Ami Simms




Ami Simms




Ami Simms


Jo Francis Greenlaw

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/ United Notions


International Quilt Festival
Houston, TX USA


Elaine Johnson


Jo Frances Greenlaw (JG): Good morning. This is Houston at the Quilt Festival Saturday morning November 2nd, 2002. We're interviewing Ami Simms at [inaudible.] Houston Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save our Stories project. The interviewer today is Jo Frances Greenlaw [spells her name.]. The scribe is Georgann Wrinkle [spells the name.] and we are going to be talking to Ami Simms from Flint, Michigan, who is here today and this week as our teaching faculty member at the Quilt Festival. Well I think that the first thing we're going to do is look at this wonderful quilt you have brought. The name of it is?

Ami Simms (AS): St. Basil's Cathedral.

JG: St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow? [unknown voice replies. inaudible.] Wonderful.

Ami Simms (AS): Red Square in Moscow, right behind Peter Jenning's head.

JG: You've not ever been there.

AS: No. Have you been there?

JG: I haven't, but I've seen this quilt before and I feel like I've been there.

AS: Oh.

JG: I love this quilt. Let's see what it says: 'Copyright 1989 by Ami Simms.' Tell us a little bit about it, overall to build a visual picture for our audio cassette here.

AS: It's a pictorial quilt of the cathedral in Moscow in Red Square and it's to me a very "quilty" building. I hand-dyed all the fabric and I did much of the embroidery in airports waiting for planes. So this was a good road trip quilt for me wasn't it? A little bit at a time as I went. When I was still allowed to take scissors on the aircraft. [JG laughs.] The fabric that you see here on the left hand side and also on the back of the quilt is also hand-dyed fabric, but this time instead of doing the bucket method, it is done with a resist. Being a novice dyer, I was looking for a resist that would come out easily and still inhibit the dye from not getting caught, and I came up with the idea of using my husband's Mennen Speed Stick deodorant as a resist.

JG: Oh.

AS: It was an anti-perspirant [JG laughs.] as well as a deodorant and I smeared it all over the fabric, dyed it, and all the white areas are where the anti-perspirant resisted the dye and it smelled good too, came out fine [JG laughs.]. But not too many dyers use Mennen Speed Stick Deodorant as a resist. [inaudible.] [someone in the background laughs.]

JG: Tell me how you--this is this is an appliqué quilt?

AS: Yeah. It's all hand appliquéd with a technique that I've taught called "Invisible Appliqué.” So the thread could be really any color. It forms a running stitch when the thread is finally pulled taut and the threads do disappear unlike traditional appliqué where if you're very, very good at it, and take a very small chunk of fabric on your needle as well as a piece of the appliqué of the background, you pull it tight and the stars and the planets are aligned then the thread hardly shows. Maybe. This technique, however, is more like a running stitch where you take a very large chunk of fabric on your needle, working with one fabric or the other- never both, and when you do pull the thread, the thread really does disappear. If you were to look at this and take your fingers and peel apart the seams it looks as if you were looking at a running stitch which is really what you're looking at. It's just worked from the top.

JG: What kind of fabrics are you using in this?

AS: Cotton sheeting, which I know there's a number that corresponds to that, but I can't remember what it was. It's an untreated fabric specifically made for dying and I was using the Procion cold water reactive dyes.

JG: A hundred percent cotton--

AS: Yeah--

JG: In your batting?

AS: Batting was Mountain Mist Blue Ribbon Cotton, a hundred percent cotton throughout.

JG: And why did you choose this quilt to bring to us today?

AS: It was small and I had it with me anyway. [JG laughs.] I know that sounds terrible. It's a quilt that I think is my trademark more or less, too. It's on my business card. It's been published a few different places. I think I'm known for this quilt and again it was quite handy.

JG: So this quilt is quite important to you. It's not--

AS: Oh, yeah.

JG: Going to be sold or what.

AS: No. No. This hangs in my home, at the top of my circular staircase and I see it every day and my family looks at the blank wall right now and misses me terribly. [JG laughs.] I hope.

JG: I detect a good sense of humor in this lady.

Georgann Wrinkle (GW): Oh, yes, absolutely. [laughs.] She's a stitch. [inaudible.]

JG: How do you design? Tell us.

