Sharon Somers




Sharon Somers




Sharon Somers


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association


Grinnell, Iowa


Lori Miller


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. It is 12:57. Today's date is November 5, 2002. I'm conducting an interview with Sharon Somers for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, in Grinnell, Iowa. Thank you, Sharon, for meeting me today. Why don't we begin by you telling me about "Entropy", the quilt you brought today?

Sharon Somers (SS): When I originally started it, it was meant to be a sampler of different styles and techniques and it was originally meant to have a different block for each style. Each block has two oak leaves in it, and I started out with a very traditional hand appliqued block, although it's in pretty wild colors. I don't think you'd see any purple oak leaves. The next technique I wanted to try was a rough edge applique, where you actually just cut the fabric out, lay it on the background, and using a machine you sew around the edge. The edge will fray from washing and handling, and you just let it fray, it stays like that. When I did the second block, I tended to be a little bit tight and rigid when I worked, and it looks just like the firsthand appliqued block. You can't see very much frayed edge, it's just a little too tight, too closely worked. So, I was like, 'No, I want something really rough with lots of frayed edges,' so I tried again. I did it again and there's a little more fraying, but it's still pretty tight. This all happened within one day's time. I really wanted to push it and get more from the technique, so I went for a fourth block. It's getting better. This time I think I had actually started tearing some of the pieces so I'd have little torn rectangles that I would use in my applique. Instead of just sewing right around the oak leaf shape there's crazy zigzags across it. At that point, I was like, 'Well that's about what I wanted.' But I thought, 'Let's just keep pushing. Let's see how far I can go.' So, the fifth block in the series is all torn pieces. They're all little torn rectangles and they're more collaged down. You can still vaguely see the oak leaves in it. The top stitching is really wild squiggles. Then, I decided at this point that the whole purpose of the quilt, as being a block sampler, was kind of tossed out the window. For the sixth block I decided just to go totally crazy. You can't see the oak leaves in it anymore. It's just a wild mess down here. It actually does follow the oak leaf pattern, but it's really crazy. So then I had six blocks and I had to figure out how to set it. Normally you'd set it in a pretty traditional fashion. But these last blocks were so wild that I thought I should do something different with them. I had them on my wall, looking at them, and I decided that the very top one would be my very traditional hand appliquéd one. It has a lattice border around it, a mitered lattice border, which is like very traditional, very formal. Then the second block is less formal. It's got the square in a square lattice border on it. I decided that as I went, with each block, depending on the mood of the block, the border around it would match getting crazier and wilder. Slowly, as you work your way down the quilt, the lattice starts to fall off and fly away By the time you get to the bottom the lattice is torn strips just sewn down. There's little corner squares flying around. They're all in orange so you can still see them. They're just flying around everywhere. By the time you get to that very last block, which is so crazy and wild, there's no border on the quilt. The binding is just hanging loose and the batting is coming out. All the thread ends are just hanging there. It gets very crazy down at the end.

AH: Tell me about the title.

SS: Entropy is nature's desire to move toward chaos. So that's kind of what this does. [laughs.]

AH: When you began that day, you had no idea this was going to be the end result?

SS: No. I was expecting a square quilt with sixteen, twelve blocks in it. Each in a different style, each in different colors. This is not what I got.

AH: What do you think pushed you that day, or motivated you that day, to break these rules?

SS: Partly, it's myself that I tend to get too tight when I work sometimes. Trying to work with perfection. So partly it was to try and break away from that, to loosen up, to allow things to be just as they were. Also, I've always liked natural things, and they don't have strict lines, like quilting does. I wanted to figure out how, through quilting, how could I soften those edges and get more an organic feel from quilts. Those two things were pretty much playing when I was working on this quilt.

AH: What special meaning does this quilt hold for you?

SS: I picked oak leaves, one, because I love oak trees. Partly because I grew up in Denver [Colorado.] and oaks don't grow out there. They just don't. Whenever we'd travel east and you see one of these great, big, giant white oaks they were just so awesome. I've always just really loved oak trees. It's just a special quilt because it did help break me out. It was a pivotal moment in my quilting process. Just kind of shoved me forward and really helped a lot.

AH: What year did you make this quilt?

SS: This would be about 1997.

AH: How would you characterize your quiltmaking after this quilt? Do you continue to use the elements that you explored?

SS: Yes, I do. I still do a lot of the torn edges, rough edges. I think I almost need another one of these quilts because I'm slowly settling back into being a little too tight and working too close. Maybe it's time to do another really wild one, just to get myself motivated and going back into that direction.

AH: You've got two quilts for us to look at today. Why don't you tell me about the second quilt?

SS: The second one's older. I have to look at the back for the date.

AH: 1992.

