Cathy Miller




Cathy Miller




Cathy Miller


Joanne Gasperik

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Dorry Emmer


St. James City, Florida


Joanne Gasperik


Note: Cathy Miller lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and is Canadian.

Joanne Gasperik (JG): This is Joanne Gasperik. Today's date is February 16th, [2005.], and it's 4:18 in the afternoon. I am conducting an interview with Cathy Miller, the Singing Quilter, for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. We are [on the lanai.] in my home in St James City, Florida where I am fortunate to have Cathy and her husband John visiting me. Thank you, Cathy, for allowing me to interview you today.

Cathy Miller (CM): Oh, I'm happy to do it.

JG: Tell me about the quilt you brought today. [telephone rings.] What is the story? [clunking noise.] [tape shut off briefly because the phone rang.] So, Cathy, the quilt that you brought, tell us about your quilt please.

CM: This is the first quilt I ever made, and it was meant to be an appliquéd hearts quilt. But it turned out to be an appliquéd lips quilt of my own design. The reason I made a lips quilt, and in fact the reason I made a quilt at all is because I'm a professional singer and song writer in the folk music field. In 1991, I was hired as a song writer to write music for a play about quilting in Ottawa. Canada. It was to be a twenty-minute vignette as part of Quilts Canada, our biennial quilt festival. It was going to be presented with the quilts, in the area where the quilts were held, were hung. The playwright and I [telephone rings.] were not--the playwright and I were not quilters. [telephone rings.] But we read every book in the library and did our research as much as possible. [JG's husband answers the telephone in the background: 'Hello.'] It wasn't quite enough for me to have done that reading. I thought maybe I should take a quilt class. And that's really what got me started as the Singing Quilter. [JG hums approval.] I signed up for these appliquéd hearts class. It was just a lap quilt. But by that point I had read enough about quilting history and tradition and superstition to know that the superstition is [talking in the background.] an unmarried woman should never quilt hearts, because she can wreck her chances for nuptial bliss for all time. So, when I went to the first quilt class, not that I believe in such things, but I was still living in hope, you know? So, I went to the first quilt class, and I asked if I could quilt something other than hearts. And I told the instructor why. She was very gracious and said, 'What did you have in mind?' And I said, 'My record company is called "Sealed with a Kiss Records" and I have a [loud conversation in the background.] lip collection at home and I wonder if I could quilt lips.' She had never heard of a lip quilt before. In fact, they're quite rare. And she said, 'Well, look, I've got a template for tulips, how about that?' And I said 'It's not exactly the same. Do you think I could make my own template?' Now the woman who was sitting beside me put up her hand and said, 'I'd like to do teddy bears.'

JG: Troublemaker.

CM: No kidding! And I know for a fact that teddy bear quilt never did get finished. But 2 years later I ran into the teddy bear woman in the street, and she asked me if I had had any idea that that was that teacher's first class she had ever taught. She got not one but two of us who were imps, who decided that they would do something else. So, I like to sew and to put meaning into everything I do, in songs or in any kind of craft that I do. I want to have some meaning to it. So not only did I do lips in honor of my record company and the lip collection I have, but I also put the original--I embroidered the original logo that started the lip collection, which was designed for me on a business card. And that's embroidered in the bottom part of the quilt. So, it's singing lips with six guitar strings coming out each side of the mouth. But I also found some fabric at IKEA so that my lips could speak. So, my lips are in fact speaking SVEDISH, and its hand quilted. One of only two quilts I have hand quilted. And it's pink, which is unfortunate, because I stupidly let the quilt shop owner decide my colors for me, to a point. And I just would have preferred another color, but there you go. [JG hums.] It's too late.

JG: Yes, Joan Shay also warned us about having the quilt shop owner pick your fabrics. [laughing.]

CM: I was reminded of that last night when we heard her speak. [transcribers note: Joan Shay was the scheduled program visitor at the Fort Myers quilt guild, which Cathy and Joanne had attended the day before.]

JG: [laughing.] Oh, gosh. Do you quilt steadily? Do you quilt during the week? Or what is your--

CM: The way we're traveling just now, my husband and I are traveling between seven and eight months a year. And we travel through a variety of means, some of which is flying, which means I don't bring my sewing machine with me, but I often do bring hand work. And in a fifteen-foot travel trailer, which we're traveling in now, I do bring my sewing machine, so I will quilt whenever I can. I can go for weeks without being able to [a great blue heron is calling outside.] or when we're home I can, if we're home for 10 days I can be in the sewing room for 10 days, eight hours a day [JG hums approval.] because I have to meet a deadline for some reason.

