Susan Cummings




Susan Cummings




Susan Cummings


Julie Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Gwen Westerman


Marlborough, Massachusetts


Julie Henderson


Julie Henderson (JH): My name is Julie Henderson and I'm here at the Quilter's Garden in Marlborough, Massachusetts with Susan Cummings, who brought a really beautiful quilt for us to look at today. Susan, would you like to tell us about the quilt?

Susan Cummings (SC): Well, this is called Circles of Hawks and Heroes. It was for a contest that a lady had that designed all of these fabrics. You had to make an original design using these fabrics that she designed. She picked fourteen candidates to go to Japan to the Yokahama Quilt Festival so this is where this was in 2000. The quilt went. I didn't go. [laughter.] I wanted to go so that was kind of the latest thing that I had done.

JH: These fabrics are sort of Asian in style.

SC: Yes, they are all Japanese influenced. The line of fabrics was called "Hawks and Heroes" so it was something very different for me. I usually do something using a lot of feminine fabrics. [laughter.] So with all these heroes and all these hawks and thing, it was really a challenge for me to put together so that was interesting.

JH: Was this a contest through your guild?

SC: No, it's actually this thing I've belonged to for a while. This lady Susan Fader in New York City has a Japanese fabric club. She travels to Japan a lot and purchases fabrics and thing. Then each month she sends a little packet of fabric so I received a package of Japanese fabrics. Then she was asked to design some fabrics herself so these are what she designed so she then had an opportunity for everybody that was in this fabric club to make a quilt. The winner actually got to go on one of the tours when she goes to Japan. Then fourteen altogether were in the show there. I've collected a lot of Japanese fabric, I'll tell you.

JH: How long have you been working with the Japanese fabric?

SC: With Japanese, probably about six or seven years. Quilting altogether, a little over twenty years. I've been sewing forever and ever.

JH: What got you interested in Japanese fabric?

SC: I don't know. There's just something about the design--not these ones in particular, these are pretty busy--but a lot of them are really, have an elegant simplicity that I really like. I just like the color, and I'm just drawn to it somehow. I've done a lot with it.

JH: It's really gorgeous. So you've been quilting for about twenty years?

SC: Yes, at least that long.

JH: When you're not using the Japanese fabric, is your quilting more traditional, would you say?

SC: It kind of really straddles both worlds. What I'm working on now is in the Japanese vein. It's a quilt that uses a traditional pattern, a really old pattern called String of Beads. The fabrics are Japanese indigo fabrics and then the beads are orange. The other thing I'm working on now is actually a Welsh whole-cloth quilt for Mary [Walter, owner of A Quilter's Garden.], for a show, she's doing in June. That is just quilted on a large piece of fabric. The fabrics I chose gives it a more contemporary feel.

JH: So a whole cloth quilt is just one big piece of fabric.

SC: Right, all one color. Then what's really the thing about it is the actual quilting itself. It has a lot of spirals and symbols and things on it. Instead of being Colonial looking-- whole cloth quilts which are white on white. This one is bright orange. I've really been into orange lately. [laughter.] It's a really orange quilt. Nobody is really in the middle. They either love that orange quilt or they hate the orange quilt. That's kind of my two things I'm working on.

JH: What got you started with quilting?

SC: Well actually, I lived in Colorado before I moved here. When my kids were little, my friend and I took a class together. It was very traditional; a sample quilt. You know, cutting out the templates and everything. We really worked hard on that. That was my first quilt. Then I really didn't do much with it until I moved here. Then it just really took off with me. I started realizing there were other ways to make the quilts that I was better suited to so here is where I really begin to quilt.

JH: Do you design your own quilts?

SC: This one I designed. Most of them have been a combination of a traditional patterns with unique use of fabrics and some of my own design, not all. It's pretty half-and-half. I try to almost always put something in of a traditional but with some sort of twist on it.

JH: When you moved up to the northeast and started quilting again, did you take some classes?

SC: Yes, I did. There was another quilt shop that's closed now. I started to take some classes there. It kind of taught me the basics. But really, my specialty is appliqué, and I really taught myself that. I do it--and it's another thing that people love or hate--I use a freezer paper method but that's what really what I was saying is that I'm more an appliqué. I love the handwork. I'm not really big on the machine work.

JH: Do you hand quilt?

SC: I hand quilt and I machine piece. If there's piecing, I machine piece but these are appliqué. Almost all my quilts revolve around hand appliqué and hand quilting. I'm really not good at machine quilting. There's almost two different groups of quilters that seem to either tend to be machine quilters or hand. Some people are really good at both, but they seem to align themselves one way or another. [A person is heard in the background telling Susan her quilt is gorgeous.]

JH: Now this quilt here, do you have plans for this quilt?

SC: No, I really don't. I might try to exhibit it some more. I'm trying to decide what direction to take my quilting. I would like to try to sell my work. Now that my kids are grown up, I'm trying to re-focus what I'm doing with it. This one, I'll probably try to exhibit a few more places.

