Susie Krage




Susie Krage




Susie Krage


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Lydia Donihe


Rockville, Maryland


Evelyn Naranjo


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is February 22, 2005. It's 12:20 p.m. and I am conducting an interview with Susie Krage for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for the American Quilts, and we are in Susie's home in Rockville, Maryland. So, Susie, thank you for taking the time for this interview.

Susie Krage (SK): You are quite welcome.

LR: Tell me about the quilt that you selected for today as your touchstone piece.

SK: The quilt is called the "Silent Scream" and it was inspired by some interviews that I listened to of women who had genital mutilation done in Africa. One of the women had fled to the United States with her daughter to prevent her daughter from being mutilated because the husband wanted it done. Other women had had the procedure done as young girls, and I was very touched by these interviews. But I had believed before that time that very few women had this done to them. That it was limited to a small tribe in Africa, but as I listened to the women, I realized it was wider spread than that, so I started to do some research. And I kept thinking about my own daughter and how I would feel if someone insisted that she have this procedure done and the research was so upsetting that I felt I had to do something to express my horror and indignation that women were subjected to this. There are approximately 6,000 women a day who are mutilated and that is a staggering number. They are from countries in Africa, from Indonesia, Egypt. There are countries that you would never imagine that this could happen. So, I decided that being an artist, I would do a quilt to express my disgust and my anger. I didn't know what else I could do. So, this quilt represents a young girl who is appliquéd on a background. She's in black. The color was selected not because of the color of the skin of any of the girls that do this, but it just worked on the background. It was just a high contrast. The background is blood red, and I have printed, computer printed on my hand dyed red fabric, the names of each of the countries in which this occurs or has occurred and many of the side effects that happen when the girls have surgery. The surgery is rarely done with anesthesia. It is rarely done under sterile conditions. In fact, some villages collect dozens of girls at the same time. They use a knife or a razor. There is no sterilization of the instruments in between girls. At most, they might rinse the knife off with water. They often bind the girls' legs together for several days afterwards to keep them from bleeding, and my impression was that this was all done because of the men. Men wanted their women to be pure when they married them. They felt that if they reduced their interest in sex, then they would be virgins when they married them, but of course, it reduced their interest in sex after the marriage as well. But it seems that it's women who do this to women. And so, I've represented that by my own hand on the quilt holding the girl down and holding the razor blade. Some countries have passed laws to stop this from happening, to forbid it from happening, but it is a law that has great holes in it because there is no way to enforce it. This is done in private homes, in villages that are very remote, and the police have no way of knowing who has been mutilated, who has not, what people are involved. So, I have written the word STOP in large letters on the quilt, and I've used window screening, fiberglass window screening, to represent the holes that occur in the law. So, this continues today. There's a border on the quilt that is in black and white. It's a piece of African fabric with images of conch shells, and it's been pointed out to me by a number of people that the conch shells look like female genitalia, and I guess they do. The top of the quilt is pieced with the seams on the surface, which represent the rawness of these girls. They're not sutured. They're just cut up and left to bleed, their tissue is raw and jagged, and there is a fringe on the bottom that's made from red beads, from red ribbon, and it's very beautiful. Just as many cultures have many beautiful aspects to them, the fringe represents that. But hidden among the fringe are razor blades. They're not real razor blades. I made them from Mylar, but they represent the ugly part of this procedure. So that's the quilt.

LR: How do you use this quilt?

SK: [laughs.] I don't. At least at this point I haven't. I finished it recently when I was in Mexico. I'd started it about three years ago and in the process of making it I found it very difficult to work on. It's hard to look at. I was upset about the whole procedure, so the quilt was not a fun quilt to make, but I just felt driven to do it and then we were transferred from Maryland to Mexico, where my husband worked for the State Department, and I just didn't unpack it for a long time. And last year I uncovered it. I wasn't looking for it and I looked at it and I said, 'I need to finish this', and so I finished it up. I have submitted it to one venue, and it was turned down probably because of the shock value of the quilt. It's very much in your face quilt. So, at this point, as we settle here in Maryland again, we've only been back about six months, I would like to find a venue. I think it's an important issue. I think that it's important for women to recognize that this is being done on such a great scale. And I don't know myself what we can about it; but somehow, we need to address this issue.

LR: Would you be prepared for the reaction to it?

SK: I think so. If it can stimulate a dialog, that's a beginning.

LR: Talk a minute more about all the techniques that you used in making this.

