Margaret Lee




Margaret Lee




Margaret Lee


Suzanne Sanger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics / United Notions


Naples, Florida


Suzanne Sanger


Suzanne Sanger [SS]: This is Suzanne Sanger. Today's date is May 25, 2005. It is 2:30 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Margaret Lee for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project and the Naples Quilters Guild at her home in Naples, Florida. Margaret, where were you living when you learned to quilt?

Margaret Lee [ML]: In Merriam, Kansas.

SS: Merriam is a suburb of Kansas City, is that right?

ML: Correct. That's in Johnson County. We do impress people with the name Johnson County. That's important. [SS laughs.] It's snobbery. [laughs.]

SS: That's true. I remember that part of living in Kansas City. [ML laughs.] And I also know from living in Kansas City at one time that Kansas City is a hotbed of quilters. Just a wonderful place to learn.

ML: Oh yes.

SS: Did you stumble into a shop and see quilting and suddenly want to do it, or--

ML: Well, yes, in a matter of speaking. I had become a thrift store junkie long before I found quilting. I loved to go to thrift stores, and usually looking for hammered aluminum, which was very collectible at that time, and I would look for aluminum, but I was drawn to books also and noticed there was a book, the McCall's sewing book or needlework book--some book that was there and just kind of leafed through it and it had a picture of a log cabin quilt along with the directions. I'd never known anything about quilts. I knew that poor people had quilts and we had blankets, and I'd been sewing all my life, making my children's clothes as they were growing up. Prom dresses [phone rings and tape is stopped for several minutes.] I really was tired of sewing clothes, garments. It seemed like it wasn't interesting to me any more now that they, the children, were gone; they were all girls. So when I saw the pattern in this McCall's magazine of a log cabin quilt along with directions of how to make it, I thought, 'I can do that, and it might be something different.' So bought the book and went home. But I didn't have any fabrics left. All the fabrics I'd been using were dress fabrics, polyester, combinations; I didn't have any cottons. I didn't know at that time that you could go buy fabric at a store. I knew that they had parts of fabric stores like JoAnn's or similar stores that they had fabrics that I knew people made aprons and housedresses from. I assumed that's what those calicoes were for. So the book, the instructions, said to use scraps, and I didn't have any and I knew that I had to create scraps somehow, so I went back to the thrift stores and began searching through the clothing because I would pretend that I had that clothing and cut them up, cut pieces from the clothing and made scraps. So I began to collect scraps. My husband saw that I was really into this, and we found out there was a quilt shop in, it wasn't Liberty, one town north of Kansas City where there was a quilt shop, and we went up there one Saturday, and I was fascinated to see all the colors of fabrics, but mainly the books. There were books on quilting, and I'd never known that. I picked up a book, and my husband helped me look through it. He bought it for me. It was the first quilt book I ever had and I treasure it. It was Judy Martin's Scrap Book, and that book has meant so much to me. Sometimes even touching it, it reminds me of the time that I got my first quilt book. Then I found out that the library had quilt books, and I began to check out every quilt book that was in the library. There were quite a few in Kansas City. I read everything. At night, I stacked the books up. I read everything I could read about quilts. The making, the history of quilts, anything. Then I found out that there was a guild in Kansas City, and I immediately joined the guild. I got as involved as I possibly could. I was like a sponge. I didn't know what to do. Judy Martin or one of the books, a book by Marti Michell I think it was, that I read talked about all the scraps and I just continually--. How you would sort them out, and I began my search again through the thrift stores to collect more and more scraps. I love going to the thrift stores and looking at the various pieces of clothing. I've torn up a lot of Laura Ashley dresses, Lanz sundresses. I made a complete quilt out of one sundress by Lanz I think it was. They have yards of fabric in the skirts. I never ever bought any fabric that had any signs of wear. They had to have the crispness of new fabric. Had to be 100% cotton. And I would wash them when I got home very carefully, and cut them up, and I had piles of clothing beside my chair. Watch television, cut up the pieces, save the buttons, and have made complete quilts out of clothing from a thrift store. That's what started it.

