Sue Stiner




Sue Stiner




Sue Stiner


Linda Brammer

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Elkton, Maryland


Megan Dwyre


Linda Brammer (LB): This is Linda Brammer. Today's date is February 6, 2003, at 3:30 p.m. I am conducting an interview with Sue Stiner with Quilters' S.O.S - Save Our Stories project in Elkton, Maryland. Sue, tell me where you are from.

Sue Stiner (SS): Well, currently I'm living in Newark, Delaware. Originally, I was born in West Virginia.

LB: Great. Tell me about the quilt that you brought today.

SS: I have a quilt top today. I'm calling it my "Millennium Quilt" and my kids said it would take me a millennium to get it finished. I have the top and the back and, obviously to you, it's not put together yet. It's the completed top and the completed back. It's no particular pattern. It was something I made to commemorate the millennium, but it turned out to commemorate several major events in my life.

LB: Where did you find your materials?

SS: Well, the materials came from my stash. That's one of my ongoing year's resolutions, is to use up my stash because I'm running out of space to put the material. So, I did not buy any of the material for this quilt, I just pulled it all out of my stash and just picked colors that I thought went together.

LB: Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview today?

SS: Because this is the one that, of all the quilts that I have this is the one that means the most to me. As I said it turned out to commemorate more than the millennium, but this is the first quilt where I made up my design. So, this is an original design for me. It's the only one I've ever done that's an original design and it's probably going to be the only one that I've ever done that's original design. I'm very much a traditional quilter; I like standard issue blocks and standard patterns. I'm not an art-quilt person. I'm very much a traditional-piece quilt kind of person. This is what makes it original, is that it is a path. It's a maze. You start on one side and follow the light-colored blocks, and you can walk the maze all the way through until you come out at the other side. One side starts with the [inaudible.] kangaroo and then you come out to an arrow at the other end. So, if you start here [inaudible.] If you start over here, and you can follow the light all the way along [inaudible.] until you come out at the big arrows at the end, which opens up into an [inaudible.] quilt block. And what that symbolized to me was that my life would be full of quilts.
Not in the end, but from the new millennium on that it would be full of quilts.

LB: Did your design- did you do it on paper first or how did you--

SS: No, I'm not one to organize--not for this quilt, but I have organized other quilts by sketching out something. I had some rough sketches in my mind, but nothing really on paper. What I did was lay it out on my bedroom floor, forbidding everyone to go in there and fortunately had a big space, so I used my floor as the design wall. And I laid out the patches, rearranging and rearranging and rearranging until I liked what I got. And it turned out that in the evening, there is very, very dim light so that it was good to give me what the values were. I could ignore the colors and just look at the values so then I would work out the maze so that it would go in this direction or go in that direction, it wouldn't overlap, and you wouldn't get lost because it's like a kid's maze and I want somebody to be able to thread their way through it.

LB: What are your plans for completion?

SS: Well, way before the next millennium, that's for sure. This year I will put the top and the back together. One of the things I've been mulling over in my head is how shall I quilt it, because in the spaces in between the maze path are standard blocks of any old color that I liked. So, I wanted one kind of quilting in the maze path and then something else in the blocks, but I haven't quite figured out what I'm going to do yet, but that's my task for the year. So, by the end of the year, I expect to be sleeping under this quilt.

LB: Will it be machine quilted or hand quilted?

SS: Absolutely, absolutely, I will never live long enough to hand quilt anything, so all the stuff that I do is machine pieced and machine quilted.

LB: Is the back of the piece [inaudible.]?