SK: Okay. I started with my hand dyed fabric. I dyed it a bright, blood red, and then I printed it on the computer with all of the names of the countries, and it says, 'Stop', and it lists the side effects that the girls have as a result of the procedure being done which range from kidney stones—to sometimes they hemorrhage to death, sometimes they have adhesions that cause them not to be able to perform in a sexual way. There are just many, many things that happen to them. So those are listed as well as the countries in which the procedures are done. I put the fabric through our printer and printed in black on the red material. The rest of it is appliquéd, as I said before, with the seams on the outside, and I quilted it with large stitches and heavy thread and that is in some way meant to represent what happens to the girls. If they are ever stitched up, it would be very crudely. So, my stitches on the quilt are fairly crude and I have also added knots. As I went across, I would stop the thread and knot it, and let the ends of the threads show, again to represent the unpleasantness and the ugliness of this procedure. Around the edge of the black and white fabric with the conch shells there are little African trade beads, just to represent again the beauty that you can find in the culture and yet the ugliness of what's being done. And then, the fringe, as I described before on the bottom, can also represent the menstrual flow or the bleeding that the girls undergo when the procedure is done.

LR: And the backing cloth?

SK: The backing cloth is a batik, and I selected that one because it looked like it has large drops of blood on it. Even though it was really meant to be a floral design, somehow it looked to me like splotches of blood.

LR: Okay, we've talked about your plans for this quilt. So, we'll see how that works out for you. [laugh.] Let's talk a minute about your involvement in quilting. What age did you start quilt making?

SK: I don't remember how old I was, but it was in 1976, I was living in Bogota, Columbia. We were there, my husband was administrator for Peace Corps, and I belonged to a government women's group. And at that meeting, a woman stood up and announced that she would like to teach a quilt class. Her name was Barbara Conn. And she asked if anyone would be interested and many, many women raised their hands to say, yes, they would like to participate. My mother was visiting me at the time and, when I put my hand down, she leaned over and she said, 'Susie, you don't need to pay $10 for this class. Get a book.' [laughs.] That was very typical of my mother, and I said, 'I'm taking the class,' and forty women took the class and Barbara taught by demonstration. She had a felt board and she showed each week how to put together another pattern in quilting. And our homework was to make a block from that pattern. Well, I would go home, and I was so excited by the idea of putting pieces of fabric together, that I would make two or three blocks by the time the next meeting came about, and I was just nuts. I had been sewing all of my life. There was no one who quilted in my family. I had seen pictures of quilts, but I had never really been close to a quilt. So, this was very exciting for me. Here I had all these fabric scraps, and now I had something to do with them. So that was the beginning.

LR: And was that your first memory of a quilt? You said you had no quilts in your family. What was your first memory of a quilt?

SK: When I was a little girl, I must have been 7 or 8, and I had been interested in sewing for a long, long time, and my mother sewed a bit, but she sewed the kinds of things, the kind of dresses where we would lay down on the floor and she would trace around us [laughs.] and make a blouse or something on the rug I remember being embarrassed wearing the things that she made. And she had had lessons in hand sewing, but she'd never learned really how to sew clothing. She used to have to practice stitching on the ends of bed sheets, the part that didn't wear out, and she made she said yards of buttonholes and yards of hemstitch and yards of every kind of stitch that you can imagine, but never more than that. And I was determined that I was going to learn how to sew. So, I used to play with her fabric scraps wrapping around dolls until she would let me have a needle, but she wouldn't let me use her machine. I had to sew doll dresses perfectly she said before I could use her machine. So, I was making very fancy doll dresses for my sister's dolls, doing puffed sleeves and little hems and bindings around the edge all by hand. And when I was doing that fairly well and I said, 'Well, look, this is really nice. Now I've made buttonholes, I've put buttons in it, I've have done all of this. Now, can I use your machine?' and I must have been about 10 then. And she said,' No, I have decided you have to wait until you take home ec [economics.] in school and in the 7th grade.' Well, I was devastated, but I found out much later that her reason for this was that she had a terrible sewing machine and that it jammed all the time, and she was afraid that I would lose interest in sewing if I used her machine. Had she told me that I don't know what my reaction would have been, but I didn't know that until I must have been out of high school. But finally, after I had home ec [economics.] in school, she convinced my father to buy her a new sewing machine. And I had been looking at the fancy zigzag machines and was very excited because I assumed that was what she would buy, and instead she came home with a Singer Featherweight. She eventually bought an attachment so we could make buttonholes on the machine, but for very long I had to make buttonholes by hand. So that was the beginning of my sewing. And after that I made all of my own clothes, clothes for my two sisters and many things for my mother including dresses she wore to family weddings. She would say she was afraid to cut the material, so I was too dumb to know any better [laughs.], so I'd cut into it, and I don't think I ever ruined anything. But I sewed clothing for a long time. At some point, I guess about when I was about 8, and we had all the scraps, she said to me, 'Make a quilt'. Well, I didn't know what a quilt was. So, she said, 'Well, let's get your dad,' who was an engineer, 'to make a pattern.' So, he cut out, he drafted a hexagon, but it was only about an inch big, a tiny little hexagon. So, she had me sit and trace the hexagon and cut it out, and then string them on a long string. And I couldn't imagine why I had to string them on a long string, but I did. And then I said, 'What's the next step?' and she said, 'I don't know.' And I said, 'Well I don't know what to do with these. How do you sew a hexagon to another hexagon?' [laugh.] And I'd never seen a quilt. So they went into a box, and I don't know whatever happened. I guess they got thrown out when we moved, but I never went beyond that in terms of quilt making. [laugh.]