AS: Painfully. I don't find the process enjoyable at all. I worked with several different photographs that I got from the library. I started with an opaque projector, sort of worked from there. My husband is a school teacher in a private Catholic school. He had a text book that had a picture of - oh can we rewind this, that's the wrong quilt [JG laughs.]. That was a different pictorial quilt. For St. Basil's I worked with a bunch of pictures from the library. The problem was I couldn't focus in on the opaque project because the pictures didn't belong to me. It was very old, belonged to the library. Was afraid it would catch on fire. So I did the outlines of the buildings, just along the outside edge, so you have basically a big glob in the middle with a rough outline so after I got the basic outline of everything then I went and studied the pictures and then I drew all the inside lines. One of the problems with working with an unfocused picture and thinking you have it nailed, really concentrating on the inside instead of maybe the outside edges is you forget to look at the whole picture. This is a Russian Orthodox cathedral. You will note that there is only cross bar on the cross. There should be two. [laughs.] I didn't realize that because it was out of focus. And I know about it looking back here, because I thought 'well I need to work [thumping noise.] on the main part of the quilt in the center. So after it hung several places, several people reminded me that 'Oh, gosh you ought to have put that second cross-bar in.'

JG: You will never go back to add--

AS: No. It's just not that important to me. [JG laughs.] I also moved one of the onion domes from the rear of the building to the front, and I don't remember which one that was [JG laughing.]but it was just too impossible to do the other one and I thought well one dome is much like another. So, unless you go to Red Square and hold the quilt in front of the cathedral. Where if you're a Russian I suppose you would notice but now I told you and so I guess everyone will know now.

JG: Go ahead tell us where has this won awards.

AS: I can't remember. National Quilting Association, NQA. It was exhibited here in Houston and got a big yawn. [someone laughs then inaudible.] A bunch of other shows. I can't remember. [loud bang in the background.]

JG: This one I noticed is embellished with embroidery--

AS: Yes. I don't know how to do embroidery so I faked it.

JG: Is this from your own thinking or is there actual, a floral design?

AS: Oh, there is floral design. This is a really weirdo looking building. They repaint it every couple of years, every ten, twenty years or something. The colors are quite garish. This is a--sort of right before their next paint job. They do have a bunch of floral designs on there. It looks pretty much like this, depending on what year you look at the photograph. I also took [inaudible.] liberty at the bottom there's really a plaza there, as opposed to a lot of greenery. But I couldn't find the right fabric for dirt to show the difference between concrete and dirt and grass on the curb. I thought, 'Oh well I'll just draw trees in there.'

JG: You like trees. Well, tell us how you became interested in quilting.

Georgann Wrinkle (GW): Where did this all begin for you?

AS: Oh, I'm an anthropologist by training, so this oral history stuff is familiar to me and when I was in college at Kalamazoo College a small Liberal Arts school in Michigan I was required to do a Senior Independent Project (SIP) which amounted to a mini thesis. It was an undergraduate work that they don't publish them or anything, but you work for a very long time. I needed to do something in my field. I could have gone abroad to study foreign culture and I thought, 'No I prefer to stay in the country.' And I decided to study the Old Order Amish. That's one of my presentations; I put on my bonnet and my Amish dress and talk about my experiences. I stayed with an Amish family for about three months, on and off, and I learned what Amish culture was like by being Amish, sort of pretend. I dressed Amish. I ate Amish. I learned to speak Pennsylvania Dutch. I also learned to quilt there, as my very first contact with the Amish was at a quilting bee. And they asked if I wanted to try and my mindset of course was a nineteen year old kid there, in college who knows nothing. I had never met an Amish person before. And my idea is, if I was really friendly and very nice maybe they would invite me to live with them for three months. [someone laughs.] This is what I was thinking so I was very nice and I just 'pleased' and 'thank you'ed' my way all over, and had they said, 'Would you like to take off all your clothes and run naked in the woods?' I would have said, 'Yes, sure, whatever.' So when they said 'Do you want to quilt?' 'Sure whatever. I'll try it all.' And I sat down with a group of Amish women around this thing that looked to me like a large trampoline. It was a quilting frame. They're all stitching a mile a minute. I mean their little hands moving, threads popping, the scissors are sliding; they're all 'bldldldl' in Pennsylvania Dutch. I took my needle and pushed it down and moved it over and you ever heard of a toe hooker? A toe hooker is a stitch that is so long; conceivably if ever you would have put the quilt on a bed you could get your toe hooked in it. [Georgann repeats, 'toe hooker' and laughs.] That day I made foot hookers, really, really big ones and I didn't use a thimble. They asked if I wanted to and I said, 'No thank you, I don't need one. And they all went 'tee he tee he' [someone laughs.] and they laughed. These little Amish ladies with their prayer coverings. I bled from both hands, not just the underneath hand, the one on top too. It was a disaster. I made horrible-looking stitches. They told me many months later, very kindly, that after I left they pulled out all my stitches. I don't know what they did about the blood. But for some reason it was so appealing, maybe it's like beating your head against the wall, as soon as you stop, it feels so good. [JG laughs.] I really enjoyed the tactile experience. I liked the camaraderie of it all. They seemed to be having so much fun. The finished product turned out gorgeous, in spite of my stitching. I thought, 'My, I might want to try this.' So that was really the key that got me started. There are no other quilters in my family.