SS: Yes, it is, I have a lot of millennium fabrics. I have the backing with me, and I brought it because I consider it as part of my touchstone object. So, the backing is done, and it is simply Roman stripes. By the time I got done piecing all these two-inch squares I was really tired of piecing things, so I just did Roman stripes for the backing out of various millennium fabrics that I had. Now, I did buy the millennium fabrics. [inaudible.] So, it's not anything fancy, but it certainly serves its purpose, and it's colorful, and I like colorful things [inaudible.]. I don't care what the pattern looks like on the back, if it is going to be made to look [inaudible.]. [laughs.] That's one thing I've done since I was a kid, that's why I got into quilting actually, because I used to stare at my closet in the mornings from the youngest stage that I can remember thinking, 'I want to wear that with that because those colors look good' but it was two blouses or it was two pairs of pants; you know I can't do that. Back in the 60's when I grew up, you couldn't wear stripes and plaids together, but I would look in my closet and think, 'They look nice together.' So, finally I had collected enough material from sewing clothes, and someone told me about quilts, so I just decided that 'Oh, I can put anything together I want to in a quilt.' So, I don't make clothes anymore I just do quilts.

LB: Tell me more about your interest in quilting, when did you start?

SS: I started quilting in the 70s. I was working in a lab in North Carolina, for a wonderful boss who was into arts and crafts. So, she took me to her house one day and showed a quilt that she was putting together, and I was very impressed and decided that I wanted to do that too- because I could use up the stash that I had, little realizing that I would then acquire even more. I probably will not live long enough to use up my stash, but that's okay. So, I started making quilts and have continued off and on, more on than off, ever since. I'm just thinking that I guess the first official quilt that I made was a lap quilt for my grandmother when she was in the hospital, so that would have been in late high school, early college, mid 1960's. They were simple, just simple blocks--I can't even remember how big they were--I mean simple squares. It was just a one patch, with a solid backing and it was any material, and it had to be a certain size because the nursing home designated the size. And I put that together and some of them left my house, so I guess that was my first official foray into quilting. But I consider quilting beginning when I was working at Becton-Dickinson for Judy Sliger, and she and I really liked crafts. We did get some work done, but we talked a lot about crafts too.

LB: How did you learn how to quilt?

SS: I taught myself. I knew how to sew because I had made clothes for a number of years and I just - I could sew a straight seam no problem and I got magazines and quilt books and read about them. So, a Quilter's Newsletter Magazine was a big influence on me. I subscribed to that starting in the 70s and I kept the subscription and the journals in my house ever since. So, I read a lot. I didn't belong to a guild until I got out on my own, in the year 2000, here in Newark. Until then I would occasionally talk to quilters, go to quilt shows and look at what people did.

LB: How many hours a week do you spend on quilting?

SS: That varies widely; it depends on my workload. When it's a semester break, I'll spend as much time as I can. If I'm under a deadline, for example I promised my grandchildren a quilt, a granddaughter a quilt, two years ago. And if I said to her, I'm going to get it done before you're finished with second grade and I've got a month to go, I'm doing as much as I can. If it's the beginning, I try to spend approximately an hour a day doing something with regard to quilting, mainly cutting fabric. And sometimes I'll be able to do more and sometimes it's literally just five minutes and that's all I can do in a day. I try to do it first thing in the morning because I know I'm in a much better mood if I do something quilting in the morning. No matter what happens in the rest of the day I have had a good day already because I'm quilting and that makes a big difference in my mood in the daytime. So, something every day is my goal and pretty much I'm able to keep that up.

LB: Do you have other family members who quilted? You mentioned your grandmother that you made one for her, but was she a quilter, or--

SS: No, she wasn't. She was my city grandma, and I had a country grandma, and the country grandma definitely was a quilter. In fact, I have some framed--two framed blocks in my house that were the best pieces that I could salvage from two quilts that we used to sleep under when we would go visit her. And I understand through one of my aunts that she probably participated in making the quilts that she belonged to a Bible Society, and I don't know what else the ladies got done, but they sure got done a lot of quilting. So, the Bible Society quilted a bunch of quilts for my grandmother, and I imagine it was a sewing bee really, and they probably talked about scripture. She made those quilts; I didn't find that out until long after she was dead. But we used to sleep under those quilts when we used to visit her, so in my mind, in my little kid mind, quilts and fun and comfort and good times were associated, but I didn't actually start making them until the 70s.

LB: What is your first quilt memory? Something when you were a child?

