Susan McKelvey




Susan McKelvey




Susan McKelvey


Patricia Keller

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Easton, Maryland


Kim Greene


Patricia Keller (PK): Today is Friday, September 21, 2007. My name is Patricia Keller, and I am here at the home of Susan McKelvey, and we are doing an interview for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Susan, I would like to start by saying thank you for inviting me to come to your beautiful home and talk with you about your experience with quiltmaking.

Susan McKelvey (SM): Thank you very much.

PK: Just to get started, I wonder if you were to introduce yourself to people that have never met you, how would you describe yourself in terms of your work?

SM: I'm a dedicated quilter. I cannot stop myself from making, thinking, and designing quilts. I design, I write about, and I make quilts, and I collect. I collect antique ones and make new ones. So I guess I would describe myself as obsessed.

PK: That is a pretty big word.

SM: It is a big word. If not obsession, then it is certainly dedication.

PK: How did you get started with all this?

SM: The quilting?

PK: Let's start with sewing.

SM: My mother was not a quilter, but she was a sewer. We sewed. We sewed doll clothes, she sewed clothing for me and later I made my own clothing. Of course, it was practical and it was inexpensive then. So we did that. So I always sewed. There was no quilting tradition. I didn't quilt and didn't know really about quilting, although I remember only vaguely, two quilts, a butterfly quilt from the 1930's and a Lone Star, all in yellows, which were alternated on my bed and my brother's bed. So we did have two quilts to sleep under. I don't think they were family quilts or anything like that. I was sewing, but not quilting.

PK: How did you become involved with quilting?

MK: Sort of backwards. We moved to a new city, Greensboro, North Carolina, I had a one year old baby, and I was a potter. I was going to the university and trying to trim at the right time and fire at the right time, and get pots out of the kiln at the right time, and it was not working. So I was very frustrated. It was a craft I was going to have to give up with this little one year old baby. A friend said, 'You have to get out of here; let's go to a quilt class.' I said, 'Okay.' So we went. I still can remember my husband standing on our front porch with this screaming baby as we went away to our quilt class, and three hours later when we came back, there was my husband standing with my screaming baby. [laughs.] The quilt class was just wonderful. I had a Master's degree and was a highly educated professional woman of thirty-four. The teacher was a woman of thirty-fourish also. She had been raised in the mountains of North Carolina, quilting--the proverbial story of sitting under her mother's and grandmother's quilt frames while all the women quilted, going down the mountain to her grandmother's when it was snowing. It just blew me away that here were two women the same age, totally different in experience, who were brought together by quilting. She was a wonderful teacher, and all the women in the class were having a wonderful time. At the end we said, can we please keep going, we want to keep going, we want to have a club. She said that quilt clubs don't make it. This was 1976. Well, within three years there were quilt clubs everywhere, including the North Carolina Quilt Symposium, of which she was a founding member. But in 1976 there weren't many or any near us. She was right, and a few years later she helped to change all that. In this class, we made a block a week. The first one was the Dresden Plate. We were supposed to go home and make a Dresden Plate. I went home and made twenty Dresden Plates, using up every scrap of fabric I had. That was the start.

PK: Each week was a different block?

SM: Yes.

PK: Do you still have the quilt?

SM: I do, but it is at my daughter's. She still has that. It was actually made out of all her baby clothes so it is meaningful as well.

PK: What happened next?