LR: It is interesting that the idea of a quilt was introduced at that point.

SK: But all I knew was that it was pieces of fabric sewn together.

LR: And so, it wasn't until years later,

SK: It wasn't until a long time later [laugh.] that I was excited to take the class with Barbara [Conn.].

LR: How does quilt making impact your family?

SK: It's had a tremendous impact on the family actually. When I finished the class with Barbara, I decided to make a bed quilt which is a difficult place to start. I always encourage newcomers to start with a wall quilt because it's smaller and you can accomplish it in a short time. And Barbara was a purist. She only believed in doing things by hand. So, it never occurred to me that you could do it any other way. I had learned to sew by hand. So I talked to my oldest son, who must have been six at the time, and we talked about what kind of a quilt he would like, and we looked at pictures, and, being overseas, there were not many books on quilting, but we found a magazine, I think it was Good Housekeeping that had a picture of a red, white, and blue quilt on the cover. And he thought that was just smashing. But it was very hard to find fabric. So, we finally found red, white and blue cotton, I think it was all sheeting, in a store in Bogotá [Colombia.], and my husband said if I would make a quilt for each of my children, he would draft and cut out all the pieces. So, I thought that was a great deal. So, I guess I drafted the pattern, and he started tracing them and cutting them. And after about an hour he threw up his hands and he said, 'I can't stand it. I can't do these. Please let me stop.' [laughs.] And he'd never broken a promise to me before, but that was the first one, and I said, 'Well, if you don't like it, I'll do it because I love doing it.' [laughs.] So, I made this red, white and blue quilt over a period of seven years in several different countries [laughs.] because it was all by hand. And in the meantime, my sister became pregnant, and I thought, 'Well, I'll put Josh's aside, and I'll make a quilt for her baby by hand which I did. And then she wrote me and said she was having twins. And I kept trying to think how could twins share a quilt. [laugh.] I decided they couldn't, so I made a second one for her. And I thought, well, that's it. And then my brother, who had been married for quite some time and I didn't think was going to have any children, had a baby. So, I had to make another quilt for that child, again by hand. And finally, I got around to finishing Joshua's red, white and blue quilt and I was sitting there, the center was finished, and I had to put the borders on. And I kept looking at it thinking that's a long stretch of sewing with a double quilt. Why can't I do it by machine? It doesn't make sense [laugh.] to do it all by hand. So, I looked around, and there was nobody watching, and I pulled the shades [laughs.], and I put both borders on by the machine and felt so guilty I could almost hear Barbara Conn saying, 'Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah.' [laughs.] And then I went looking for batting, and that was one thing we didn't cover in our class. So, I got to the store and there were so many types I didn't know what to do, but I wanted to quilt to be warm so I picked the heaviest one I could find and that was part of the reason it took seven years. It was so hard to quilt through this extra heavy batting. [laughs.] So that was the story of the first quilt. [laughs.] And then each of my boys in the meantime, (I had three boys at that time,) each had been going through my books and selecting their own pattern for what they wanted. And it was interesting that once they had decided, no matter how long it took for me to get to their quilt, they never changed their mind. The pattern they had selected, maybe two or three years before I actually got to making the quilt, was the one they wanted and the one they stuck with it to the very end. But those quilts were all made by machine and hand quilted.

LR: Tell me, have you ever used quilts to get you through a difficult time?

