Sue Herbst




Sue Herbst




Sue Herbst


Tomme Fent

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Sioux City, Iowa

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Tomme Fent


Tomme Fent (TF): This is Tomme Fent, and I'm here with Sue Herbst doing an interview for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. And it is Wednesday, August 27th, 2008, at 12:00 noon, and we are at Sue's office in Sioux City, Iowa. So, hi, Sue, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview.

Susan Herbst (SH): You're welcome.

TF: Why don't you tell me a little bit first about this quilt that you've brought?

SH: Well, the quilt was made when I had my quilt shop in '93, and it was taken from a picture in a quilt magazine and I had to draft the pattern. We had--I had two girls that would come every Tuesday to my shop and wanted to just quilt. So one of the girls saw this pattern and decided she wanted to make this quilt, so she brought it to me and I had to draft a pattern from this picture. And I went ahead and I made one with them, and then the three of us did those. So I called it my "Tuesday Morning Quilt," because we did it on Tuesday morning, but my family calls it "Circles."

TF: Well, it looks like it would have been a little bit difficult to draft this pattern. How did you go about doing that?

SH: Well, it was quite difficult. My biggest problem was getting the circles drafted, but I had a book on different Log Cabins and it showed how to use the smaller--one side of the Log Cabin is small strips and the other side is the normal sized strips, so that makes it look curved when you put them all together. So each circle is really four blocks put together. The hardest thing, I thought, about the whole thing was getting the background pattern into it. It seemed like I always had the white where the burgundy should be and the burgundy where the white should be, so I had to do a lot of redoing and I made quite a few circles before I got them all right.

TF: Well, it's just really a unique pattern. I've never seen anything quite like it. It reminds me of those shadow quilts where there's a pattern behind a pattern.

SH: Behind a pattern, yes, that's one of the things I like about it. I picked this quilt because this is the kind of quilt that I like the best in all of quilting. I like everything, but I like to take a traditional pattern and do it just a little bit different. The Log Cabin's always been a favorite of mine but then when you do it just a little different like this, with the circles over--sort of transposed over the top of a traditional Log Cabin setting, that's the kind of thing I like to see.

TF: What's your favorite aspect of quilting? What do you like the best?

SH: I think it's the planning and the picking the colors and that kind of thing. I have found that I can never do the same quilt twice because I get bored with it. If I can do it once and get the whole thing done, I'm doing real good. I don't like to do the same kind of a quilt two or three times. Now, I do have other Log Cabin quilts that I've done and I have another one in the works that's a different variation of the Log Cabin, but I can't do the same quilt twice. I have fabric to reproduce this quilt in another color and can't get started.

TF: What's your least favorite thing to do in quilting?

SH: Absolute least favorite is the binding. I don't do a good job on binding. I hate to do the binding. And it should be a favorite part because then you're finished, you're ready to go, but I just hate to do it. In fact, I have had quilts that have laid in my quilt room for months on end waiting for the binding step. I just hate to do it.

TF: I have a quilt right now that's six years old that all it lacks is the binding, so I can relate.

SH: [laughs.] Yes, I have that, too. It's just terrible.

TF: So you mentioned that these fabrics came from your quilt shop. What was the name of your quilt shop?

SH: Strawberry Patch Fabrics.

TF: Was it the first quilt shop in Sioux City?

SH: No, I bought the quilt shop from a lady. Her name was Eilene Helvig, and she had named it and she had it in that location, and I just took it over from her. And of course everything changed because I think that when someone has a quilt shop, it takes on their personality. She liked a lot of country and I liked a lot of the Jinny Beyer fabrics and the more vibrant fabrics and I brought in a whole different kind of fabric and line. So I had that quilt shop for three years and it was so enjoyable.

TF: You mentioned at one point [in your demo interview.] that that was your favorite job you ever had. Why did you close?