SS: 1992. Now this is an earlier quilt, but it's kind of got a lot of the same ideas about really liking nature and wanting something more organic. Prior to this, I was working very traditional with blocks, with 45 degree angles, 90 degree angles, squares, triangles, rectangles, that sort of thing. I found a pattern in a catalogue, and it was a Calla Lilly quilt. It was done using paper piecing but it allowed you to use really odd shapes. There are still straight lines, but they're all sorts of crazy angles and lines. You can actually sort of draw pictures using it. I really liked that it breaks you out of the 90° and 45° angles. This is of a tree, and you're looking up into it. We had gone on a hike one day, through the forest. It was early springtime, when the leaves were just coming out. They had these really intense, light, bright greens. This is my image of looking up through the trees at these light, bright greens. At the time, one of the hard things about being a quilter is you're stuck using the colors that the cloth makers sell. This was before a lot of people were dying their own fabrics. You couldn't get chartreuse. So the chartreuses I have in here are either hand dyed, or there's a hand marbled one that I did.

AH: Which one is that?

SS: That one is this green down here, you can see some of the marbling on it. It crops up all through here.

AH: Does this one have a title?

SS: This is "Spring Green" I think. There is a whole series of oak trees. Yes, it's another oak tree.

AH: How do you use these two quilts?

SS: I rotate them in my house and just hang them up. They're in my personal collection, ones that I really like. I forgot the story about the quilt guild on that one.

AH: Tell me about that. We're talking about "Entropy" again.

SS: I had taken it to our local quilt guild, and about 80 people show up at a meeting. Most of them tend to be pretty traditional quilters. I patiently talked while showing the quilt and explained exactly the process that I had gone through, what had happened and why I did it. I think everybody really enjoyed it and really could understand why I was doing it and where I was coming from. As I returned to my seat to sit down, one woman just looked aghast at me and said, 'You are going to finish the bottom of the quilt aren't you?' [laughs.] She didn't seem to get it. Nope, the bottom is not finished yet. It's all hanging loose down there.

AH: And it's going to stay that way.

SS: Yes.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quilting? When did you start to quilt?

SS: I actually started in high school--that would be in the mid-seventies when quilting just sort of blossomed at that point. I did a sampler quilt with things about me, like an autobiography sampler quilt. It had all these things; my guinea pig was on it. I did a fake fur guinea pig for one of the blocks, and my high school logo. Different interests, each interest had a block. It was kind of wild. I actually hand quilted it, but instead of using quilting thread I was using regular thread and I doubled it. I didn't have anybody to teach me to quilt, so it's done in the stab-stitch method where you stab up, turn around, and stab back down. It took forever to quilt. It's huge, it's bed sized. From that, that was the start. In college I didn't do it. I didn't have a place for a sewing machine or anything like that. It wasn't until later on that I got back into it.

AH: Do you come from a quilting family?

SS: My mother doesn't really quilt, but my grandmother did. I have one of my grandmother's quilts, and then one of my great-great grandmother's. They're very crafty, they like to do crafts. Some did crocheting, that sort of thing. Most everybody did needlework, embroidery. We just love to use our hands, love the feel of fabrics and yarns. Everybody just expresses it in different ways.

AH: How many hours a week do you quilt?

SS: It really varies. I tend to go through these big spurts, mad spurts where all month you're just quilting constantly. Other months just seem to be totally dry. I don't know, probably 5 to 10, I guess, per week. Something like that.

AH: What is your first quilt memory?

SS: I just remembered another one. Like I was saying, quilting really had a rebirth in the seventies. I remember doing a block, really early on. My mother had subscribed to Quilters Newsletter and a couple other early magazines. And somebody had a contest for doing a block of a hero, somebody you really admire. I ended up doing Neil Armstrong. It actually ended up getting in the quilt. I never saw the quilt, somebody else put it together. That's about as far back. I didn't have quilts on my bed growing up as a kid. We just had plain bedspreads.

AH: Neil Armstrong it is.

SS: Yes, you'll have to go with that.

AH: Are there other quilters among your friends and family today?

SS: Yes, I have lots of quilting friends from the quilt guild, and we meet together and sew. Every week we have a quilting group, although a lot of people are doing knitting at the moment. I think it's just that people like fabric, yarn. It all goes together.

AH: Tell me if you've ever used quilting to get through a difficult time in your life?

SS: I can't say that I've had too many difficult times yet. I guess I did once, three or four years ago. I think I was going through a depression. It took me a long time to realize that I was in that state. I finally decided to make a quilt, and it really was to push me out of that depression. It's pretty large and it's got a phoenix on it, and fire and flame. The whole symbolism was to try and push myself out of the depression, back into creativity. Trying to do a rebirth. It's a pretty complicated quilt, I'm not sure I like it all that well. It served a purpose.

AH: Do you use that quilt?