JG: Today any quilters--have you influenced sisters, aunts--

AS: Nobody. [laughing.]

JG: Nobody?

AS: Nobody. My mother sort of tried it but that's not her deal and I think my daughter would rather eat glass than sew. [JG laughs.] In fact I was supposed to teach her how to sew and I married Mr. Safety, who was very concerned about all things safe, we have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, and carbon monoxide detectors. He suggested that if were to teach Jen how to sew I should stand over her with my arms positioned at her hand so that should the needle come dangerously close, like within a foot, I would move her hand out of the way before the needle would get her, [JG laughing.] which required me to stand over her for many long times, so basically I signed her up with the local quilt shop and they taught her just fine. [JG laughs.] So she's not a quilter, she does other very cool stuff.

JG: Is quilting an income source for you or a livelihood?

AS: Yes.

JG: And did you plan for that to happen?

AS: Oh. No.

JG: How did that happen?

AS: No, no, no, no, no. First, you see first I trained as an anthropologist where basically the only way you eat is if you want to train other people to be anthropologists.

JG: Oh. [laughs.]

AS: So I went back to school and got a teaching certificate and I taught second-graders for about three and a half years. I enjoyed it immensely and then they ran out of children. They told me 'declining enrollment', so I was laid off. And I just opened a business where I was working along a Tupperware plan, doing home parties, but with sewn items like casserole cozies, checkbook covers, and calendars, and hot pads, and wallets and I was an idiot. I would made a bunch of samples and take them to somebody's house, have a home party, and then they would order, and I would go to the local JG-Ann Fabrics and buy everything retail and deliver the goods in about two weeks. I burned out the motor in my Bernina sewing so much. It was really stupid. And I lost quite a lot of money doing it [JG laughs.] but I didn't know. I had no business training being an anthropologist. That was sort of the start of wanting to do something else. And then I had entered several quilts in the quilt show locally, like an hour away, locally. And they asked if I would please pick up my quilts so they wouldn't have to ship them. So I went to their guild meeting to pick them up and they said, 'Well while you're here would you tell us about the quilts?' Because I was quilting on an old-fashioned Amish-type quilting frame. A lot of these gals were working on the more modern roll-up frames that first came out. I was basting my quilts and they really didn't know about that, so I yakked a little about the quilts. And when I was done a woman in the audience said 'Well would you come and do your lecture at our guild?' I said 'I didn't do a lecture. I was just talking about my quilt.' 'Well, that's fine. We'll have you do that.' And that was in Ohio. It sort of snow-balled from that point. So I didn't intentionally think I was going into teaching quiltmaking, but it just sort of happened.

JG: Do you sell your quilts?

AS: No. I sold maybe a couple. The last one, but it wasn't fun. And then I don't have the quilts any more.

JG: What do you do with all of your quilts?

AS: I hang them in my home.

JG: Do you still make a lot?

AS: Oh, yeah. I make way too many. [JG laughs.] I ran out of beds like the first year or two. When I was teaching school I'd make two quilt-sized hand quilted quilts a year. Of course when you turn professional you don't have quite that amount of time, so I made smaller quilts. I do most of them by machine, machine quilting them. I think I've probably made close to 200 of them. Probably, at this point - of all different sizes, different techniques.

JG: So you are mainly teaching.

AS: Yeah, and what I do for fun is make the quilts.

JG: - Make the quilts.

AS: I live in a padded house [JG laughs.] with thread hanging everywhere. They're on the walls [person in the background laughs and repeats 'on the walls.'], they're draped, sort of sound-proof. It helps with the insulation.

JG: Well what do you sell besides your teaching?

AS: I write books.

JG: You write books?

AS: On how to quilt? I've got eight books published. I own my own publishing company called Mallery Press.

JG: So you can do that and still keep your quilts? I think that's [loud noise.] very good.

AS: Yeah. I give a lot of them away. Only to people who truly appreciate them.