SH: Well, basically because I was getting not really burnt out but I was just tired. I did not have anybody that I could have come in and work for me, and so I was doing it all. I was working from ten o'clock in the morning, which was when I opened was ten o'clock, and I was usually there until at least six. And if I taught a class, it was nine or ten o'clock at night. And I was open six days a week when I first started, but after awhile I started taking Monday mornings off. So the quilt shop was my whole life and I still had two children at home and they were in high school but they were still there, and my husband didn't have any idea that it would take up that much time. He was the one that encouraged me to buy the shop when it came--when we knew it was going to go to be sold for a business, and he had no idea it would take up that much time. I didn't have any time also for my personal quilting. You quilt for the shop and you do the things for the shop, and you use the fabrics that you need to move at the shop. You didn't really -- I didn't really get to do--this was probably my one creative outlet is to do this quilt because I couldn't do creative things. I had to do shop patterns and shop work, which was not the kind of quilting I wanted to do.

TF: I think a lot of people have that misconception that, 'Oh, I'll go buy a quilt shop and then I'll get to quilt all I want.'

SH: And you don't. And there's so many other aspects to it. It's the business part--I found that I was a very good quilter; I wasn't a very good business person. I didn't have any training in running a business and so I just jumped in feet first and it was fun, it was exciting, and I really loved it. I loved the people. I loved having all that fabric. But it was awful -- it had a tendency to stress you out because I didn't have the background for it. But I definitely do now appreciate all the quilt shops that we have around and what they do, and I like to support them as much as I can because I've been there and done that.

TF: What's your first memory of a quilt?

SH: It was my grandmother, my Grandmother Swanson, my dad's grandma--or mother. She was the one that quilted. She made quilts, she made what we called utility quilts because she made quilts for their beds. They used almost everything that she made. But she was quite an artist, too, because she did all scrap quilts but her scrap quilts were color-coordinated. It wasn't just any scrap she picked up; it was scraps that she had. And she used to do them all by hand, and so I remember sitting there playing with Grandma's scraps, which is probably why she taught me to quilt, so I would play with my own instead of hers and mess them all up. [laughs.]

TF: So she hand pieced, as well?

SH: Yes, she hand pieced and hand quilted. She did everything by hand. And she used old fabrics. She never bought fabric just for quilts. She sewed for her children and herself and her husband, and so she used those scraps. And then she used--she made two or three quilts strictly with the tails of Grandpa's shirts, you know that part that he tucked in, in the back. Then she would take that part because it was fairly good fabric, hadn't been sun-faded and worn and torn like the rest of his shirt, so she'd take that part and cut it up into quilt blocks.

TF: How old were you when she taught you to quilt?

SH: Eight years old. I was eight years old. And I have--of course, through my teenage years, I didn't quilt because that was old fashioned, but I have really quilted since then and have always done a lot of hand projects. Because Grandma taught me to do it by hand, it was always hand projects. That was probably until I had my own children that I started using the machine and doing machine quilting, and now I do have a couple of hand projects started, but most of my stuff is done by machine.

TF: Do you do your own machine quilting on your home machine?

SH: Yes. I have tried. I have a few quilts that I have had done professionally by the longarm quilter, but I sort of feel like that's cheating. I used to feel like machine quilting was cheating because I was a hand quilter, but now I realize, after trying it quite a few times, how hard it is to do a good machine quilt. So I've really started now to try and do a better job at that, but that is one thing that I have to be very relaxed doing because I can really tense up. And quilting, hand quilting, relaxes me. I can have a problem and I can sit down and hand quilt and relax and probably work the problem out, where machine quilting, it takes too much of my mind and effort to do that. So it isn't as relaxing for me but it does get things done a lot quicker.

TF: Do you remember what that first quilt was you made when you were eight years old?

SH: Yes. It was a Four Patch. And it was a dolly quilt; it wasn't full-sized. It was a Four Patch, and I think the patches were small. I think they were like an inch or an inch-and-a-half, and so they were very small. And I remember my grandmother was a very much of a perfectionist. I don't--can't tell you how many knots I took out and had to redo because my knot was too big, so she taught me how to do a knot but it couldn't be too big or it would show in the quilt, so she'd made me take it out. So I sat there for, I can't tell you how many evenings and days I spent beside Grandma trying to get my little doll quilt done. And it was--I don't even have it anymore, which is a shame, but it probably wasn't any bigger than maybe a 20" x 20". It was not a very big quilt.