SK: I'm not sure I've used them to get through a difficult time. I've certainly used them to express feelings that I have had. Sometimes I would start making a quilt and not know what was happening, but when I finished, I would realize that I had made something that had expressed feelings that, perhaps, I hadn't been able to verbalize. One in particular I made when we had a call that my mother had had a heart attack. About an hour later we had a call that my husband's father was in intensive care and neither one of them was expected to live. And we just looked at each other. My mother was in Florida and my father-in-law was in Michigan and we had small children, and we were trying to decide what we would do. How could we both go? What would we do with the children? And we kept calling to find out what the status was and suddenly I got word that my mother had been misdiagnosed and she was in no danger at all. So, the decision was made that Fred would go to Michigan to his see father. And while he was gone, I had already started a quilt before that. I had some fabric selected and it was fairly dark. As the call came in I was working on it and I had put some more dark shapes on it, and when we heard that my mother was going to be well, and as I called and found out that she was doing very well. And I had a call from Fred. By the time he had arrived, his father was out of danger. I continued to work on the quilt. And when he came home two or three days later, he said, 'My goodness, it's really changed. It's bright and it's got a lot of light in it.' So, the quilt had evolved from a very dark, dreary looking thing in the beginning to a much lighter, exciting kind of quilt, and it was more abstract than I usually do, and when I looked at it, it reminded me of the monuments that you see all over Gettysburg that are in front yards and backyards and fields, and the shapes looked kind of like that. So, I called the piece "Monuments" because it reminded me of that time when I was thinking that I was going to lose a mother and a father-in-law at the same time. And then, right after that, I did another quilt. And when I finished it looked at it and I said, 'My goodness, this is a very soft and peaceful quilt.' And I had created a peaceful time for myself, which is what I felt I needed after all this turmoil in the family. So often, what I've done isn't intentional, but it turns out to be something that is expressing whatever is going on in my life.

LR: And certainly, your touchstone piece does that too.

SK: Yes. But you asked about how the family feels about quilting. But there's another area that I would like to touch on, and that is that because we have lived overseas most of our lives, and I've continued to quilt. Quilting has been our entrée into a world that I don't think we would have known about without it. I've taught quilting and I've had shows overseas, and I've met people who are interested in quilting, or who come to a show and who start a dialog with me because of the quilt, and you, Le, have often said that quilts are bridges that this is something that we can bring to people in other countries. And it's certainly been that in my life. I have friends that I know I never would have met had I somehow not made that contact through quilting. And as a result, the whole family has had a greater exposure to other cultures, because we've made friends with people who are from those cultures and who share part of their lives with us. And I think being with an embassy it's very easy to find your friends within that community, within the work community. So, our friends tend to be from the embassy as well, but also through our church where we always hope to meet people from the country. But quilting, I think, has been the greatest vehicle that we've been able to use to find people who are lifelong friends--particularly in Russia. I started a guild in Russia, hoping to meet Russian women, only to discover that in Moscow the women worked, and they weren't doing crafts. They weren't doing sewing. They weren't doing much of anything, except for one woman who called me when she saw an ad for my guild, and said, 'I am sixty-four. Am I too old to quilt? I don't know how, but I have a picture from Good Housekeeping, and I want to make a quilt'. And Masha [Kutnetzkova.] and I still keep in touch. She has been to visit me and on the visit to me she also went to the Houston Quilt Show and just was astounded at what's going on in quilting.

LR: What were some of the other countries where your quilting was a tremendous influence?

SK: Taiwan, certainly. There was a guild there already. A schoolteacher, an American school teacher at the school my children went to had started a quilting guild and she had taught people to do basic quilting, but many of them wanted to go beyond that. And she was really a very basic quilter. She did traditional quilts, and she was a beautiful quilter and I had discovered her because, when I went to register my children in the school, the counselor had a quilt hanging in his office, and I didn't want to talk about registration, I wanted to talk about where this quilt came from. And he told me his wife had made it and gave me her phone number. And the guild there was probably about a hundred Chinese women with a few Americans, and it grew quite a bit when I was there, but I became the principal teacher and had many, many, many workshops in my home, and got to know many of these women quite well and learned a lot about the Chinese culture in Taiwan, as a result. So, Taiwan and Moscow certainly--I've been in Moscow twice, the first time was under the Soviet regime, and we were not supposed to mix with the Soviets. So that was very difficult. So, when we went back the second time, it was very, very exciting to meet quilters, and I would go to Ivanova, which is about five hours north of Moscow, and teach in a guild there. I wrote an article for the Quilters Newsletter Magazine, and they published my phone number and my e-mail address. And I was deluged with people contacting me, wanting to send things to the quilters. And we would go once a month to Ivanova, and we had a mini-van, and it was chock full of boxes sent by American quilters, of fabrics, of notions, all kinds of things for the quilters there. And we tried to send them to other guilds as well. In fact, one day we were touring in a town called Suzdal and there were women selling quilts. We went into a monastery and there were some clotheslines hung up and the women were selling wall quilts, not bed quilts. I guess they had a few bed quilts but mostly wall quilts. And the tourists would come and get off the buses and we'd watch them run up to the porch, and they would grab pieces off the clothesline and hold them to make sure they got one. Then they would look at it and maybe look at somebody else's, and they'd swap them around. But they didn't know that under this porch the women had boxes and boxes of these same quilts. And they were beautiful appliquéd quilts. Suzdal has a lot of churches, so they often had churches or scenes from that town. So, when the tourists left and there was a little break between buses, I was talking to one of the quilters and asking her name. And her name was Nathalie, which is an unusual name, and it's my first name. So, I said, 'That's my name as well.' So, we were talking, and I bought a large quilt of hers, a pineapple quilt, and my husband called to me at some point, and said, 'Susie.' And she said, 'Susie?' I thought your name was Nathalie, and I said, 'It is, but I go by my middle name which is Susie', and she said, 'Are you Susie Krage from 83 Leninsky Prospect?' which was my address. And I said, 'Yes, I am. How do you know that?' And she embraced me, and she said, 'Because you sent my guild boxes of supplies.' So, it was one of the guilds that I had sent things to, and she had remembered my name and my address because they were on the boxes. That was kind of exciting.