SM: What happened next? I was making little quilts with what little I knew, and we moved to Washington, D.C. My husband was on a Congressional Commission. We moved to northern Virginia where there was an actual quilt guild, Quilters Unlimited, a huge guild with many chapters. I had to find quilters, so I got in the car and drove the back roads down to Vienna, Virginia to a quilt guild meeting. I sat in the back and it was so inspiring. These quilters were doing things that I could not have imagined, coming from my one quilt and a few little baby quilts in North Carolina. I showed that one quilt and they were all very receptive. They were very kind, and at the end someone said, 'Do you want to join a bee?' I said, 'What is a bee?' Three young women came up to me and said they had a bee. They were my age and they, too, had babies crawling underfoot. They said they would love to have me join their bee. One of them was Jinny Beyer, who had just won the Good Housekeeping quilt contest for her Ray of Light. So we had this little bee. Soon Jinny did not come anymore because she was busy. So we had our bee and I learned things. They were all quilting with hoops. I said, 'Where do you get hoops?' I had never seen a hoop. Our teacher in North Carolina had us make a frame and we used thumbtacks to put our quilts on, and then we would have that stretch the quilts. I wondered what a hoop was and how to get it. So I had to drive down to a quilt shop and get a hoop, which changed my life. They taught me the tools I needed, all the things I had to do, and we became fast friends. I was on a roll. Quilters Unlimited was active in starting the Continental Quilting Congress. Hazel Carter was a member of that guild, and she started the Continental Quilting Congress, which was the first huge conference with classes, bringing in teachers, having vendors, teaching quilting. The first Congress was in 1978 or 1979, sometime in there. That is how I started.

PK: What lead you to publishing and writing, or writing and publishing, whatever?

SM: A group of us got together and started an artist group called, New Image Quilters. There were about ten of us, and we were showing in galleries, doing contemporary work, because in order to 'be an artist' you had to do contemporary pieces. We were successful getting into Washington, D.C. galleries. I did not know much about color, and I wanted to know why things worked and why things didn't work. Why an element that I thought would stand out, didn't. Something else took over and I couldn't stop reading everything I could on color for myself. As a quilter and not as an artist. The things I learned were absolutely critical: I understand this, this is why it is happening, I can make a better quilt. Then I began to think that other people would like this information also. Other quilters who didn't necessarily want to be trained artists but did want to know how to solve problems. I remember coming out of the study where I was reading, writing and talking to myself about quilts, and saying to my husband, 'You know, I think other quilters would like to know this, and I think I can write a book that will tell them.' The next day he came home with a Selectric typewriter for me to use, very modern, very fast, very speedy. I wrote my book. I submitted it to a publisher, and it was the first book in the quilt world on color for quilters, written for quilters, by a quilter, in simple language. It was published by Yours Truly Press, and it was a big success. That is how I started.

PK: There is a big jump between a Dresden Plate block and artist quiltmaking in a gallery. I wonder if you would talk a little bit about how that transition and your experience.

MK: I think the transition was moving to [Washington.] D.C., which was a big metropolitan area where there were quilt guilds, and then joining a guild where there was inspiration and knowledge and people to teach me and show me and move me on and inspire me. Then there was the Continental Quilting Congress with classes and teachers coming in, who again could inspire me and show me that I could do things, or turn me in another direction or start me on a new path. I guess it was really the blossoming of opportunities for classes and books and other things that were coming out. I also took classes. One of the first classes was with Jinny Beyer, who had won the award for Ray of Light. She wanted to teach classes so she experimented on a group of us. In her first class, therefore, she taught a medallion quilt to a group of her friends. I learned a lot in that class, but again I didn't know how to use color to make my medallion in the middle prominent, and I learned a lot trying to struggle with that. It was a progression. Creating the New Image Quilters was certainly a jump because some of us hoped to be artists, but certainly could not claim to be artists. At one of our shows in a gallery, I remember standing next to the art critic, probably from the Washington Post but one of the big papers, and I said to him, 'Do you think this is art?' He said, 'Absolutely.' That sort of made me feel good.

PK: It is certainly interesting. What happened next? Are we in a rough chronology, the gallery, then the book, and then what happened in your search?

SM: Of course. When you write a book, then people want you to talk to them. So I began to travel and lecture a little bit, and of course my publisher would have me go to Quilt Market and Quilt Festival [International Quilt Festival.] and all sorts of places, and again I was teaching. I was a teacher; I had been teaching English since graduating from college, so I knew how to teach, and I knew how to simplify and clarify information for other people. Just turning that talent onto the subject of color or the subject of quilting was not a big leap. Public speaking was not a big leap, so I began to do those things, and that is it.