SS: That is the best story I think I've ever heard. What year was this when you started? Do you remember?

ML: 1989. But I will preface this story about the quilting. I wanted to do something with my hands and I'd forgotten about the very first quilt I made, which was one of those kits, the embroidery kits. It was all done in blues on a muslin background you know it was printed on, and I used embroidery floss. It was printed cross-stitch.

SS: Oh yes.

ML: I think everyone has done one printed cross-stitch. You'd never do two. And it was hand quilted using high loft polyester batting, and my granddaughter has that one in Kansas City, so, I'll never do another one of those, but it was the beginning of hand quilting, so it was in 1989 that I completed the hand cross stitch quilt, but by that time I had started the log cabin made totally of scraps from thrift stores.

SS: Margaret, let's back up a little bit. I was supposed to have started this interview by talking about the quilt that you decided to talk about today. Can you tell me about that quilt and why you selected it? Who made it? Start with that.

ML: I made the quilt—the entire quilt. It's machine pieced and machine quilted.

SS: And you made that when? Recently?

ML: In 2003.

SS: Okay.

ML: Actually, it was started in 2002 but completed for the quilt show in 2003. The Naples Quilters Guild show. I did it on a lark. Again, I was in a thrift shop. It was the Naples Community Hospital White Elephant Sale that occurs every Thursday across the street from where I live. So it's just automatic. On Thursdays I have to check the white elephant sale. And looking through the dresses--. I have a routine going through a thrift shop. You first check skirts, then you check dresses, and then you check blouses, and then you check men's shirts. And it's sort of like just a pattern of behavior that I have. But I saw this brilliantly colored dress on the rack. I thought, 'Oh!' What would you say, those are vivid reds and greens and blues. I don't know. They're just vivid, and I felt it and I thought, 'Uh oh, this isn't cotton.' And looked at the label, and it said 100% silk, and bought it anyway. It was eight dollars, and it was a Maggy London dress, size 8. The colors were so vivid and beautiful, and I knew I couldn't sew it without backing, so I backed every piece. I cut the dress up, yards of fabric in the skirt, and proceeded to look for a pattern in which I could use this fabric. And what appeared, just talked to me, was a pattern from the Quilter's Newsletter Magazine of several years back. It was a basket pattern where this designer had used the floral fabrics for every basket in the center as the flowers, and then did the border the same. I said, 'I can do that.' I measured. I had exactly enough to make every flower basket, the flowers, and the border. But it was so much fun knowing that I could do that, but I didn't want to go buy any fabric or use anything that I didn't already have. I wanted to limit this quilt to what I had on hand, and that's very difficult to do. But I knew I had to do it. It was a challenge. I felt like--I thought, now if I were on a desert island with a sewing machine and this is all I had, just this dress and my stash and I was forced to use it--. It was a challenge, it was a wonderful challenge, and I somehow played with the colors and it came out that I had this wonderful quilt made from a silk dress from a thrift store.

SS: And tell me about the label on that quilt. I know that the label is a fun thing.

ML: Oh, that was fun. What is so fun about my label is that it's the facing on the dress. I used the neck facing with the label that says, Maggy London, size eight. And I applied it and within the neck facing I have the title of the quilt, Maggy's London and Lee, 2003, Naples, Florida. And I do it; I like to add humor to my quilts. There's always something funny, or, I like to inject humor even in the design or the fabric whenever I make a quilt. I try to encourage other people who are just starting out not to be uptight about making a quilt, following the directions, be loose. I always, whenever I give a workshop on my favorite subject, which is invisible machine appliqué, I always tell people, 'If my quilts ever get to Paducah, it's because I have moved there. [laughs.]

SS: Do you use this quilt?

ML: Oh yes, oh yes.

SS: How do you use it?

ML: I sleep under it. [laughs.]

SS: Okay. What fun to sleep under that quilt? I hope you don't have plans to give this one away.

ML: No. I've decided I'm going to start keeping some of my quilts. I have done a lot of giving away. Well, of course I've made lots of quilts. I can't tell you how many quilts I've made, but they've all been given, most of them have been given away to family, friends, acquaintances, total strangers, and to be used as fund raisers for one of my favorite charities.

