Sherri Lynn Wood




Sherri Lynn Wood


Sherri Lynn Wood discusses her involvement in bereavement quilting. She goes into how and why she started her quilting journey in her 20s, selling quilts at a local farmer's market in Durham, North Carolina, before focusing on more spiritual and therapeutic aspects of quiltmaking. She describes how she juggles time between her art, her activism with End of Life issues, and a part time job. The interview ends with Sherri Lynn Wood reminiscing over how she would like to be remembered and how she feels about being a part of the quilting community.




Sherri Lynn Wood


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Kay Schroeder


San Francisco, California


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Sherri Lynn Wood. Sherri is in San Francisco, California and I am in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is March 7, 2009. It is now 2:14 in the afternoon. Sherri, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Linda Susan Wood (1943-2003)."

Sherri Lynn Wood (SW): This quilt I actually made from my mother's clothing [Linda Susan Wood.]. She died in 2003 of cancer. Before my mom died, I had already started doing improvisional quilting with people as a bereavement process out of the clothing of the person who died. I started that work in 2001 and my mom and my grandmother died in 2003. I started making my mother's in 2005. I worked with my family. We all got together and we went through all of my mother's clothes, my sister [Jennifer Rohlman and her husband Eric.] and their kids [Erika, Reed and Sylvia.] and my brother [Scott Wood and his wife Tabby.] and their two kids [Sidney and Jacob.] and my dad [Larry Wood.]. The whole family got together and we looked at all of her clothes and picked out anything that sort of reminded us of her or brought back memories and so this was the stuff I made the quilts out of. I made four quilts- one for my sister's family, one for my brother's family, one for my dad, and one for me. I received a three month fellowship from The MacDowell Colony [Peterboro, New Hampshire.] and that is when and where I actually made these quilts. It was an opportunity for me to go through the process that I would go through with other people with my own bereavement. I started with the clothes that she wore to each of our weddings. I chose to share the quilt that I made for myself and in this quilt you can see a teal colored lace bodice and then you can also see some sleeves, teal colored lace sleeves, although each sleeve has a different color behind, there is one that has bright pink and another one that has light pink and then a dark blue and a light blue and that material there, that is actually from the dress that she wore at my wedding. One of my favorite parts of the quilt is to the left top right left, an area that is like a leopard skin or an animal skin. That is actually her bathing suit, it is brown and black and she loved the beach and that was one of her favorite bathing suits so I really like that part of the quilt. It has some of the material from the dress that she wore at her 25th wedding anniversary and it also has this pink and red flowered material that was part of a robe that she wore toward the end of her life. It has a piece that is from a silk tunic that she wore when she was in her twenties that she had given to me a long time ago. She hadn't worn it for a while but I had kept it in my closet. It has some of her nursing scrubs. She was a nurse, and a lot of everyday clothes. It was a really wonderful opportunity to have three months of supported work time to make a series of these quilts. One of the things I realized as I was making them is that I was interpreting my mother's relationship with my siblings and that came out in the way that the quilt came together. I work with the architecture of the clothing and try to be true to the lines and the curves that are already present in the clothes as much as possible. My sister's had a much softer, of course, the dress she wore to my sister's wedding was a cream color, but it had a much softer, flowing kind of feeling to it and very curving, and my quilt ended up having sharper angles in it and points and bold contrasting colors. My mom was very colorful. We had very similar personalities and our relationship clashed a lot so it was interesting for me to see how my interpretations of these relationships between my mom and my siblings, and my mom and I actually came out in the pattern of the quilt.

KM: You hand quilt them?

SW: Yeah, I do hand quilt all of my quilts. To me that is a big part of the process. For me improvisational quiltmaking has become like a spiritual practice. By that I mean that it is an external practice that mirrors an internal reality, so I learn a lot about myself in the way that I put patterns together when I work improvisationally. Of course, when I'm working with clothing and materials that mean something to me it becomes even more clear that the way I put things together reflects the way I operate in the world and in my relationships with other people. The hand quilting is important to me because it is very meditative and it is slow and it gives me time for reflection, which is very healing. It allows me opportunities to go over memories and feel emotions. I like to quilt all my quilts by hand, I realize it is not as common anymore, but for me the handwork is a big, important part of making a quilt.