TF: That's pretty big for your first quilt, out of one or one-and-a-half inch squares. How do you use this quilt that you brought today?

SH: This quilt is a quilt that is on our bed. This is probably the one quilt that I could say, in the quilts that I have, is a utility quilt. This quilt was made for my bed at home. My husband and I use it every winter and it's there--we use it in the summertime just as decoration, but we sleep under it all the time, so this is truly a Grandma quilt because it's a utility quilt.

TF: So were your grandmother's utility quilts--see, when I think of utility quilt, I think of the quilts with the big stitches and no real pattern and just a bunch of squares put together. So were your grandmother's, what you're calling utility quilts, more like this, with real design to them?

SH: Yes, yes. Grandma always made something with a design. She didn't make quilts--a lot of them were simple designs like--I don't ever remember a Log Cabin, but she did a lot of Nine Patch, a lot of Four Patch, a lot of basket quilts. Anything that she could do by hand, any pattern that she found, she would do. She has done Wedding Ring quilts before, but a lot of the Wedding Ring quilts she did, she gave away as gifts. But, yes, Grandma's quilts were not what you consider utility quilts. Some of them were tied, but they were tied very closely; they weren't just the random tying like you see some of the old quilts. But all of her quilts had a pattern and a color coordination. They were similar to this, but they were just quilts she used instead of quilts that were kept for good.

TF: Quilts that were 'kept for good,' what were those used for?

SH: [laughs.] Well, Grandma had a quilt that was a Crazy Quilt that she had made out of fancy materials and fancy stitches and embroidery work and all of that, and that was what we always called the "Doctor Quilt." If someone was sick and the doctor had to come and visit, Grandma would whip the utility quilt off the bed and put on the fancy quilt so the doctor thought that we slept under that all the time. [TF laughs.] My grandma was a little bit vain [laughs.], so she wanted everybody to think that we had the best, so that was one of them. And also, on the guest bed there was always a quilt, and she never told people they couldn't sleep under it. I mean, they always did, but of course if it was family, we always knew to take that quilt off. We didn't keep that quilt on the bed. But if it was somebody that wasn't family, a guest in her home, they slept under a special quilt, not one that was used daily.

TF: So what happened to her quilts? Do you have some of them?

SH: Sad to say, I only have about one. I think I have three quilts at home [from my grandmothers.] and two of them were from my other grandma that did not teach me to quilt, and I only have one quilt from Grandma Swanson, who taught me how. Like everything else, when Grandma died and the place -- and all of her stuff was sold, they went on auction and I don't even know what happened to them. But I did get one that my mother happened to have that Grandma made, so I have one quilt of hers but that's all.

TF: Are most of the quilts that you make bed-sized quilts?

SH: Yes, probably. I have started now to do some smaller wall hanging type quilts, but most of my quilts are for beds and most of my quilts that I have made, I have given away, to my kids or to somebody getting married or that kind of thing. And I've made a lot of baby quilts. But most of the quilts I make are bed-sized.

TF: Well, I know from personal experience that you also are becoming quite an accomplished art quilter. How do you feel about art quilts and their position in the whole quilting community?

SH: I really like art quilts. I'm amazed when I see other people's art quilts and what they do. I can't imagine that I--well, thank you for the compliment because I can't imagine that I'm even close to that. I like to try my hand and try different things, and in an art quilt, when it's small like that in an art quilt, I think you can try things that you wouldn't on a full-size quilt. And you can put colors together that I wouldn't on a full-size quilt because it's going to be maybe something that you would see everyday where an art quilt you can take down and put up and you can have on your wall. And I've really enjoyed them and I see that a lot of people are going more towards those and away from the traditional bed-sized quilts because [smaller.] art quilts, even though they take a long time, don't take near the time and the effort that a bed-sized quilt would be.

TF: So after your grandmother taught you to quilt when you were a little girl, then were you self-taught after that or did you take classes? How did you learn the rest of the techniques that you've accumulated?

