Kathleen Loomis




Kathleen Loomis




Kathleen Loomis


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Louisville, Kentucky


Nathaniel Stephan


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Kathy Loomis in Shelly Zegart's home. It is August 30, 2001, at 1:02 p.m. Kathy, would you mind telling me about the quilt that you brought?

Kathleen Loomis (KL): Well, the quilt that I brought is a very new quilt. It has just been finished within the last month, but it has a very long provenance. This is a quilt that includes the scraps from all kinds of sewing and quilting and cleaning up the floor projects for probably the last decade. I love scraps. I love the idea of recycling. I love the idea of using tiny little bits and pieces of stuff. I do not throw anything out that's as big as a postage stamp so really the only thing that goes out in my household are the very tiniest of the frayed ends. And I eventually throw my little pieces into a box and then whenever I would be non-creative and blocked or didn't quite know what to do next on my major sewing or quilting projects, I would take out my box and just sew things together for an hour or two. And then every now and then I would have enough to carry them out in front of the television set and cut then into two and a half inch squares while I watched T.V. And then every now and then I would feel I have enough to sew four pieces together and over the years this quilt kind of slouched towards completion and it finally got put together maybe a year ago and I quilted it just in July because I needed something very large to enter in the state fair. And this was the biggest thing that looked as it could get quilted quickly. So, it was really quite a pleasure to get this thing put together finally. I named this quilt as I do all my quilts and I named it "My Life in Pieces -- Volume Four the Nineties" because I think as I look at this, I can see everything that I have done for a decade. There's a little bit of practically everything I have ever worked on. And there are a lot of bits that other people have worked on. I am sort of notorious when I attend a quilter's workshop that I go around afterwards and clean things up off the floor and I go through people's trash bags and pull out the larger size scraps and bring them home with me. So, there are a lot of other people's lives in pieces represented in this quilt as well.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

KL: Well, it's big enough to go on a bed, which would be a change for me. I have only in my life ever made one quilt that was big enough to go on a bed that actually went on a bed. That was my first quilt which I did many years ago. I think I finished it up in 1969. And that one was on the bed for several years. Since then, everything I have made has either been small functional lap quilts or wall quilts. So, it might go on a bed, don't know yet. It just came home from the state fair earlier this week.

KM: How did it do at the state fair?

KL: It won a ribbon. I was pleased with that because we have an extremely traditional state fair. It is very difficult to even find categories that you can enter machine quilted pieces in because hand quilting is legitimate and machine quilting is communist. And so, I had to try very hard to even get this one into a category. I think it was it probably won because it had a lot of pieces. And at our state fair in addition to hand quilting, we also value the number of stitches that are put into a project.

KM: Do you hand quilt?

KL: Yes, but I don't. It's not my favorite method although as I have been doing more and more art quilting, I find myself against my better judgment doing hand quilting occasionally. I'm doing a lot more of it now that I even thought I would. But mainly machine quilting. Machine quilting is my default. Hand quilting is what I will do occasionally when it calls out to me, but I would never dream of hand quilting a huge bed quilt.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your work?

KL: It's typical of my work in that I love to sew little bits and pieces together. It's typical of my work in that it is extremely bright and has a wide color palette. It's typical of my work in that it has black as an important accent color, both in the sashing here and in many, many of the blocks. And it's typical of my work in that it is an abstract composition with a strong geometric grid. Other than that, I would say it is atypical.

KM: So, is quilting in your family?

KL: I think my grandmothers quilted. I had one grandmother who was a very avid needle worker. And when I would go to visit her in the summers, we always had hand work projects. We had embroidery and we had sewing, and I was very thrilled always to go visit her because we were going to have projects. My mother knew how to do all this stuff but did it only because she had to; she didn't love it. I learned to sew practically at birth and then I learned the hand work from my grandmother. Eventually I learned to crochet from my mother-in-law and have done a vast quantity of that. But quilting kind of came up by itself. When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to make a quilt. And it was a crazy quilt, and it was bits and pieces from sewing projects because I was making a lot of my clothes at that time. It was interesting, I told my grandmother (not the handiwork grandmother but the other grandmother who also knew how to do handiwork) 'You know I'm making a quilt,' and she said, 'Why would you want to make a quilt?' She just thought that was the stupidest thing she ever heard of. It's hard to say why I wanted to. It was the fabric, and it was the color, and it was I suppose the artistry although I wouldn't have used that word at that time. After I made that first crazy quilt, then it was the stage where people were getting married and having babies and so then I did a bunch of baby quilts which went away to other people. I don't think I did anything for my own children in the way of quilts, but then I kind of made lap quilts because they were nice to have around and stick over your feet while you're sitting on the couch.

