Valli Schiller




Valli Schiller




Valli Schiller


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Naperville, Illinois


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave. I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Valli Schiller. Today is December 19, 2007, and it is 11:03 in the morning. Valli thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview with me. Please tell me about the quilt you selected for this interview.

Valli Schiller (VS): The quilt that I brought with me is called "Mamaw's Puzzle" and it is a quilt that I made earlier this year. It is a reinterpretation of the quilt made by my great-grandmother, Josie Adams sometime between the 1920's and the '40's. I brought the original quilt.

KM: That is very cool.

VS: I just discovered, this year I think, that my great-grandmother was a quilter. My mother is a quilter. She started in the bicentennial, and my grandmother, her mother, was a sewer and when my grandmother's house was sold, my mother was poking around in the attic trying to find whatever was worth saving and she found a box of about six quilts that she remembers from her childhood and she said that these quilts were made by my great-grandmother, Josie. This is one of the quilts. She [my mother.] sent them to me so I could photograph them and kind of document them for our family heritage, and they were sitting around on my cutting table for a while. Not to cut, just because that was where they were sitting and I was looking for a project to do, and casting around trying to find something to keep me busy, and this particular quilt that is made of lots of little flying geese caught my eye, and I decided that if my great-grandmother could do a quilt like that, I would do one also. The thing that is unique about Josie's quilt is that, judging from her other quilts; she liked every color as long as it was pink. The quilt that I brought with me is typical of her quilts. It is a scrap quilt. It is made with clothing scraps, but this particular quilt is made with mostly blues and grays, kind of shirting and dress fabrics. She has got a few little patches of pink thrown in, she couldn't resist, but I imagine a lot of the chambray was probably from my great-grandfather's shirts, and she had some scraps saved up and I guess decided to challenge herself with a color scheme that she didn't use very often. The blues and grays and tans are a color scheme that I don't use very often either. That was my inspiration for my own quilt called "Mamaw's Puzzle." "Mamaw" was what I knew Josie as.

KM: How did you go about designing your quilt?

VS: Josie's original quilt is made with plain blocks set on point and it's got sashing made of flying geese, so I used Josie's same basic layout, plain blocks set on point, flying geese sashing. My flying geese are the same size as hers, and my color scheme is directly from Mamaw's quilt. I guess the day that I started this quilt I was looking for something to do. I didn't know what to do and I think she was there with me [in spirit.], and she said, 'Just look at the end of the table. Here you go. Here is your pattern.' One thing that particularly impressed me about Josie's quilt is her flying geese are little. They finish to I think 2 ½ inches wide, and even though this was a utility quilt, and this was really [just to keep.] warm and stuff, she was pretty bold. There is a little tiny border of flying geese that goes completely around the quilt, and she knew this quilt was going to be used and that is kind of a virtuoso technique. She was a confident quiltmaker to finish with a border of tiny pieced flying geese. I got a huge kick out of that, so I decided to do a quilt with a border of flying geese as well. Of course, I had a rotary cutter and all the benefits of modern technology, and I am also a confident quiltmaker, so my quilt has two rows of flying geese. [laughs.]

KM: You also have a scallop.

VS: That scallop was--solved some problems for me that when I was laying out the design for my quilt. I've always liked the illusion of weaving over and under, so I added some extra fabric. Well, there is the detail. [points.] I added extra fabric on either sides of the flying geese strips and wanted those strips of geese to look like they wove over and under. What happened is when I came to the edge of the quilt, I was having trouble resolving how those pieces would join, so I made something to cover that. [laughs.] That is how the scallops ended up. That is the way I like to design. If I have the whole design all done, then I'm just doing assembly and I really like having discoveries along the way, so a lot of… a lot of design details on my quilt are to solve problems.

KM: This, Josie's quilt, is hand quilted and yours is machine quilted.

VS: That is right. All of the quilts that we found that we believe were made by Josie Adams, with the exception of one [a redwork baby quilt dating from the 1930's that was grid quilted by machine.], were hand quilted just [for.] utility. She just quilted them with lines that just ran from one edge of the quilt to the other and you can see that she didn't mark them. The lines wiggle and wave, and I think she found her pleasure in the piecing and the quilting was just to get them put together. I love machine quilting and I have never quilted by hand. Instead of doing an exact reproduction of my great-grandmother's quilt--I didn't want to do a reproduction. I feel like she started the conversation, brought what she had to say to it and then I continued that conversation about fifty or sixty years later and brought my own point of view to the table. So that is why mine is all machine quilted.

KM: How did you come up with the design for the machine quilting?