LR: Amazing. [laugh.]

SK: It was amazing.

LR: Just amazing. Wow. And you have obviously exhibited extensively.

SK: I have exhibited. I've had several one-woman shows. One in Taiwan, one in Moscow and I participated in shows in various other countries. And when you were in Bolivia, we had a show in your residence. And I remember when we talked about it you said, 'But where will we get the quilts?' And I said, 'You'd be surprised what people have tucked away.' And what did we have, about fifty quilts when we were finished and pillows and wall hangings, and that was the beginning of quilting in Bolivia, which is continuing and, I understand, great guns today. That was very, very exciting.

LR: Let's talk a little bit about the craftsmanship and design aspects of quilt making. What do you think makes a good quilt?

SK: That's really an interesting question because I think that great quilts vary tremendously. In 1999 I was invited to go back to Moscow, we had been there--we left in '97, and '99 I was invited to go back. They were having their second quilt show. It was an All-Russia quilt show, and I was asked to come and judge the show. And, of course, I said yes, and I started advertising because I wanted other people to see the show. So, I took six women with me and went to the show, and I had been asking, the communication was difficult, but I had been asking how many quilts were likely to be in this show and how much time I will have. I had never judged a show before. The group that invited me was the group where I had been teaching. And they had been responsible for hanging the quilts because it was in their town. So, we arrived, and everybody was staying in private homes, and I finally was able to ask how many quilts. There had been 500 selected for the show. They had only been able to hang 400 because they ran out of space. And as it was, they were in three different buildings. So, we had to travel between buildings in order to judge. And they didn't have enough paper. Paper was very difficult to get, and this was during the worst of the difficult times after the coup, so I had no list of quilts. I had no names. I had nothing. Except I had had the foresight to bring a notebook and a pencil. And as it turned out, one of the women that went with me, Marilyn Magdelena, had been studying to be a quilt judge. So, she agreed to be my scribe. She really was interested in participating. So off we went, and we decided to call the buildings A, B, and C and we just made numbers for each building. But it was really overwhelming. You'd see a quilt that was wonderful and then you would go to the next one and there'd be one that was even more wonderful. But in terms of your question, some of them were technically beautifully done; some of them the compositions were exquisite, or the colors were fabulous. But one quilt in particular caught my eye. From a distance it was very small, and it was very simple, but it was very elegant. And I said, 'I really, really like that quilt.' And as I went up closer, I realized that the stitches were half an inch long, and that it was very poorly made, and I asked about the quilt because the person's concept was so wonderful, but the technical ability was terrible. And it turned out it was by a very, very poor eighty-three-year-old woman had made this particular quilt. So, when you ask about what makes a great quilt, sometimes it is very hard to say. I loved that quilt. I wish I had purchased it, but none of them were for sale.

LR: What was it about that quilt that drew you to it, though?

SK: It was very simple, and it turned out it was made from wool, from old clothes and it--I don't even remember what the design was, I just remember that there was contrast and that there was something that just had a wonderful appeal to it. Simple and elegant--I remember feeling that it was very elegant. And from a distance it looked like a very small, elegant art quilt. But as we got closer, I thought, well, if you shake that very hard, pieces are going to come off. [laugh.], but to me, that was a great quilt. So, I think--when we think of traditional quilts, I think sometimes we over judge. We wonder how many stitches there are to the inch, whether there are any raw edges. We judge so much on technical skill we sometimes we lose sight of the beauty of pieces.

