Suzanne Sanger




Suzanne Sanger




Suzanne Sanger


Joanne Gasperik

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Naples, Florida


Joanne Gasperik


Joanne Gasperik (JG): This is Joanne Gasperik. Today's date is April 14th, 2003 and it is 11:04 a.m. I'm conducting an interview with Suzanne Sanger for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are in her home in Naples, Florida. Thank you, Suzanne for allowing me to interview you today.

Suzanne Sanger (SS): You're welcome.

JG: Just for starters, to start out with, tell me about the quilt, today's quilt, who made it and its origin and describe it to me.

SS: Well I made it and I made it shortly after we moved here because this house was so echoy. I needed soft things on the wall. [laughs.] I have these two niches at my front door and I needed something to fill those, so that's basically how I got the outline of the quilt. I wanted something with a Florida tropical theme, because I was so thrilled to be living here, instead of the frozen North. [laughs.] It basically shows a water background. The name of it is "Birds of Paradise." It has some Birds of Paradise flowers and it has an egret and it has a macaw and then at the very top it has silhouetted flamingos on either side of a silhouetted palm tree. The top part is sort of--basically Hawaiian echo quilted type design. The background was machine pieced and the foreground was either hand or machine appliquéd, and there was a combination of both, and it was one of my earlier art quilts.

JG: There is a lot of dimensional art on it too.

SS: Yes, yes, that was the first time I had really gone in for that. I really enjoyed doing it.

JG: So this was just, 'Thank goodness we are in Florida.'

SS: Right.

JG: So the meaning of this quilt is, exactly that, we're in Florida now and we've left New Jersey behind.

SS: Right. And it has a companion piece that's on the opposite side of the entry hall that I call "Aquacade." That one has a pelican in it, another bird, but it has dolphins and fish and underwater things and whatever. Both of these have a foundation pieced sun compass. One of them, the first one, the sun is in kind of pastel colors and I consider that the sunrise. In the other one, the sun is in very deep colors and that's the sunset.

JG: Tell me about your interest in quilting. When did you get started quilting?

SS: I got started in--[sigh.] it was probably 1976, 77, 78, some where in there. I inherited an unfinished quilt top from my Aunt Blanche, that's just this incredible, marvelous quilt. It's based on the Grandmother's Flower garden but this particular design is called "Garden Star." The little hexagon things are set in a star with little tiny green triangles or little tiny green rectangles connecting the stars to each other. The little tiny green rectangles are the size of my little finger nail, which is not a big finger nail. When I inherited this it would just fit on the top of a double bed and I wanted it to be a coverlet for a double bed. So I added two rows all the way around. I had a few of her original fabrics that she had already cut, but had not sewn together. I had her sandpaper templates and then I had to fill in. Back in the seventies, today this would be easy. You can buy thirties and she had started probably started this in the thirties. Today you can buy thirties reproduction fabrics, which you can buy Nile green, which is what these green triangles were. Then I had to try to match the color in whatever I could find. And that green that I added is a heavier weight cotton poly blend. You know I really probably destroyed the value of this quilt I realize now by finishing it. But it nevertheless got me started quilting. We moved right shortly after I got started doing it, to Kansas City. I used to take, we belonged to a neighborhood pool there, and I used to take these little scats of pieces and I'd sit at the pool and I'd piece them together while I was watching my kids. Pretty soon everybody in the entire neighborhood would come over and ask me what I was doing. We'd talk about it and I've always thought about this as my friendship quilt because I made many, many wonderful friendships from doing that in addition to getting started as a quilter, too. That's probably the quilt that's dearest to me of all the quilts I have.

JG: So from whom did you learn to quilt?

