Susan McKelvey




Susan McKelvey




Susan McKelvey


Patricia Keller

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Winterthur, Delaware


Karen Musgrave


Note: This was a demonstration interview that took place at Winterthur Museum's Quilts in a Material World conference during the workshop titled "Preserving Quilters' Oral Histories: The Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Project Model."

Pat Keller (PK): Okay. Thank you. My name is Pat Keller and this is an interview for the Quilters' S.O.S. [- Save Our Stories.] project with Susan McKelvey. It is March 30, 2007 and we are at Winterthur's Museum [Delaware.] workshop. Susan thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed today.

Susan McKelvey (SM): Thank you for having me.

PK: We're delighted. I wonder if you would tell us about the quilt that you brought with you today.

SM: This quilt changed my direction in quilting so that's why I brought it. I had been in the late 70s and early 80s doing contemporary work, showing in galleries and selling in the Washington, D.C. area but at home I was decorating using--my interest was much more in Folk Art. I had a book called "Folk Hearts" and there was a puzzle purse Valentine in it from a young man doing watercolor from the late 1700s for his love. And I saw that and I said, 'This has to be a quilt.' So became this quilt. I was not very good at appliqué at the time so I simplified the center of it so just the heart and the birds. I could visualize the young woman taking it out of her pocket and seeing it and putting it back in and taking it out which meant it had the greasy stains in the folds from folding it up because if you ever--I taught middle school. [someone in the audience coughs.] Middle school children make those terrible notes that are all folded up. This sort of is what this was. As you open it you got more writing, more message and so I had to do the folds. This was the first quilt where I knew that I had to write on the front because that was the point and so that's what changed my course in quilting. I had to write on the front. I loved it. I did it. I became a writer on quilts. And that's what I do. No more contemporary. Just writing.

PK: You've opened up so many directions I hardly know where to begin. I'm going to ask you to begin at your beginning. How did you ever get started with quiltmaking?

SM: Well, this is one of those delay things. I was a potter and we moved to North Carolina and I had a baby. And I could not get to the pot because you can't get to it at the right time, be at the kiln and get it out of the kiln. I was very frustrated and somebody said, 'Come on there is a quilt class going on and we'll go. Let's go to class.' So we had a Victorian house and I can remember my husband standing on the porch with a screaming child as we went off to my quilt class. And when I got home he was standing on the porch with a screaming child. [audience laughs.] That was how I started. I think there were eight classes and there were eight blocks. And so the first quilt I ever did was a Dresden Plate. And that was it I was absolutely hooked.

PK: What was it that--

SM: Not on the Dresden Plate. I wasn't hooked on the Dresden Plate. [audience laughs.]

PK: What was it that hooked you on quilting?

SM: Well I think that I fell into it because I had sewn and sewn some doll clothes and clothes and everything so it was natural. Also the pottery as I said was so confining to my time. I had to have something that I could pick up and put down with children and then of course the tactile sensation; color that is what I wanted to play with. Quilts gave me that.

PK: How did you get started as an artist? Your education doesn't lead me to think of pottery.

SM: [laughs.] I was always a crafty and artistic and things. I was not a fine artist. My art teacher made it very clear that I was not a fine artist. [PK laughs.] I didn't belong in high school art classes where they were doing figure drawing and things. What she never said was 'You have graphic color sense and you could be a graphic artist.' No one said that. So it was a long time before I just did it myself.

PK: How do you use this quilt today?

SM: I lecture with it and tell how I started doing signature quilts.

PK: What was it about writing on quilts that you find so compelling?

SM: Hum. That's hard. It's just writing on quilts connects us with the past for one thing. For one thing, it's easier to research and it's just fun to do. I love signature quilts but that came after I started with this quilt. It pushed me in that direction. I love writing, drawing, everything, on quilts. I do it all the time. I think it enhances it a lot.

PK: Do you use that skill on other kinds of textiles?

SM. Yes. I'm now doing [inaudible.] certificates and things for people because it falls into the same field.

PK: Where were you born?

SM: Chicago, Illinois.

PK: And what was it like for you growing up?

SM: It was wonderful growing up in the city at that time. It was safe. Coming home from school you got on your bike and took off. Went to Lake Michigan. I lived right near Lake Michigan. Came back when it was dark and it was wonderful. It was just a great place. Going downtown shopping. The city was a wonderful place at that time so we took advantage of all of it.