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

SK: I think there are many things that can make a quilt appropriate for a museum or for a collection. I think it is important that museums collect quilts that are typical of the day, so that we have some historical perspective. Other collections are important, such as the Esprit Collection because they document what happened during a period of time when the Amish were making quilts. They don't make quilts, those old dark quilts like they used to. In fact, they've almost become corrupted, I think, by the rest of us wanting Amish quilts, and they make quilts that are typical of any community I think, and they are even using prints in their quilts now. I go to Lancaster, and I look at the quilts and I say, 'What a shame, what a shame.' And years ago, I worked for a geneticist and would go to Lancaster with him because he was studying the genetic problems among the Amish, and would look at the colors of their clothing, this was long before I was a quilter, and think, 'These are so beautiful.' And yet, the women of that time thought their quilts were so ugly because they wanted new. They wanted the newest colors; they wanted the newest materials. And now they make those quilts though they don't use them in their own homes. But that Esprit Collection has put together a whole bunch of those old quilts so that we can appreciate what was going on, we can go and study them; we can look at how beautiful their hand quilting is. So, there are many kinds of collections that we need. Quilts from certain periods, quilts from Gee's Bend, for example, because now that Gee's Bend has been recognized, they're not going to be making that kind of quilts anymore. They're going to have money to go out and buy new fabrics and it will change what happens.

LR: How do great quiltmakers learn the art of quilt making? How to design the pattern? Choose the fabrics?

SK: I think we all learn in different ways. Some people take classes. There are a lot of people who are self-taught. When you look what Nancy Crow has done. She studied to be a weaver and she said when she first started making quilts and doing individual templates, she had never had a class in making quilts. She just looked at them and tried to figure it out. And was very successful, but she remembers it as being very painful because she had to reinvent the wheel, and I think many people do that. In Russia, for example, the art of quilting is an old one there. The grandmothers and great-grandmothers remember the quilts that they made. There are very few that survived. There are a few that I've seen in museums that are quite old and tattered. And there are often scrap quilts, they were made out of necessity. And the women who are quilting [in Russia.] today tell me, much as we in the United States did, that the young people want to learn to quilt and they go to the grandmothers and say, 'Please teach me.' And the grandmothers say, 'Buy a blanket.' Because the quilts were made out of necessity, not out of an esthetic value. And so, they've tried to reinvent the wheel because the grandmothers will not teach them to do it. So, when I started teaching classes, the women were so eager and so excited to learn and they kept saying, 'Which is the right way? She does it this way. I do it this way, am I right or is she right?' And I would say, 'You're both right because we each come to it with a different set of skills and our own abilities and there are many ways to do the same thing.' And they would get mad and say, 'But I'm right' [laughs.] and 'I'm right,' and we would have an argument. But it was interesting to look at not their piecing, but at their quilting because they would almost pull the stitches up so tightly it would almost be shirred on the top of the fabric, and it made a very interesting texture in the quilt. The problem was, at least in the guild that I was teaching, they often wanted to make group quilts and even though they would all start out perhaps with the same size block, they would pull them up a little differently; their quilting would distort the block in such a way that they were never the same size. So that was an issue we had to address. They wanted to know how to make blocks that were all the same size. But I liked the effect they got; it distinguished their quilts. So, we talked about that. I showed them what we do, and said, 'But I like what you are doing here, so you have to decide which one you like and how you are going to do. Perhaps when you're doing it and you're making your own quilt you can use your own quilting technique because your blocks will come out the same.'

LR: Interesting. How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting? You've touched on it, but do you have a strong feeling?

SK: I don't. Most of my early quilts are all hand done. As I said I think I had such an indoctrination by Barbara that everything should be hand done and be a purist; but I got to the point where it took so long and I wanted to make so many quilts and I was starting to get some arthritis in my hands and I was having more and more difficulty quilting, that I decided to learn to do machine quilting and that's primarily what I do today, all my quilts are machine quilted. I embellish by hand, I bead by hand, and I think both have their place, although I remember a time when machine quilted quilts were not allowed in shows and it was a big deal when Harriet Hargrave came along with these beautifully machine quilted quilts. So, I think there is a place for both, and I think it is silly to say you have to do one or the other.

LR: Your touchstone piece has both machine and hand.

SK: No, it actually has all hand, but that was because I wanted it to look rough and I wanted the big stitches.

LR: For the quilting.

SK: For the quilting. I think I may have a bit of machine stitching around the borders just to stabilize things, but the most of it is hand done with a big stitch.