PK: How much time do you spend on the road?

SM: Now?

PK: At that point?

SM: I was always incredibly protective of my time and my family's time. I had many friends, and I still have friends, who are on the road a lot. For a while I went back to teaching real school. I was not teaching quilting except for maybe summer conferences, weekend conferences and things. Then I thought, you know I'm going to get back into this full time. I wanted to do a lot of lecturing and teaching. I asked many of my friends who were on the road, people whose names you would know, and without exception they said, 'I'm exhausted, I'm traveling too much, I have to cut back.' I kept that always in my mind, knowing always that I did not want to leave the family alone too much, and I did not want to be exhausted and at the point where I needed to cut back. I was always careful, but most of the traveling teachers did not ever cut back. That is how I did it.

PK: I am going to move that. I was gesturing toward the quilt that you have brought to talk about today. I wonder if you would explain why you chose this particular object as your touchstone object for our conversation.

SM: I never felt that I was an artist, I never felt comfortable doing contemporary work. It was very forced for me; it was very difficult for me to do. It wasn't particularly satisfying for me to do. At home, while I was doing this work for the walls of art galleries, I was doing very folksy kind of delicate things for myself. The quilt we are talking about was from a tiny paper watercolor Valentine that I saw in a book. It was from the late 1700's, one a young man had done for his love. It was a puzzle Valentine that folded down, and you could see the creases of the oil from where I assumed his beloved had put it in a pocket and then taken it out and looked at it, then folded it up and put it away. It was very worn. That little Valentine spoke to me and said it wanted to be a quilt. In order to do a quilt of that, I had to do those crease stains. I had to create the folds that she had made with her hands. I used tea dying to get the folds, the look that it had been folded a great deal, and obviously I did a lot of changing and modifying, but I loved the heart and the bird and the delicate fabric, and the old time things. I realized with that quilt that this was the direction in which I really wanted to go. He had obviously written on the Valentine for his love, and I wanted to imitate that writing, so I began to write on fabric to see what kinds of pens worked and how I could make the writing look old. I continued to write on fabric, still playing always with the old motifs. From then on, I really concentrated on folk art.

PK: What is it about writing on fabric that you find compelling?

MK: I don't know if the writing on the fabric is compelling. Using the themes from old quilts is compelling. I loved signature quilts, quilts that had writing on them. I guess as quilters we are left with so little information. There are mysteries if there is no writing on an old quilt. We want to know who made it and why and for whom. All these questions that quilters did not hint at in their quilts. I wanted that information, so I began doing two things. One was writing on quilts and making sure the information was there, but also encouraging people in the quilt industry to label their quilts. That came out of just conversations with friends. We have got to make people label quilts. We have got to label quilts ourselves so that this does not happen to the next generation. So that is what we did. Then, I thought, I will create labels. The first labels I did were hand silk screened, and they were sold by the panel. I got four on a sixteen inch square. I had them silk screened and sold them in little packets. People went crazy about these. The next thing, Benartex came to me and said, let's print these, so then we printed full color labels. Now we had a big panel for the same price of those four little one-color silk screen things. We were now producing beautiful labels. I started the whole idea of labeling. Then I wrote a book on making your own labels and a book on labeling quilts. The whole idea of writing on a quilt is sort of everywhere for me, whether it is on the back, whether it is for historic information, or whether it is in a decorative manner in front. I don't care.

PK: You said earlier that you are a collector of quilts. What kinds of quilts do you collect?

SM: At first I collected anything I could afford from any period. Usually at that time I bought turn of the century quilts, often blue, red and white pajama fabrics, navy blues. Those were most affordable, so I had a lot of those. I was always interested in appliqué, so I bought appliqué quilts from the early 1900's - ones with wonderful flowers. I began learning about all these things, and I collect them. Some 1930's, and of course what I have honed in on are signature quilts, which are really what I collect and talk about and show to other people.