JG: Yes, yes, right. What is your first quilt memory?

CM: [long pause.] You know, I don't--I DO remember my first quilt memory. My now friend, Ann Bird who is a noted Canadian quilter, lives in Ottawa, invited me over to her house once. I was working the bars in Ottawa as a singer/songwriter. I think she had come to a feminist gig that I had done, because I worked as a feminist songwriter with an agit-prop theater group for a while. And she invited me over. I knew nothing about quilting. I had no idea of her own stature, and she just invited me over for tea, and I went over. And she showed me her quilts and they were amazing. You know I can't remember any individual part of it, but she was so enthusiastic and so devoted to what she was doing. And it was a totally new world for me. [JG hums approval.] I had dabbled in craft things. You know, a little bit of knitting, a little crocheting, a little embroidery and things like that, but nothing had ever really captured me, like Ann was so clearly captured by quilting. And it was fascinating. I love discovering that passion in other people. It didn't make me want to quilt, but it--

JG: Not immediately--

CM: No! And it's funny, because only recently in the last couple of years did, I find Ann again. She found me really and I sang for her guild in Ottawa, which is a big guild. She came up and we met just before I started the show, and we had a big hug [JG hums approval.] and everything. I think we've got a nice friendship going now, after all these years of me not at all being interested.

JG: Yeah, yeah. So, there are no quilters in your family?

CM: No. My mother sewed all of my clothes. She was a home economics teacher by profession. So, I think she got me into the creative side. Quilting for me is a creative expression. I don't quilt because I sew. I quilt because I'm creative. [JG hums approval.] It's just another avenue for me. Songwriting is an avenue. Singing is an avenue, and that's separate. Making wine is an avenue, and making quilts is a very important avenue to me right now.

JG: [hums approval.] But it's interesting that, you know, you sing quilting stories, so you are strongly affected by quilts, and by the craft and by their history.

CM: But what got me was the research for the play. [JG hums approval.] Just seeing quilts, I can say 'Ooh ah ooh ah, how lovely, how pretty.' But what got me were the stories, much like this project is about. Not just the stories of individual quilts, but when I started finding stories where larger historic events intersected with quilts, like the Rajah quilt, the female convict ship quilt, made in 1841 by women bound for Van Diemen's Land, I thought I had died and gone to heaven in terms of a mother lode of stories that any good songwriter should be looking for in their lives. And the fact that nobody was telling these stories, for whatever reason, I expect sometimes it's because it's women's history and it's JUST QUILTS, and I would put that in brackets or in quotation marks "just quilts". It wasn't highly valued, but when I started writing songs about these stories I was given and saw the light bulbs go on in quilters eyes when I sang them [Great Blue Heron calling outside.] saying, 'Gee, that's my story, and someone thought that was important enough to write a song about. That must be an important story, then. And it validates what they're doing. It's too marvelous for words. It's everything that a songwriter should be going for. They're not my stories, I sort of consider myself a troubadour carrying the news from one end of the world to another.

JG: It's interesting, because these are some of the questions that we do touch on, namely 'in what ways do you think' – and this is a question- 'In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history?'

CM: Well in many ways it's the only history that we have in some cases. I've heard it said that a quilt, well I've written that quilts last longer than me. We often as women through history didn't have access to the written word or the kinds of records that men had access to. And so we just went off and did our little, our little handicrafts, but what we were doing was recording our lives. You know, on any given quilt you can see how angry the quilter was by the state of those stitches, you know? And if you know how to read that quilt, you can learn a lot. And this all came together for me, when I found out that those stories were out there not being told. It appealed to my old feminist roots. It appealed to the storytelling and song-writing antenna went up. It's just perfect for me, and I'm so fortunate to have been able to find that [JG: Yes.] avenue for myself.

JG: Yes, yes, that source of stories--

CM: Yeah, because who knew that you could actually make a living at this.

JG: Right, right.

CM: When I released the first album I thought 'Gee, I hope I can sell enough copies to pay for the recording. You know? Because I didn't know how many quilters were out there in the year 2000. I was still fairly new to North American quilting. I knew a bit more about Australian quilting by that point.

JG: Yes, and the latest numbers there are 21 million quilters--

CM: In America alone, in the United States alone. Yes. [JG: Right.] That doesn't count me.