LR: And the appliqué work on your touchstone?

SK: That's by machine, other that the screening, which I did with a rough embroidery stitch, because again I wanted it to look crude.

LR: Yes. Why is quilt making important in your life?

SK: I have a great need to create and quilt making seems to have been a good place to go. I've done a lot of sewing. I did dressmaking at one time because I like to sew. But I got tired of making clothes, and it seemed to be a little less creative. Somehow, when I reached Colombia and learned to quilt, I felt like I had found my niche. Although now I am doing less quilting since I started hand dying fabrics, I put those in my quilts, and now I am doing art cloth; and it doesn't mean I won't quilt again, but I'm doing a mixture of things because of this great need to create. I also find that quilting is very soothing. I know a lot of people say you have to have a lot of patience. I don't find it takes patience because I find it is so exciting to be creating whether it's stitching the fabric or cutting it or planning it. I tend to work spontaneously. I don't draw my designs ahead of time. I just put the fabric together and let the fabric tell me what it needs, or let the quilt tell me. If I listen carefully, it will tell me what the next step is, whether I need to add a bead or a color, or more stitches or more thread, or in this case, fringe. I just find it very, very exciting and I think a lot of women feel that way. They feel the need to create, and quilting is something that they can do.

LR: In what ways have the regions or areas where you've lived influenced your quilt making?

SK: Sometimes they haven't. When I taught in Ecuador and Bolivia, in particular, I found as I taught the women were imitating American quilting. And Mexico actually is very much that way--that I often wanted to see what people in the country were doing, but they were imitating American quilting, and I'd say, 'You know, I'm teaching you technique, but you don't have to do American style. What if you would take this technique and use your local fabrics whatever they are and look around you at the designs and the patterns and the things you see, which is how our designs have evolved in the United States and make it your own.' And somehow, they just didn't seem to be able to do that. The one place where that happened is Russia. When the women made their quilts, the only ones I've seen copied, I think, are Log Cabin, and usually they were changed in some way. In that show of four hundred quilts hanging, I think there were four or five Log Cabins, but they had some little difference to them. Every other quilt was an original design. Every single one. There were many, many appliquéd quilts. There were pieced quilts, but they were all original. I have never seen so many individual works. I think it was even more amazing because fabric was very hard for them to come by and they would look at a piece of fabric that had a pattern on it, and they would see possibilities that were amazing. One of the cheapest fabrics they could buy was printed for bedding and often for children, so it might have kittens on it, big kittens on it that were white with little gray lines for the fur and a blue background. Or swans. And I would look at that fabric and say, 'Oh I don't want that,' and they would find sections of the pattern that looked like a cloud to them, or looked like something else and they would take this ugly fabric and turn it into the most amazing quilt you'd ever seen. They didn't have access to dyes. They didn't have access to very much of anything, they were too poor. Many of the women went to the cutting room floors where they made clothing or bedding, and they picked up scraps from the floor in order to be able to quilt. And other than the equipment I took to them, they didn't have much of anything. Their scissors chewed the fabric.

LR: But in your own work, your surroundings in these countries, did it influence your work, and how?

SK: It did to a certain extent. The first time I was in Russia, and we'd travel in the countryside, there were wonderful little summer homes called dachas, actually some of them now are year-round homes, but they were meant to be summer homes; and the windows had these amazing decorative surrounds that were--each one different. And there were craftsmen who were hired to do the windows and they were expected to make each house different, and I was fascinated by that, so one of my first art quilts was a dacha window in which I tried to depict the surround, and I have done an entire series of windows that are inspired by the Russian windows. I have tended to simplify them as I've moved along in the series, and I embellish them, usually with beads, to represent the decorative value, and I use my hand dyed fabrics. And in Mexico I was more influenced by the colors, I think, than anything else. I started using brighter colors in odder combinations of colors, oranges and reds, which you see there so often.