SS: But this one is not going to have that fate.

ML: It's MINE. It's not going anywhere. This is mine. [laughs.]

SS: Good, good. [laughs.] How many hours a week do you quilt, Margaret, do you think?

ML: That's hard to say.

SS: Do you quilt every day?

ML: I do something. Whether it's rearranging the quilt room, which is part of quilting, taking out fabric, looking at it, touching it, it's all, I spend, I don't know. I do something in there all the time that I can, when my health hasn't given me fits and I haven't been annoyed by a few side trips to hospitals and so forth. That's very interrupting to me. So I try to do something every day.

SS: Do you find solace in quilting?

ML: Oh! Oh yes! Well, excitement, actually. Solace! I mean, I get excited and impatient.

SS: Impatient about the process or impatient to get into the fabric?

ML: When the points don't meet. You have to rip out a lot. I've had to rip out a lot in my life, too, so it's just--but it's worth it. Solace.

SS: Have you ever used quilting to get you through a hard time?

ML: Yes. Yes. Because of the purpose for which the quilt was intended, I've had many stories that have warmed my heart from hearing where the quilts ended up being placed, who won them. There have just been amazing stories that have warmed my heart through the years, and I'm blessed. I think this craft that we have is a blessing. I think it's, I love it.

SS: What's your very first quilt memory, Margaret?

ML: Very first quilt memory.

SS: I mean did your family have quilts?

ML: No, no. Poor people had quilts.

SS: Oh, excuse me!

ML: We were not rich, but no, we had [both laugh.] down comforters and blankets. Poor people had quilts. I mean, this is what I remember. I don't know anyone in my family or ancestors who ever quilted.

SS: You're the pioneer.

ML: Oh yes. I do need to interject something. I majored in music in college. I always wanted to sew. I wanted to listen to classical music, not play it. [SS laughs.] So I had to take home ec in high school as a defense because my mother wouldn't let me sew, so I took home ec purposely to get to sew. So when I found quilting, my beloved viola that had been under the bed for many years, having just retired, I thought that thing can bring me some money, because I needed sewing machines [laughing], I needed fabric, I needed books, I needed everything in the world. So I pulled out the viola and asked my daughter, a musician in Nashville, if she could find somebody to buy it. Everybody said, 'You're not going to sell your viola!' And I said, 'Strange, you know I haven't heard you ask me to play that lately.' So it went to Nashville, and it is owned today by Mark O'Connor, the award winning fiddle player in Nashville, and I took the money and bought another sewing machine and a whole lot of fabric, and I've never regretted one minute of it.

SS: [laughing.] That's wonderful. What do you find most pleasing about quilting.

ML: Oh. Putting together color. Color is, I can remember as a child wanting so much the box of 64 Crayolas, and my mother said 'No, you can make colors with your box of, what is it, eight? You can blend them together.' Well, I didn't want to blend. I wanted the biggest box of crayons that it was possible to have. I wanted every color. I think of that today that I have that box of crayons, Crayolas, today, and it's putting color together that is the most fascinating and wonderful thing, and I do it--. I never get many quilts finished because I'm always busy putting, trying out this color with that and seeing if that would be a good combination of colors.

SS: Is there anything about quilting you don't enjoy?

ML: Not really, uh uh. Not being able to quilt, not being able to spend some time with my hands doing something.

SS: That's about not quilting. There's nothing about quilting itself.

ML: No!

SS: Wonderful! Margaret, I know you've entered your quilts in our show many times. What do you think you learn from entering quilts in a guild show?

ML: How many gifted, gifted people there are out there? Talented designers. And it does, I've heard some people say they are overwhelmed or intimidated. I've never felt intimidated. It has always been an encouragement to me to go on and do more, and I just delight in seeing what people do with color, textures. I see how people have grown in our guild alone, and I feel comfortable with every one of them. I love the shows. I just love putting something in the show.

SS: What do you love about putting something in the show yourself?

ML: Well I'm a show off, you know.

SS: [laughs.] Do you enjoy getting the judge's comments back?