SS: I had been sewing pretty much all my life, so the piecing part of that quilt was no big deal. My mother had told me that if I would finish it she would have it quilted. So that one was sent off to these little church ladies somewhere in Kentucky. And they quilted it, but by that time I had gotten the bug and living in Kansas City, that was just a hotbed of quilting at that time, one of the early hotbeds of quilting. There were lots of shops even then. I just went to one of the shops and I took an introductory class and I don't remember who taught that class, but when I finished it I know I was completely hooked. Then I took a class from a lady named Bev Goebel. She was a pretty well-known quilter. I don't know whether she's still well-known, but at that time she was very well-known in the Kansas City area. While I was taking the class one of her pieces was published in one of the quilt magazines. This was a sampler quilt class where we made a full bed-size quilt. I remember that the class cost $36 for I think it was sixteen classes. One of the reasons I took this class from Bev was she taught you how to hand quilt using the knife underneath the quilt. That keeps your thumb from getting bloody or your fingers [inaudible.] They always talk about blood on the back of the quilt. I had quilted just enough in that introductory class to know that that sounded like a really good thing. [laughs.] So I took it, I took the class from her determined to learn that and when I got to that part, I just couldn't do it, it was just awful. I came back to class the next day, the next week. I said, 'Bev, I just don't think I can do this. It's like quilting with a telephone pole.' But I was determined because I had spent all this money on this class [laughs.] So, she stood over me and discovered I had my thimble on the wrong finger. I was doing everything wrong and she showed me again and I went home and I practiced and practiced all that week. All of a sudden I got it. I had never--now I can not quilt any other way. I tried to show someone without a knife not too long ago and I couldn't do it. I finally said, 'There were several other quilters there,' and I finally said, 'You have to ask one of them. I can't do this. I don't know how.' [laughs.]

JG: Well some, I've heard of quilting with spoons, so this is--[both talking at the same time.]

SS: It's basically the same thing. This was probably a precursor to the spoon and you just use a little hors d'oevre knife and hold it so that the blade rests against that thumb that's under there. Then your needle comes through and it hits that knife and you kind of can push that needle back a little bit. As you rock it, it shortens your stitch. So in addition to not getting blood on the back of your quilt, you get a much shorter stitch than you might otherwise. It's a wonderful method but I have tried several times, several times to teach it to other people and nobody's ever--I guess I should be charging them $36 a crack or something. Maybe they'd be more motivated [laughs.], nobody's ever mastered it. Margaret Lee is the last person I tried to teach and she said she's determined to learn it, but she hasn't so far practiced it enough.

JG: So what is your first memory, your first quilt memory?

SS: Probably Aunt Blanche's house. I sort of vaguely remember being there with my aunt and my mother, and mother admiring one of Blanche's quilts. I do remember it was a postage stamp quilt, with these little bitty three-quarter inch squares in it. And then I really never thought about quilting again, until I suddenly inherited this quilt from Aunt Blanche.

JG: Are there other quilters in your family besides Aunt Blanche now?

SS: Now I think there are. When my father passed away a little over a year ago all of a sudden I had cousins coming out of the woodwork because everybody wanted the grandfather clock, and nobody got it but me. [laughs.] But anyway these cousins kept reappearing and it turned out that two of them, one of them is actually a cousin I remember who was a child when I was a teenager. She is doing some quilting. I think she makes memory quilts from tee-shirts for people. Then I have another cousin whose wife, you know that TV show "Ed." He's the bowling alley lawyer? Well my cousin's wife is the quilt shop lawyer. She owns a quilt shop in Madisonville, Kentucky and in the back is her law office [laughs.] They live upstairs, and it's just this wonderful building that they bought just a few years ago and turned it into a combination quilt shop/lawyer's office/residence. It's just a fabulous, wonderful building. But anyway, she does professional long-arm quilting in addition to having the shop and doing quilts of her own.

JG: Do your children quilt?

SS: No. [laughs.] Maybe someday. My older daughter is a fashion designer, who hates to sew. My younger daughter teaches school and is very busy, but she's actually the one I think might eventually end up, who knows, maybe getting the bug.

JG: How did, how does quilting impact your family? How did it when the children were still little and how does it impact you now, your family?

SS: When the children were little, I think they just thought it was nice little thing that mommy did. I made each of them lap quilts that they have completely worn out and have been replaced. They always liked and admired it, but they never thought that was something that they wanted to do. My husband just sort of goes along with whatever I want to do. [laughs.] Today it basically keeps me off the streets and out of the stores other than the fabric stores. But, boy, does it get me into the fabric stores. [laughs.]

JG: Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

SS: I've been very blessed in my life. I really haven't had difficult times.

JG: That's very fortunate to be able to say that.