JH: Besides when it went to Japan, has it been exhibited?

SC: Just in a little show, that Mary had. That's the only other place that it's been so far. [inaudible.] with this coming year.

JH: I should point out that Mary is Mary Walter, the owner of A Quilter's Garden, where we are.

SC: Thank goodness, she's here. I really enjoy coming here to develop ideas.

JH: Do you quilt more now than you used to since the kids are grown?

SC: I've been pretty steadily quilting along. I don't make a lot of quilts. I really focus most of my time on making quilts that are for exhibits. This one was actually quicker than a lot. I usually work maybe a year at least on a quilt.

JH: So you do have quilters in your family?

SC: Well, actually my husband's family. I have an aunt on my mother's side who's done some quilting but the one I was really thinking of was my husband's aunt who's--I think she turned ninety-seven and she's quilted all of her life. She still does a little quilting. It's just really nice to see that somebody has been able to keep it up so long. It's kind of inspirational but other than that, not really. My mother was always a sewer and sewed a lot of clothes so did I but I've really given that up. Just quilts, that's all I do. I credit my mom for teaching me to sew as a small child. It gave me the basis I needed for quilting today.

JH: What are some things you like about quilting, and the whole quilting world?

SC: Well, one of the things I like is it's been a way to develop friendship with people, getting into guilds and things like that. It really helps socially, there's a real social element to it. What I like about the quilting is I just love fabric, and I love color, and I just enjoy the act of actually doing it. So I find that very relaxing and soothing.

JH: Was it helpful when you moved up here from Colorado?

SC: Yes it was, yeah, it really was. I tend to be pretty shy and not very outgoing, so it really helped me to have something in common that I could develop.

JH: Has quilting helped you to get through difficult times in your life?

SC: Yes, I think so. I would say real good and bad. It's one of the things I'm very protective of and I want to keep it alive. I do things that I really enjoy with quilting, just because it is such a comfort and habit for me. Yes, it's always there.

JH: You've given quilts as gifts?

SC: Yes, I just did one for my grandniece, a little baby quilt so that's fun.

JH: When you go--you see lot of quilts going around. What do think makes a quilt great?

SC: In general, I think what makes a quilt great is if you're somewhere viewing a lot of quilts, one that really draws you to it. One you want to take a second look or a closer look. I think a quilt that has a lot of components to it. The color is good; it looks good from a distance but I think a really great quilt, when you get up close to it and you can see that the workmanship is really good but basically, one that draws you in, and you want to turn around and take another look at. You can tell.

JH: Are there any parts of quilting that you don't enjoy?

SC: I guess I have really come to the place where I can really admit now that I don't enjoy machine quilting, actually quilting the three layers together. I enjoy machine piecing but I do not like machine quilting. I like to hand quilt my work.

JH: Over the years, do you feel quilting has impacted your family?

SC: Yes, I think so. It's kind of defined me. My family has always seen me working on a quilt. They know it is part of me.

JH: What do you think--do you think of quilts as suitable to be in museums?

SC: Oh, yes, definitely. Depending on the quilt of course, there's a lot that are really just fabulous. I've had the opportunity to have a quilt in the American Quilter's Society in Kentucky a couple of times. One time I got to go and, oh, the quilts there are just so fabulous. They definitely had museum quality textiles. It definitely is a place for that.

JH: What are some things you think makes a quilt suitable to be in a museum, museum quality?

SC: Well, I think it has to have something unique about it. Originality. Something that's really kind of over the top, hasn't really been done before or seen before, but done well. The workmanship done really well, too--I think that's really important. There's so many different types of quilts that are museum quality. I've seen some traditional pieces that really were, and I've also seen some just wonderful contemporary pieces that were just like a painting, you know. They deserve to be in a museum.

JH: So you like both the more art quilts and the more traditional quilts?

SC: Yeah, I really do. If I am tending toward one or the other, it'd be the art quilt. They're really, what draws me in the most. I really like to see something that's unusual and I've never seen before. It's what I like to tend to do myself but I also really enjoy the traditional. That's where I started, that's my roots.

JH: Had you been involved in arts or creative pursuits before you started quilting?

SC: Well, I always really enjoy any kind of crafts. I liked art all through school. I think I always kind of tended to be in that direction.

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

SC: Well, I think it's really very important to go back in history and see the quilts that people did and they really tell a story of the time. A lot of the quilts that were done by African Americans were really story quilts that were just fabulous. I think even now, the quilts people are making will tell a bit of history when future generations look at them.

JH: Do you think they are particularly important for women's history?

SC: Definitely. It's something that women have done at times when there really wasn't a lot available to them artistically. They still wanted some kind of art in their life, some self-expression. I think it's really important.

JH: Do you collect quilts?