SS: Yes, two quilts and one is framed. It was a blue Maple Leaf and I had never seen the Maple Leaf pattern before. It's all spiky and zig-zaggy. I just was fascinated with that and then there was another quilt- I remember two quilts that I loved, and these were all at my grandmother's house, and these we used when we slept over, and one was a Sun Bonnet Sue, and the other was an Overall Sam. So, I was fascinated with the Sun Bonnet Sue probably because my name is Sue. They painted on the fabric, the background fabric, to be grass and some decoration like a basket weave on the back of the fabric they used, because they used a plain color and did probably in black the outlines. So, I was amazed that anybody would ever paint on fabric because I never thought about that as a kid. I was not a wall-writer as a little kid. [laughs.] Lucky mother [laughs.]

LB: Do you have other members in your family that quilt?

SS: My niece, my sister's oldest daughter, has started quilting and I hope she keeps up with it, but my mother did not quilt at all. My sister does not quilt. My daughter has been introduced to quilting and did her Girl-Scout gold award project involving quilts. She collects fabrics, but she hasn't made a quilt since she's been in college, so that's been the last three or four years. And my oldest granddaughter quilts. She and I made a quilt together, in her spare time, when she was in kindergarten through second grade.

LB: And she was five-years old, she was quilting?

SS: Well, yes. She wasn't quilting by hand, and I didn't let her use the machine when she was five, but she picked out the fabrics. I showed her how to rotary cut because she was watching my daughter do her schoolwork project on the floor, which is all rotary cutting and laying out the blocks to make a pattern. So, Becky cut a few, I cut most of them. And then Becky laid out the pattern all by herself on the floor and then I was not willing to let her use the machine because I was afraid that she would quilt herself. So I think I let her sit on my lap and sew a few things while I guided and made sure her hands stayed away. So, I did most of the sewing, but she picked out all of the fabrics and arranged them [inaudible.]. It's a one patch with the cascades diagonally, so the same block is appearing diagonally, I don't know what the name of that pattern is. And then there was a Roman Stripe for the back. She has that quilt on her bed.

LB: Is she still working on quilts?

SS: Yes, she is. She insisted on coming to the quilt guild as soon as she found out I was involved in it and she was able to stay awake during the meetings, was very interested, was actually asking questions, bugging me to death about fabric collections. So, she has her own and was doing some cutting. Over time I have let her sew, so now I let her sew at my machine. She's not actively working on a quilt right now, and that's because I have to make quilts for her two sisters before she can have my machine. So, she is very involved in quilting.

LB: How does quilting impact your family?

SS: My daughter has a quilt that she sleeps under, and she collects fabrics. She's probably a permanent fabric person and that's good that brought her over to the quilt side. I have three sons; one of them has a quilt to sleep under, the other one had a quilt to sleep under but due to an unfortunate storage problem it was destroyed. One of these days, he'll get another quilt to sleep under. I have that partly done. The middle son, unfortunately, has a quilt that's still in my closet. I got a gorgeous top, but realized the batting was too short so I haven't gone back to add a piece to the batting, and I had a hard time figuring out what quilting pattern to use for his, because it has a lot of paisley pattern in it. I picked the orange color in it to match his hair, so I better hurry up because his hair color's fading. [laughs.] And his son has a quilt to sleep under, because his fiancée and I worked together on a quilt for her kid.

LB: Great family togetherness.

SS: Yes.

LB: Tell me if you've ever used quilting to get through a difficult time.