JG: Well, how is this impacting your family? Your husband? Your daughter?

AS: They think I'm nuts but they go along with me.

JG: They let you travel?

AS: Oh, it's more than let me. It's I'm encouraged to [JG laughs.] get out of the house. 'We've had enough of you.' No, I've been doing this for twenty years, being on the road. And I go for about a weekend a month. My husband has always been incredibly supportive. Any time I wanted to go, it's 'Go, have fun.' He's taken care of everything, and I know that's not the case with a lot of professional quilters where the husbands need to have their meals cooked or at least frozen ahead of time. I don't know. I gave up cooking about four years ago entirely, so if they're not used to fending for themselves they have a problem.

JG: [inaudible discussion in the background.] Tell us about the--your part of business is on the internet. I do get a newsletter.

AS: Oh, do you really? And you came anyway? Thank you. [Everyone laughs.]

JG: Tell us about that and why--why you do that and why--it's just an adorable newsletter.

AS: I got hooked up with the internet when it first became a little popular and I'm thinking by mid-nineties is when I got my first email account, so it's been a while. And I've watched it grow from maybe five percent of the quilters being online and even knowing what that is, all the way to now where I would guess ninety-five percent of the people are online. And it goes across economic lines, age, everything, we're connected electronically now and it's great. I write a newsletter for ten thousand, over ten thousand quiltmakers every month, and it's growing. I have a web page. We get probably two hundred thousand hits a month. It boggles my mind. The kinds of connections that you can make online is just extraordinary, and it's so easy to communicate. I love email, it's great. Teaching gigs, I get information or requests about doing various jobs, it's mostly email. When I get a letter, it's like, 'Huh? Paper?' [JG laughs.] Go to my web--I don't even have anything to mail anyone any more. It's just much easier to click a button and poof! I've taught electronically, too. It was a quilt workshop entirely online, I never met the students. And I was the first one here at Houston to do a partial electronic workshop where we met for several months ahead of time and then finished up the workshop face to face. Trading fabrics and just putting our quilts together. It's been really a lot of fun. And I think there is a momentum going in that direction, now that the world is getting smaller and smaller, the idea of taking a class in your pajamas, at the time of day that you feel comfortable, and having the connection with your teacher that's more or less immediate, that's really cool. It's a lot less inhibiting I think for students, too who are too timid to ask questions in class. It's different teaching because you can't read their looks, you can't read the expression. You can't figure out are they getting it or aren't they? So you have to do a little bit more probing and of course every utterance has to be spell-checked and made sure that it can be understood by everyone and the tone of voice that you write in has to be such a way that you don't offend anyone. For people who like to be funny that's a hard line that you want to get very close to, but not go over the edge with. So I always want somebody else to read my emails before I send them out to the whole group just to make sure that I'm not sending anything that would be offensive.

JG: Do you design using your computer? Have you ever done--

AS: I'm working on a quilt right now where I'm actually designing on the computer. And it's frustrating, but entertaining.

JG: Do you use a certain program or are you using--

AS: I don't use the traditional quilting program. I use Freehand, which is more an illustrating kind of program. It was a program that was introduced to me by one of the fellows that designs covers for my books. So it was a good thing we could both share and he could give me some instruction on how to do that. That's been interesting. I'm still a paper and pencil gal and I will sketch things out, scan the sketches in, trace over with a computer, but that's mostly for appliqué.

JG: Well, Ami do you do an equal amount of appliqué to piecing or are you--

AS: Well, I find that because I have so many quilts I want to make I do many more machine quilts, machine piecing usually. I'm just now getting into machine appliqué and I'm having a ball. I always however have something to do by hand and I find that hand work to me is therapy. It's calming, relaxing, it's centering, that repetitive stitch over and over where your hands sort of take off without connecting with your mind at all. It frees your mind to do other things, contemplate, solve the world's problems, do math, watch TV, talk with somebody. I find machine work WORK. I don't find that relaxing at all. I really--my knob is geared up to twelve and a half; I'm really concentrating on what I'm doing. Mostly so I don't sew over my own fingers [JG laughs.] but you can make so many more mistakes quicker on a sewing machine than you can by hand. You really have to watch it.

GW: [inaudible.]

AS: Yeah.

JG: Tell us about your studio. Tell us what it looks like.