LR: I'm going to pause for just a minute because I have some more questions and we're running out of tape. [puts in a new tape. one minute pause.] Okay, you were just finished talking about the influence of the color in Mexico on your quilts. Was there any other place or--

SK: Actually, I haven't done a lot of quilts in Mexico. I did do fabric. I was studying with Jane Dunnewold most of the time I was there and doing art cloth, and my art cloth has certainly been influenced by Mexico. I've done pieces with dancers on it, and the reason for the dancers was that I had gone to a place called Monte-Alban, which is one of the old archeological sites at the top of a mountain. And it was late in the afternoon when you see the long shadows, and there was a beautiful soft breeze blowing, most people were leaving while we were there, and there was something so special about that place with the pyramids and these huge rocks. I kept putting my hands on the rocks wanting them to tell me the stories of the things they had seen. I couldn't stand it, I kept getting my hands up there on these nice warm rocks and standing there I would look at myself and would say, 'Isn't this silly? They are not going to talk to me.' And then we came to an area that had been their market square that was enormous, it must have been four or five football fields in size, and the people had leveled this entire area on the top of the mountain and built pyramids all around the edge and in the center was a building that was supposed to be for astrological studies. But as I walked out into this area, and the breeze was blowing, I could imagine the people that had lived there having processions and dances, and I put my arms out and I just started to twirl around, and I wanted to dance. I wanted to feel like I was dancing with the people who had lived there before. So, I used that image on fabric. And I have used the image of my hands on stones in my fabric, and at some point, that will probably become in a quilt, but since I was doing fabric intensely with Jane and doing correspondence courses with her, the quilts haven't happened yet. But they will. They'll come.

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

SK: I think quilts are rife with meaning and it varies depending on region and the individual women, but you read stories of quilters long ago who quilted their sorrows or their joys into quilts. They made quilts for babies; they made quilts for weddings; they made quilts for funerals. They made--the Amish made quilts for the handyman, and I think we do the same today and we go one step further, we do the art quilts, and I think art quilts are an expression of what is going on in the lives of women. They're a way to create. I know lots of quilters who say, 'Well, I can't paint, but I sure can quilt. Or I can't write, but I can quilt.' And so, it meets a need in women who feel they are not artistic, but who can create with cloth. And I think there are many histories written in each of the stitches that are in all the quilts we have. And I think this project, [Quilters' S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories, is fabulous because we learn a little about what women are thinking while they do their work.

LR: What do you see as the future of quilt making in America?

SK: At this point it's hard to imagine it stopping, although it did at one point. There was a point at which we didn't quilt in America, or we didn't quilt very much. And I think quilting is driving the cotton industry. I can remember having trouble finding cottons to quilt, and there was talk about the cotton industry dying because people were using polyesters and blends in their clothing, and suddenly now you go into any fabric shop and nearly half the shop will be cottons and fabrics that are made just for quilters. So, we need to continue to keep cottons coming, but I can't imagine people stopping. But we keep taking quilting to new levels. There are women trying to do new and exciting things in quilting with art quilts. And men as well, and I think the Vision Show in San Diego and the Art Barn Show in Ohio are two exciting venues and people are always striving, many quilters I know are striving to get into those shows, and they have cutting edge quilting. And I think as long as we continue to promote quilting as an art form that it will continue to survive. And I hope so, because I want it to continue. [laugh.] But it will be interesting to see where it goes and to see what changes and what new materials people use.

LR: And the young people. Do you see them coming into it and how do we encourage young people?

SK: That's a good question and it's a hard one to answer because with both parents working in so many families and so many single families, parents often don't have time to teach children to sew, and I think the sewing industry has had a big slump other than quilting. Women aren't making their own clothes; they don't have time anymore. And they are not learning home ec in school like I did and probably you did, and I think that's really sad that we're not teaching our children some of the basic skills. We are losing generations of people who might be interested in the arts because they're not being exposed to it. So that's a hard question, and I've taught children in several shops here when I was teaching quilting, and the shops want the children to come in and they want to develop future quilters but they're also looking at their bottom lines. So, they tend to put too many children in a class and that discourages the teachers because it is very hard to teach a large class of children. They need a lot of attention, they need to learn how to use the machine, it becomes unthreaded, they aren't always able to thread the machine. It's a difficult issue, but I think we need to pursue it. I think we really need to teach children and find venues where we can. Maybe quilt camps.

LR: Good idea. [laughs.]. Is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven't talked about?

SK: Oh, I can't think of anything off the top of my head other than I love to do it, I love to see quilts. I think that we need more venues for quilts as art. I think the Virginia Quilt Museum is a great one. More and more galleries are finding that they can bring more people in by showing quilts, and I think that's a good thing, but they don't often make very much money. People aren't willing to pay for a quilt because they don't see it as being something as permanent as an oil painting, so if they're going to spend several thousand dollars, which is often the cost of a quilt, they will generally buy a painting rather than a quilt. So, it's difficult, but I think we have to keep pushing. We have to keep encouraging the galleries. We have to just keep working at it, keep educating the public.

LR: Okay, Susie, thank you very, very much. This has been a fascinating conversation and again thank you for allowing me to interview you for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview was concluded at 1:14 p.m., and it is still February 22, 2005.



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