ML: Oh, very much so. Judge's comments. I have fun interpreting them. [laughs.] I mean, I love to have fun. For instance, one of the quilts, 'There was a loose thread in the third block on the fourth row.' And I pretended, 'Oh you found that. I did that on purpose. You're a very good judge to have noticed that, very good.' And I go down and have fun with the comments, but I do pay attention because the judge was judging as a helpful comment, not as a critique, a pass-fail type thing. I learn from them.

SS: I agree. I know you've just said you belonged to the guild in Kansas City, and I know you belong to our guild. How important is the guild membership to you?

ML: Oh, it's very important.

SS: Why?

ML: Association with other people who enjoy the same interest is a must. Quilting is not a lonely craft. Different from oil painting or watercolor or any other, we share, I think, more than any other art form. We share—ideas, designs, fabric, our stories. We have Bees, which are get togethers. It's just part of quilting.

SS: What do you think makes a great quilt, Margaret?

ML: Oh. Actually, the one that you've made and you enjoy. [laughs.] I think it's the one that you've made. You designed and constructed it yourself. It's a great quilt.

SS: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

ML: Wow. Again, I think it's color--the use of color, and the story, the stories that the quilts tell. They speak to me. I think you can stare at a quilt as you would a piece of art in an art gallery, and they speak to you, and you listen. Some quilts don't say anything; don't say anything at all—to me. But I don't spend time on the ones that don't speak to me. I do spend time on the ones that I enjoy. I look at technique, color, and am fascinated and I admire what has this person has done.

SS: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a private collection?

ML: Oh, wow. I imagine there are such things as fine workmanship, all of the elements of good art, some of which today is just very contemporary, very unusual, but there's something about a work that would be museum quality that has to do with design, color, workmanship, materials that just exceed the norm, that are just what they are. They are perfect.

SS: What do you think makes a great quilter?

ML: Oh, the one that picks up a needle and has fun quilting. [both laugh.]

SS: How do you think great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially something like how to design a pattern or work with colors?

ML: I don't think you can. I think it's an innate trait that just needs to be brought out in a person. You can get a paint by numbers quilt pack or something, and people have done it, and I think that's probably the only quilt they'd ever make because that did not motivate them or stimulate their interest to go further than that. That's about my opinion.

SS: I know you've taken a good number of classes. Do you think that classes in quilting bring out that innate ability or can they teach you something that you don't have? What do you get from taking classes?

ML: Actually, if you want to know the truth, what I get is how slow I am. [SS laughs.] I've had a class with Judy Martin and felt like I was brain damaged. I mean, I'm stupid. I learned a few things but I also learned that I have limits to how much I can learn in a class. It's not a pass-fail thing. I want to be perfect and do everything and that bothers me when I--. I mean it's a problem that I have myself. I realize that I think I approach a class sometimes thinking this is going to be what I'm going to do the rest of my life. I have to do it perfectly and everything. We cannot do that to ourselves. We must take a class if only just to learn one thing that might come in handy later on that we will remember that we got that in a class. Very important. But I think we need to approach a class, I need to approach a class with a less constipated attitude. That's me.

SS: What does quilting teach you?

ML: Oh, to forget the unimportant stuff—like clean house. It is so important to me. It teaches me how to use my time a little better so that I can do it, and what really has to be done and what doesn't have to be done, and not to be concerned about the superficial things that don't matter—like buying clothes and things. You know those things. [laughs.] Now go buy fabric.

SS: How do you feel about machine versus hand quilting, construction, all of that?

ML: Yeah. [both laugh.]

SS: You do it all?

ML: Yeah, I think they're all fun. There's a place for everything. I really spend more time with the machine aspect because I'm 76 and I've got a lot of quilts to make, you know, before I go to the big quilting bee in the sky, and my hand, gee, you of all people had to bring that up. I have bought a Roxanne thimble and I have a little knife that you tried to teach me how to hand quilt. I've tried every, I've got every contraption possible that I've bought for hand quilting and it's still is awkward for me and not really enjoyable versus machine quilting. I can see other people do hand quilting, and I just stare in amazement and think, 'Why can't I do that?' And there again, I think I just have to realize that I'm more at home with a machine.