AS: My husband said I could have the living room. [JG laughs.] So I took over. We blocked out the fireplace. I jammed three quilt batts up the flue to keep the cold air out. I wrote a note so the future owners would know to extract the three quilt batts from the flue. I put some Celotex over the fireplace and put cabinets around it and that has my design wall on the outside and the storage on the inside for fabric. I used four kitchen cabinets, back to back and on wheels for my cutting table. It's comfortable for my height. I have an ironing table that looks more like a hospital gurney [JG laughs.], really big and wide, two foot wide and probably 6 feet long so I can iron yardage and still have enough room for clutter. I live with piles on the floor. I'm not a very organized person, although I like to have everything clean, so when the clutter gets too much I clear the decks and start re-piling. It helps me reconnect. But I'm a very messy person. The idea of having a studio in your living room means it's the first thing that guests to my home see. There's a wonderful quilt that I saw recently, that said, 'If you want to see me come anytime, if you want to see my house make an appointment.' [GW laughs.] That says it all. I'm just who I am. And the people who love me, I feel have gotten used to me, and the others, well, I'm sorry.

JG: Do you consider yourself artistic?

AS: Sometimes I'm blessed with a really good idea. I have no formal art training at all. And sometimes new ideas come to me and I don't know how to keep them coming, other than to say 'thank you very much', put it into fabric and then sort of wait expectantly for the next one to arrive. [JG laughs.] My writing is the same way. A lot of people I have seen have a whole life plan ahead of them, that they want to write this book here and then I want to write this book and then I want to write this pattern, and I want to do this book. And I wait for the muse to contact me. And when she comes, I try and do what she says. But it's serendipitous. I'm always surprised that something else is coming down the pike.

JG: Are you--do you consider yourself a traditional quilter? Are you of this new artistic thinking type of quilter?

AS: I think I'm going to answer that in a really bad way. Somebody asked or somebody said and I don't know who this somebody was, to be a real artist you have to have a recognizable style. And it really ticked me off. I don't want to make the same quilts over and over again changing just one element. [inaudible.] Sunrise A, Sunrise A-2-B, Sunrise 3-4, Sunrise in the morning, Sunrise - like really artsy names for quilts that are supposed to go with the names where it's very recognizable, but to me very boring. So I make the quilts I want to make, which means I do pictorial quilts like this. I've done Amish reproduction quilts, I've done traditional patchwork, I've done inventive patchworks, I'm designing a line right now for pizza fabric, where, yeah, there is going to be fabric that looks like crust, fabric that looks like sauce, fabric that looks like cheese, fabric that looks like toppings, like mushrooms and banana peppers and [JG laughs.] and anchovies and stuff. A traditional quilter couldn't do that--

JG: What fun! No.

AS: So I have my foot in a lot of different places. I like to make very type A, Anal-retentive kinds of quilts like this one. [JG laughs.] And then I equally enjoy being a free spirit and combining fabric just for the JGy of seeing what happens when you do that. So depending on what I feel like, that's what I do. And I never, it's bad to say, 'Never,' but I rarely will think of a class and then come up with a quilt to go with it. I always start with a quilt. If I enjoy the quilting and quilt making it, then it's a class. I don't just make class samples. I make quilts to satisfy me, and then if it's a teachable thing, then I'll do a workshop with that quilt.

GW: So you are teaching here at this festival? You are on the faculty here. Tell me what classes [inaudible.].

AS: You want me to remember that far back? Yesterday seems like a hundred years ago. [GW laughs.]. I have a new pattern called "Twisted Sisters” which is a--it's very hard to describe. It's sort of a pinwheel with an edge to it.

JG: And that quilt, you have a quilt hanging down there that's called that?

AS: No. No that's uh, oh yeah, I do. Thank you. I'm glad you remembered. [JG laughs.] Duh. Yeah, thank you, that was one of the things I was demonstrating. I'm so glad you're with us here. [JG laughs.] What else? I do hand appliqué and I'm doing a free-form machine appliqué workshop this afternoon, where my dog designed the quilt block. Yeah. We had a dog that we raised for Leader Dogs for the Blind. She flunked. And then we gave her to "Paws with a Cause” which is another group that trains dog to help people with physical disabilities. She flunked. So we got her as a forever pet and she flunked that, sadly. That was just a real hard dog to live with but anyway; the dog has influenced me a lot. The dog used to write the newsletters for a long time. [JG laughs.] The dog's been on the Internet. This is the most publicized dog ever. JHB [button company.] actually made a button with Daisy the Dog to raise money for Leader Dogs. So there's a button with this animal, which now lives with another quilter, who has a very, much bigger heart than I do. Where--what was your question? [JG bursts into laughter. all laugh. all are talking at the same time.]