KM: What about the piecing of the quilt?

SW: What about the piecing of the quilt? [KM hums.] Well I start with, like I said, these types of quilts and this is the kind of work, this isn't the only kind of quilt I make but this is the kind of work that I do with people and the kind of work that I teach or facilitate so I'm having people really work with the architecture of the clothing, looking at the curves of the arms and the lengths of the shirt fronts or the skirts or the pant legs and try to work with that to determine the pattern. Sometimes, if somebody wears a lot of fitted clothing the quilt might end up fanning out more because once you start to take apart the seams of fitted clothing, skirts flare out where they came in around the waist. Once you start taking seams apart fitted clothing naturally spreads out like a fan. So I like working with the clothes and using what is given, rather than cutting things into small squares and piecing them into a repetitive pattern.

KM: Are they machine done or hand done?

SW: They are a combination. There is a lot of machine piecing. I try to do as much machine piecing as possible, but there is a lot of hand work too, because the neckline of a shirt or the frilly edge of a piece of lace or a handkerchief, if I want to keep the integrity of those details then I have to hand appliqué the detail onto some other piece rather than doing a pieced in seam. I try to fit things together like a puzzle. I really am. It is hard to see this in my mom's quilt but there really are squares and blocks in it or sections, maybe not squares but sections. I try to make it as simple as possible when I'm sewing things together so it is really a matter of moving these sections around like puzzle pieces to get them to flow together. I'm not composing it all first, I'm making sections and then I take the sections and I begin to move the sections around and then maybe I fill in until the composition starts to come together. What else can I say? I used to make lots of wall hangings and decorative pieces and narrative pieces and I got very interested in how materials carry language and stories rather than images. I also moved away from an art practice that was more object based to an art practice that was more service based, to develop a process of grief facilitation, bereavement and life transition work with quiltmaking. And so, let's see, part of it was that I got to a point where I was tired of consuming so many materials as an artist. I dyed my own fabric. I even dyed batting and I had just tons of beads and embellishments. I had so much fabric in my studio, all things that I would buy at the store. I would make a quilt and use some of the store bought materials and it seemed like I always had that much more scraps and materials leftover. After 9-11, I just got to a point that I was tired of consuming, of buying so much. I would rather make things out of what's there and use the limits that are provided to me by the materials that are already out there then having limitless freedom to not only to pick whatever materials I want to use, but even make them, you know make them from scratch, dye them the color that I want them to be or paint a picture on them that I want them to have. I worked in a class at Penland [School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina.] in the fall of 2001, and it was a two month workshop called "The Language of Improvisation" and we talked a lot about the way materials carry meaning and we worked with a poet, Eileen Miles, and looked at cut and paste techniques of post modern fiction and saw similarities to the way quilts and narratives are made, where you can take a little bit of calico, a little bit of corduroy and a little bit of crazy paisley and you begin to mix that all together to create an interesting narrative. We went to a lot of rag pickings that year in the mountains and the students made a lot of their quilts out of clothing they got for a dollar a bag. There was one guy in the class who for instance picked a lot of men's shirts and made his quilt out of that and it told a story, a story for him. So all this came together, working with my students, being at Penland after 9-11, and I started thinking more and more about working with people, with their materials. Materials they bring to me that already carry meaning and how much more powerful that is than working with material bought from the store. That is how my process began to develop. Soon after that I was at my booth at the local farmers' market [in Carrboro, North Carolina.] and I a woman came up to me and said, 'My dad died recently and I really want to have some quilts made from his clothes.' I was like, 'I can't believe you are coming to me with this because this is exactly what I have the intention of starting to do with people and I didn't even have to go out and find you, you found me.' It was literally the first weekend back from Penland. I have found that it is an extremely powerful, expressive process for people to go through. When they actually take the clothing of the person that has died and cut it up they acknowledge that this person is never going to wear these clothes again. The step of remembering the body through the architecture of the clothing and creating patterns without a predetermined pattern, mirrors the interior reorientation of bereavement where you have to orient yourself to the world and to the relationships around you because a significant relationship is now gone and your normal patterns are all thrown out of whack. When people make these quilts they don't know how it's going to come out, they can't look ahead and plan