SS: Yes, it really is. When someday, I'm sure it will get me through a difficult time.

JG: Yes, we don't know that. What do you find pleasing about quilting?

SS: Almost everything. I really love the process. I love the product. I love traditional quilting. I was a traditional quilter for twenty--twenty--whatever years. I've become an art quilter in the last several years. I love hand work and machine work. I really love fabricating. I guess the part of quilting I like the best is designing and then doing the fabrication. But, I actually love the whole process, I love doing hand work, even though I spend, during the day I do machine work and do more contemporary art type quilts, I always have a hand quilt project going. Right now I've got a gigantic Hawaiian that I'm working on the appliqué.

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

SS: I really love hand quilt--I love, I like doing hand quilting, and I don't like doing machine quilting as much. But a lot of the things that I want to do, visually I really have to do with machine quilting. So, you know, I think that there's a place for both of them. And I'm very, I feel very fortunate that I started as a traditional quilter and learned the hand quilting basics, and that I also moved beyond that, to start to learn some of the other things too--I use hand quilting mostly if I'm making bed quilts and I do more machine work for wall quilts.

JG: Is there something about, some aspect about quilting you do not enjoy?

SS: Back when I was still doing pieced, traditional quilts, cutting out, I just really did not like cutting stuff out [laughs.] And basting is boring. The new fusible batts I think are just the most wonderful thing that ever happened, even for a big quilt. I stretch everything out on the carpet on my bedroom floor and I get my iron and an extension cord [laughs.] and I start in the middle and I start fusing. [she is gesturing as though she's ironing.] I just really don't like basting at all.

JG: Have you won any awards for your quilts?

SS: I've only entered my quilts in the local shows here. I have won some extremely gratifying awards, I have won several blue ribbons and in the last show. [Feb 7 & 8, 2003.] I won Judges Choice and a Viewer's Choice for the same quilt. That was amazing, just amazing, and really a thrill. I really don't have a lot of interest in entering national shows. I'm not actually competitive about my quilting.

JG: Do you teach other people how to quilt?

SS: More on a one on one basis. I don't do formal classes or anything. I don't think I'm really much of a--all that good of a teacher.

JG: Don't give yourself credit. [laughs.]

SS: Well, I don't know. I think I turn and lecture too much. I was a, supposedly, I was an English major and I'm theoretically able to teach English, but I actually was a school librarian. [laughs.] The class room is not really probably where I'd feel most at home.

JG: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SS: I think probably visual impact, whether it's a traditional or contemporary quilt. To me it's the visual impact that's the number one thing, coupled with the workmanship. A lot of art quilters discount workmanship, but to me that is very important. It will make or break a quilt, but really the first thing is the visual design.

JG: So, what makes a quilt artistically powerful? Is that the design, or does it go beyond?
What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SS: I guess, it's that, it goes right back to that: the composition, the use of color, but basically the visual impact.

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

SS: Old quilts, it's a combination of workmanship and just the fact that they've survived. Newer quilts, I suppose I would say whether they have in some way advanced the art of quilting uniquely in any way.

JG: Well, what makes a great quilter?

SS: Patience. [laughs.] Patience. [both laugh.] I don't know, I guess the willingness to work with the medium, and to learn all of the possibilities that the medium has to offer. There is something different about manipulating fabric than painting or sculpture or whatever.

JG: How would you recommend that a quilter go about learning the art of quilting, you know how to design a pattern or colors. How do you think great quilters did learn that?

SS: I have a feeing that great quilters like any great artist have it inside them, somewhere, but on the other hand there are skills that can and should be learned. I would strongly recommend taking classes anywhere, whether they're offered through your guild or through shops or whatever. There is just a myriad nowadays of books and magazines and articles [grandfather clock strikes the hour.] that teach one aspect or another of quilting and there are constantly new things. You know you really need to keep your mind open and just enjoy learning all the wonderful new things you can do that come from a book, but I do think that, at some point early on you need hands on experience with other quilters through classes. I reckon it's very stimulating and it also is a way for a teacher, just like when I was struggling to learn with a knife, there are things you can teach yourself and there are things that somebody needs to kind of stand over you and guide you with. I think classes are invaluable for that.

JG: Have any quilters greatly influenced your work or the way you look at quilts?