VS: I liked the effect of weaving on the flying geese, and I always liked the effect of layers upon layers and then also at the time I was designing, I was very interested in Celtic interlace designs, which has that same over and under movement, so I designed a Celtic interlace that was going to go in all of the white areas on the quilt. It just looked really stiff and rigid, and I thought the rest of the quilt was so linear; I didn't want something quite so stiff and rigid. So, I made spaghetti for dinner that night and looked in the colander and said, 'That's it, spaghetti!' and so I still have an over and under kind of loopy design. It does connect so it visually lays under the grid of flying geese, but I think of it as spaghetti. So, you find design opportunities in lots of different places.

KM: How do you plan to use this quilt?

VS: I don't think I am going to use it on a bed. I think I'm going to save it and I'm going to save it along with Josie's quilt. I feel like both of these quilts are documents of my family's history. Although with all of my quilts--I haven't had a chance yet to sleep under this quilt, but I will sleep under it once, put some DNA in it. Josie's quilt, I think you can see from all the stains, probably has a lot of family DNA in it also. That just adds to its uniqueness.

KM: This was juried into IQA show?

VS: That is correct. It won a first place in the traditional pieced category, which was fabulous. [laughs.]

KM: This is not the first time you have entered a quilt?

VS: No, I have had quilts in the IQA show several times. I don't remember when my first one was in, I think it was 2001.

KM: How important is entering a quilt into IQA?

VS: Very important.

KM: Why is it important to you? Tell me how it is important to you.

VS: Because I'm wildly competitive. [laughs.]

KM: I do know this about you.

VS: Yes, yes, well, I think when I entered my first quilt and I think it was in 2001, I was living in Texas. I'm not a Texan. I'm a native of New York and I lived in Colorado for many years, and I was kind of lonesome [when I moved to Texas.] and then I found the Tuesday Morning Quilting Bee in Sugar Land and went to that quilting bee and hung around for a year and tried to keep my mouth shut and all the ladies there were excellent hand appliquérs. They did excellent quilts. I was a machine girl and after about a year I felt pretty secure in that group and I was very honored when one of the people in the group said, 'You know, it is about time you entered [one of.] your quilt[s] in a show.' The thought had never occurred to me, and of course the local show was the Houston International Quilt Festival and so when Barbara suggested that, I said, 'You have got to be kidding," and she said, 'No, I really think--' She said, 'I don't think you can win, but I think you have a shot at getting a quilt into the show.' I said, 'I don't even know how to enter,' and she said, 'I've got the entry form right here in my bag. Here you go.' We met every week, and she said, 'You have about two months to get an entry in. Here is the form. Go home and get something pulled together.' Well, by the next week, I had a preliminary design done. By the week after that, I had the top partially completed and that was the first quilt that I entered in the show, and Barbara [Dougherty.] didn't take 'no' for an answer. She was a retired schoolteacher and I remember when I brought that partially completed top to show her, she said, 'Well it looks pretty good from a distance, now let's see it up close.' She zeroed right in--it was a big, feathered star quilt--on one of the maybe five points that wasn't quite perfect and said, 'What are you going to do about this?' I said, 'Well Barbara, we already agreed that I can't win, so I will just aim for another area of the quilt for my detail photo for the entry.' She looked at me and she said, 'Would that be your best work?' I said, 'No ma'am.' [laughs.] I went home, tore the quilt apart and redid the points until every point was my best work and entered the quilt in the show. And I had told my family about Barbara and how she was pushing me to do my best and as I auditioned different various borders I would drag the kids [or my husband.] into the room where I had the quilt laid on the floor, and one time I showed my daughter who was just a little kid at the time, and said, 'What do you think about this combination of borders?' because I think I'd tried out five different combinations. Gillian said, 'Well I like it okay but what is Miss Barbara going to think about it?' [laughs.] So, the quilt's title became "Pleasing Miss Barbara." Nobody was more tickled than Barbara when the quilt did get into the show and it won an honorable mention, so Miss Barbara was very pleased and so was I. Of course, that gave me the bug. I've enjoyed competing with my quilts ever since.

KM: When did you actually start making quilts?

VS: I started--well I have sewn since I was about ten, so I already knew how to sew and do clothing and all that, and I think my first quilts I made right around the time my first child was born. For years I had never had to alter patterns because my measurements were the same as the ones on the pattern envelope, so sewing was very easy for me and when I had this new baby my body had changed, and I thought well I will either have to alter patterns to sew clothes for myself, which seems like an awful lot of work, or I could make quilts and they just have to be flat and that is easy. [laughs.] That is how I started making quilts.

KM: Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?

