything this difficult again. Of course, I had no clue what I was doing. The quilt ended up not being accepted into that show, but then it was accepted in Paducah. Going back and looking at it now, I still think the design is just incredible, but the construction leaves something to be desired. It was my first quilt, and I was totally self-taught. I taught myself to paper piece. I taught myself to machine quilt and did the whole thing on my home sewing machine. I used that stiff commercial binding stuff. I just didn't have any idea at all what I was doing. But I still think the design is amazing. In the design itself, there are ten windows of color, with a total of 3500 one-inch squares, and that represents the diversity of our human family here on earth. It's circular, and around the outside edge, I have the 185 flags of the member nations of the United Nations, as of September 1998. The flags are mostly pieced or appliquéd. There were some of them with designs that were so intricate, I didn't know how I was going to reproduce them. I hunted around and ended up finding the very first commercially available printable fabric. It's not even colorfast. You could run it though your printer and it had this fusible backing that you peeled off. It was so stiff. It was just not really great stuff. But it was really great at the time; it was the first product we had that could do that. So I downloaded some of the flags from the World Flag Database and printed them on my printer, and then went over some of the ones that were not real clear with Pigma pens. I made the quilt circular so that it can actually be hung with any part of it at the top. It has sleeves around the outside of the back so it can be hung in any direction, because no country is more important than any other country. And our world is in the center, shown from a north polar aspect. It's like you're looking down on the earth from space. I taught myself to paper piece for the top and bottom portions of the color windows. I started picking up quilting magazines, and there was an article in one magazine about how you could take one pattern, draw one pattern, and staple several sheets of paper together, and you can use an old, unthreaded needle and sew around your drawn pattern, punching through all the sheets of paper, to make the paper piecing pattern, so that's how I made the pattern. Of course, the first one that I did, I didn't realize that your piece of fabric has to be big enough that when you flip it over, it will cover that next part of the paper piecing pattern. But by the time I got through, I was really good at it. I think the quilt entry was due either September 1st or September 30th, 1998. I literally finished this quilt at like 7:45 the night before, got the slides back at 7:45 the night before the entry was due, and went flying into Federal Express just before they closed. And then I went to my first quilt festival in Houston a month later, and I took this old, dog-eared picture of my quilt with me--it's dog-eared now, it wasn't then. I had this picture of my quilt with me, and this is what I submitted for my entry. I took the slides in the backyard and hung the quilt on a sheet on the side of the house to take the pictures. The quilt is still very meaningful for me because it was my first quilt. The part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that it commemorates is one article that says everyone is entitled to a country and this is saying the world is my country, "This Is My Country."

KJ: That's moving. It's your very first quilt and it was a learning experience for you.

TF: Yes, it was.

KJ: Taught you many things. Had there been quilters in your family?

TF: My grandmother was the quilter in our family. My earliest memory--I have memories of, as a child, sleeping under quilts. But my earliest quilting memory is my grandmother and grandfather both hand quilting. They would have other couples come over, they'd have like two other couples, and they'd have this big, long quilt frame set up in the back bedroom. They would all sit there and visit and quilt all day. And the men would sit back there and stitch while the women went in and made dinner. And then they'd all have dinner, and the men would go back and stitch while the women cleaned up, and then the women would come back, and like six people would sit around the quilting frame. They could quilt a quilt in, you know, it would take just one or two of these sessions and they'd have a whole quilt hand quilted. My little sister and I would sit underneath the quilt, here would be the quilt and the quilt frame, and we would be down underneath the quilt and the quilt frame playing with our toys and stuff while they would be sitting up there quilting.

KJ: Where was this, Tomme?

TF: In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

KJ: And couples?

TF: Men, yes. And these were--by that time, even by the time I was born, these were already elderly men. So they had been doing it for quite some time.

KJ: Do you have one or more of those quilts?