it. They have to just work on what is in the moment. It also becomes a collaboration with the deceased in the sense that their loved one left those clothes behind for them as a gift and they are making something beautiful out of the clothing and it becomes a transformed object. The process is a transformational process for people. The clothing becomes transformed and it becomes another functional utilitarian piece that can be a part of their lives and part of their homes, but it is not in the same state as a piece of clothing anymore. It is just like that with the relationship. The person is gone so you don't have the same kind of relationship with them that you had when they were alive but it doesn't mean that you don't still have a relationship with them, but it is a transformed relationship and it plays a different role and a different function. The quilt is a concrete object through which this can be understood. The next step is the hand quilting. It is very comforting for people. It provides a container for remembering without being overwhelmed. I find that the hand quilting is really very powerful part of it. It is a slow process that happens over time and bereavement, loss and healing is a slow process that happens over time. Of course, once people finish with the quilt they have a vehicle to share the stories of the person's life. Often people tell me, especially when they have had children die, that before their focus was always on the death of their child and then having the quilt reminds them of their child's activities, accomplishments and personality and it brings back all the memories and stories about when they were alive that have been overshadowed by the painful loss all those years. It shifts their focus a little bit and it also allows them to share with their friends and their families. They can have a vehicle for discussing his life and the loss of his life as well. It provides a context for sharing that is inviting. I started calling this process "Passage Quilts" [] because I thought of it as life transitions and the way we mark passages and things that change in our lives. When I do this with other people it doesn't always have to be loss and death, it can be empty-nest or it can be going into retirement or reaching adulthood or the birth of a child or different development times in children's lives that people want to commemorate and mark a shift. I think about all of this in terms of the traditions of scrap quiltmaking. In the past it was built into people's lives, they weren't really thinking about it as a life growth experience. They were just doing it because they needed to make quilts to keep their family warm and they made them out of the scraps of old clothing because those are the materials they had at hand, but even so I suspect that it was a ritual, an everyday ritual but still a ritual that actually marked the passage of time and the shifting of relationships. It was simply a practice that was part of everyday life. It wasn't something they had to think about and integrate into their life. It was already fully integrated. What I'm saying is that we used to have things in our daily lives that helped us mark the passage of time that are not built in anymore. Quiltmaking was one of those things. What I'm trying to do is bring this practice back to people, but in an intentional way. Making quilts out of clothing scraps is not a new idea, but looking at it as a spiritual practice or as a practice that brings inner growth and awareness is. I presented at a guild recently at a statewide, meet-the-teachers, guild meeting, one of the teachers came up to me afterwards and in a very friendly way said, 'I think what you are doing is really interesting but you are going to have to make it lighter because quiltmakers like happy, fun and cheerful, bereavement is going to be a hard sell.' [laughs.] She was encouraging me to like shape it in some ways, because there are some lighter ways to present this. For instance, I did a improvisational Round Robin menopause party for this one woman and her fifteen closest friends. They brought materials that were meaningful to them and they and they each worked on each other quilts and it was very fun. I can shift it into a more celebratory process. It is totally celebratory but it also has a weight to it and a gravity. It is not just fun and light. It's more a mixture. I think it is an abundant process and I think of abundance as many opportunities for sorrow and joy and I think that is how quiltmaking can be. The other thing that I like about right now, relevant to what is happening in our culture today is reuse and recycling. What I saw back in 2001 that I think I reacted to in moving away from an object based art practice to a service based practice, moving away from buying and consuming new materials to reusing what is already out there. When I think of the huge quilt industry and all the stuff to buy, all the product and tools and materials to buy, I'm just like, 'You can just go to a thrift store and you can just get the most amazing materials just by getting the clothes that are on the dollar racks that are for sale, or go to a bag day and get all these wonderful materials to make stuff out of.' I see that as a direction, a very rich direction for quiltmakers to begin to start to investigate and I think you will see more of that. Right now, the guilds I've gone to in San Francisco I don't see too much of that yet but I feel like there will be a return to the real tradition of scrap quilting where we are using the things that we already have around us in our daily lives. It makes the process much more meaningful.