PK: How many are in your family?

SM: I have one brother. He's two years younger.

PK: Was your mother a sewer?

SM: She was. She was a war widow so she tried to stay home with us for seven years. And so she did a lot of sewing. Doll clothes and of course, our clothes. She didn't do quilts. There was no time for that but she did love sewing. I learned that at her knee.

PK: I thought perhaps your mother had been your first teacher. How did she get you involved in sewing?

SM: Well we sewed for dolls. We sewed for puppets she made--puppets and marionettes. She made really beautiful marionettes. We'd cut up gloves for the shoes. She was wonderful, fabulous.

PK: And what was her name?

SM: Josephine. Joe.

PK: Joe. What do you think makes a great quilt?

SM: [noise from people moving around.] I think design, color. I think balance and all these things which we don't--when you look at a quilt and say 'that's a great quilt' we don't say because it's well designed because there's color or balance but those are the things that actually effect you when you see it. It's just right. There's enough red, a spark of blue. You don't analysis it but that's what it is.

PK: Do you analysis the quilts that way that you look at?

SM: Some quilts I think color through first. I was not artist trained as I said so I had to teach myself color which is how "Color for Quilters" came about. And so artists they say are intuitive which they are but only after they have done a great deal of work. So it is becoming intuitive for me now but that was after doing technical exercises. And yes, I think it is color.

PK: What's the space like where do your work?

SM: It minimum. We had a big house and I had a big studio. We moved and it's very small. I'm very confined now and frustrated.

PK: Has that affected your work?

SM: Yes, I think so.

PK: In what way?

SM: I work on the kitchen counter. [laughs.] And I'm in everybody's way. I'm always picking it up and putting it down. It's very frustrating right now but we'll get it worked out. We're going to add a studio space again.

PK: So it's a priority for your family to get you that space back?

SM: Yeah. I think so. It better be. [both laugh.]

PK: How has quiltmaking affected your family life?

SM: Well my husband was fabulously supportive. I remember in 1982 walking out of this little room where I had been reading about color and I said, 'I think quilters could use this information.' And the next day he came home a [IBM.] Selectric typewriter, used, that I could type my book on. That's very advanced wonderful technology and I wrote my first book on that Selectric typewriter. So he was very supportive and has always been supportive.

PK: That's wonderful.

SM: He's a wonderful guy.

PK: How did you get into teaching?

SM: Teaching quilting?

PK: Teaching quilting?

SM: Well the logical thing. Once I was an expert on something they want you to teach. And I was an English teacher my whole life so teaching, dividing things into pieces and helping people get through the process came naturally so it came naturally in quilting too.

PK: So what is your schedule like these days?

SM: I've cut back a lot. My husband is retired. I am not retired but I'm doing less. More local things. Not accepting big jobs to California and things especially with airplanes because it is so hard now. You used to take three big suitcases. Now they've gotten smaller and you can only take two. The limitations are--I think traveling teachers are totally dependent on those suitcases on wheels. I think we wouldn't have had the kind of revival that we had and all the conferences without wheels. [audience laughs.]

PK: It's an interesting observation.

SM: It is. It's so low. Big deal you have a cart on wheels but that's it. [voices heard in the background.]

PK: Why do you think quilts are important?

SM: To whom?

PK: [speaking at the same time as SM.] To you.

SM: To us? To me? Oh, to me. They're comforting. They're soft. Quilting is important because I think what it has done for women and women working together and starting guilds and organizing shows, when Karey [Bresnahan.] had the first Quilt Market and then Festival [International Quilt Festival.]. All these things were all done by women. Just ordinary women in tennis shoes, denim skirts and it's a huge industry.

PK: I'm looking forward to our longer interview. [SM laughs.]

SM: I have to stop?

PK: I'm afraid so. It's been 15 minutes. [SM laughs.] The time will fly when you do this. I need to make our closing announcement. Thank you for your time today Susan. [SM whispering to PK.] Pardon me. You can say it if you want.

SM: Do I have to be quiet? Thank you. You're welcome.

PK: Well of course. [everyone laughs.]

SM: You said it was closing.

PK: Well it's just to attract the transcriber which there won't be one but to let them know that we're at the end of the tape. I've been talking with Susan McKelvey about her interest in quilts and quiltmaking. This March 30, 2007. My name is Pat Keller. We're at Winterthur Museum.



“Susan McKelvey,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 16, 2024,