TF: My family does. I don't actually have one of the quilts. I have one of the summer spreads, they called it, because it doesn't have batting and it's not quilted. But it's pieced. It's a beautiful Log Cabin made from 30 satins, bright colored satins. With a blue around the outside and a blue backing, and it's just lovely. My little sister has a Double Wedding Ring and some pieces of a Fan quilt. Then my cousin has a couple of quilts, actually two of which, I'm restoring for her right now. She had one that was given to her as a graduation gift from high school that's a fan quilt. And it's been loved almost to death. The borders are literally in shreds, just shreds. And so, I'm removing those and hand stitching batting to the inside and putting on new borders that are the same colors, using the thirties reproduction prints, and then I'm going to try to clean it. It's so funny, you remember those old iron-on patches, the little kind of oval types. It has a couple of these old iron-on patches in a couple of places on it, because it was just loved almost to death. It's mostly thirties' scraps. I have another one that's hers, that I'm restoring, that is twenties' fabrics. It's a sampler, and it's just amazing. Some of it, some of the fabric has faded so much, you can barely even see the color. Some of them have the dyes that have deteriorated, where the dots were, and so I'm using some of that real light-weight fusible stuff that sits underneath there and keeps it from pulling away further.

KJ: Now, your mother didn't quilt?

TF: No, my mother didn't quilt. She made incredible clothing, just amazing clothing. In fact, we had a friend who was a fabric company representative, and he would have her make samples for him to take to Market. I didn't know what Market was then but now I know probably what that was like. She would get to keep the clothing when he got back from Market. She made amazing, amazing clothing, but never learned to quilt, and she would love it. After I got into quilting, then I taught my little sister to quilt. I was making a Grandmother's Flower Garden, using the little English paper piecing and I had her come over one Saturday. And I had cut about probably 4000 two-inch squares-- because I don't fool with cutting those little hexagons. I just cut two-inch squares and you can just fold them over like that and baste it to the little paper piece and then just hand stitch them together. Then if you're a real perfectionist and think somebody's going to look at the back of your quilt, you can always trim when you're though. So, I had these 4000 two-inch squares all cut, and she came over and spent seven hours one Saturday just laying out the flowers and deciding what she wanted in the flowers, and we'd put them in those little bitty sandwich bags. Now, she quilts. Our mom would just be tickled to death that we're quilting together, and she would just love looking at these quilts. I just could hardly imagine what she would say.

KJ: You've talked about your past, past quilting in your family, and the beginning, the genesis of your quilting career. What happened after this quilt?

TF: Like I said, a month after this, I came to Houston for the first time and was just left speechless. Ever since then, I don't think there's ever been a time in the last four years when I haven't had at least two dozen ongoing projects at the same time. I'm one of those people that just, I just go from one to the other, just in a frenzy. I spend every single minute of my spare time quilting. It's a good thing my husband is an artist and has his own medium, and he's in the basement doing pottery while I'm upstairs quilting. At least he has something to do. And my kids are grown and gone, so I don't have people clamoring for my attention--just my dog. We only take time to dust when people are coming over. [laughs.] So, I can spend all of my time quilting.

KJ: What kinds of quilting?

TF: I love hand work. I love traditional quilts. I love art quilts. I just want to do it all.

KJ: Do you have any particular plans for this quilt? Is it going to retire, or what's going to happen to it?

TF: This quilt, right now, has been selected for a show, "Master Quilts Past and Present, Preserving the Voice of America's Quiltmakers." It's being put on at the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, by the Alliance for American Quilts which is what brought me to this interview actually. After that show, what I would really like to do is find a corporate collector who would be interested in it. I would really like to see the quilt hang in a public building. We have a couple of large corporate benefactors in the Sioux City, Iowa, area, and I'm thinking I may approach one of them about buying the quilt from me, and then donating it to hang in a building. If I had an ideal dream, I'd like to see the quilt hang in the United Nations building, because it is all the United Nations flags, but that's probably a little far out there. So, maybe it'll hang in the Sioux City Convention Center.

KJ: The whole creation of the quilt was a dream, so maybe it's not so farfetched. You said you spend about all of your spare time quilting. Is there something else that occupies your time?

TF: I'm a lawyer. I had a private law practice for ten years. Now I work for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, so I do have a full-time job.

KJ: And you quilt in your spare time?

TF: Yes. Evenings and weekends.

KJ: I think you've partially answered this. How does quilting impact your family?