SH: I was basically--I started getting Quilter's Newsletter and reading it from cover to cover, and so I might try some of the things in there. Also, I've taken, since I've joined the guild here in town, I have taken quite a few of their classes and that kind of thing. I have not really taken a lot of classes. I took a couple of classes through Quilt University [] but basically it's just from my guild, is what I've learned.

TF: So tell me a little bit about your guild?

SH: Well, Siouxland Samplers [Quilt Guild.] was started, I think, back in 1986 or so, by Lerlene Nevaril, and I was one of the charter members. I was there when we had the very first meeting, named the guild as Siouxland Samplers, and decided what we wanted to accomplish, which was sort of a teaching and getting together and learning experience for all of us. It was fun because there was -- I thought I was the only one in Sioux City that quilted, and we had like thirty-five or forty ladies at that first meeting. It was amazing that we had that many people there and that they were all so energetic and vibrant and ready to take on the quilting world. It was really an eye-opener for me. I really enjoyed it. And then when I had my shop, I was still involved with the quilt guild, but there for awhile then I dropped out and sort of just did stuff at home. But then I realized that I was missing so much without having that communication with other quilters and seeing what they had done and showing them what I had done and having that sharing that you get in a quilt guild. I really missed that so I found that I needed to get back into guild, which I did, and now I'm a member. I say I'm a charter member but I haven't been a member forever; I dropped out for awhile.

TF: Have you held offices in your guild?

SH: When the guild first started, I was Program Chairman for probably six months. I took over from another girl who had to--who had left town. So I did that for awhile. But I really haven't held any office, per se.

TF: Until now.

SH: Until now, yes. Now I am the Quilt Show Chair for 2009, so that's very exciting and scary at the same time.

TF: It's a big job.

SH: Yes, it is. I'm learning that more and more every day.

TF: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SH: First, I think--the first thing that draws me to a great quilt is the color, and even colors that I would not use. It doesn't have to be my favorite color, but just the colors and the combinations. And then I think the second thing is the workmanship and how people have put it together. So for me, it's the color and the workmanship, because I like just about every pattern. I cannot tell you a pattern that I don't like. There's quilts that I'm not real wild of that I see, but every quilt, I think, is--every quilt pattern is just terrific. I mean, I like all kinds.

TF: What do you think makes a quilt worthy of preservation in a museum, for example?

SH: I think sometimes the quilt itself, that it could be placed in a period piece. I'm quite fond of the Baltimore Album quilts, not so much the ones that they're doing present day, although they're gorgeous, but I really like to look at those ones that were made--the very first Baltimore Albums that came out, the ones when ladies did that, used the turkey red and those colors. I just think they're fascinating, to think that our ancestors would take--these women who had a lot more to do around the home than we do now would take the time to do that kind of work when, like my grandmother, a lot of them used their quilts for warmth, for their families. So I think one of the things is a period piece. I like those. I also like the Civil War type quilts. So I think we need to preserve those period type pieces. And I'm hoping that as time goes on, that some of our art quilts will be preserved in the same way, because I think that's something that is newer in the quilting world and I would hope that that would be preserved in the same way.

TF: So you think that quilts have an important part to play in history and women's history?

SH: I do think that because a lot of times, that is the only way women show their creativity. A lot of people will tell me that they're not creative, they can't draw, they can't --they're just not creative. But yet they can do marvelous quilting and they can do--they put colors together beautifully. They do these absolutely fabulous quilts and they do this precision piecing, and yet they tell me that they're not creative. Well, they're very creative. And I think sometimes that that's--women especially have not had, in the past, have not had that encouragement to do creative things, and so I find that quilting fills up a big void that a lot of people have had through history, women especially.

TF: How does quilting impact your family? You talked some about when you had the quilt shop and you had your two kids still at home that were in high school, but how does it impact your family now?