SS: Absolutely. This millennium quilt that I brought got me through a tough time. It was after my divorce. I started working on it during the time that I decided I wanted to divorce and leaving my husband. And of course, I took it with me when I was in my new place. So this is what allowed me to get used to being all on my own, because at the time that I left, that was the time that all my kids left the house at the same time. So, after thirty years of having a house full of people and constant noise and constant chatter, I was in a house by myself with no pets, just me alone, and it was working on this that got me through. Absolutely, positively wonderful therapy, but quilting has been therapy for me before, in other instances, and it was major therapy this time. And the maze has these sharp right angle turns because I realized that they were symbolizing for me, the turning points in my life. It was just major, major therapy for a good maybe eight months, because it probably took about six months to lay out the top. I had never worked with two-inch squares before and probably won't again. I had seen watercolor quilts and had thought they were nice. Now this, of course, is not a watercolor but I had thought about working with the small squares again. Well, they're a lot of work, so I'm going to go back to the eight-inch size that I like, or five-inch, that's my favorite. But I have to confess, I'm so thrifty that when I cut the fabric blocks, I don't throw anything away. I decided I'm cutting my left-over scraps into squares because of my daughter's gold award quilt. I still make left-over fabric into quilts for Emmaus House. It was two-inch squares, because you never know, one of my kids might want to do a two-inch square quilt, but I doubt that I'll ever do another one, certainly not this big.

LB: You're still cutting your leftovers into two-inch squares?

SS: Still cutting them into two-inch squares and that's because I hate to throw any piece of fabric away. I said, 'You've got to be realistic because soon the fabric will outgrow the house.' So, I said, 'Okay eight-inch squares and two-inch squares; everything else goes in the trash.' Not much goes in the trash so I feel--

LB: Smaller than two-inch squares, and that's pretty small.

SS: Yes. Not messing with anything below two inches, that's for sure.

LB: What do you find pleasing about quilts?

SS: I love working with color, so the color is probably the main pleasure. I love ending up with something when I started with just a jumble of fabric, and I love the order that comes out of the chaos. That's a big satisfier to me too. And I love fooling around with the design. I never wanted to plan ahead completely a quilt, so I can visualize what it looks like at the end. All my quilts evolve the way the millennium quilt did. I have an idea, and I put down the idea in fabric and then I say, 'Well, it needs this kind of order, or it needs some of that color,' and I'll go find that in the attic. So, I'll have a rough idea, and it will just work itself out in the doing. There are other areas where I have very carefully planned every aspect of my life, but not quilts; I just let them kind of evolve out of a very rough plan. That's very satisfying for me.

LB: Is there any part of quilting that you don't enjoy?

SS: Yes, the quilting. [laughs.] That's one reason why I machine quilt. I love making tops. And, left to my own devices, if I were going to live forever--well, if I were really going to live forever then all I would make would be tops. I would never put them together, because that's not where the fun is for me. The backing is an old sheet, or it is simply roman stripes of whatever fabric. Just get it done, get it done fast, and get it out of the way, and slap it together. I love sleeping under them, but the process of wrestling with the machine and getting it through the machine, that's my least favorite part.

LB: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SS: I think color makes a great quilt. I think the contrast in color and the play of one color with another, and whether you have large area of a color and small areas of other colors, whether they shade from one to the other or whether there is very strong contrast from one area to another. I think color makes a great quilt. It's the color that draws you in; it's the color that gets you to look at the quilt. Then I think you look at design, but I think it's the color that calls to you first.

LB: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SS: I think it's probably the design that makes the quilt artistically powerful and it's the kind of design that makes you keep looking from one part of a quilt to another, that you almost want to stand in front of it forever because you think you'll never be done seeing new things in this quilt. I guess balance must somehow be a part of that, but I'm never consciously aware of the balance.

LB: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

SS: Lots of things: the age of the fabric that it's made from, whether it represents a change in the design- the general approach to quilts, whether it's a famous person that made the quilt, whether it's a signature quilt that had a lot of historically valuable signatures or even locally valuable signatures- like everybody in the Elkton government, or all the governments, or a particularly unique quilt that commemorated a big event in the country like September 11. If I had to summarize, that I would say that it's historical value.

LB: For different reasons.

SS: Right.

LB: What makes a great quilter?

SS: That's a hard question to answer.

LB: Are there any quilters that you admire?

SS: Yes. I'm not sure I can distill from that. Somebody who has a lot of imagination and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of persistence. There are many aspects of quilting, and I know that everybody has their favorite and everybody has something that's not their favorite, so the ability to persist through the parts that are not quite as much fun and to put the whole thing together. Somebody who has an intuitive sense of design and sense of color and sense of order and sense of balance, I think that's what makes a great quilter.