And about seven or eight years ago I got serious about quilting. It's hard to say exactly why but it really rang a bell with me. I decided that this was going to be something that I needed to spend more time on, get more serious about and a ways down the road I started realizing that it was art. It's interesting because I come from a family in which art is extremely important and everybody in the family owns more pictures and stuff that we can count that we have wall space for. My father was a typographer, he did a lot of calligraphy, he dabbled in watercolors. My sister is pretty talented at pastels and painting and yet you grow up, you know, with your label attached to you. The label attached to me was that I couldn't draw therefore of course I couldn't be an artist. But I loved art, so over the years I dropped a lot of money on other people's art. I was very acquisitive as an art purchaser and this was because I loved art, but my taste was far beyond my capabilities, so of course I wouldn't even try to do it. Who wants to do something that they know is crap? So, I had put the idea of doing art out of my mind.

Maybe six or seven years ago when I started really getting serious about the quilts all the sudden one day I said, 'You know this is art and I can make art!' It was quite a revelation because I had never defined myself in those terms. I thought, well, you know, I can do this, and I have now found my medium. Since I didn't know how to draw, I think I was very much drawn to the geometry and the abstraction of quilt making because it avoided my weakness which was that I couldn't draw. I have really up until this year never made a representational quilt. Everything has been geometric and abstract. Interestingly I'm just beginning to very cautiously dip my toe into representation and the fact that I can't draw is holding me back but it's not holding me back entirely. We'll see; I don't think that will ever be my major direction. I have recently within the last year so even started to use the word in public – 'I make art' which I'm very pleased with and very proud of considering my background.

KM: So how has quilting impacted your family?

KL: Well, my boys have left home so it's my husband and me rattling around in a large house and probably the most important impact is that the quilts have taken over more and more of the house. I have within the last two years taken over what used to be our downstairs family room where the boys used to have their recreation and stuff and that has become a very large studio and it is amazing how much of a difference it means to have a good workspace. In my case, I found it particularly a breakthrough when I was able to set up a big design wall with enough space that I could both get a long view and also have it visible as I worked around the room. I don't know what adjective I would apply to this, but I find that a lot of my quilts happen by accident, by happenstance. I'm a believer that my quilts talk to me and tell me what they want to have happen next. Frequently parts of quilts will get constructed or done without my knowing what's going to happen to them later. They have to sit on the design wall sometimes for months before they tell me what they want to be, so having a very large workspace where you can leave the stuff strewn around and visible has been very important to me. A lot of my quilts, well some of my quilts, get made in three days because when inspiration comes and you know exactly what you want to do, you go and do it. Some of mine take years. I will have made part of a quilt and I kind of liked it or I like the colors or that was fine, but it wasn't a full quilt yet. Either it wasn't big enough or didn't have a focal point or it just wasn't finished. Many times, months or years will pass before I figure out how to finish a quilt. It's nice also to have the luxury of time to be able to let a piece rest for a couple of years. I have been retired less than a year now and since then the quilting has become kind of a full-time job. It's great; I have been extremely productive and exhilarated and energized in this last ten months since I don't have to get up and go to work anymore. So, I'm in a great period right now things are good, and I like the work. I think I'm producing good work now. So that's good.

KM: So how many hours a week do you quilt?

KL: [a cup is placed onto a table followed by a 3 second pause.] Twenty-thirty. I'd say twenty in a normal week if I'm not traveling. Of course, if you have a deadline and you have something that you're really trying to get done I will do more than that.

KM: Tell me about being a quilter in residence at the library.

KL: Well today is actually going to be my first day of it, so I don't know how it's going to be. I hope nobody comes and throws tomatoes at me. When we were talking with the people at the Louisville [Kentucky.] Free Public Library about putting together a show, they said they wanted to have a bunch of other activities as well and one of the activities was that our local quilt guild, The Louisville Nimble Thimbles, was going to have some kind of demo. Actually, that occurred earlier this week. This quilt guild, which I used to be a member of, is a really more on the traditional side. I didn't know exactly what their demos were going to be but I suspected that they were going to be hand quilting and traditional patterns because that's what most of those people seem to be doing. I kind of had a prejudice that here we are in Kentucky which is a big traditional quilt state, and everybody has a lot of reverence for quilting, but when they say 'quilting' the picture that comes to mind is their ninety-five-year-old grandma with a quilt frame set up on the porch of the cabin. I have sort of made it my personal crusade to try to move the image of quilting a little bit farther to the twentieth century; after we get it to the twentieth century then I guess we can work on the twenty first century. I thought, well isn't it a shame that people might get the idea, reinforcing this traditional stuff. I thought, why don't we show some of the more avant-garde contemporary quilting, so I said to Norm, 'Why don't I come down and be a quilter in residence? I'll bring my sewing machine and my iron and that's about I need. Oh, I need a little design wall to put the stuff up. Why don't I just make quilts for four afternoons?' He thought this was a neat idea. I don't know exactly what I'm going to do. It will probably be in small scale. I think it's just going to be fun for me because in two and a half hours I'm going to sit down and start making a quilt there and I don't know what's it's going to look like, and I don't know what color it's going to be. I don't know what direction it's going to go. So, I think this will be kind of exciting, but it won't be hand quilted.