SH: Well, I think first of all, I think my family is very supportive, which is great. I don't know, maybe every family is supportive when the woman quilts, but I can get absolutely lost in a quilt and in the thinking of it and the doing of it and the quilting. And I have spent days in my quilt room trying to get something finished. And I know that has impacted my husband and my kids, when that happens, but they seem to take it in stride. So they're very supportive of it. And I think that -- I have two boys, and so I think that with the boys, they appreciate a lot more things that -- handwork and things that people make, whether it be quilts or afghans or embroidery work or whatever. I think they appreciate it more because they have seen the time and the effort that goes into it and they even are to the point now where they know some of the basic patterns, like they'll say, 'That's a Flower Basket,' or 'That's a Wedding Ring,' or 'That's a Nine Patch.' So I think I've influenced them a little bit in that area.

TF: You mentioned when you're in your quilt room, tell me a little bit about your quilting space.

SH: Well, right now, my quilting space is about twelve-by-twelve [feet.] and we had a very small, narrow room in our house, and when we added on, my husband built that especially for me so we'd have an extra--he added an extra six feet onto the room so now I have a twelve-by-twelve space. And it's just absolutely jam-packed. I have fabric on about five shelves on the wall, and I have two chests that have fabric in them, and I have a big table that has my quilting machine on it, my sewing machine on it, that has drawers beneath, and that is chock-full. So I really need more space and I don't know exactly how I'm going to get it. [laughs.] But I have a design wall, and my ironing board is always up, and I have all my stuff around me, and my husband also made me a large table that he put my cutting-board-type top on it so I can do my cutting there with my mats and stuff. So it's compact and not very organized, especially at this moment, but it's the one room where I don't have to clean, I don't have to do anything except just for me in that room. So it's probably my most special room in the house because it's just mine and, like I say, it's just jam-packed.

TF: Jam-packed with?

SH: With all--I have a complete bookcase full of quilting books and everything quilting is in there. There's probably a few things in there that are not related to quilting, but very few.

TF: So do you have a fabric stash?

SH: Yes, very extensive, and even though I know, Tomme, that you have given up part of your stash, I just can't bring myself to do that yet. [laughs.] I can't, I looked at it the other day and I thought, 'I really need to pare this down,' but I just can't get rid of any of it. I'm doomed. I still have fabric from the shop! [laughs.]

TF: How do you organize your fabric?

SH: I organize my fabric by color. I try to get--I have some fabrics way up on the top shelf that are just backs, that are not organized by color. They're just probably stacked however they'll fit up there. But the rest of my fabric is organized by color and I just fold it all and stack it up. And then about every two or three months, I have to go in there and take everything down and refold and restack because I am--when I start working, I'm the type that just grabs everything off the shelf and then it looks like a mess, and when I put it all back, if I'm in a hurry, I just jam it wherever it'll fit. So then I have to reorganize about every three or four months.

TF: That's a lot more often than I reorganize! [SH laughs.] When you're out shopping and you see some fabric that you like, how much of it do you buy?

SH: Well, it sort of depends on the fabric and where I'm at. If I'm away from Sioux City and know I can't ever get any more, I get a little bit carried away and buy three or four yards. But if I'm here in town, I try. I've tried to limit myself because I have such an extensive stash of fabric at home. I try to limit myself to a yard or a yard-and-a-half at the most. And I buy a lot of fat quarters.

TF: Do you use the internet at all or a computer in your quilting?

SH: No, I don't. I have before with Quilt University. I've gone on those a couple [of times.], but my computer is not placed in my quilt room so it's--I have to keep running back and forth and I just found it to be too cumbersome, so I don't. I just have never used the computer. If I had it closer, I might, but I never have.

TF: So you haven't done any quilt design on the computer or anything like that?

SH: No. I use graph paper when I design my quilts, just graph paper, pen, and pencil.

TF: How do you think we can preserve quilting for the future? How we can get young people involved and keep quilting going?

SH: Well, I think this [Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories.] program is one great way. I think this is a good idea, if people know the history behind it and the fact that why we do it and that our mothers and grandmothers did it, I think sometimes when people look--there's so much out there that it's such a throw-away society that I think when people look at quilting, they don't realize that this is not something that you just do in an evening or a day; that you have to look at it a little bit over a long term. That is one of the things in the shop that I kept trying to tell my beginning students, that they weren't going to get a project done in a weekend. Maybe some people could if that's all they did all weekend, but I have never found it to be true that I could quilt all weekend and ever get anything completely done and finished. So I think that we need-- I guess I forgot the question. [laughs.]