LB: Can quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design the pattern or choose fabrics and colors?

SS: I think that's a combination, but I think that there is some innate gift that a great quilter will have. Any of us can learn to quilt by taking a class, by watching others, by reading books or magazines, and I think that all of that applies to a great quilter as well. But I think there is some innate gift that a great quilter has, and I think that that's part of what distinguishes the great quilter from the rest of us, that they can take the classes that they've been to and go one step beyond. They can make things happen for themselves that the rest of us can't.

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

SS: [laughs.] I'm so grateful to machine quilting, because if it weren't for machine quilting, I never would get any of mine done. I still think that machine quilting is probably viewed less fairly than hand quilting and I have to confess a very strong bias when I first started quilting. I thought at first that it wasn't a quilt unless it was hand quilted and I forget what disabused me of that notion, maybe practical necessity did. I think that machine quilts can be just as wonderful as hand quilts, and I think in some instances machine quilts are better. If a quilt is going to have a lot of use especially by children, I think a machine quilt is better because it doesn't hurt as much when the quilt's injured and I think it's probably a little more sturdy, given the really rough time that kids can give a quilt. I believe quilts need to be used rather than just stored away.

LB: longarm quilting machines is there a place for them in quilting?

SS: I think there is, but I can't tell you what the place is. The reason that I think there is a place is that I have seen through the guild, examples of longarm work and it's exquisite. It's as good as the best hand quilting, I've seen; it's as good as the best machine quilting, I've seen, and it certainly allows for the creativity of the user. I used to think that a longarm was simply just a piece of factory equipment and that you made it start to do its thing and then you could go off and sleep in the corner. I realize better now, of course, that it's not, that it certainly requires a person to make the machine work. I think one advantage that the longarm has over the home machine is that it's much easier to get the quilts to go around because you don't have to wrestle the quilt around the machine, and I think that's a major advantage because you're not limited by size, you can literally do any size quilt. So I think there is a place for longarm, I think there is a place for a standard issue home machine, and I certainly think there is a place for hand quilting.

LB: Is quilting important to your life?

SS: I wouldn't have any sunshine. [pause.] I'm sorry my voice is gone. Life wouldn't be worth living without quilting. [emotional pause.]

LB: Let's get to a more personal question--

SS: Next question please. [laughs.]

LB: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

SS: I don't know. Clearly, they would reflect the geographic area that I'm in because of the fabric that I buy, because I buy my fabric locally. Having said that I'm thinking of my stash and my stash is from all over the country because I've lived in different parts of the U.S. But wherever I am I buy quilt fabric locally. That's a lot of the fun for me to go to the fabric store and just touch the fabric and see the fabric together, see the riot of colors in the store and just wander through the store and put the bolts next to each other and see how they go. I can't do that nearly as satisfactorily on the internet, so I've never used the internet and don't anticipate that I will use the internet to buy fabric. I suppose that if there were a particular fabric that I saw in a magazine and it were not in a fabric store locally and I just desperately had to have that fabric, then I would go on the internet to buy it, but I figure I can buy a lot of fabric locally, so why not just do that?

LB: Where do you go to buy your quilt fabric?

SS: I go to all different places. I go to the Quilters' Hive. I go to Wal-Mart. I go to JoAnn Fabrics. I guess those are the main places. When I'm traveling, if possible--and I travel mainly for conferences, but, if possible, I will go to some fabric store locally in the city where the conference is and then get some fabric there. Most of the time unfortunately I am not able to do that when I'm flying to a conference, but, boy, when I drive to a conference, I make sure I stop by a fabric store. [laughs.]

LB: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

SS: I think they are incredibly important to American life. I think that they've documented all aspects of American life from the people that were going across the prairie to major events that happened. 9-11 is one, the Columbia blow-up, the Challenger blow-up. I think quilts are part of American fabric, plain and simple. You wouldn't be American, if you didn't have a quilt.

LB: Do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and the experience in America of a woman?