GW and JG: We were talking about your--

AS: Yeah, the dog made up this quilt block and it's a way for us to raise money for "Leader Dogs for the Blind” and "Paws for a Cause” and to take a class you have--of course you have to sign up and then you have to pay a buck for the pattern, and the buck goes to one of the two organizations. The dog was really quite talented coming up with a pattern. I was surprised. [JG giggles.] Well the copyright people refused to acknowledge the dog as copyright holder so I had to take a little extra responsibility there.

GW: Get the money too.

JG: Do you--

AS: Oh I didn't get the money, the dog got the money [Ami laughs.], yeah "Paws with a Cause”--

JG: So you do, since you're teaching machine class you do machine quilting as well?

AS: Oh, I love machine quilting.

JG: You do.

AS: Mmhmm.

JG: Equal amounts? Do you prefer one?

AS: Well, I do, I do whatever, I like whatever I'm doing at the moment best. As I said, the hand work I find very relaxing, machine work is work. I can make more machine quilts than I can by hand and obviously I have so many ideas kicking around that I'll never live long enough to do them all, so machine is a great option. And I'm learning how to be better at the machine. And that's, that's really my professional goal for the next little bit. [cracking noise.]

GW: What kind of batting are you liking?

AS: Oh, gosh. The quilt I have in there right now, let's see it's got a Mountain Mist Cotton batt, I think it's their new one that came out [inaudible.] "White Rose,” Something Rose. Cream Rose, White Rose I think it's been called. I've used some other products too; the batting industry has really made tremendous gains in getting products that are needleable, washable and non-bearding. I have a quilt that I made with a batt a while ago and that thing just bearded terribly. They seem to have licked that, which is wonderful. It's easier to pick a batt now then it used to be. I'd do a lot of testing and I'd sew these little samples to make sure I like it the best. [inaudible.] I think they've just done tremendous things improving their products.

JG: When you look at the quilts, like down in the show, the hundreds of quilts that are hanging and quilts that are in museum collections, what do you think makes one really great? What is the most appealing thing about a quilt to you?

AS: Oh. The most appealing thing to me is 'Do I want the quilt?' And I mentally give out my own awards as I go to a show and it may be the workmanship, it may be for design, but mostly what I think to myself is would I want that quilt? And if I want that quilt I give it the "Ami Award.” [JG laughs.] I often don't agree with what the judges say, and that's okay. I'm totally, absolutely overwhelmed every time I go to a major show and many minor shows also. When I look and see the incredible talent that's around. And I'm so humbled and I feel so inferior [laughs.] and I get like it's just, 'Oh! I should just throw out my needle right now and take up tole painting or something, because the amount of talent that's out there can be so intimidating.' I look a lot at the vendors and I look out one eye at the quilts and go 'Wow!” and then I find the one that, or two or forty seven that I would want to have as my own. And that's how I sort of enjoy a show.

JG: Is it color or design that--

AS: It could be anything.

JG: Oh.

AS: Yeah and sometimes it could be a quilt that everybody else hates and I, I find something that talks to me. I was the creator of 'The Worst Quilt in the World' contest. [JG laughs.] And there were--oh this is a legitimate thing, yeah, it went it for three years and we gave out good prizes, like thousands of dollars of prizes for people to enter quilts that they thought were real dogs. And they entered anonymously and my favorite JGb was to say, 'I'm so sorry, but somebody else has made a quilt worse than you. [JG laughs.] You're a loser, but you're a winner, you know.' [JG and Georgann laugh.] And there were quilts that were in everybody's estimation totally awful, but they spoke to me anyway. And there was something about it; there was one quilt that was a series of squares. She never got anywhere near getting the intersections together; in fact they were all just whacked right off. [JG laughs.] So it looked more like a hexagon than a square. She covered all the intersections with buttons. It didn't hang straight. It was lumpy. There were no redeeming qualities, nothing, nobody liked it, but it was just--[Georgann giggles.] it had a soul. No matter what you do, and I can relate, because I made some really kaka quilts, but there's something in there that makes you not want to throw it out, and still pet it, and like it, and go 'That came out of me. That's okay.' That's the beauty of quiltmaking. Anybody at any level can still get that 'Oooh Aaah' feeling. And still do that happy dance.

JG: Are you still having that contest?

AS: No we had--

JG: Giving awards?

