Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave Alliance-03.jpg
Karen Musgrave Alliance-03 _2.jpg


Karen Musgrave




Karen Musgrave


Patricia Keller

Interview Date



San Francisco, California


Karen Musgrave


Patricia Keller (PK): Hi, my name is Patricia Keller and I am here on August 8th, 2003, at the Chancellor Hotel in San Francisco, California to do an interview with Karen Musgrave of Naperville, Illinois. And we're going to be talking about Karen's involvement with quilting and with the raffle quilt that The Alliance for American Quilts will be raffling off in 2004--a drawing. I'm very glad to be with you here Karen.

Karen Musgrave (KM): I'm glad to be here too.

PK: So, tell me about yourself. Let's start with you and how you came to quilting.

KM: I made my first quilt in 1973. It was made for my boyfriend's brother's first child who is now my niece. It was a crayon quilt. I drew pictures--my own drawings with crayons and put them onto fabric. She still sleeps with the quilt which she finds very embarrassing that I tell people. The batting had been replaced at least twice. I have embroidered all the holes. You can just about see through it. I cannot tell you how many times I have replaced the binding. I told her the last time that we could not repair it anymore. She calls it the "Sunshine Quilt" because I did a big yellow sun in the middle of it. It makes me exceedingly happy to know that this quilt is so meaningful to her and so much a part of her life. She really does still sleep with it every night and when I had it for repair she was very stressed and wanted to know how quickly it was going to come back.

PK: Can you tell me her name?

KM: Her name is Kristie, really Kristen.

PK: She was born in 1973?

KM: Yeah. I just decided a baby needed a quilt. There was not quiltmaking in my family. Although there was--my great grandmother did quilt but I did not know that at the time and I never saw any of her quilts. I don't know what happened to our family quilts on my mother's side of the family. But they weren't quilts in my house. Sewing was always a big part of my life. I was drawn, my mother said, very early to needle and thread. I made a lot of clothes which is probably why I decided to make a quilt. I bought a book. I didn't have any earthy clue as to what I was doing. Sort of followed the book and sort of didn't. Produced this quilt and went on after I married to make quilts for my other nieces and nephew on my husband's side of the family. Did some other quilts. Quiltmaking left my life then came back. A lot of it had to do with not having any money to go out and buy fabric and to make quilts. And then it in the early 80's I was living in Aruba and I started a quilt group there with my friend Carol Esch called Quilts by the Sea. I got all the women on the island that were interested to take up quiltmaking and we made for each other then finally we made quilt that benefited the women on the island--for things on the island. Quilters by the Sea continued even after I left the island until they closed the colony down--when Exxon closed it down and everyone left the island. After the 80's it just became a real passion and a real drive in my life and for the last five years, it has been my full time employment.

PK: That is quite a transition.

KM: Yes, but like I said I always loved fabric. I've always loved fabric. I've had a passion for fabric. I still do. Like many quiltmakers I start by sewing clothes. I made lots of funky things to wear when I was in high school.

PK: Tell me more about your interest in quilting as it relates this particular quilt.

KM: This particular quilt is titled "A Voice of You and Me." It was designed by Yvonne Porcella. Yvonne is into symbolism and the quilt also deals with different parts of her life and also The Alliance for American Quilts, the organization that this quilt was made. It also has the designer Suzanne Staud of The Alliance brochure and some of her designs from an antique quilt in it. [PK coughs.] And then me because I interpreted this little line drawing which was smaller than an 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper. It was little line drawing and I blew it [enlarged it.] up and put it together. One of the things that I did on this quilt because I am involved in Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories--there is on the quilt Morse code for S.O.S. which is what Yvonne wanted to use to represent Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories [The Alliance's oral history project.]. Since I'm involved in Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project so much and I think that it is the best thing that has ever happened to The Alliance, the flagpole, which is kind of hidden in the design, I made it look like a microphone so it was my little way of saying, 'I'm going to make a microphone on here so that Q.S.O.S. has something more.' So, the top of the flagpole, I used polka dot material that I fussy cut to make it look like a microphone even though we don't use a microphone it still represents what we do so that was one of the things that I did to put my little mark on the quilt. It was pretty much all hand appliquéd. The background was all hand appliquéd and all the pieces on top except for a few that I fused simply because this was taking up so much time [sounds of car horn in the background.] and I was on a deadline. I finally decided to fuse part of the pieces down. I appliquéd it in sections and when I got it all together there was a volcano in the middle. It did not lay flat because of all the bias. I had a meltdown. Had to leave the house for an afternoon. Had a good 2 ½ hour cry over it. Came back, relaxed, took it apart, resized it, put it back together and I was so happy because when I got it back together it was just about flat. And then took it to Rebecca Latham who did the quilting on it. And she worked hard at getting it even flatter with the quilting and it's pretty flat now. Right now, it's been folded and crumpled so it needs to be smoothed out again but I'm very happy with the way it came out. I did not specifically want to be in touch with Yvonne about the quilt. I didn't want her to determine any of the colors or how it looked because that to me wouldn't be me being a part of it.