VS: No, I'm self-taught. I do read a lot of books and I will say my mother was always available for technical support. She lived far away, but I remember the first time I made a set of quilt blocks and she said, well you should use--one of the reasons I started on quilts is because rotary cutters came out and my mother was the one who introduced me to rotary cutters. She said, 'I can't believe you are still cutting with scissors. You have got to get a rotary cutter.' This was on her visit. When my son was a baby, I told her I wanted to make a quilt, and she said, 'Get one of Trudie Hughes' books. She has got good instructions for strip piecing and rotary cutting.' So, I got one of the books and the block I decided to make was an asymmetrical block, which means that you can do wonderful layouts like Log Cabins and stuff. I stayed up till--I made a set of blocks. I stayed up until I think two o'clock in the morning arranging them and rearranging them, and it was like my own personal kaleidoscope and then I called my mother the next morning and I said, 'You won't believe this, but these blocks--I can turn them one way or I can turn them another way and it is a completely different design.' [laughs.] 'I think I discovered something!' She said, 'Yes, sure you did.' [laughs.]

KM: As we all do.

VS: Yes, so she was very encouraging, but didn't actually stand by me and show me how to do anything. I think I started with that Trudie Hughes' book and was just intrigued by the kind of the puzzle aspect of it.

KM: What year was this about?

VS: Sometime between 1990 and 1992.

KM: You mentioned your husband and your children and your mother, so how do they feel about quilt making? What do they think?

VS: I guess it is just a given. [laughs.]

KM: Not always.

VS: My husband, I think, is puzzled but very proud of the work I have done, and my kids just assume everybody does it. Neither of my kids are particularly interested in, certainly not terribly interested in quilts because they are just so familiar to them, and it is Mom's thing and they want to do their own things. Although my daughter who is fifteen now is starting to get interested in clothing. When I say, 'Would you like me to help you make something?' She says, 'Oh no, I've seen you do it. I know what to do.' I come from a long line of women, my great-grandmother quilted, my grandmother was a superb seamstress and had made some quilt blocks (which I finished into a quilt a few years ago--another quilt that is very important to me), and my mom started quilting in the bicentennial, so I don't know how many generations that is. I think I'm a fourth generation quiltmaker, but none of us sat under a quilt frame as a little girl and watched their mothers quilt and really none of us were taught by our mothers. We all had to discover this ourselves.

KM: How many hours a week do you spend on quilts?

VS: I don't know. You know I used to be an accountant and I had to track my time in tenths of an hour. That would be six-minute increments and that was what I really hated about the job. So, I feel if I keep track of how much time--

KM: Do you do it every day?

VS: I try to every day. I have the ability to devote full time to it. I don't work outside of the home. Quilting is what I do, but in terms of how much time I'm actually working on it, I don't know. It varies. It is flexible, but I try to every day.

KM: You lecture, and you teach.

VS: Yes, that is right.

KM: Tell me about your experiences lecturing and teaching.

VS: Well, I'm kind of a newbie at that. I think you asked earlier about the competition and how important that was. Well, that [was what.] I was doing because my friend had encouraged me and then I had some success, and it was really fun. But it has also led me to be invited for teaching jobs and so the teaching kind of came because people said, 'Will you teach a class on this?' and I said, 'Okay, I guess so,' and then I had to go and design a class.

KM: What do you teach?

VS: Mostly, my most popular classes would be on machine quilting. Free motion machine quilting, which is something I just love doing.

KM: What is your lecture about?

VS: Well, I have a couple of lectures. One is "My Life in Quilt Years," and I talk a lot about my heritage as a quilter and show some of those quilts, and that is just a progression of what I've done so far, and the other one that is--it is just really fun--is "Gizmos and Gear for Adventurous Quiltmakers," and there is something about me. I love finding alternate uses for stuff. So, I go on this lecture and say, 'Oh self-stick foam, it is the best thing!' I talk about how you can use self-stick craft foam for a variety of things, or ways to use kitchen wraps to mark machine quilting and stuff like that.

KM: How have advances in technology influenced your work?