PK: I'm curious as to how many quilts are roughly in your collection?

SM: I have no idea. [PK laughs.] I certainly don't want my husband to know, but probably more than one hundred.

PK: About how many quilts have you made yourself?

SM: Well, more than one hundred, but I do work small. Because I work for samples for my books, I do small samples; therefore, I can make thirty samples for my book, so I will work small and they are not all major quilts. I don't do a lot of major quilts, big quilts. I do small things. Also, that allows me to experiment. I highly recommend to all my students that they work small and learn; then they can give away the piece to somebody who will love it and they don't have to live with it, and they can move on to something else. So working small is a very good way to learn. Also, I recommend quilters work in colors they don't like. In that way they learn how to deal with those colors, and again they can give the quilt to somebody else who absolutely loves it. They don't have to live with it, but they have learned a lot from it.

PK: Do you learn more from colors you don't like than colors you do?

MK: I don't anymore, but you do learn something different. Anybody can work in the colors that they love. It is fun. Given my 'druthers' on any one day, if you send me up to my studio, I will always work in the same five colors on the lower left hand side of the color wheel. I love the purples, the blues, and the roses down at the bottom and I will work in that range. Well, there is a limit to how much you can do with that, and why shouldn't you learn about other colors? It is a good project to force yourself to work in other colors. You may find out how to love them, you may find out how to work them into your quilt, but you will certainly learn something, and I think that is important. Probably I could say the same thing about working with techniques, appliqué versus piecing, etc. Force yourself to do something new. That is how we learn.

PK: Are you still doing new things?

SM: Absolutely.

PK: What is the newest thing you are working with now?

SM: Well I'm not sure right now. I have to think about that, we can come back.

PK: We will come back to that. You are still actively engaged in making things?

SM: Yes.

PK: How many hours a week would you say you are active with your work?

SM: If you include making, writing and preparing for new books, then that is a full time/part time job. My husband is retired, but I can't retire. There are too many things in my head that I have to do before I'm done. So technically we are retired, but I'm not there now. Most days, at least half the day or three quarters of the day I am doing something that relates to quilts.

PK: You have a company.

MK: I do, Wallflower Designs.

PK: How did you get that started and how does that fit into the chronology?

SM: I created Wallflower when I started designing patterns and quilts to sell, and other products. When I need a tool I design it, and if I think it is worthy, then I make it available to other people. So I had to have a blanket company in order to sell these things, and I called it Wallflower Designs. I loved the sound of it. I wasn't particularly worried about or aware that it was a wallflower kind of thing, but all my friends questioned that name. Are you afraid, are you a wallflower? No, I just really like the melody of it. It stuck, and I have used it as my blanket company for everything that I have done, which includes patterns and tools. I did rubber stamps when I wanted to imitate the stamping of the old quilts.

PK: This is probably a technical question, but did you find it difficult to get inks that didn't run?

SM: I did a lot of testing. The ink that is described in the books, about the old inks, both quilting books and others, they called it India ink. Our India ink does not work; our India ink just bleeds out immediately. I never did find any liquid ink that would work. However, the Pigma Micron pens work. I write almost exclusively with those, and the reason is that the ink flow is so slow. It is frustrating to people to have slow ink flow, but the very slowness is what allows you to work on fabric because it doesn't leak or bleed, and so you don't have to write fast. You can't write fast on fabric; it catches on the fiber. The Pigma Micron pen became the main product that I sold. First I would order a dozen, and then I said, 'I want to order six dozen,' and Sakura out in California said, 'You can't order six dozen. We don't have six dozen boxes of twelve.' He said,' The boxes come in every six weeks on the boat and we will save some for you.' I said, 'How many come in on the boat, of one color brown or one color black.' He said [that.] they got about ten dozen or something, maybe twelve dozen. I said, 'I want them all. I want your boat load of black and I want your boat load of brown.' I became in the quilt world the only person who had access to the brown and the black, which I wanted. The black imitated the actual India ink, and the brown imitated the faded ink, which man pens didn't. So I had that. I was selling to all the distributors in the quilting industry. With any product, if you are selling a product, as soon as your customers discover it, they find a way to go around you. For a while I did that, and pretty soon all distributors had those inks and I was just a little fish, and then I just distributed them myself to my students and customers and things. That is how we got the Pigma Micron ink, which is just a godsend to quilters. It has made all the difference. There are other inks. I still experiment with every new ink that comes out. There are different ones for different purposes. I now draw as well as write, and again that means different inks, but still for basic writing on quilts, the Pigma Micron pen can't be beat.