SS: I think that quilts especially in the past, but it continues today, allow women to have a voice in times and circumstances where they wouldn't otherwise. I think that women use quilts to say things, to express thoughts that they have, to work out difficulties that they have. I think of this as a device that women use to get through life. Guys might go off on a hunting trip; women will go quilt.

LB: How do you think quilts can be used?

SS: We can use quilts anyway we want. I mean clearly they're for bed covers, we still do that, but they are for cheering up people, for giving quilts to the Linus project, giving quilts to kids for the cancer projects, making quilts for people who are getting long procedures in the hospital, to homeless quilts, to a gift that says 'I love you' in a way that nothing else can say that, to just every aspect. 'Here's your brand-new house, and here's a present for it,' and 'Here's a history of your life, or a history of your marriage,' to the family album quilts, and of course clothing. Quilts can be used for anything you can think of. I use a quilt for my homepage. For my university where I teach, all faculty are expected to have a homepage. Because I had to get deeply into the computer technology for a number of years, I was not able to quilt and make a real quilt at all, and I couldn't even do the two minutes' worth of work many times, so I made virtual quilts. In fact, in my office is hanging "Virtual Quilt 1" and it was the one that I brought to the guild. It's hanging from a paper, and I have enough wallpapers printed and cut to make another one almost. So, you can make quilts out of anything, and you can use them for any purpose- decorative or utilitarian.

LB: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

SS: I think that this project is one great way to preserve quilts for the future and that is why I'm helping to join the project. It's hard to preserve the quilts for a very long time, America's not that old so, of course, we can have some fabric that goes back to the beginning of the country but if we are five thousand years old, we won't have much fabric left, real fabric to touch. But the stories that we tell about it, whether they are preserved on the internet or just passed on from family to family, I think that's probably the very best way to preserve the quilt. Ideally to preserve the quilt as fabric, as the piece that we're talking about, probably in a museum is the second-best way to preserve a quilt. I know that some quilts are preserved by handing them down through families, and I have some that way and I'm grateful for it. But I also know that these quilts were used before they were put away, and I think that is another way, but I have a hard time with that, handing down quilts, because I don't think quilts should be just stuck in the closet. I think they ought to be gotten out so that people can see them and ask questions about them, and enjoy them, and feel them.

LB: What has happened to the quilts that you have made for family and friends?

SS: Mostly I don't know what's happened to them; a few I know. My daughter sleeps under the one that we made together and my granddaughter sleeps under the one that we made together, and my other granddaughter is bugging me to death to finish her quilt so she can sleep under hers. I know that my grandson, my oldest grandson, sleeps under the one that I made for him. I know that another one was destroyed because of water damage. The ones that I've given as gifts, I don't know what happens to them, because I never see them again. They're scattered all over the country. I know one of my friends told me when I made a quilt for her son, he's twenty-something now; that when she had moved that she took the quilt down from the wall and folded it up and put it away, and she's still storing it for him to pass it along when he has kids of his own. That's the only quilt that I made for a friend that I ever found out what happened to it.

LB: Do you know how many quilts you've made?

SS: No, I don't. I would say it's probably about a dozen. Most of the quilts I've made though, I've given away. But know that I'm building up a stash of grandkids along with a stash of fabric; I'll probably be making more for family than I will for friends. [inaudible.]

LB: Is there anything you would like to add about your quilting life that hasn't been touched on or--?

SS: I think I've touched on everything in here. I know one of the concerns that I have is, I want to quilt until I die, and I figure there's a very high probability that I'll lose my eyesight before I actually die and I thought, 'How in the world will I quilt then?' So, I pay special attention to the magazine articles that I see occasionally about women who are blind who quilt, and that they have quilted so often, and they're so familiar with their machines, and they know their fabric stash, and of course they have somebody help them and organize somehow how the colors are. But I guess that's probably the only thing about that I think about that I haven't mentioned here. Otherwise, I've touched on everything, quilting is absolutely a wonderful piece of my life, it makes all the difference to me.

LB: Thank you very much. I'd like to thank Sue Stiner for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview has concluded at 4:10 p.m. February 6, 2002. Thank you.



“Sue Stiner,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024,