VS: As far as sewing? You know it is funny, when my son was a baby, I got a machine that was then a top-of-the-line computer machine and I worked really hard to exploit all of its capabilities, and I still use that machine, except now I [mostly.] use [just.] the straight stitch and the zigzag. So, in that respect I've kind of been there and come on back to the old standard stuff. The machine that I do most of my quilting on now--I'm enchanted with it, and it is a straight stitch only machine. All the rest of the stuff was just kind of distracting, but it does a beautiful straight stitch, and it does it very, very fast. The way technology has affected me more, I think, is in terms of designing, that I like to do most of my design [work.] on the computer and I have used Electric Quilt software, but I also use Corel Draw a lot, and for some reason I don't like to use paper and pencil, but I can sit in front of a computer all day long and play with design alternatives.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

VS: Well, my tastes are eclectic and so they run the gamut. I can tell you who I'm thinking about right now. I should say from very early on I have always done machine work and when I started quilting, I was living in Colorado and I lived very near Harriet's Treadle Arts, which was the shop owned by Harriet Hargrave. So, in terms of machine quilting, hers was the first book that I picked up on that and I would say it was a terrific book and it has been very influential. At the time, she [Harriet] was doing a lot of quilts with shirting fabric. She had a line of shirting's and so sort of the quilts that Harriet was doing were the ones I think of as what a quilt looks like, and thinking about the quilt that I have today, "Mamaw's Puzzle" and my great-grandmother's quilt look very much like the kinds of things that I saw years ago at Harriet's. I forgot what the other part was--Oh, you were asking whose work. Well right now, all the work I do, almost all the work I do is geometric and there has been a huge boom I guess in pictorial quilts, and I'm dazzled by pictorial quilts and lately I have been very, very interested in reading a lot of books by Ruth McDowell and what really enchants me about her work is that she is not necessarily trying to do a faithful representation. She says, 'yes they are pictorial quilts,' but they are quilts and I want the piecing to show, I don't want them to be photographic representations, and I like that attitude. So, I have been sitting at my computer for the last week or so trying to do something, kind of change gears and work from a photograph and do something a la Ruth McDowell, and it is not so easy. I'm really struggling. [laughs.] Really struggling, so I think I may leave that look to Ruth. [laughs.] But it gives me an even greater appreciation of her artistry.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you make that distinction at all?

VS: I don't really make that distinction. I can spend a lot of time wondering, well, is this art? Is this craft? You know, 'What is art?' or I can be making quilts and I would rather be making quilts. I do. At this point, I do want to make quilts that are my own designs. I'm not interested in line-by-line reproductions and I'm not really doing other people's patterns, but I am still very influenced by traditional art forms.

KM: You make large quilts.

VS: I make big quilts. I love making big quilts, and I think it is because I can. The other thing is what brought me, what I loved about quilts, is that they were functional art. They were gorgeous, but they could also keep you warm, so to make a small quilt means that it is no longer functional and that loses some of its appeal for me, so I like to make big ones that you could sleep under, although no one actually sleeps under my big quilts. Once I make a show quilt, at this point I'm lecturing and I bring those in a trunk show and I put a lot of quilting in them, they are very uncomfortable to sleep under. They are kind of stiff. So, they could be functional, but as a practical matter, they haven't been for a few years.

KM: Do you sleep under a quilt?

VS: I do.

KM: Is it one of your making?

VS: No. It's one that I bought years and years ago at a quilt auction, and it was before I had started making quilts, before my son was born, and my husband and I loved going to auctions. I knew enough about quilts to say, 'Hey these quilts look pretty good, and these prices are pretty good,' and I think we left that quilt auction with about a dozen quilts. Now I look at them with different eyes, but they, the quilts we still have from that quilt auction, I love, and they are functional quilts. My kids each have quilts that I have made for them. They sleep under them, but I don't sleep under one of my own quilts. [laughs.] At a certain point they get too good and then I don't deserve them anymore. [laughs.]

KM: Describe your studio to me.

VS: My studio is subterranean. It is in the basement and it is, the house that we bought the previous owners had finished the basement into a number of small rooms, so I have one little tiny room that is about nine by ten, and that holds my sewing machines and my ironing board, and then the other room adjacent to it is also about the same size, and in that room I have a big cutting table and all my fabrics stacked on bookshelves. I have a little bathroom adjacent to that, which is great so I can always refill the water in my iron without having to go very far, and because I have such a small--I guess overall I don't have such a terribly small space, but because this space is so compact, I think of it sort of like my quilting boat. Everything has a spot. That is where I spend most of my time. [laughs.]

KM: Do you have a design wall?

VS: Yes, I do. I have two of the three walls, one wall in each room is covered with a sheet of Homasote® that is covered with felt that my husband put up for me and it is kind of hard to back up a little bit, so I use a [door.] peephole to look through to see my whole quilt. Most of my quilts are little too big to fit on my design walls, so I get them kind of roughed out on the design wall, and then I just keep adding and adding and putting another border on.

KM: We talked about this not being your typical palette. What is your typical palette?