PK: We have talked a lot about your business and teaching. I wonder about the personal side of quiltmaking with your life. Have you ever used quiltmaking to help you get through a difficult time?

SM: No I don't think in that way. Looking forward to quilting in the evening, putting my feet up and watching a movie or listening to some music helps me get through daily difficult times. I haven't had a traumatic difficult time that has needed a major therapeutic quilt. I have sat in the hospital waiting for a family member to come out of surgery quilting, but nothing greatly traumatic.

PK: Has your quiltmaking and your work in that arena had an impact on your family?

SM: [laughs.] I think so, yes.

PK: What would that be?

MK: My husband has always been incredibly supportive. From that first Selectric typewriter to all the traveling that I have done, to the time when I wanted to stop teaching high school English and focus strictly on quilting. We have a cottage in Michigan, and when I decided to quit teaching school, my two children and my husband and I took our boat out in the middle of our lake and floated around, and I told them what I wanted to do. I didn't want to teach school anymore. They were all very supportive. My son, who was one crying when I took my first quilt class, remembered how he had grown up under the quilting table. Now my daughter was seven at that time, and she had grown up with me sewing, but she had not grown up with me quilting. So they both grew up with me quilting all the time. I had a wonderful studio, and my children became wonderful sewers. I also owned a quilt shop and we sold Berninas. So when I got a beautiful new Bernina, I thought the kids could sew on my old simple kind of chug-along machine. But they just sewed on the Bernina; it was fabulous, it was so fast. When Scott was in junior high and he had to take that home ec. class where they made a pair of shorts or something, he was done in a day and the teacher did not know what to do with him. Leslie sews and she has sewn many quilts for her friends as gifts, and together we have designed quilts for her to sew for her friends. Yes, I think both of them have been influenced. Leslie is not a quilter, that is not her first thing, but she does make lovely quilts, very different from what I do. More contemporary.

PK: Interesting.

SM: Back to contemporary.

PK: You talked about sewing machines. I was looking at the quilt you have here today, and obviously the quilting is done by hand; how do you feel about the machine quilting and hand quilting? Do you have particular prejudice?

SM: I don't have prejudice. I love hand quilting. I love the hand and the softness of hand quilting. It just feels wonderful. I also like that there is much less stitching showing. I have had many quilts machine quilted by other people because I'm terrible at machine quilting. I've never been able to master the hand movement, so it is not an option for me, but I have wonderful people who have machine quilted on regular machines and wonderful people who have done it on long arms. If I'm doing many quilts for a book, a lot of them get machine quilted, and they are beautifully quilted. My druthers are always hand quilting. I know it takes a long time, but it is so relaxing and wonderful, I just take the time.

PK: You said you have a studio in the house where you were living. Do you have a studio where you are now?

SM: I always have a studio, but now it is very small, sort of cramped and not as nice as it was before.

PK: Is that something that you would recommend for people?

SM: Having a studio or having a small cramped one? [laughs.] Sorry.

PK: [laughs.] Having a studio.

MK: No, I'm teasing you. Yes, I highly recommend you have a set-aside space. My grandmother ran a kind of boardinghouse and had lots of children and everyone was coming and going, and she was a sewer. She sewed on the kitchen or dining room table, whatever, and she said she always just cleared that off and had to get it out of the way before the family all came home and everybody was happy. But sewing right in the middle of the activity just does not work. Knowing that, I think we should all sew somewhere off in the corner, where we don't have to break it down and are out of the way and we don't have to think about other people's needs at that point. So I highly recommend a studio of any kind. I have a tiny one now. We moved to a smaller house and we are just fine with that. It is not as great, but I still am comfortable there, just messier.