AS: No we had to stop. I was afraid of health-concerns for the judges, looking at that much ugly [JG bursts out laughing.], it could have been dangerous. I didn't want to be responsible [metallic hammering in the background.] And truth is people have gotten better. You know after three years they've cleaned out the attic. I mean we had quilts that people had sewn pantyhose and dishtowels to, accidentally supposedly. [JG laughs.] We had a quilt that was made with duct tape. We had some wonderful, totally innocent entries and they could go either way. They could even create a quilt that was the ugliest [inaudible.], you know, done for the contest. And a lot of them did. But I think we cleaned out the ugly quilts. They're live online now.

JG: So they are exhibited? We can enjoy them somewhere?

AS: And I do a lecture where you can see the good, the bad and the ugly. [JG laughs.]

JG: It's too bad. Well what do you enjoy the most about your quilting experience?

AS: I am, I am still after the feel of the fabric, the sound of the thread going through the fabric, petting the fabric, collecting fabric, cutting it up into little pieces and sewing it back together again and then being able to communicate with other quilters and share the incredible creativity. It's electric. The camaraderie that you have with quilters, I don't think it's like anything else. We're in this building where there are supposed to be 5000 students alone, let alone how many gazillions going through the show [pounding in the background.] I betcha I could walk up to anybody there, give them the quilter's handshake. Do you know what that is? They're wearing a quilted garment and you reach over and touch their shoulder, "Ooh that's really cool fabric.' [JG laughs.] That's a quilter's handshake. I could go up to anybody and we would have something in common. We had probably had to de-thread our spouse before he left to work. [JG laughs.] You know, probably fabric stuff stuck to his leg. We have probably smuggled fabric in at one time or another, or have a stash that's way too big, that we'll never ever use up, we can relate to just about anybody else at this show. Quilters by and large are the friendliest, most honest, sharing, giving people I've ever run into anywhere. When I think of what I do for a living, I go to a place I've never been, some strange lady who I don't know picks me up at the airport. If I'm lucky I'll remember her first name, drive to a place I've never been to before, I used to stay in people's homes even. Would I let my daughter hitchhike? Are you crazy? This is what I'm doing [chuckling.] I'm a vagrant quilter. I just travel around from place to place and through the kindness of strangers I have felt so at home and so wanted. It's tremendous. I get to do stand-up comic--

JG: [chuckling.] You're good at that.

AS: Well, yeah I know, but people said I should do that in real-life. [JG giggling.] Well real people don't get it. It's only funny for other quilters. So, I've been so blessed to make the acquaintances of so many find quilters, and to get that muse to talk to me every once in a while, and have some quilts go right and maybe to win an award or to be able to show it without being embarrassed about it with a paper bag over my head. This is a tremendous fusing of individuals on this planet. We're so lucky that we get to be a part of that.

GW: I think we all agree with you.

JG: Can you verbalize how this has helped women in America, the quilting movement, what it has opened up for them and--

AS: Tremendous. I think it's a tremendous. First of all, women have a place to go where they know that pretty much whatever they show and share somebody else is going to say, 'You're worth it. You've done a good job.' They get this incredible support, they get validation. I've run into people that I think would be so shy they wouldn't even raise their hand in a public place to ask a question, yet when they get in the comfort of their guild they can say things, they can be a part of the big--they can be a very important part of it. It's "Meals on Wheels” for quilters, its comfort for everybody concerned. People who give the comfort and people who receive it. It empowers people [loud thud in background.] to do great things. I can't imagine me doing this in any other venue. I'm basically a shy person, but I know it doesn't show. [JG laughs.] You put me in other situations, I clam up. When I know that there's a quilter I'm safe, and I can say and do things that I didn't know I had in me.

JG: Well, we're museum people.

AS: Okay.

JG: How are we going to preserve all these wonderful quilts? What are we going to do about not having them get lost forever?

AS: Well let's talk about 'lost'. There have been several thefts recently of quilts. One of the things we need to do is get accurate insurance, where we can have quilts because of standardized insurance policies and covered in all situations. We're on Fine Arts policies that are used to get the quilters. That's one of the things we need to do. We also need to have the public respect our quilts a little bit more, so that when we sell them we should be selling them at a fair price, so that we are actually compensated somewhat for our energies and time. Preservation of them physically? Don't put them in garbage bags. Don't leave them in the car. Keep them in a safe place in your house. Don't fold them up in plastic. There's lot to [inaudible.] there.

JG: Do any of your quilts hang in museums or in public collections?

AS: Nope.

JG: Would you like to have them?