SS: How do you feel about regular machine quilting versus long-arm quilting?

ML: Well, my husband and I did long-arm quilting as sort of a cottage little business back in Merriam, Kansas. We had a Noltings 16 inch long-arm and word of mouth got around that we did quilts, and of course that was one way I did some quilts. In fact, the first quilt I had enough nerve to put in the Kansas State Fair. I think it was in 1992. It won a blue ribbon at the Kansas State Fair because it was the first year they allowed machine quilting to compete. It was done on a long-arm machine, but they have, that's an art in itself. It's also hard work. It is not easy. Long-arm machines are now wonderful and available for home use and I have one. I mean I have the SuperQuilter. But they're hard on your back, and I don't know whether it really saves that much time. I enjoy it, and yet it can also be hard if you have to rip stitches out and so forth. There are advantages to the long-arms. There's no such thing as a fast way to make a quilt. You just keep thinking you'll get this and it will work faster. No, it doesn't.

SS: I think one distinction that I always have a hard time making with long arm quilting is to me there's a difference between hand guided and, I don't know, machine guided or computer driven or whatever long arm quilting. Do you feel that there's a difference? When you did the long arm quilting--

ML: This quilt here was not done on a long-arm. I sat and I tried to quilt by sitting at my Juki, and it's quilted a quarter of an inch inside each seam and then ornamental quilted on the outside there, but the long-arms that are out today, like the HandiQuilter and the SuperQuilter and the Grace machine and all of them, the machine can be guided from one side of the rollers by using a pantograph and a stylus. That can be done very nicely, very carefully. Then also, it can be done free motion from the other side just moving your hand, moving the machine by your hand, which is very touchy. I'm not good at that.

SS: Philosophically, how do you feel about the difference between those two techniques?

ML: I think it depends on the ability of the person who's doing it. There are some who have just a talent for doing it, and not everyone has it. I think we have to stick to what we're comfortable with and not try to do everything.

SS: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community or your region?

ML: Oh, Florida? [laughing.]

SS: Do you make different quilts here--different types? I mean do you feel your quilts since you moved to Florida are different than the ones you made in Kansas?

ML: No. Mine don't have anything to do with region. One quilt that I had in our show in February is the one that came the closest to being regional because it was a quilt with pine trees on a white background, and it looked like it was in a blizzard, and Pat McAfee helped me with the border. Looked like it was in a snowstorm. I just named it, I Dreamt It Snowed on Pine Ridge Road. It looked like it was a bunch of pine trees in Florida. [both laugh.] That was the closest I could get to Florida, but no, I just stick with, it's color to me. It's color and pattern.

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

ML: I think it's the only thing that is truly American. Remember, America is a melting pot of different ethnic backgrounds where there was quilting going on in different countries at different times, but I think it got its--that we in America, because of our backgrounds, that it just came together here. It was a necessity here during the early years, and then there was a time when it wasn't popular and now it has just come back. I think this is what America, what we can pass on to our children, and that is so important to me. Our quilts will live long past us in our country. I guess that explains it.

SS: Do you feel any kind of need or obligation to help pass this quilting art to another generation or to other people, and if so, how do you do that?

ML: Well, do I feel a need? I feel it's a responsibility that I have to share what I know with my sister quilter who may not know as much as I've been able to find out through the years, to help them as much as possible, answer the questions, show them the hints that I have learned, the simple little things. I think we have a responsibility to share.

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

ML: We're the nest makers. We keep the family. We're the one's that take care, and warm our children with our love and our quilts. We cover them with our love, and I think our quilts cover our children and that's an expression of love. When you wrap yourself or your loved one in a quilt that you have made, you have wrapped them with your love.

SS: Is that a way of passing the quilting legacy down through the generations?

ML: That act, or that quilt, is a memory that can be touched on through the generations. A picture does one thing, but to touch something that was touched by your grandmother or great-grandmother is touching that person. Does that answer that question?