JG: [laughing.] You're right. You're right. [both laugh.] Oh. So how do you think quilts can be used?

CM: [takes a deep breath.] Oh, my. Well [sighs.] you know like a song I think, quilts are sneaky in terms of getting - a – what would be the word – niggling or snaking their way into your deepest sub consciousness. I can sing a song and people; emotions will be aroused in people that they don't realize are there. And it can be very healing. It can hurt for a little while. It can make them laugh and release all kinds of tension. And people have told me that that's what the songs will do. I think quilts can do the same thing. There are so many stories that have been told to me that where quilts are ratty and torn [airplane overhead.] and they are loved, loved, loved because grandmother made it, great-grandmother made it. It has a piece of the dress that I wore the first day to school. It has my mother's stitches. It has my mother's dreams. And when you can wrap yourself up in that, it's a tangible source of love and hugs. They are sneaky, quilts. You know I had someone tell me a story last year after I spoke at a music conference about my experience as a Singing Quilter, and she came up to me, she is another musician, came up to me in the lunch line-up and said, 'I have a story about a quilt.' She whispered in my ear, 'I stole a quilt once.' Then I said, 'Do tell.' She said, 'It wasn't because it was a beautiful quilt. It was because of the love that was sewn into it.' [JG hums.] And she said, 'For twenty-five years I've been trying to atone, figure out how to atone for this act.' I said, 'Well you can give it back.' And she said, 'No!' And she went on to tell me about her mother who had committed suicide when she was seven. Her mother had made her all of her clothes when she was a little girl. And when her mother died, and her mother had had schizophrenia. Her mother died and there was a huge hole in her psyche as a result. So she went through all these years, and at nineteen she was at a church camp in British Columbia, Canada, and saw this quilt and took it. [JG hums.] And I was just about to ask her, you know, 'this is a marvelous story, if I can do anything could I have your name and address.' She gave me a card. I was just about to ask more about the quilt, and she said, 'It was a Crazy Quilt.' And I said, 'A what?' And she looked at me, never having connected the fact that her mother was schizophrenic with the fact that she had stolen a Crazy Quilt. Her eyes got big and filled with tears and she ran away. And I haven't seen her again, but I have her card. This, I mean, that's a powerful story.

JG: Yes, it is.

CM: Sneaky.

JG: Yes.

CM: I mean I know that a whole new door opened up for her when I said, 'A what?' [JG hums approval.] That she hadn't thought of. But that's, I mean, there are a lot of transformational stories that happen surrounding quilts.

JG: Right, right. And they are commonly used to help people over difficult times, through difficult times. Has that been a personal experience of yours, or just you've heard it tell?

CM: Oh, no. When I started, now I was making my nephew's quilt, which was the first full-sized quilt I'd ever made. We were living in Calgary and John, and I had been married for a couple of years, I guess. I had been working--just before I started writing songs about quilting, this was before we went to Australia, where this all got crystallized. I had been working for two years with a photographer who was also [a Great Blue Heron is making raucous noise outside.] a coalminer. And we had been working on coal-mining songs. I think I wrote 18 songs, based on interviews he had done with old coalminers whom he had photographed, but had mostly died by that point. And that's where I learned how to tell the truth in songs. He was very picky about this. And I thought I did very good work and I had written 18 songs in a period of two years. Well John and I got married, and my life started going off and we were going to go to Australia for our honeymoon and, you know, it was starting, I was starting to say, 'Okay, when do I stop on this? How much longer? I'm not going to have much more time for this project for free.' And he went on and involved other songwriters. Well by the time they got to the point to record the album, I was out of it. He used one of my songs, but not sung by me. So, two years of my work of good work, I thought was gone and was not used. And I was so upset that day, that all I could do was go downstairs and sew. I was in such a state. I was furious and disappointed, and heart broken, and I couldn't do anything else but sew that day.

JG: Do your stitches show that?

CM: Probably. It wasn't hand work, so I think they show much more [JG: Yes.] when you're doing handwork on that.

JG: Wow. I find it just fascinating because you're covering, your songs and your experience with singing quilting history, covers so many of the aspects of quilting that people really are interested in. You know, 'How do women express themselves through quilting?' 'What is their historical importance and how did women become historically important through their quilts?'