SS: No specific quilters. I had an experience in the nineties, I guess in the mid--late nineties [airplane flies overhead making the audio difficult.] my younger daughter was graduating from Ohio University, which is located in Athens Ohio. We were going out for her graduation. I happened to be on the internet and heard about this quilt show that was going to be there at a place called the Dairy Barn in Athens. I thought, 'Oh great it's a national show. I've never been to one. While we're there, by gum, I'm going.' So we went. I walked in the door of this place and the first thing that I saw was this bed that was made out of twigs that had been painted white and then there were these squiggles of color all over the twigs. And on the bed was a quilt that mimicked the twigs. It was just, it was just amazing that somebody had done all of that appliqué and all of that work and it brought the whole thing together. I just thought ,'Wow this is really amazing.' And then I walk into the rooms and discovered I was in the middle of a nest of art quilts, which at the time I had nothing but contempt for. I walked through this room and the further I went, the more interested I became, and the more amazed I was. I had started quilting back in the days when you did everything by hand, you only used white, or off-white thread for quilting. You only used cotton. 100% cotton fabrics. I mean there were all these rules and the quilt police were definitely in control. Here I was in this place where they were using sheer fabrics and metallic fabrics and tee shirt fabrics and metallic thread for quilting and machine quilting and all kinds of embellishments. One of the most amazing quilts in that show to me was, it was on a far back wall, it was black and you saw it when you walked in the door. It had these circles that were about this big [gestures with both hands showing a circle of about 3 ½ inches.] on it, they were these kind of subtle greeny, browny circles. Just row after row of these circles on this black background, and I thought that's sort of a strange quilt. When I got close to it I discovered that those circles were fairly thin, probably 1/8 inch thick cross-cut pieces of tree trunks, that had been fastened to the black cloth background with brass rings. No way did that fit into any definition of a quilt that I ever saw. But it did have backing and it did have batting. Technically it was--

JG: It qualified?

SS: Yes, it qualified. But it just was so unusual. The whole experience was just completely mind-opening. Well we had been living in New Jersey for a couple of years at that time, and I had been fairly bummed by the quilt shops, the only quilt shop that I had access to there, because it only had kind of more contemporary fabrics. And I was used to calicos, and she didn't carry any of that kind of stuff and I had kind of disdained this shop. Well I went back from that show, went to that shop, and started taking classes. I took a class in fabric painting. I took a class in silk ribbon embroidery. I took some other class. I think started liking her fabrics a whole lot better. Going to that show changed my life as a quilter. It was just all of a sudden. I think I had become kind of bored with the work I had been doing. It suddenly, everything was exciting again and new. And suddenly I started saying 'I want to do that too.'

JG: And you have.

SS: And I have.

JG: Why is quilting important to your life?

SS: Artistic expression. I'm never bored, never, never bored. There are not enough hours in the day. I will never make all the quilts I have in my head. Partly because new ones keep pushing the old ones further into the background. [both laugh.]

JG: What style of quilting is in your head?

SS: Oh, I'm definitely, innovative art quilting. This year I kind of have a plan, that, my plan is not to make a big project this year other than this hand one that I kind of have to have going for therapeutic reasons, but rather a lot of small experimental pieces. I've got a whole row of books upstairs that deal with various aspects of design and color and quilting techniques, thread work, surface manipulation, all of that kind of thing that I'm hoping to kind of work through in a systematic way this year, and not really produce too much other than experiments based on that. So that and I may not make it through that this year, because my year has kind of taken a new turn. It's just going to take a lot more time, so it may take me two years to get through that program. And then, by the end of that I'm hoping I will have internalized a lot of it in a new direction.

JG: Do you make quilts for gifts for people?

SS: Occasionally. Mostly I make them for myself. Then if it happens to suit me to give it as a gift, that's fine. I'm looking forward to being able to make baby quilts, if I ever get to be a grandma. [both laugh.]

JG: We'll edit this part and hand it to your children [laughs.]; to your daughters. [both laugh.]
In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

SS: Actually when we moved to Florida my quilts took a totally tropical turn [laughs.] I think almost everything I've done since we moved here is tropical in some way or another.

JG: So what did you do with your dark fabrics from up North?