TF: Probably mostly just financially. [laughs.] My husband is just without words when it comes to my fabric, and my collection of batting and embellishments. I have a closet about half the size of our bedroom, that is just full of fabric and books and videos. I have a little clothing rack at one end that I have clothing projects in progress because I love wearable art, just art of all kinds. And then it also impacts my family I think in that to me, the quilts I create are a legacy for my children and my grandchildren. I give a lot of quilts as gifts. In fact, it was only about a year ago that I finally ended up with one of my quilts on my bed. Which friends are just amazed that I finally made a quilt for myself. I love dogs--I have this charm bracelet with little dog houses and dog bones and a dog bowl, and I made a quilt that incorporates part of my collection of dog fabrics that I pick up everywhere I go. When I showed it at our Guild show-and-tell, a friend from the back of the room said, 'Now, are you going to keep that one?' Because I give them all away. I make them for gifts, baby gifts and wedding gifts and graduation gifts, and I just love giving quilts. I think there's nothing more special than to make a quilt for someone.

KJ: Do you find that's pretty universal with quilters, that they're generous?

TF: Yes, I think quilters are very generous. Although I haven't found a lot of quilters who make and give away as many large quilts as I do. I tend to work on a large scale, I don't make a lot of small things. I'll start out to make a baby quilt and it'll end up being 70 by 70. I give it to the person and they're like, 'Whoa! They can take this to college.' But I do think quilters are very generous. And quilters are so friendly. It's like having a family connection the world over. You can go anywhere and find quilters, and just immediately strike up a conversation and have something to talk about. One thing I think is so great about quilting is what it's done for me, and it's also done for other quilters, for those of us who have always considered ourselves not to be artistic. I didn't think I had an artistic bone in my body. I couldn't sit down and draw a picture, or draw someone's face, or paint. Quilting is the most incredible creative expression. It's a way of expressing grief, or joy, or love. You can just be as wild as you want or as conservative as you want. You can try something that's totally outside your personality, outside the box. Or you can do something that's just calming and relaxing. I made a quilt two years ago when I had to have a little doggie put to sleep that I had for a long time, and I can hardly talk about it without choking up. But I held her in my arms as they gave her the shot and it was, she was just such a sweet little dog. I went home and I was just beside myself that day. I was just crying all day. I had just gotten back from Houston that year and gotten Kay England's book, African Inspirations, and I love African fabrics. If I had to pick one fabric area that's my favorite, it's African fabrics. I had bought pieces of her African Inspirations line, plus I have a lot of authentic African fabrics. And I sat down and that weekend I made a quilt using Adinkra symbols. The word 'Adinkra' means 'saying farewell when parting,' and so as a memory quilt, not just for that little dog, but to all my 'dog gone doggies,' I made a memory quilt for my dogs, and it was using Adinkra symbols. The quilt itself doesn't have dogs in it, it doesn't look anything like dogs, but it was my way of experiencing and working through my grief and making this beautiful quilt with these beautiful African fabrics and these Adinkra symbols to remember my dogs.

KJ: Do you find yourself doing that very often, being inspired by an event or an emotion in your life?

TF: Sometimes, not really any more often than I'm inspired just by life itself, by the beauty of nature or the beauty of fabric. I just love fabric. I'm really inspired by, I guess, feelings more than anything. I experience very strong emotions and very strong emotional reactions to beauty and tragedy and events that will inspire me for my quilts. I have only just recently, this is interesting, made my first quilt from a pattern. I really like designing my own quilts, but this was really fun to make, and I think I'll probably do more quilts from patterns because it was really fun to have all the measurements and instructions all right there, and I didn't have to figure them out.

KJ: You said you did a lot of quilts from feelings. Is there a contrast and a balance then with your lawyerly life?

TF: No, it has nothing whatsoever to do with my lawyerly life. Being a lawyer is kind of what I do for a living. I guess it expresses who I am to an extent in that I am a very good communicator. I have good verbal skills. And also, I really like to argue. [laughs.] Being a lawyer allows me to--now, I argue on paper, because I write position papers for the judge, or I'll write a draft opinion for him to review on a case. But in my earlier life, in my private practice, ninety percent of my practice was filing lawsuits against car dealers for taking advantage of unwary consumers. So, I guess you could say I'm kind of a champion for the downtrodden. I just really don't see any of that coming through in my quiltmaking. Probably 'thank goodness.'

KJ: I thought that perhaps over the contrast that you were more sober and expressed less feeling as a lawyer than as a quiltmaker.

TF: No, I don't hesitate to fully express how I feel as a lawyer, and I get into spirited discussions with the judge when we disagree about how a case should be decided. It's good, that's what I'm there for. I'm his law clerk, and I'm there to be a devil's advocate and say, 'What about this position? What about that position?'

KJ: Is there anything about quilting you don't like?