CM: Hmm. Well, if that's the only record you have of women's activities, that lasts longer than a hundred years, then it becomes vital, just because we have a lack of other information. So, you have to be pretty sharp to glean what was going on [JG: Yes.] But when they started renaming quilt blocks to fall in with the political sensibilities of the time, that's important. [JG: Yes.] When you start putting your name on quilts and raffling them to raise funds for war bonds, that's important. I recently heard a story based as a result of having written a song about World War Two, Red Cross Quilts in Canada, where I met some of the women who had as children been knitting. Now those socks that they knit for the soldiers and for the people who lost their homes to the Blitz are gone. But they remembered putting their names and addresses inside [noise in the background.] the socks. [JG hums approval.] And they got letters back from the soldiers of thanks. None of them kept them. [JG sighs: 'Oh.'] We have the quilts.

JG: Yes. Right, that's true. How true.

CM: Ya. But we have some of the quilts.

JG: Yes.

CM: Yes.

JG: Yes, and through the wars, you know they were used for many purposes, so many were lost.

CM: Yes.

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

CM: [sighs.] Well, you know, quilting goes through ebbs and flows. And if you think post World War II, quilts were outré. They were 'non go,' that's not a word. [JG laughs.] You just wanted new. It was a new world. You wanted new. [JG: Store-bought.] Yeah. You wanted a coverlet. Nothing to look like what your mother and grandmother made, because they had to. And quilting will go through another ebb like that again. [JG nods.] Preserving quilts, they're going to disintegrate eventually. [JG agrees.] You have to stay current with the current technology, I guess, which is what we're doing here, to preserve the stories. The quilts themselves, there are lots of ways to preserve them. You can't put them all in sealed rooms, because quilts are made to be used. I don't know how to--are you talking how to preserve quilts or how to preserve quilting?

JG: No, how to preserve quilts. Both, both, you know. How do we keep the notion alive that it's--that it's a wonderful form of art? You know, rather than have ebbs and flows and lose techniques and lose the quilting experience. Those are all part of--those are all questions really that that we have. So you believe that quilts should be used?

CM: Oh, some should.

JG: Some should.

CM: Yeah.

JG: And others?

CM: Ah. I, personally for my quilts, I love it when they hang them on the wall. I really do. I don't want the cat on it. I don't want the dog sleeping on it. But once the quilt is given away, you sort of have to let them go. [JG agrees.] I've never had kids, so I don't know about that part, but you sort of have to let them go. What I'm trying to do to fend off cats and dogs on my quilts is by involving the recipients in the design process [JG: Ah.], so they have some sense of the amount of thought and work that goes into the quilts.

JG: Yes. What about art quilts now? Those are always going to be on the wall.

CM: Yeah,

JG: Can they be preserved in museums, or what do you think?

CM: Oh, yeah, but we have millions and millions of quilts right now. How- you're not going to be able to preserve them all. It is a fleeting art form, despite how much pure cotton you use and, you know it's just the nature of the business. It doesn't much matter to me how they're preserved. There are certain ones, like the Rajah Quilt, like the Changi quilt, like you know you can name--there is a quilt in Maryland, I think, that Jinny Beyer told me about. Yes, these are quilts that really, they've survived this long. They ought to be very well taken care of now. But most of the quilts we're making these days don't need to be done that way. There are an awful lot of duplicates being made. Unique, one-of-a-kind quilts, Pam Holland's "1776" quilt, the award winners, yes. [JG agrees.] These are state of the art, works of art [JG agrees.], and I believe they should be taken well care of. Yeah. [JG agrees.] So, we have something to aspire to. [JG: Right.] If you don't see the best, you don't know what's possible.

JG: Yes. [softly.] Right, right. So, I was going to continue on that line about what makes an art quilt? What makes a quilt so important that it should be preserved?

CM: Hm. Well, I guess that's in the eye of the beholder, isn't it? [JG agrees.] The quilts that will survive in my family are the ones I've made, because there aren't any others. And they're the coming-of-age quilts I think that I've made for each of my niece and nephews and still in the midst of making. [JG agrees.] In the larger world, what makes an art quilt?

JG: What makes a quilt great?

CM: What makes a quilt great? A unique vision. Extraordinary skill in all aspects of it, or one aspect of all the aspects. You know, you wouldn't want to lose a Luixin [Thimblelady.] or Diane Gaudynski quilt because you didn't like the piecing. You wouldn't want to lose a Caryl Breyer Fallert quilt, ever, as far as I'm concerned. [laughs.] It's not a question of tradition or avant-garde for me. You know, I think we should preserve some of those really God-awful-ugly-seventies quilts. [JG nods.] I saw a small display of them in Calgary last year. There were about eight of them that people had dug out of their basements. And they were horrendous. But what a snapshot of the time.