KM: Could I ask you a question? Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking. When and how did you begin?

SW: I started making quilts for friends as gifts when I was in grad school right out of college, I was probably like 24, 25. I had sewn all my life and I just started making these simple checkerboard quilts and they came out real pretty and just with my color combinations or stuff and I really enjoyed it and I thought I would love to make these and try to sell them. I did. I started selling at the local farmers' market and right away I sold something and the second week I sold something and at first I was doing really pretty traditional quilts and then I think it was in 1990 or 91 [I saw an exhibition] called "Who'd A Thought It," which was an African American improvisational quilt exhibit that originated somewhere in California but it came to UNC Chapel Hill [University of North Carolina.]. I went to see it and I was so moved by the power of these quilts. People think the Gee's Bend quilts, I had that experience with that kind of quiltmaking back in the nineties at the "Who'd A Thought It" exhibition. It influenced me a lot and I took an improvisational class with Nancy Crow at Arrowmont School of Craft. One of the first things she said was, 'You don't need a ruler to cut and sew material together,' and I was like, 'Oh yeah you don't need a ruler. Okay you can just cut things and sew them together,' and that was really what I needed to hear. It opened my mind to the possibilities of what a quilt could be and where it could go and so ever since I've been working improvisationally, although it doesn't mean I don't compose. I mean some pieces have more of a composition and structure than others but I like playing around with the limits and the way you can improvise and how much you can improvise depending on what kind of limits you set for yourself to work in. That is how I got started and because people bought [my quilts] at the farmer's market I was supported and was able to grow and develop as a quiltmaker and eventually as a teacher. I always had a love for sewing and for material. From quiltmaking I moved into community based art work. I do a lot of art work that doesn't have anything to do with quiltmaking sometimes and then sometimes it does. So the "Passage Quilts," the bereavement work that I do, I see as an ongoing creative project that I'm involved in and I have other creative projects that often don't involve quiltmaking but are often very long term as well [laugh.]. Quiltmaking really brought me into being an artist and later on I got an Master of Fine Arts in sculpture. I guess there is some element of performance involved with my sculpture] and a lot of times I use craft as a medium for my art, or some sort of craft practice, like crochet or stitching as a way to involve people in a particular kind of experience or emotion.

KM: How do you balance your time?

SW: I work part time. I'm a parish administrator at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church here in San Francisco 20 hours a week. I use a lot of my other time making quilts for or with people and that involves a lot of networking. It doesn't involve just being creative in the studio. It involves a lot of other stuff, grant writing and everything. I probably, I usually spend 40 hours a week on my art work and 20 hours a week on my bread and butter income and my art work provides about 50% so I actually depend on my quiltmaking as a way to survive. I can't. I mean for 13 years I just did quiltmaking and lived off of just the money that I made from my quilt work, but it became just too hard and too much of a burden to always having to be worrying about getting the sale or having the art work generate income so I took some of the pressure off by taking a part time job. I like that a lot now. Quiltmaking actually funds some of my other creative projects that don't bring any funding. The nice thing about quiltmaking is it is a very practical art in a lot of ways. People like quilts and I've been very successful financially as an artist in my quiltmaking more than any other part of my art practice. I use the quiltmaking to stay balanced. Sometimes I get bored with the quiltmaking so I have to branch out and do a sound project or do some other kind of a project that has nothing to do with quilts and then I go back to the quiltmaking. I'm always moving back into the quiltmaking as my base and my core. It teaches me and allows me to branch out into other things that might not have anything directly to do with quiltmaking, but definitely the quiltmaking somehow informs the rest of my art practice or sustains it in some way.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