TF: I don't think so. I just really think I like it all. Well, actually, I'm not real fond of Crazy Quilting. It just doesn't appeal to me. I've never been real drawn to Victorian era fabrics or images. It just doesn't appeal to me as much. But it's not to say I don't like it; I just don't particularly want to do it. I like to look at it.

KJ: It's not your particular expressive avenue. We're going to switch gears a little bit here and talk about the big picture of quilting. What do you think makes a great quilt?

TF: The thing that draws me to a quilt, more than any other element, is the design. And the design process is my favorite part of quilting. I think that a great design, well executed, makes a fabulous quilt, even if there's only simple quilting. I love the elaborate quilting that's going on today. It's really beautiful. But I think a really fabulous design that is well executed can make a really great quilt, even without elaborate quilting, even with just very simple quilting. Sometimes you want the design itself to be the star and not the quilting. Other times you want the quilting to be the star, and then the design can be simple. And, on occasion, you want the fabric to be the star. I just made a little quilt, a week ago, a friend had given me a small collection of fabrics from Indonesia that were just beautiful. They were so beautiful that I didn't want to cut into them and cut them into little pieces. So, I just made large squares with wide sashing, and just set them four by five. I just wanted the fabric to be the star of that one. I really think the number one aspect, to me, of a great quilt, is the design. Just look at Zena Thorpe's "Kells: Magnum Opus." Where does someone get a design like that? It's just incredible. You can go downstairs today and see quilts that are--the design is just amazing and so many of these people would say to you, 'I'm not an artist.' I've got news for them, yes, they are.

KJ: What do you think makes a great quilter?

TF: Someone who does it for the love of quilting. Someone who's not doing it for the specific purpose of sales or winning prizes or winning contests or impressing someone. A great quilter quilts just because she loves the fabric, and the techniques, and the quilting.

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

TF: Well, I am an 'instant gratification' kind of girl. So, I've never gotten very far into hand quilting, because I want to be through 'now' and move onto the next project. Remember, I'm the person who has two dozen projects going at once, and it's like I just can't wait to finish one so I can get to the next one. Now, having said that, I am starting to do a little hand quilting and I'm starting to do more hand work. I'm really enjoying hand quilting and I'm really enjoying hand appliqué. It's very relaxing, and kind of a reflective thing. I love to look at beautiful hand quilting but if I'm doing it, I just probably will have--I will say 95 percent of my quilts will either be machine quilted by a really outstanding long-arm quilter in the area, or it's just a smaller project I can do the machine quilting myself.

KJ: When you look at a quilt, it doesn't matter to you that it's machine or hand quilted, as long as it's a beautiful quilt?

TF: That's true, to an extent. I do like to see hand quilting, particularly on traditional quilts and whole-cloth quilts. I actually prefer machine quilting on the very contemporary quilts and art quilts. I think the machine quilting and the threads and some of the thread work embellishment techniques actually enhance the overall piece for the arts quilts. But I love to see beautiful hand quilting on traditional patterns.

KJ: Well, I think you've indicated to us that quilting is very important in your life. Why is that?

TF: Because it just frees my creative spirit. When I started quilting and started creating, when I started creating this quilt, "This Is My Country," I felt almost like someone had-- did you see that movie, "The Truman Show"? The guy lives in this bubble, and they've created this whole world for him. And he didn't even know he lived in the bubble. It's like most of us live in a box. I'll give you an analogy. If you take fleas, and put them in a jar, you can poke holes in the top of the jar so they can breathe obviously, but if you put a lid on the jar, the fleas will jump up and hit their little heads on the lid of the jar. Until after a while, they'll only jump up to just beneath the lid of the jar. And after that, you can take the lid off the jar and the fleas will still only jump up to just below where the lid of the jar was. They don't even realize something more is possible. Quilting showed me what was outside the jar for me. It allowed me to jump higher than I had ever jumped creatively, and to really, really stretch outside the box I had put myself in, which was, 'Tomme's not creative.' My box was 'Tomme's not artistic. Tomme's not creative.' Quilting just set me free. It tore down the walls of the box, to an extent. I'm still in boxes, I still have a box. I think I cannot create a quilt like "Kells: Magnum Opus," or I could not do machine quilting like Betty Colburn, or I could not do the curves in motion like Judy Dales. Those are my boxes. Gradually, I will attempt those techniques and get out of those boxes. I have been so astounded by the Journal Quilts at this year's Festival and have already made a commitment with two other friends to begin doing Journal Quilts. We're going to start in December. I'm really looking forward to doing a monthly journal in a small quilt format, to try new techniques and to chronicle what's going on with me in my quilting life. I just think that was an extraordinary project.