JG: [agrees.] Evolution.

CM: Yup, double-knits, oranges, avocado, but that's where we were in the seventies and sixties.

JG: What an evolution.

CM: Oh, yeah.

JG: What an evolution from – yes from those really terrible and with huge blocks [CM: agrees.] and with no finesse in the quilting [CM: Yeah.] Hand quilting. Now, you know, there was a certain snobbery that it had to be hand quilted. Well, by far now there are more machine quilters.

CM: Absolutely, yeah.

JG: And long-arm quilters.

CM: Yeah, I think the long-armers are setting a new standard, aren't they? [JG agrees.] But you know, people were just relearning the craft in the seventies and sixties, so that's part of the evolution. We're not talking the Amish, who didn't stop, and still have those skills. We're talking a new generation of quilters, who are just testing the waters. [JG agrees.] That's part of the history.

JG: Yes, yes. Right, right. Do you sleep under a quilt?

CM: Yes! Not when we're in the trailer, because I have all the quilts in a suitcase for the shows. But at home, yes, we usually sleep under a quilt--

JG: Made by you?

CM: Yeah, Made by me. It's the only one that I've kept for that reason. [laughs.]

JG: How many quilts do you suppose you've made?

CM: Full-sized? Or all?

JG: Any size, any size.

CM: I have a book with--if you count the potholders, I've made quite a few. [both laugh.] You know I haven't even counted them. Under a hundred. By far. Maybe under fifty. [laughs.] Absolutely, of any size, certainly under fifty. We're probably more in the--from wall hangings up twenty to thirty, tops, yeah.

JG: And you make them for gifts.

CM: Most of the time. I've just made a new quilt called "The Star and Plume" quilt, which I made because I wrote a song called "The Star and Plume," using forty-six quilt block names to tell the story. And then I had to make the quilt. So, I made that quilt as a scrappy kind of --what do you call them? You know when each block different--

JG: Sampler.

CM: Sampler quilt! I made that for the shows, for when I sing that song [JG: Yes.], so I'll keep that one. And I've made smaller quilts just for various reasons, sometimes they're swaps that I've done with people. Yeah. But the big quilts I'm still mostly making for my family [JG agrees.] and they've got them.

JG: They have them already. Are you working on one?

CM: I've just finished one last summer and I've just started a new one. I haven't brought it with me though. It's going to be a jersey--t-shirt quilt for my nephew. There are two more of those to make. One for the t-shirt quilt and one more nephew, and then I'm free to quilt for myself.

JG: You think.

CM: I think. [JG laughs.] Unless a whole bunch more people--well, we've got another generation coming along, too. [JG laughs.] So, I've got a baby quilt to make. I'm about a year late on that, now. [both laugh.]

JG: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

CM: Oh! So many things. I love putting the colors together. I don't consider myself a visual artist. I've never been able to draw. And what I love about quilting is you can come into it at any level and make something beautiful. So, I'm at a certain level that I would never be able to paint a picture, but I can make a beautiful quilt anyway. And so, this fulfills a side of me that my songwriting doesn't, which is a visual tactile result. I love seeing something through from beginning to end. I love holding it in my hand when I'm finished. I love looking at it. I love learning new things. I used to, I still say, any activity worth doing or worth learning, is worth learning for the rest of your life. So, I try to look for activities where I will never master them. [JG nods.] I will never master songwriting. I will never master singing. I will never master guitar playing, not even counting all the other instruments I'd love to learn. And I will never master quilting.

JG: Well, there is always a new level to grow to.

CM: Yes. That's right.

JG: Do you take classes?

CM: I'm not able to take classes very often, so I take them when I can. [JG agrees.] I think I've taken one or two classes in the last four years.

JG: Do you belong to a guild?

CM: Yup. I'm a member of a guild of 650, the largest guild in Canada, in Victoria, B.C. [British Columbia.] and I also have a small satellite group. We call them, little bee, I guess you call them down here, of I think there are ten of us. And they meet weekly for two hours. And they allow me to come and go as I please.

JG: [laughs.] Thankfully. [both laugh.] Oh, how very generous of them.