PK: I'd like to start with a question about the whole evolution of the project.

KM: Okay.

PK: You may have covered this in other interviews or not but let's start with the genesis of the idea. Would you tell it to me like a story?

KM: I'm on the development committee and we were talking about money. I raised the question--I said that one of the ways that organizations raise money and get public awareness is through a quilt--having it raffled off. And at first, Shelly, Shelly Zegart was very opposed to it. Then Yvonne said, 'This is a fabulous way to make money.' So, the next thing I know I'm in charge of making a raffle quilt and Yvonne said, 'Okay.' Yvonne and I talked about it. She came up with a rough sketch of it. Gave me the sketch and I started working on it. At first I was very intimidated by it because Yvonne Porcella is a very big name and I was thinking many, many times through the whole process that I must have been nuts to agree to make this quilt because I was very worried about interpreting someone's ideas and vision. I have to say there were many times when I thought, 'Why did I agree to do this?'

PK: Did you contact Yvonne during the process?

KM: No, no. I asked her about the upper left hand corner because I had an idea what it was but I wasn't sure. And it is to represent city, community. And I said, 'What color did you envision this city to be?' And she said, 'Blue.' And that is the last contact that I had with Yvonne because once I started working on it--I work very intuitively and I don't plan ahead so contacting Yvonne wouldn't have worked. This quilt was not really planned. I would make a section and then I would determine what the next section would be then determine what the next section would be. I went shopping frequently for fabric. Yvonne did mail me a lot of her fabric line which some of it I used in the quilt and some of the fabrics were from my personal stash so of it I went shopping because I had a very clear idea as to what I wanted certain things to look like so I would go shopping to find them. I made each section and worked around the quilt color wise until [PK coughs.] until I was happy with it. Yvonne did encourage me to make changes if I wanted to. She specifically said that with the people that I could make them have a blouse and a pair of pants and whatever; whatever I wanted to do. She was wonderful in not pushing me. I worked really hard on the mouse. The mouse was something I was really proud of when I got it done. It came out just the way I had envisioned it. I worked very hard on the roses to have the roses have depth. I painted the fabric on the calla lilies to get the yellow. I painted the calla lilies. I choose rainbow [fabric for the.] thread because in my mind quilting crosses all barriers and includes all colors--everyone. I wanted some things to be very subtle so that the longer you look at the quilt the more you will see. Nothing is really in your face. Knowing Yvonne's work, I knew that is how she works. "Cover Us" in the quilt is not real obvious at first and neither is the date on the bottom--2003 and even the "Q" in the middle of the quilt is not obvious. It made me very happy that when Yvonne saw the quilt that she told me that I really understood her vision and executed it very well. That was very important to me and I almost cried when she told me that. I was very, very worried about interrupting someone's vision but I always knew that I could interrupt her vision. When I looked at the drawing, it was like, 'I could do this.' And obviously, I did but I often had doubts.

PK: Over what period of time did you work on this quilt?

KM: I worked on it very intensely for four months. So, it--my schedule got a little crazy. Besides having a lot of teaching, my father had a heart attack, two friends were diagnosed with breast cancer and another friend was diagnosed with five brain tumors. There was a lot of Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories work. There was a lot of activity. There were days that I worked 14 hours on it. There were other days that I only worked 1 ½ to 2 hours on it. When people ask me how it took me to make the quilt, I tell them almost 48 years.

PK: Why do you say that?