SS: It's on a wall.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

SS: I love the feel of the fabric, the softness, it's just very comforting. I tend to be a very creative person and you have to have an outlet for it. You just get this urge to do something and create. Just to give an outlet to whatever you're doing. I really like that. I really love to create things and come up with ideas and patterns, and play and fiddle. I really hate following other people's patterns. I don't know why, I'm just one of these people. I've got to mess with it. I love those two aspects. The comfort. It really is a good meditative thing to do too, the quilting process. Most of my quilts are machine quilted, but I always have one or two that I hand quilt. It's relaxing, I do that occasionally too.

AH: What don't you like about the quilting process?

SS: Borders are my stickler.

AH: Why is that?

SS: I don't know why. I find borders boring. I love to do the center part, you get these great centers and you have a great time with the center. Then it's 'Uh-oh, now what do I do?' [laughs.]

AH: The decision of what border to go on, rather than the actual fixing of the border?

SS: Right. I think so. I recently went through my pile in my closet of unfinished quilts and that was it. There were all these great centers and there were no borders on them. I do have a couple techniques where I put three or four strips on the border, so it's really simple. You do a contrasting color, and then a dark color, and then the border fabric. And that's it. When all else fails, go with that.

AH: Sounds like a frame.

SS: And it just frames it, it's simple.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SS: I love color. That's another thing I really like about quilts is color. That's just one of those things that really attracts me. Antique quilts that have this amazing color sometimes. Some of the really old ones, that are just red and white quilts, they have such high contrast. Or the blue and white quilts. They're just stunning. I think that's probably the first and foremost thing that hits me is the colors.

AH: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SS: I think it's the quilter putting something of themselves into the quilt. You can take a traditional pattern and you can still put something of yourself in there. The colors can have a certain type of a mood, the direction in the quilting lines can make it really powerful. The quilters putting their feelings into the quilt, their ideas, a little bit of their creativity.

AH: What do you see about yourself in these two quilts?

SS: Sometimes I feel like I have two sides. There's the fairly calm, reserved, soft side. And the "Entropy" is very bright and wild. In that way, definitely, the colors are really wild and bright and fun loving. There's also the mellow, relaxed side of me that comes out in other quilts.

AH: One quilt doesn't express all of you.

SS: No. I go back and forth, depending on my mood.

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

SS: That's tough. I think some of them have particular meanings that are relevant to the times. There's a lot of people that do political statements, or social statements. I think that can, as well as the time and effort involved in doing some of them, can be really magnificent in it's own way. That somebody would put so much energy into doing a piece that can also do that. Those are two.

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

SS: I do a lot of machine quilting. Partly it's just that I don't have the time and I have so many ideas. This one is hand quilted, "Spring Green" is hand quilted. I love to do it, but it's very time consuming work. I'm not sure it's worth the amount of time. I'll do it on certain projects, and I'll keep those projects for myself because of the time spent on it. Machine quilting gives a different feel. This one, there's these crazy squiggles on "Entropy" at the bottom. Hand quilting doesn't really lend itself to this. In a way, they each can do different things. It's going to depend on the quilt that you're doing, which is more appropriate for it. If you're just going to quilt in the ditch, what's the point of putting all that hand quilting time into it? It depends on what you're doing, what your point is, where you're going. They both serve a good purpose.

AH: As you say, if you're going to quilt in the ditch, because the quilting that you used here is the antithesis of quilting in the ditch. You're really using the machine as decoration.

SS: So you can see it. It's part of the embellishment on this one.

AH: What makes a great quilter?

SS: I think you have to be the kind of person who never says you can't. Just go ahead and do it, charge right in. And if you make mistakes. Who cares? You learn a lot from your mistakes. It's just not a quitter. You always find a way around the mistakes, figure out how to do things. I love challenges. It's amazing what people like that can turn out sometimes, some of the amazing things I see from other people and other quilters. It's like, 'Where did you get that idea?' I think that's it. The ability to go forward, challenge yourself, and don't say no.

AH: How are you challenging yourself right now, with a quilt project you might currently be working on?

SS: Let's see. I guess right now I'm still continuing to try and figure out how to get very organic, painterly feel to the quilts. And trying to figure out how to express different aspects of nature in a quilt, which when you're talking about trees and plants, it's how do you put that onto a quilt? That's kind of where I'm at right now, those sorts of things.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

SS: I guess it's back to the venting, the need to vent creativity. The need to express myself artistically.

AH: How has quilting impacted your family?

SS: The kids all get a quilt. They see mom doing something, keeping busy, and having something that's part of my own life. I'm a mom, and I still have pretty young kids, and sometimes you get so wrapped up in the kids and you need a little bit of yourself off doing something for yourself. It seems kind of strange, but that's how it affects the family.