VS: More like my great-grandmother's. Anything is okay with me as long as it is red or pink. I'm just not a terribly blue person. One thing that struck me when this quilt was in Houston, I got a chance to go, and I stood by the quilt a few times and I was really surprised at how many people responded very strongly to the colors and said, 'Oh the colors are so beautiful!' and I don't think of it as a terribly beautifully colored quilt. To me it looks, I don't know, [like a.] kind of utilitarian color scheme, and what engaged me about the quilt was the actual construction process, but a lot of people said, 'Oh, I just love the colors,' so I don't completely understand, completely. The quilt has appeal to folks, but I don't quite understand what it is.

KM: We have talked about what you find really pleasing about quilts. Is there anything that you don't find pleasing about quilts? Is there anything that you don't like to do?

VS: There are certain parts in the process that I like better than other parts. I don't terribly love basting, but that time is still generally well spent, because I think the more time, even on the tedious parts of the job, that you spend in close contact to the quilt, particularly when it is mindless kind of stuff like basting, that is where I'm making a lot of decisions about how I'm going to quilt and what the next step is going to be. So, some of those boring tedious things are necessary to let the design evolve, because otherwise I would want to gallop through too quickly. I wouldn't come up with such good stuff if I wasn't forced to have to slog through the dull stuff and really think about what I want to do.

KM: Are you a person that does one thing and then moves on to the other, or do you have multiple things going on at one time?

VS: I'm pretty sequential. I tend to start one quilt and work through that. Although I will make a top and then the top may sit around for a year or two while I'm ruminating about what the next step is going to be, so I really think in terms of getting a top done that is one job. Getting it quilted that is a completely different project. So, I may finish one top and then quilt another top that I have had laying around for a while, but I'm generally working on one project at a time. I don't spend an hour quilting on this quilt and an hour piecing on another quilt. I'm on one project at a time.

KM: What advice would you offer somebody starting out?

VS: Not to get all wrapped up in the technology and the sewing machine, that it is not about the sewing machine. The question I'm asked most frequently when people look at my quilting, they say, 'What kind of sewing machine do you use?' and it really is not about the sewing machine. It is about mastery and perseverance. It is not so much about the gear. I think there is bias toward "quick and easy," and I'm often asked, 'Well, you're prolific. You turn out a lot of quilts. What is your secret? What is the quick, easy thing you can tell me?' and the secret is there is no secret. Not all of this is quick and not all of it is easy, but perseverance is what you need to achieve mastery, and I don't feel like I have achieved mastery. I'm always on that path. The day I die I still will be saying, 'Well, if I just work a little more on this, I think I could do it better.' That is what I find engaging. So, you have to enjoy the process.

KM: I don't think Americans are process driven.

VS: I… You may be right. You may be right. For me it is not about how many quilts do I have stacked up in my closet, it is about this particular quilt and what is engaging me with that quilt, and once I'm done with a quilt, I'm far less interested in it than when I'm working on it. But when you are in that creative flow and you are making these decisions and you are making these discoveries and you are solving problems, that is what is exciting about it.

KM: Why is quilting important to you?

VS: I like to build stuff. I just get a huge creative thrill out of taking a lot of little pieces and building something out of it. I look back now and think I should have been an engineer or an architect or something, my medium is fabric, but the satisfaction I get is from the building.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

VS: I think a lot of the challenges in the past--the big challenge when I started, and certainly when my mother started, was that there wasn't great availability of fabric and now it is kind of gone one hundred and eighty degrees that we have so much available to us that at this point. Certainly, my own personal challenge is like quilter's ADD. I have so much fabric, so many choices, so many decisions to make just to get focused and started on the next quilt that sometimes I'm paralyzed by that. When you have fewer options, it is easier to get going. So, I think the biggest challenge is just committing to what you want to do. I have a lot of trouble with that. Right now, I'm at a point where I don't know what I want to do next and I'm uneasy and I'm irritable. [laughs.] My solution usually is to go out and buy more fabric and that doesn't help because that just gives me more choices. So, I don't know, maybe some creative blinders would be helpful. Sometimes these things just, you can't, you can't force an idea to happen when you want it to happen, and it is very frustrating. Seeing more fabrics and more things, more choices, it passes the time, but it doesn't really help you focus in.

KM: Believe it or not we are almost finished. Is there anything else that you would like to add before we end?

VS: Well, I'm already thinking about the next quilt. I think I have gotten some ideas. [laughs.] Maybe some of that fermentation process is starting to work. I don't think I have anything to add beyond that but thank you very much for asking me. It has been a pleasure.

KM: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you today, and I will conclude my interview with Valli and it is now 11:45.



“Valli Schiller,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed February 24, 2024,