KM: Because it is life experience that took me to be able to make this quilt. I'm not afraid of color. I like color. I like texture. This is a very colorful quilt. It has a lot of texture. [streetcar bell in the background as well as street sounds.] It has a lot of symbolism and I love symbolism. I'm really happy about the label that I made because it is three women with hands connected which represents the three people involved in the quilt. I'm now going to go back and add two more women because Suzanne needs to be there and so does the person that ultimately wins this quilt. I really didn't understand until I talked to Yvonne that Yvonne took from Suzanne and put them in the quilt so I think her "voice" needs to be on the label also since she was a part of this. And she is very pleased with my bird as am I. The bird is her design element. Yvonne added the calla lilies because she really loves calla lilies and calla lilies were a big part of her growing up. I had two huge beds full of while calla lilies in my front yard when I lived in Houston, Texas. I used to just love going up my front walk and seeing these two huge beds of white calla lilies so the white calla lilies for me also [PK coughs.] something that reminded of Houston where I became extremely involved in quilting. And actually, is my tie to The Alliance because I went to Boxes Under the Bed™ [a project for The Alliance for American Quilts project that deals with identifying and rescuing quilt-related items such as letters, clippings and patterns in need of preservation.] conference. So, for me the calla lilies represent Houston and my being a part of The Alliance. The roses are from Yvonne's grandmother, Rose. I knew that the roses had shown up all the time in her work so I knew I better do a good job on the roses so I did work very hard on the roses. The flag--I remember Yvonne saying that she didn't have any patriotic fabric which confused me because she thought that by telling me that she thought that the flag should be more flag-like so I started thinking in those terms then I thought, 'No. She wouldn't want that. I don't want that. I'm not going patriotic with the flag.' Again, the flag is not real obvious and it's not a strong representation of our flag. There are not the correct number of stars or the correct number of stripes. And for me it also represents the hills and the valleys, the ups and downs of the plains, the whole bit. There is all kind of symbolism you can put in there. I really liked working on the people. I made sure that the people did not have skin tones. That was really important to me to not go with skin tones. I really black and white one just because the fabric was so cool when I cut it that way to make the dress look like it is flowing. The "Q" stands for "quilt" but I also think it stands for "quality." The quality of The Alliance and the work that we are doing so when I see the "Q," Yvonne says, 'Q for Quilt,' the whole Quilts Matter that we use, for me it also stands for quality. When I took the quilt to Rebecca, I told her that I wanted the quilting to look like my work which does not look like Yvonne's work because Yvonne does not heavily quilt and this one is heavily quilted. I wanted her to do it but [car horns heard.] I also said to her, 'This is what I want you to do but I'm not going to say and here you will do this. And here you are going to do that.' I didn't want to micromanage but I did want it to look like my work and also wanted it to have a combination of traditional and contemporary quilt patterns in it. Even though it is a very contemporary quilt, we are all based in the tradition of quiltmaking. I love feathers so there are feathers in there. I think Rebecca did a fabulous job. [traffic noise.] Taking what I told her and going with it. She said that there were days that she just stood and stared at the work saying, 'Speak to me, speak to me, speak to me. I don't know what to do.' And then it would speak to her and I think--I told her that that's kind of how it went for me. I would stand in front of the quilt, 'I don't know what to do here. Speak to me quilt, speak to me.' So, the voice thing was there. The title came much later. After the quilt was finished, Yvonne came up with the title. What was interesting to me was I use to use to say, 'Speak to me.' Rebecca said, 'Speak to me.' Yvonne said, 'Oh, I hate titles. It takes me forever to think up a title for a quilt.' And I had started making a list of words and the very first word that I had on my list to be in the title was "Voice" or "Voices." And five minutes later, Yvonne came up with the title of the quilt.

PK: Which is?

KM: "A Voice from You to Me." So, it was like do, do, do, do. [PK laughs.] You know when everyone is thinking a long the same line. So, I thought it was very cool that it's voices and the hope is that this kind of collaboration and if this is successful will continue--we will keep the title and just change the year.

PK: We shall see.

KM: Whether this happens or not, I have no idea but I think it is a great vision. I really do feel that this quilt has impacted I think powerfully on four people. It's a unique kind of collaboration I think. And it's going to be out in the world and I think it will be a great opportunity. When I have taken this quilt to a quilt when I was working on it, I would have an instant crowd around me. Whether people like traditional quilts or not, the color draws people in and I have stood in the quilt show and people stand around and they want to know more. At the fundraiser, people came up to me and they wanted to know, 'What all of this mean?' 'How did you come up with this?' 'Wow, how did you decide all of this?' And the more I talk to people about the quilt the more excited they become. And that to be is just fabulous. To be able to draw people in with the story of the quilt, with what it represents. In my mind, it's already a huge success. If it doesn't make another dime, it's done a phenomenal amount of good for The Alliance. It's going to go off to Quilter's Newsletter Magazine where it will be photographed and an article and it will bring even more people to the website. People will see it and once we get the stories behind the quilt up there, it will make people who read it want to know more.