TF: Well, you're answering it anyway. How we can preserve quilting for the future.

SH: I just think that people need to pass it along to their children, and the different--like the quilt show, that's one great way, showing people what we do. With our projects that we do, the Sunshine Quilting quilts that we do, getting it out to people, I think that's such a great thing that we do in our guild because this gives not only those children, but those children's parents an opportunity to see something that can be precious to them and doesn't have to be real expensive or real fancy. So I think a lot of those kind of things that we're already doing help. I would like to see a little more community involvement by our people in the quilt guild and stuff, but I know everybody is busy and so a lot of times don't have any more time for that.

TF: Explain what Sunshine Quilts are.

SH: Sunshine Quilts are the quilts that we make and usually baby-size or youth quilts, that we give to the police department, to the fire department, to the different agencies in town, so if they find a child in need, sometimes they have to take a child out of the home or they would have to take a child out of a burning home, and sometimes these children don't have anything, then they wrap them in this quilt for warmth and they give the quilt to the child so they have something. And sometimes, we talk about a security blanket, sometimes that's exactly what this is, is a security blanket for those children, and it creates a bond between the policeman, fireman, and the child, that they know that this is someone to help them and not to be afraid of a policeman or a fireman or that kind of thing. And it also gives that child something of their own to hold onto in a time of stress. And I think that's--when you come to children, there's just not a mother among us who can look the other way.

TF: Well, what do you think makes a great quilter?

SH: I don't know. I guess just someone that has a love of fabric and the always wanting to do the next project, wanting to do the next pattern, seeing a pattern and wanting to do it. That's what spurs me on. I always think I've probably done everything. I've been quilting for a long time so I've done everything that I really want to do. And then I see a new project or a new pattern or a new kit and I think someone comes to guild and shows a new thing they've done, a new technique, and then I want to learn that. So I think it's just one of those people that always want a little bit more. I think most quilters are like that; we're never really satisfied with what we've done. I mean, it's fine and everything, but we always want to go on to that next thing, that bigger and better thing.

TF: It sounds like for you, you would include, in being a great quilter, someone that wants to use their quilting within the community, too.

SH: Yes, yes, I really think that. I think each one of us has a duty just to the world at large, to help those people in our communities and those people in the world all over. There's so many different quilt challenges and quilt things that you can do out there, and I wish I had a little more time to do it. I keep thinking I'm going to retire and then I'll have all this time, but I don't know whether that's going to be true or not, but anyway if I would have more time, I'd like to do a few things like that to get the word out, to help others that maybe just need an uplift.

TF: Is there anything else that we haven't talked about that you would like to talk about, about your quilting?

SH: Well, I can't think of anything. You've asked some pretty hard questions here. [laughs.] I guess just, I don't know, I just think--I guess there's just one thing. Sometimes I think people always look at that one spectacular quilt, look at that one fabulous quilt that some teacher has made or something, and think that's quilting. And it is quilting, and I think we need that. I think we need that for some inspiration. But I don't want people--I get a little shy of people thinking that their quilting isn't good enough. There's no real rules to quilting. There's some guidelines we all go by, the quarter-inch seam or whatever, but I don't think there's any, really, rules. There's no right or wrong to quilting. If you like it, I'd say do it, so I think sometimes people think quilting is only for those people who are super good at it, but I've found that everybody can quilt and anybody can quilt and their quilt is just as good as the next person's. I like the fact that we have judging at our shows because I like to know how I can improve, but I don't--I think too many people look at it as they are being judged against somebody else instead of as their quilt as just a -- just as how it is and the good and the bad about that particular quilt, instead of saying, 'Well, my quilt isn't as good as hers,' or 'My quilt is better than hers.' I just think sometimes people use it as a competition, and it shouldn't be; it should just be a sharing time.

TF: Well, I want to thank you, Sue, for allowing me to interview you as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, and our interview concluded at 12:37 p.m.

SH: Thank you.


“Sue Herbst,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed March 1, 2024,