CM: Well, yes. [JG laughing.] I'm pretty happy about it. They didn't have to take me. [both laugh.]

JG: Well, it's a wonderful pastime.

CM: It is.

JG: And it is portable, like you said, even in a 15 foot [CM: Yeah.] little trailer, that you pull.

CM: Well, I've got. I've designed a handwork of half inch hexagons, not in a Grandmother's Flower Garden pattern. It's going to be a Garden Maze. It will be a large hexagon, when it's finished of silk. And when I have nothing else to do in the car and it's a boring drive, I'll pull out my hexagons, and fill up the hours. We're spending huge amounts of time in the car, so I am having to find hand work. And it's great. I find it very relaxing. Yeah.

JG: [agrees softly.] Wow, wow, that's great. Is there any part of quilting you don't enjoy?

CM: Oh, there's a good question. Let me see. I love buying fabric. [JG laughs.] I love the gear. I love the tools. I love, you know the only thing I don't like about quilting, that's happening today is the fact that people seem, a lot of people seem very interested in reproducing quilts exactly as they see them. And I have absolutely no interest in that. I will change, right from the first quilt, right from the Lip Quilt; I'll change something, because it's not mine otherwise.

JG: Not personal.

CM: It's not personal. And that's--now is there anything else? I wished somebody would develop a sewing machine with a bobbin that never runs out. [JG laughs.] I'm not really a fan of hand quilting. I've done a couple of quilts, but because I'm a guitar player, and that's THE most important thing, I find it hurts my hands. [JG agrees.] And I can't hand quilt for very long, but the rest of it--I can't think of anything else.

JG: Mmhm, mmhm, yeah, because--I've heard the whole list from hand quilting or machine quilting to binding or to drawing the quilt patterns [CM: Mmm.] I've heard--so that's funny, that's funny. Have any particular quilters greatly influenced you in your work, in making a quilt or in the design aspect of it?

CM: We're now in a beautiful position of seeing thousands of quilts every year. I am so fortunate to be able to do this. The first quilter whose work I could identify was Jinny Beyer. And it was such a thrill to be asked to sing for her conference in 2001. It was a transcendent moment to see "Ray of Light" in person, the first time. It was just amazing. I think Caryl Breyer Fallert is one of the leading lights for me in terms of taking what you see in your mind and putting it in fabric. I'm not an art quilter, so I give and take on a lot of these things. But I'm not a traditional quilter. The Star and Plume quilt is traditional because I used Barbara Brackman's quilt pattern and it's only because I wrote the song, that I made the quilt. I would not naturally make that quilt. I'd be far more interested in something more meaningful that had layers of meaning in it. And I guess my inspiration for that comes from songwriting. I've just moved all that's meaningful for me as a writer over into quilting. Somebody did an article for a magazine last year about actually finding fabric that was named in the quilt block, like if you are going to do a card trick quilt block, why don't you use card fabric, and she did this whole article on it. It was this revelation for her, and I thought, 'What's new about that? Why wouldn't you do that normally?' [JG: Right. Yes.] That doesn't, that just seems natural to me. So that's a level I'm thinking on and as such I don't always see the meaning, the layers of meanings behind other people's quilts, because they know them. [JG: Yes.] So, in terms of my own quilt making, it's more those layers of meanings that are important to me, than a style of quilt [JG: Okay.], if that makes sense.

JG: Well, so what is your next quilt project and what might those layers of meaning be?

CM: For myself?

JG: For yourself.

CM: I'm starting to get interested in miniatures. I haven't really thought past this t-shirt quilt, because I know that's hanging over me. And I've got a quilt to make for my cousin, and one for my friend Jenny in Australia. You know I haven't let those creative juices go yet on my next project, because I have a little line-up of quilts for other people going--

JG: And you want to finish the project first before you move on. So, no UFOs in other words.

CM: I have UFOs, but they're works in progress more than anything. And if they're UFOs, they're not going to get finished. You know they're back in the corner. But you know I'm thinking that after these last couple of quilts that were so end-oriented, you know I knew what I wanted to do and I was headed for it, I want to make something that I find beautiful. Not a scrappy quilt. I want to make a quilt that I find beautiful, that's unique. And I'm going to have to start doodling for that and start playing with fabric and just come up with some sort of--you need a--I need a concept, just like when I write a song I start with an idea or a story and then I put words and music to it. The music has to be in the same vein as the point of view. You know it all has to work together. So, I would maybe make an Australian quilt for example, using my Australian fabric and look around for a pattern that's appropriate or some sort of an image from my photographs that might suggest something. [JG nods.] You know, but I want, I'd like to work for clarity and for simplicity. I find a lot of my quilts, despite my best instincts are too busy for me. And I want to simplify. I want to get down to that clean line that is pristine and beautiful. I don't know if that's what everybody's looking for [laughs.], but that for me is what I'd look for [JG: A goal.] Yeah.