PK: Where do you imagine it will go?

KM: I just hope it goes to someone I know so I can visit it. [both laugh.] My hope that whoever wins this I will know them or if not, I'm going to get to know them so I can come and visit it. I hope it goes to somebody who will appreciate it and put it out for other people to see but it is a gift I gave to The Alliance and while everyone is teasing me about it, it will be hard to let it go but it was made to let go. It was--the whole time I was stitching it and even when I was stressed about it, even though at the end I was pretty burnt out, it was stitched with love for an organization that I have spent a lot of my time giving to because the mission is important.

PK: Tell me more about that- the mission and why it is important to you.

KM: I think elevates women. It elevates women by making quiltmaking important because it is important. Quiltmaking has helped a lot of women through a lot of hard times, good times, celebrations. It has been a way of giving. It's something you leave behind. It's a legacy even if people don't think, 'I'm making this quilt for the generations to come.' It's still there. [PK coughs. clanging of streetcar bell.] And I think that documenting and making people aware quilts as an art form is a worthwhile cause.

PK: Did you learn things while you were making this object?

KM: I learned that I tend to over commit myself. [PK laughs.] I learned to overcome fear. I learned a lot about how to put together something that is all bias. I would do it again just because I've learned a lot of things and I would like to play around again to see if I can do it so when it all comes together I don't get a volcano and don't have to take it all a part. I think I would have liked a little more time. I would have liked to have borders on the quilt. I really would have liked to have had borders but I simply ran out of time. My intend was always to have wild borders- a larger border on the bottom, skinny borders on the sides and a real thin one on the top. So, it was kind of frustrating not to be able to get the borders on but like I said I ran out of time which I think a lot of people can relate to. There was a deadline. We wanted to have it for the fundraiser. Color wise, I can work and continue to work intuitively and I don't have to plan everything out from start to finish. I'm really comfortable with that now. I'm comfortable with that in my own work, my own professional work. When I teach, I'm good at getting people to relax and trust the process and trust themselves. People loved when I went into the quilt shop and say, 'Okay, look I need an orange and I know the color orange I need in my head and you all are going to have to help me find it even though I can't tell you what orange it is but it's here. You just start bringing oranges out until we find the one.' And everybody in the shop running around and I'd say, 'No already got that one. Tried that one, don't like it.' And when we would finally find 'the one,' I'd do a little dance while everybody would laugh. Karen doing her happy dance. 'I'm happy. Bye, see you later.' And off I would go to the next part. I had a different red in this area. I had it up on the design wall and I wasn't really happy with the red. It had too much motion through it and I went into the shop and there was this brand new heart red and I was, 'Ah, got to have this! This was the red I was looking for so sometimes the fabric wasn't ready for the section so I would abandon it in hopes that something would come along. My studio is an absolute wreck because as I was discarding fabric or auditioning fabric if it didn't work I threw it on the floor. There is hardly any carpet showing in my studio at all because I would just throw it. There wasn't time to fold it up and neatly put it away. I have to go home and get organized again. There was fabric like when I got to the bird I just knew there were two fabrics so I would go looking through my stash until I could find the two fabrics I knew that would make a fabulous bird and sure enough I found the two fabrics and I was thrilled when the bird came together. It was very interesting the "cover us" fabric on there, the people in the quilt show kept saying that the fabric wasn't going to work as the background with the fabric I had picked and then when it was all done everyone in the shop went, 'You were right.' So, I would do neaner, neaner, neaner [singing.]. I do know what I'm doing. I wanted to make sure that I used some of Yvonne's fabrics because I wanted variety. I also wanted it--I choose a lot of different fabric lines so it wasn't just one fabric company represented in the quilt. I wanted to make sure I mixed it all up so there is fabric that is probably some ten year old fabric and some fabric that just came out. There is a nice variety there. There is one piece of fabric in the quilt that is not 100% cotton and that's in the rose. It is this little piece. [points to fabric.] Right here and it's--I have no idea what the fabric content is but it's not 100% cotton. But it was the right shade of pink and it has a real nice textural feel. It's fuzzy and has a nice feel. I also took two pieces of Yvonne's--

PK: You're turning the quilt over now.