SS: It does. Margaret, what has happened to the quilts that you have made for friends and family? Do you tend to know that or do you tend to not?

ML: No, I know where they are. I know where they are. I know where some of them are. I don't know where they are now. They may have been washed to death or covering somebody's Harley-Davidson. I don't know. [both laugh.] One story in particular: Well, as I said, I have made some for a particular charity as fund raisers, which has warmed my heart very much, and I know where they eventually were won, so I don't know where they are today, but I have pictures of those and pleasant memories of the stories that they have generated. But there is one, my sister and her husband treated my husband and me to a cruise around Ireland in 1996 and then we spent another week going around inside of Ireland, but the cruise was wonderful, and it was something that we would never have been able to afford ourselves, and I hastily said, 'Oh Eloise, I have to thank you in some way. I know. I will make each of your children a quilt.' Now she has ten children and I wondered why I had opened my mouth. But they each have a quilt that I have made. All of my children, all four of my children and their children, and all of Bill's children and his children and his great grandchildren all have a quilt made by me.

SS: What a wonderful legacy.

ML: What was the question? We got lost.

SS: Margaret, we've just about finished with our questions. Is there anything you would like to add, anything we didn't discuss?

ML: Oh, not that I can really think of. There was one thing that I must tell you, one thing about one of the charity quilts that I have made. It was all hand. It was a Grandmother's Flower Garden. It was all hand pieced and all hand quilted, and none of my children seemed interested in it, and I knew that I was donating it to be raffled, and my niece in Illinois had called just a few days before and was talking to me about something, and she said, 'Aunt Margaret, when are you going to make me a quilt?' And I said, 'Oh gee. You'll just have to wait in line, you know.' Well, it was a few days later, oh, and I found out that her husband, I told her about the quilt raffle that was coming up; she said that was her husband's birthday. And I said, 'Good. I'll put a ticket in for him.' So I put five dollars on the ticket in there, and then there was the drawing, of course, and his name happened to be drawn, and I started crying because here I had detached myself from this beautiful twin size Grandmother's Flower Garden that Aloyse Yorko had bound for me, by the way, intricately. And here I was, going back home carrying this quilt, crying. It was still in the family. I mean that was just a miracle.

SS: [laughing.] How neat! I'd like to thank Margaret Lee for allowing me to interview today as part of the Q.S.O.S. project. Our interview concluded at 3:20 in the afternoon on May 25th, 2005.

We made it. We made it! We have a little more room. We're going to tell one more story.

ML: Oh, one more story. This is very recent. Last year, I had purchased some fabric up at SEW Studio, and it was beautiful, just beautiful. Made a Maple Leaf quilt of all these various colors of fabric, they were all similar fabric, but they were all tone on tones. Made a big Maple Leaf quilt for my husband, Bill, and I hadn't put the label on it, and of course the weather got warm. He didn't use it at all, and then a friend of mine called and said she was asking for money for a charity that they working with. They're dentists and they donate their time to an orphanage in Guatemala run by some Greek Orthodox Antiochian nuns, and I said well I couldn't really donate much money to you, but I could make a quilt for you that you could raffle off, which would make a lot of money. So she said, 'Oh, that's great.' So I hung up the phone, and I said, 'Bill, I don't know what I just did. I just offered to make a quilt for a bunch of Greek Orthodox nuns in Guatemala that run an orphanage, and I'm getting ready for the show.' [This was just in February.] And I said, 'What did I do?' And he said, 'Why don't you give them my quilt?' And I called her back, and I said, 'I have a quilt for you to raffle off.' She was amazed. They saw the quilt. They said, 'Oh, this is beautiful.' They were trying to determine how to get this raffle going around the time of our quilt show and the Greek Festival up here. But one of the, I guess it was the priest's wife up there said, 'We want Mother Ivonne, the head of the orphanage, to have the quilt. We'll raise money anyway.' So the head of the orphanage got the quilt just recently, and about three thousand dollars to boot.

SS: WooHoo.

ML: How's that?

SS: That's a wonderful story. Thanks again, Margaret.


“Margaret Lee,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 16, 2024,