SW: I don't at the moment, I've only been in San Francisco since July and I have gone to the local quilters' guild a few times. I did join the Northern California Quilt Association mainly because I want to teach more so I wanted to make those connections. It is a networking thing. When I first started quiltmaking, I was active in the local guild [Durham-Orange Quilters.] in Durham, North Carolina. I'm active in different stitch and chatter groups and mending parties, more impromptu social crafting things. They are not organized as formerly as guilds. For years I was in a stitch and chatter group that met like regularly [in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.] Now I'm a member of the Bay Area Care and End of Life Network which is a group of people who deal with end of life issues, such as palliative care, hospice and bereavement, so I tend to be more a part of those kind of professional groups right now than quilt groups, but I like to go to the local guilds and see what is going on and I enjoy guild meetings. I haven't joined any lately.

KM: How would you like to be remembered?

SW: I think that my quilts are going to be remembered. That is one thing that I really like about the quiltmaking that I've done. Quilts are valued in this culture, the history of quilts, because it does present part of the culture. There are institutions like the institution you are working with for this project that care a lot about the history of quilts, the past history and of documenting the present history for future generations and I'm glad to be a part of that and I feel like my quilts are going to survive me and be a part of that legacy. I get a lot of satisfaction out of being a master craftsperson, and having a relationship to my quiltmaking over a period of time that now spans 20 years. When I think of all the work that I've done as an artist, the quilts are going to be the work that survives me. I'm also working hard to evolve the hands-on bereavement process that I've developed, "Passage Quilts" and I know there is similar language being used out in the quilt world now for quilts that volunteers make for hospices so that when the dead get rolled out of the room they are not seen in body bags, that they are covered with a coffin shaped quilt that is called a "Passage Quilt" which is then give to the deceased's family. It is not made out of clothing. It is not what I'm doing at all [laughs.] and I sort of don't like this name "Passage Quilts" anymore because I don't like the morbidity. It sounds very strange, although I understand the intention, to provide a sense of dignity and warmth to the dead and I appreciate the intention of that project, but I like my process. I hope that my process can be more widely used as an active bereavement process because there aren't a lot of kinetic bereavement processes that are as effect as this. I'm working with psychologists in this area and trying to develop the process in therapeutic settings. My hope is--I'm really focusing a lot on that right now and maybe five or ten years from now, my legacy might be bringing quiltmaking into the realm of [health care and personal and spiritual growth] in a very effective way, and then just the beauty of the quilts that I've made I hope will survive. I don't know that is about it.

KM: Is there anything else you would like to share before we conclude?

SW: Quiltmaking, I'm very happy that I'm a quiltmaker. When I saw the Gee's Bend exhibition and I saw the video about them talking about their quiltmaking I was so happy to be part of that community, you know I'm a quiltmaker. I think it's a wonderful, wonderful profession.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker?

SW: As both. I tell people I'm an artist, but I also tell people I'm a quiltmaker. I usually say I'm a quiltmaker and I'm an artist and sometimes I will say I'm a healer or an activist, but I definitely like to be known as a quiltmaker as well as an artist because I think they are the same in some way. I mean they are the same, as a quiltmaker I am an artist, but as an artist I'm not necessarily a quiltmaker. Although a lot of my art work does use some sort of metaphor of quiltmaking, I think quiltmaking provides a powerful metaphor for looking at the world, it is a wonderful frame and I'm happy to be part of that community. I'm happy to be a quiltmaker and I get a lot of joy out of making quilts. I'm really much happier in my life when I'm making quilts every once in a while. I guess that is about it. That is all I can think of right now.

KM: You did a great job, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to share and talk with me. We are going to conclude our interview at 3:00 p.m.



“Sherri Lynn Wood,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 22, 2024,