KM: So how long will you get at the library?

KL: I'm committed for four days at four hours each. So, in sixteen hours I could probably finish a small quilt a day or maybe if I feel like it, they might get bigger. Maybe I'll finish one or two depending on the size. This is going to be a surprise to me as well as to the people watching.

KM: So, they get to come and ask you questions and--

KL: Sure. I hope somebody comes by.

KM: And you also have a show?

KL: My small quilt support group is called Prism. There are eight of us and we are serious art quilt makers, and we have a show at the library. There are eighteen quilts there and it's hanging for two months. This is part of a kind of festival of quilts that the library has put together. I think they have been very pleasantly surprised by the public enthusiasm over this. I mentioned that the Nimble Thimbles had a demo at the library earlier this week and had a hundred and forty people show up to watch this. Everybody is quite surprised and excited at the enthusiasm that's coming out about this. We really think that this is doing a great deal for the visibility of quilting in the Louisville [Kentucky.] area. We're all very excited about it.

KM: So, your focus is on art quilts and the groups focus is on art quilts?

KL: Yes.

KM: And what do you do for each other?

KL: [coughs.] Well, we have show and tell every month when we get together. People will bring in things either they have finished or are in process. Put'em up on the wall and then in some situations people will have questions. 'What do you think I should do for a border here?' Or maybe even in the drawing stage. 'Here's my drawing, what do you think?' And so, you'll say, 'Well I think these two leaves are too close together because I don't like the negative space here.' People are very good about giving critiques. Then of course there's the wonderful effect of the implicit deadline. Nobody will shoot you if you show up at a meeting with nothing to show off but you certainly would rather have something to take with you [cup being set down on the table.] and so the two days before the Prism meetings I think a lot of people spend a lot of time at their sewing machine trying to get their project a little farther along so they're proud to take it in. We have had this one show. This is our first formal group show together although we have a commitment for another group show eighteen months down the road. I'm amazed how far in advance the art world operates when it comes to putting gallery shows together and we hope we have another one here in the Louisville [Kentucky.] area in about a year. We have been a critique and support and shot and tell group for the last couple of years and now we are trying to get a little bit more organized about getting our work seen in public.

KM: Have you entered quilts in contests?

KL: Oh yeah. This year especially I've been kind of on a tear of entering a lot of things. I have been in four or five shows this year. Have been in two shows that are juried. Three shows that are juried multimedia shows. I think that's kind of interesting, getting your quilt juried into a gallery next to the paintings and the sculpture. It's really a very different animal than getting it juried into a quilt show. I think the standards surely are different. I suspect that the multimedia art judges and jurors are not as interested in technique, they're interested in visual impact and sometimes I think in the quilt shows it's the other way. I keep getting quilts coming back from quilt shows with the little judge's remarks on and how frequently they talk about the binding and the corners and that kind of stuff instead of the visual impact. Well, you don't get little judge's remarks home when you're in an art gallery show but if you did, I bet you they wouldn't talk about the binding. [laughs.]

KM: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

[12 second pause.]