SS: I've never been into dark fabrics. I've never liked muddy fabrics. I'm basically a pure color person. So I still have all of my bed quilts and mostly what I've brought down here, and I think I only have one wall quilt made, the one behind you, under construction at the time. But you know my bed quilts are all on beds, and they fit in quite well here, because of the pure colors.

JG: So you sleep under quilts.

SS: Oh sure.

JG: No blankets.

SS: Well, when it's cold enough, I put a blanket on.

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

SS: I think quilts in American life have always been a form of artistic expression, coupled with satisfying physical needs, in the early days. Somehow when you're picking up cloth and putting it together, you have this urge to do that in some way that is artistically satisfying. Even way back when people were cutting up their old worn out dresses and aprons to make quilts, I think that was part of what was going on. All of my aunts quilts were scrap quilts [telephone rings.] in thirties fabrics.

JG: Do you want to get that? We took a brief pause to answer a telephone call. But we were talking about in what ways you think about the importance of quilts in American life.

SS: Oh ya. You know I think I was pretty well wound up on that--

JG: Sure.

SS: On that question.

JG: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

SS: Oh I think women have put their heart and soul in their quilts, always from the very beginning. Whether they were quilts back on the prairie, whether they were Baltimore Album quilts, which were much more elaborate, the slave quilts that they hung over the fences to guide the run-aways. You know I think there is an enormous amount of emotion [airplane flying over makes the audio difficult.] and creativity that's gone into our quilts that's part of our history. To me quilts are, because they're so tactile, there is so much hands-on when you're making one, and then when you finish it, you get to wrap it around you. That's different than a clay pot or a sculpture or a painting. You know to me it's more an emotional connection.

JG: How do you think quilts can be used?

SS: Any way you want to use them [laughs.] I put mine on my beds; I hang them on my walls. They can go in museums.

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

SS: I'm sort of a user, rather than a preserver. At the moment don't have any of my aunt's quilts on beds but I have in the past and I'm sure I occasionally rotate my quilts. I guess I grew up in a house with antique furniture that we sat on and used, and I've kind of always had that philosophy that if it's lasted this long it will hopefully last in the future. And with quilts that's less true because they do wear out and they do degrade if they are exposed to sunlight. So I think you need to take reasonable care of them. You know, to me they're to be used.

JG: Well I know you belong to a guild now and in fact you're guild president. How do you see the importance of guilds for quilters in America now?

SS: I never belonged to a guild until I moved down here and joined the Naples Quilters Guild. I just have found the experience extremely beneficial, the workshops, the teachers they bring in, are just wonderful, they are resources that you just couldn't have on your own. Part of the mission of the guild is to educate and preserve the tradition. I think that almost any guild probably fulfills that function wonderfully well, better than shops. Shops can teach the basic skills, and they can teach other skills, but that mission to educate and the mission to preserve is something that's more in line with the quilt guilds.

JG: [bad tape spot.] Well, we've we're coming to the end, and I'm wondering is there anything that we haven't covered about your quilt or your quilting experience that you would want other quiltmakers or future historians to know?

SS: Getting back to the quilt I chose, I forgot to mention that I selected that one because it illustrates some things I've learned that I like to do in my quilts. I like a certain level of complexity, I like a combination of techniques such as piecing and appliqué, straight lines and curves, I like to juxtapose some very traditional elements with more contemporary elements. In this particular piece, the foundation pieced sun compass pleases me in its setting with things like the free-hanging raw edge palm fronds that can blow around a little and the machine thread work on the egret's mating fluff. I enjoy combining some of the traditional roots of quilting with the freedom that today's innovative techniques allow.

JG: Have you, have you participated in any quilt historical projects?

SS: Not until now [laughs.] You know I do think this is a wonderful project. I'm really looking forward to getting involved actively in it. Going back to the guild question, our board has decided that they would like our guild to participate in this project and I really look forward to our doing that.

JG: Well, I would like to thank you, Suzanne--

SS: You're welcome, Joanne.

JG: For talking with me today for Quilters' [S.O.S. -] Save Our Stories project. We have concluded this interview at 12:16. Thank you very much.

SS: And you're welcome.

[tape ends.]


“Suzanne Sanger,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,