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

SS: Other than having oak trees in them, but as I said I grew up in Denver where there aren't any. I'm not sure it does.

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

SS: I guess as a quilt artist, I wish they were more respected in America in general. I think handicrafts tend to be shunned, and frowned on. Not really shunned, but looked down on just a little bit. It's just handiwork, women's work, and I wish that was different. That they could understand the amount of time and energy that was put into it, and value it more than they do a lot of times. We've come a long way, but I think there's still just a bit there.

AH: When do you feel that, that bias?

SS: I think it's a lot with the art community in general. The more traditional art community, the painters, sculptors, when I've talked to some of them. Gallery owners or dealers, and they kind of look at you funny sometimes.

AH: Have you approached them to sell your work? Is that when you've experienced this?

SS: Yes, I've taken some classes, talked to some trying to do commission type work. They just still view it as a handicraft really, which is sad.

AH: You consider yourself an art quilter?

SS: Yes. At this point, yes.

AH: Tell me what you think about where you fit as an art quilter. You said earlier that you're not doing traditional quilting, and now you're saying you're not feeling part of the traditional fine art community. Where does the art quilt community fit?

SS: That's a good question. It does almost seem like it's kind of in it's own area. It's more in the fiber arts area, which is more handicrafts, more soft things. I think maybe the art community is divided into different groups and areas, so it's very much more into the fiber arts area.

AH: What about art quilting in Iowa today? Where does that fit in?

SS: I think there are several galleries in Iowa that do support it quite well. It seems to be in real pockets, partly because Iowa is a large state with a fairly small population. You'll have a couple people here, and a couple people way across the state, and a couple people farther up north. So it's hard, I think, for all of us to get together. It is a bit isolated.

AH: And you belong to a traditional guild?

SS: Right.

AH: Do you also belong to any group that supports art quilting or encourages it?

SS: No, not really right now. Although I'd like to find one. But I've met other people, and we've talked about it. Like I say, they all live all over the state so it's difficult to form an art quilt guild.

AH: Do you feel that you get the support that you need from the traditional guild?

SS: Actually they're pretty good. It's probably because we live in Iowa City, which is a college town, and quite liberal. There's always a couple other people in there that are kind of doing the same sort of things, wild and fun things. I'm really interesting in that. There's several people there. And as long as I explain what I'm doing, try not to shock them too much. They're actually a very good group.

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

SS: I think early on it started as a necessity. It was a way for women to express themselves, to let loose with a little creativity, and have pride in something they did. To make something beautiful and wonderful for their families. It's moved, but it's still got a lot of the same things. You're no longer making it for beds, to keep warm at night. Now it's more wall hangings, but a lot of it is still for your families. We give them as gifts, hang them on the walls, make baby quilts for your kids. It's still a lot of that sort of thing.

AH: You see continuity in the quilting world, what you're doing today.

SS: Right. It's the patterns of change, and the purposes have changed a little, but you still have women giving things back to their family, and their friends. Giving a little bit of themselves, expressing their love as well as venting creativity and making something enjoyable.

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

SS: That's tough. I've often wondered what would happen to my quilts when I get old. I have some of my relatives quilts and they get kept in a closet and you bring them out once in a while to show. It's tough. Maybe if museums keep some of the best ones, and have them here and there. It would be nice to have a few more quilt museums here and there to keep the collections. I know there's a lot of collectors out there. That's a good question.

AH: How do quilts tell stories?

SS: Other than through the fabric, I know they can tell a lot about the times they were made. Some of the older ones were made out of dress fabric, so it's really fun looking at antique fabric, seeing the different prints they put on it. I have an old top, in bad shape, that's from one of my great-grandmothers, and the fabric is from the turn of the century, early 1900's. It's a lot of black and whites, and they had these cool little prints. But they all look like something you'd see under a microscope, amoebas and starburst pattern, and it's just amazing. Were they really thinking of stuff you'd see under the microscope, or is that just what it looks like? The prints are fun. It's great to see the changing of the prints and the ideas that people have. A lot of the art quilters do a lot of different political statements, and just seeing how the culture has changed over such a short period of time, actually. With different things going on and the culture changing that way.

AH: Is there any advice you'd like to give to future readers of this interview, future quiltmakers and historians?

SS: Other than saying, 'Don't say you can't do it.' Keep going, always. Always explore. I love people that love to explore and see what they can do and where they could go. And don't listen to naysayers out there. Just do it. Go for it. Have a good time.

AH: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think I should have asked you, about your experiences as a quiltmaker?

SS: No, I don't think so.

AH: With that, I'd like to thank Sharon for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, in Grinnell, Iowa. Our interview concluded at 1:34 p.m., on November 5, 2002. Thank you.

SS: Thanks.


“Sharon Somers,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,