KL: For me it's always the color that kind of starts. I wish I knew more about the language and the concepts of art. I've never taken an art class. If I did, I would probably be more articulate in telling you about focus and balance and all of that stuff. I don't believe that technique makes a quilt powerful, but I believe lack of technique detracts from the power of a quilt. When I see quilt in shows or in galleries--I should probably be embarrassed to say this, but you know, you get your first glimpse of it and you're some distance away from it and I instantly glom in for the close-up. My first glimpse tells me whether I want to look at it or not. If it passes that instant test the first thing I do is get as close up to it as possible because I want to see how it's made, what its underlying structure is, and I think that's part of the character of a quilt. Sometimes I take my glasses off and get three inches away so I can really see what she has done here to make this quilt. Then I step back and look at the full view and that's probably the wrong way to look at a quilt, but I think people who make things are much more aware of the fundamental presence of the materials. For instance, I just went to an exhibit last week on glass-- art glass and I know nothing about glass. So, I looked at these things and they were pretty, but I don't think I appreciated them as much as if I had known about glass. I'm sure if a glass maker had gone to that same gallery he probably would have gone and put his face right up next to it and looked at how it was made and probably appreciated it more for that reason. I think it's visceral, though; whether you like a quilt or not it certainly speaks to you very strongly at its first impression. To me it's the color and the balance. Although I must say I'm in the habit at quilt shows of going around for a last look before I leave. Many times, a quilt that you hadn't noticed or hadn't though much of the first time around will speak to you more when you see it the second time around. I had a very interesting experience at a quilt show earlier this year at Indianapolis [Indiana.] I had two quilts shown in it. The venue here was very spacious. It was a really nice place, and it wasn't real crammed in. We were late in the day and there weren't very many people there. Coincidentally both of my quilts were hung in a way that they visible from way down the aisle or almost way across the room. I had the opportunity to look at both of these quilts from fifty, sixty, seventy feet away. Of course, when do you get to see a quilt from seventy feet away? It just never happens in real life. I was amazed at this one quilt of mine. I thought it was a black quilt, but when you saw it from sixty feet away it wasn't a black quilt, it was a beige quilt! I couldn't believe it. It was really extraordinary. It totally changed its character when I was able to see it from that far away. So, I guess what I'm saying is that looking at quilts, like I suppose looking at any other kind of art, occurs in many dimensions and it has many different aspects to it and the good ones, the longer you look the more you get out of them. They do speak to you.

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

KL: I think quilts occupy sort of a cultural stereotype is not really the word, but quilts are part of the American cultural archetype. It's somewhere in the collective memory. The question is what does the collective memory think when you hit the word quilt. What's the archetype that comes up. I think it is grandma out on the front porch of the cabin with a quilting frame. I'm kind of ambivalent about that. I'm a believer in and have great reverence for the tradition of American quilting. I can give that speech just as well as anyone else can. I'm kind of sorry that it stops there in many minds. I think every contemporary quilter has had the experience or trying to explain to somebody who doesn't know anything about this. 'I'm a quilter.' 'Oh yeah, my grandma was a quilter.' Then you say my quilts don't go on a bed, they go on a wall then you see them glaze over one degree. They don't quite understand that. There's a famous collector here, one of the people who gave a speech at the library as part of this quilt festival. He went on and on about how a quilt isn't a quilt unless it's been slept under. I found it not only unattractively snobbish but offensive. He then went on and said, 'Well now, there's this quilt show in the gallery.' This was the quilts of my little group. 'There's this quilt show in the gallery and they have these beautiful quilts. I mean they really are beautiful. You have to admit they're beautiful. But you wouldn't want to sleep under them, would you? You wouldn't sleep under them.' It was just done in a tone of contempt. It upset me. I guess I wish we could have two archetypes of the quilt. I wish we could keep grandma on the cabin porch, but I also wish for the appreciation or the awareness. I don't care if they appreciate the fact that quilts can be art but I wish they would at least know that some people think that quilts could be art. I think we have a long way to go there. What I do see is immense public enthusiasm. People may not realize that there's this new world out there that they have been previously unexposed to, but when they are exposed to it most of them seem to be very happy about it. Very positive. There's still the people that don't understand it if it's not hand quilted and if it doesn't go on a bed and if it doesn't look traditional, but I think that is slowly being less prevalent as an attitude. I hope that's so.

KM: Let's return to your quilt just for a minute. Tell about how you label your quilt.

KL: I put a hanging sleeve on all of my quilts because most of them are intended for show. For the last couple of years, I've realized that the sleeve can be the label as well. One of my favorite techniques is bleach discharge where you start with black or some other dark color. You either spray or paint bleach on it and it takes the color up. I've done a lot of experimenting with how to use this technique. One of my favorites is to use dishwasher gel detergent because that contains chlorine bleach. It has a nice gooey texture to it. I put it on with a pastry bag. You just squeeze the dishwasher gel into the pastry bag and then you squeeze the pastry bag out and it makes nice about eighth inch wide lines which are excellent for lettering. So, I will write the name of the quilt and my own name and the date when it was completed on the hanging sleeve. It's a good way to kill two birds with one stone. It holds the quilt up and it documents it, and it is characteristic of my work as well so it's kind of three for one.

KM: Terrific, is there anything you would like to add? [sets a cup down on the table and coughs twice.]

KL: No, I guess not.

KM: Terrific.

KL: Thank you very much.

KM: Oh, thank you very much. This concludes my interview with Kathleen Loomis. It is now 1:39.



“Kathleen Loomis,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1758.