KM: There are two pieces of Yvonne's fabric here [pointing to the bottom.] and up at the top of the sleeve. So, I decided that would be a fun little thing to do. I do a lot of back art and would have done even more if I had had the time. I would have totally pieced the back and done more back art but again I ran out of time.

PK: How did you choose this backing fabric?

KM: I had it and it was just fun. It's squares with all different colors so I just thought it was a fun background which matched the front color wise. I wish I had bought more of it.

PK: Why?

KM: Because now it's all gone. It's all in this quilt so I have no more but that was okay too. It's just a fun back that kind of looks like a quilt on the back. It's a two for one. [PK laughs.] The binding I pieced so it's all different colors and changes as it goes around. This was my compromise for not having borders was to change the colors and I laid them all out and I was very happy when I sewed it all on that the colors ended up where I wanted them. I put a few pieces of fabric that I didn't have a lot of anymore that were my favorites like this one up here that has the swirls--the swirl oranges and purples.

PK: We're looking at a piece on the border.

KM: Then I put the sun and the moon and the stars batik that I had and this is some of Yvonne's that I cut on the bias. Some of the binding is cut on the bias and some of it cut on the straight of grain because it all depended on how I wanted it to look on the--

PK: Was that a technical problem?

KM: No because I know how to do bindings. I'm good at bindings.

PK: What frustrated you about making this object?

KM: What frustrated me? [traffic noises.] The fact that the bias made it hard to put together sometimes or the fabric would stretch. It's hard to hand appliqué on a big surface so I thought if I just did little sections not really thinking that there is no straight of grain anywhere where it is put together. There was a lot of having to [loud clunk noise and tape seems to skip.] appliqué and having it in your hand and even though I had templates which I put overtop. I think that if I ever did it again I would understand what I needed to do and what I would do is make a giant overlay and do a lot more pinning with an overlay. I use overlays all the time and why I didn't make an overlay this time I have no earthy clue. I usually teach 3-4 days a week so I have a heavy work schedule and then all my volunteering so a lot of time I think I can skip stages, steps and I can't. On an even deeper level, many times while working on this quilt I thought I was disappearing. That I didn't matter.

PK: Are there any messages that you would like to send out with this quilt to the world?

KM: Love it. Love it to pieces. I want to see it out. I don't want someone to put it in a closet. I would like to see it worn out just like Kristie's quilt. Actually, I hope someone who wins it will use it a lot. I'm going to add a place on the back for the owner to have a place for information. I am putting together a book of the stories of the quilt and some personal notes and some other things to go along with the quilt so that it's documented and the person can really understand what they are getting, who was involved and all the information with pictures. That is my hope to give a nice complete package. And you know Pat this was all your idea. I hadn't really thought about documenting the quilt until you brought up the idea and it is what we should do.

PK: That is what we are trying to teach.

KM: Exactly. I hope when some gets the full package that there will be appreciation of that but if there is not, that's okay too. I hope that the people--that when it's out in the world that it is treated well. I do hope that I will be able to visit it again. [PK laughs.] Actually, I hope that whoever gets it will allow us to borrow it occasionally. That would be my home in term let us should we have an exhibition or goes somewhere where it would be exciting to have it that we would be able to use it. Whether they will do that I don't know. Maybe we should put that in the fine print.

PK: I was wondering if there was a global positioning device. [both laugh.]

KM: I hope it makes a lot of money. I'm over the anxiety--I was very worried when MJ [executive director of The Alliance.] announced that the quilt could make $10,000. That created a lot of anxiety for me; big time anxiety because I felt responsible for coming up with $10,000. It was now my job to make $10,000 happen but you know what I'm one person and I've done this and now the board needs to step up and support it. And if the board doesn't support it, I will do my part and that is all I can do my part.

PK: We're just about out of time. I was wondering if there were any other things that you thought of that I should have asked you.

KM: The only thing that I can say to people and I say all the time, 'While I am just me, I'm not internationally known but I've been able to do a lot. And think that if I can do it, anyone can. I hope more people get involved and do great things.' Pat, thanks for doing this.

PK: Thank you for doing all of this. Thank you, Karen. This concludes our interview at the Chancellor Hotel in San Francisco, California. I've been talking with Karen Musgrave and my name is Patricia Keller. It is August 8, 2003.

[tape ends.]

[added after the interview: This quilt raised $7, 789 and Karen Musgrave and Yvonne Porcella have done a second collaboration- "The Voice of You and Me 2004."]



“Karen Musgrave,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1438.