SC: Well, I haven't really collected them. Just the ones I've made. I haven't really bought a lot of antique quilts and things like that. I kind of wish I would've way back when they were less expensive.

JH: The quilts you make and then keep, how do you--do you use them, or--

SC: I really don't use a lot of my quilts. I realized that I don't even have a quilt on my bed, a down comforter. [laughter.] That's kind of funny. No, I don't--a lot of them aren't really bed quilts anymore that I do. I started out that way. I do have one on my guest bed--I made a Double Wedding Ring way back when, I have that on there. I've kind of drifted away from making bed quilts, though. Most of my quilts have been made for different exhibits and things. That's where I'm headed, I guess.

JH: How do you store them at home?

SC: Well, it's actually kind of interesting. I have a queen sized guest bed. I just layer them on there so there isn't any creases from being folded. It's really turned out to be a really good way of – it's like a princess in the pea, almost, underneath it all. [laughter.] I just layer them all and then I put a muslin sheet over the top. It's the Double Wedding Ring Quilt on the top. You can't really even tell but it's worked out really well for me.

JH: Oh, that's a good idea.

SC: Yes, it really does and it protects them from the sunlight, which is harmful to quilts.

JH: That's great.

[ten second pause.]

JH: I asked you what makes a great quilt great--what do you think makes a great quilter great? Do you think there's certain qualities a quilter should have?

SC: Well, I think most quilters, great quilters, have a just inborn natural artistic talent in them. They have a real sense of color, a good sense of color. I think some of that really isn't totally learned, it's just there. That's one thing. I think another thing that makes a quilter great is one who shares what they know with other quilters.

JH: So you belong to a guild.

SC: Yes I do.

JH: Is it a local quilt guild?

SC: Yes, I belong to Wayside Quilting Guild. I just joined that so I've just been to one meeting so far, but it's nice. They have speakers come and things like that, that I'm interested in, so it should be really good.

JH: Have you belonged to other guilds?

SC: Yeah, I belonged to a guild years ago, County Line Quilters, in Southborough. Now some of us have started a little group that meets here actually, called the Full Circle Quilters so I'm in that, which is more of like a sewing bee type of a group. We just bring projects and share projects and things like that, and sew for a couple of hours.

JH: That's nice.

SC: Yes.

JH: You haven't taught?

SC: I have taught in the past.

JH: Oh, have you?

SC: Yes. No, I'm not doing it now, but I have taught here. I taught at another quilt shop too. I haven't done that for a few years.

JH: What did you--

SC: I taught appliqué. That was fun, but I haven't been doing it lately.

JH: The quilts that you gave as gifts--were they more wall hanging style or more bed?

SC: I've done both, but lately in the last few years, more wall-hanging or Christmas type things, things like that that are not too time-consuming, things like that.

JH: Are people always surprised when they get them?

SC: Yes, they seem to really enjoy getting them. Almost everybody seems to enjoy it. I think part of it is it's just that it's something that you made.

JH: Do you think that quilts from this area reflect the area that they're from, or have you seen a difference, say, from Colorado to here?

SC: Well, actually, yes I really do feel that quilts reflect the area. I'm actually from Washington State, and I see the quilts there having a little bit different spin on things than the quilts here. Some of the things transcend everywhere, the geography. But there are differences. I think there's more of the traditional Colonial here. I guess I just notice it more than I did when I was in Washington. People pick things out of their environment to put in their quilts.

JH: Do you think it's important that we preserve quilts for the future?

SC: Oh, yes, I really do. It's important. At AQS [American Quilters Society.], there's actually a type of museum that really focuses on that. I just that it's such a good idea. I really do. Quilts are kind of a fragile medium, in a way. It takes expertise to really preserve them right. It's a very good idea.

JH: Have you seen a lot of really old quilts?

SC: Yes, over the years I have. It's just fascinating to see some of the fabrics. A lot of times the colors are really faded so you can't tell what the colors were, you have to imagine it. It's just really wonderful to see, it really is.

JH: Is there anyone in your family that you think is going to pick up quilting?

SC: Well, I just have two sons and they don't seem too interested at this point! [laughter.] So, I don't know. I think I'm on my own at this point.

JH: Is there anything else that we haven't covered that you can think of?

SC: No, I really don't think so.

JH: What about this area--has it been easy to be a quilter in this area?

SC: Yes, it really has. There's a lot of different groups. They're all very inviting and share a lot. It's been really wonderful for me.

JH: Have there--have more and more quilt stores opened, do you think over the years or--

SC: Yes, it has. It's become more and more popular from when I started in the seventies. Now it's just amazing, the difference. The materials that are available now that weren't then, it just really took off. I'm not sure why but it really has. It's really, really a lot of fun.

JH: Thank you for talking with us.

SC: Thank you.

JH: I'm interviewing Susan Cummings. This is Julie Henderson, and we'll conclude the interview now. Thank you.

SC: Thank you.

JH: Sure.



“Susan Cummings,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,