JG: A goal. Is there any message that you would like to give to the quilters? We have some minutes left. Are there some questions that you thought I would ask that you would like to put out to the quilting world?

CM: Well, I thought you might ask what inspires me when I hear the stories to write songs. How I choose the stories.

JG: It crossed my mind when I was listening to the tape. Please tell us.

CM: Well, there are now three quilting CDs. I must say after the third one I thought that was going to be it. But since last June, people have told me enough good stories to write a half an album. So that means there will be a fourth. Right now, I've covered a lot of different areas and I'm trying not to repeat myself. So, tons of people come up and tell me stories that are just like this one song I told them. Or I sang for them, and those are not the stories that I want to tell again, even if there are permutations that I haven't done. But a new angle--I'd like to write a song thanking the men in our lives, for driving us to those quilt shows, for building those shelves--

JG: Helping hang the show.

CM: Yeah! Mostly that. And for being supportive and not asking what are you going to do with that piece of fabric? I'm still trying to fill in a few holes, and I think I am going to start angling out to knitting or weaving a little bit, too [JG hums approval.] Just because the stories are universal and they're all women's history. [JG: Yes, yes.] But I still look actively for the history where quilts intersect.

JG: Yes. Like the Peshtigo Fire, that's on the latest--

CM: That's right, Peshtigo fire [on the same day as the Chicago fire in October 1872.]; there are now two World War II songs. One from Singapore and one from Canada. The World War II Red Cross quilts, that's on the new album. [JG: Yes.] And there are two Civil War songs, one from each side. So, I'm still looking for those times, those human moments, where quilts happen to play a part.

JG: Yes. So, whereas some people make reproduction quilts you're actually reproducing the story of the quilt.

CM: Yeah, yeah.

JG: Not in fabric but in music.

CM: Yeah. And I'm still looking for ways that quilts can be used that have nothing to do with keeping you warm. [JG nods.] So, the Peshtigo Fire story is a good example of that [JG: Yes.], he wet the quilt down and put it over his head, so he could breathe, while he ferried all of these neighbors on his train to safety. [JG: To safety.] In the middle of the worst fire in American history. The Singapore World War II prisoner of war story is getting secret messages to husbands in other prisons through the quilts, by signing your name and thereby saying, 'Honey, I'm alive.' So, I'm still looking, I know there are more stories like that out there and I'm still looking for them.

JG: Well, where would you, do you have a notion where you have to look?

CM: I read a lot of quilt history books.

JG: Just talk to people.

CM: I talk to people. I solicit stories at every show. I ask people to tell me their stories, even if they think I've heard it a million times. Got a good song idea last month from somebody who came up and said, 'You've heard this a thousand times, I know.' And I had never heard that angle on it before, and I had never heard that story. So, I just keep my ears open and thankfully because we are traveling so much, we get into new areas where I just don't know what the stories are. And while I don't do primary research, usually, I do, I am able to benefit from other people's primary research. I go to the American Quilt Study Group meetings when I can. You know and I've worked on friendships with quilt historians, especially those who I think have a good ear for stories. It's not that I've cultivated them. You know you just go to people who are good story tellers.

JG: Right, right. We're drawn to them. We're sort of groupies, but-- [laughs.]

CM: That's right, yeah; I guess I'm a groupie of all of these people. [both laugh.] who tell me the stories. And for some unknown reason, they tell them to me. You know, these people that come up at the end of gigs at quilt festivals and quilt guilds, and they tell me the darndest things, like the woman who told me about the quilt she stole. Well, what am I – safe? I guess I'm leaving town tomorrow. [JG: Yes.] And they just feel that it's safe to tell me.

JG: Yes, you can confide in someone that you think you may never see again.

CM: Even if she's going to write a song and sing it for thousands of people.

JG: Yes, wow. Well, we are actually at the end of our tape, And I thank you so very much for speaking to me, Cathy. It is [tape ends.]


“Cathy Miller,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,