KJ: Quilting influences not just your life, but the lives of other women as well. What part do you think it's played in our history, the history of women?

TF: Well, it's a chronicle of our history. The women who've made quilts as a creative expression. The women who've made quilts while their men were away fighting wars, that occupied their hands and their time and kept them from obsessing on the possible plight of their family members. The women who've had political statements to make, at times in our history when it was not really allowable or appropriate for women to make political statements. They could do so through quilts. We've been able to have a voice through quilts at times when society would have had us be silent.

KJ: Do you think there's a difference in expression of a quilt in different areas of the nation, of the country?

TF: Not as much as some have possibly suggested. I think the differences, there are some cultural differences as far as possibly the images that we incorporate into our quilts, or some of the embellishments, like some of the differences in, for example, some of the beads from India versus some of the carved bone beading and buttons from Africa, or some of the more whimsical plastic and glass embellishments from the United States. I think overall, as women, we are expressing ourselves, our cultures, and what's going on in the world. I think that's taking place worldwide. I just don't see--for example, I've been a member of an online quilting group for the last few years that concentrates on African American quilting. And the large majority of the women who are members of the group are African American quilters. They actually take quite a bit of offense at what the 'white' world has labeled as African American quilts. A lot of the quilts that are unattributed that Caucasian quilt historians have said, 'Well, that's an African American quilt. You can tell because of the, for example, the primitive images.' The African American women really take offense at that and say, 'That could have been made by anyone, anywhere. We make quilts. We don't make a quilt that's this particular way or these particular colors because we're African American. We make the same quilts you're making.' I don't think there is so much difference. I like to look for the similarities between us and enjoy the differences. But we're all quilters.

KJ: What do you think, for yourself, does quilting teach you?

TF: I see myself continuing to make quilts for family and friends, and for myself. But I really see myself getting more and more into making art quilts. I just see myself really stretching creatively, and that is the medium that calls me. Though I have tried to work on smaller scale, I still see myself working in large scale. I have a large design wall at home, and I just fill it with images and color. I've thought about doing more teaching. I enjoy teaching classes at my local quilt shops. And I like to be able to inspire other quilters with challenges and ideas I come up with. I usually come up with a mystery quilt for our guild at Christmas. I've come up with a challenge club where I would give them a different challenge to work on every month. One month they had to take any traditional block, bisect it from corner to corner, and use different color ways on each side of the block, and see what they came up with. And they came up with really neat things. I really enjoy that; I really enjoy trying to inspire other quilters. I also see myself getting more involved with organizations that promote quilting with the Alliance for American Quilts, with the International Quilt Association, on a real participatory level, whether it be as a board member or a committee member because I want to spread the love of quilting among younger people, among more men and boys, and also provide an opportunity for people to experience some of the joys of quilting they might not otherwise have an opportunity to experience. Whether it's people with handicaps or children from homes that can't afford for the children to have a sewing machine, for example, or things like that.

KJ: With your vision, represented by your art quilt, I don't doubt you'll do all those things. We've about come to the end of our time. Is there something we haven't touched on that you'd like to talk about?

TF: We haven't talked about the Internet and its value to quilters. Oh my gosh, I have met quilters from all over the world on the Internet. Even arranged to meet and had dinner with an online quilting friend from Germany and her mother, that I met in a class through Quilt University. There is so much available to quilters as far as finding patterns and fabrics and embellishments and talking with other quilters about techniques and sharing. I think the Internet has brought us all closer together. There was an article several years ago about how the Internet was going to isolate people and have us stay inside our homes and not get out and meet people. We may not meet each other face to face as much, but we're meeting each other online all the time. I've just met dozens and dozens and dozens of quilters I never would have met otherwise. It won't be long before technology will be such that we'll be able to sit in front of our computer screen and, if we choose to, click a button, and we'll be looking at each other while we're talking anyway. I think the Internet is of immense value to quilters and the quilting world and is just going to continue to evolve. We'll have more virtual quilt shows and all kinds of new opportunities.

KJ: I would like to thank Tomme Fent for allowing me to interview her today, as part of the 2002 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Project. Our interview concluded at 9:01.


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