AS: If anybody was fool enough, foolish enough to ask [JG laughs.] yeah, I probably would be very honored, but I don't know that that would happen, since I don't have that recognizable style. [JG laughs.]

JG: Well, you're not giving your quilts away then either?

AS: Oh I do.

JG: You do? You said you keep most of them?

AS: I do keep most of them. I use them mostly as teaching samples. I'm an only child and I think that has a lot to do with a lot of my personality. Anything I made or did both parents applauded, they thought, whatever it was- I would burp and they would cheer, 'Oh, that's so talented.' [both chuckle.] Whatever it was, so I have a hard time parting with things that I've made. I still have ceramics, ceramic plates I made when I was in college. They're horrible, but I just don't throw them away, we keep them. It's special. They're Ami's [inaudible.]. [JG laughs.] I was encouraged, and if I had not been encouraged either by my folks or by the Amish who I stayed with, I couldn't do this. I would keep making quilts and showing them to her, and she'd keep lying to me, this sweet Amish woman that told me 'Oh you're doing just great.' I made probably a dozen quilts before I saw my first quilt show. And then oh, boy was I shocked, some were getting ribbons, that I don't know why and others that were real nice didn't get anything. And they had the ladies with the white gloves, like you're wearing [JG laughs.] and I thought they had a communicable skin disease. [JG laughs.] I had no clue why they were wearing white gloves. And it was a total mystery when you got one of the white glove ladies that my friend and I talked with, about why some of the quilts got ribbons and some of them didn't. And she was saying stuff like, 'Well the intersections of the patchwork should match up. And she had two evenly spaced things on the back instead of this something else. Bed sheets, don't use those for backing. The binding should be fully stuffed. The batting shouldn't show and the quilting stitches should be small and even.' You know the little doggies that sit on the back of the car window ledges? The plastic heads that bob up and down, 'mmhmmm' and then we went behind the first full-sized quilt we could hide behind and just laughed our heads off. [JG laughs.] Like 'Get a life.' We couldn't imagine anybody was so picky and so, you know anal, about quilts. I figured that if you had a quilt top and you shook it and nothing fell off, you were doing okay. [JG laughs.] If I had to be a new quilter right now in this day and age, and we've got umpteen gazillion books and teachers running around telling us how to do it and TV shows and videos and CD's and computer programs and magazines and boy, oh boy. That's scary. We have a lot of history to live up to. I think it would be incredibly intimidating. So my goal in life as a teacher is to tell people that, 'It's Okay. You can make any kind of quilt you want and as long as it gives you pleasure, you have succeeded. You are the ultimate judge of your achievement, not anybody else, not what some judge might decide, not what some book says you ought to do. But do you like doing it?' Because can you think of anything worse than to save every penny that's extra to go buy fabric, to chop it up, to sew it back together again and then sit there with a sharp object and pick your finger as you hand quilt it, like a million times, sometimes till you bleed, for many, many months, when you could have gone to K-Mart and bought one that plugged in. [JG laughs.] Duh! Quilting, it has to be a joy, otherwise why would anybody do it? Well if you're not getting a jolly out of it, there is something wrong.

JG: Well I hate to interrupt this, but we are very near the end of this tape so we'll let you have a free minute or two to tell us anything you want or do you have another question?

GW: Tell us something that we haven't asked--

AS: Oh, gosh.I can't think of anything, but thank you for doing it. This is a great project to get people to think about their quilts as a part of their own personal history and to preserve them and now that we've got the Internet [inaudible.] what a wonderful gift to people who are interested in quilts now and later on. It's a tremendous effort and I applaud you [AS claps. JG laughs.] Thank you thank you.

JG: Well, this has been great. We really enjoyed--

AS: And thank you whoever is typing this. I hope I didn't talk too fast. And of course I'm the one who doesn't have the accent.

GW: [laughing.] Right. You can tell, see--

JG: You can tell she's not from Texas. Ami is from Michigan now. This has been Ami Simms from Flint, Michigan interviewing with us today at the Quilt Save Our Stories project, upstairs at the Houston Quilt Festival. Your interviewer has been Jo Frances Greenlaw. The scribe, who also asked questions with a Texas accent, is Georgann Wrinkle [GW laughs.] We are concluding this interview at about two or three minutes after eleven. We started at 10:18 am. Thank you very much.

AS: Thank you.

[tape ends.]

[Note added from Ami-Since this was made, I do have a quilt on exhibit at the residence of the US Ambassador to Senega, through the Art in Embassies program. It is on a 2-year loan.]


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