PK: I am going to change the direction a little bit. From your specific experience to some of your observations, what do you think makes a great quilt?

SM: That is a great question. That is a hard one. I think it has to be. Well, first of all, great color is what makes a great quilt. It can be that you don't know you have done great color, you just do it, it happens, or it can be planned. For me now, it has to be semi-planned because I don't see it all. I think color is what draws you in to anything. It is what will bring you from across the room to see a quilt. Then you see the details, like the incredible quilting or inking or little appliqué details. But it is color that is going to bring you in, and I think it is color that excites people. A great quilt obviously combines everything: great design, great color, great stitching, and some kind of individuality, something that makes it, that sends it beyond what everybody else is doing. It would be very hard, in my opinion to make a simple Nine Patch into a great quilt, or to make a simple thing, simple pattern a great quilt, because it has to have so much else going on--the best of design, the best of quilting, the best of color. That will do it.

PK: What is it that you think happened in the second half of the twentieth century to bring quilts and quiltmaking so much to the floor?

SM: It is like the conjunction of planets. All kind of things happened. Perhaps serendipitously. Certainly some serendipity in it. If you consider the Whitney Exhibit in what, early '80's, '79, anyway it was right then, that is when quilts became respectable as art, when that exhibit was shown. Again, those were only the Amish quilts. Very vibrant, they qualified as art, but the pretty little ones from the 1920's with the florals, did not.

PK: We are talking about what brought quilts to the fore in the twentieth century and you began by talking about the exhibit in Whitney.

SM: That doesn't explain how individuals, lots of them, began to quilt. Well, it brought in the seventies young women, women with expendable money, women who knew, as we were saying at lunch, about organizations and banding together when you found an interest for a garden club or whatever. Perhaps all of the colleges offering little classes in various things that people might want, extended education or adult education kind of things, the way they would teach crocheting and they would teach knitting and they would teach quilting. Certainly for me that was what happened. They were offering a class in quilting, and my friend said I should do it, but it was also a natural growth for me from sewing. I think probably it was extension classes, things like that as well, and then the ability of women and the excitement of women when they discovered it. To women who were not raised in the tradition, this was a tradition that pretty much had died out. I remember in the sixties the cross stitch quilts, the kit quilts, that kind of thing. There wasn't a lot to see that would inspire you to make a quilt. The university where we were, the University of Iowa, offered a little class. I did not get to take it because I was too busy, but I remember wanting to take that class, and it wasn't until we left Iowa and got to North Carolina that I did it. I think probably that is part of it. Then I think the fact that because of Quilt Market and Karey Bresenhan's efforts, suddenly fabrics were available, quilt shops were available, or shops would specialize--they would have a corner with quilting fabric. It was exciting to be able to buy the fabric and to buy the tools of the trade, the special needles and the special thread, all these things began to come out at the same time. I think it was these wonderful, wonderful things coming together at the same time. It certainly has made a big difference in my life, and I think clearly it did in the lives of many, many women.

PK: You had a quilt shop yourself, didn't you?

SM: I did, I did.

PK: Is that also Wallflower Designs?

MK: No, it is Cottonseed Glory in Annapolis, Maryland, and I owned it with a partner, Pat Steiner, and it is still there and she is still there. I moved on and moved away.

PK: When did you open it?

SM: That was probably in the early eighties. Yes, it was the early eighties because I was writing then. I thought of and started writing "Color For Quilters" when I was a partner in that shop.

PK: What is next for you?

SM: It is kind of what's not next, that is: how do I wrap up a life of quilting? I am seriously thinking about that, and I have things I want to do, books I want to write, too many, before I'm done. I want to get those done. I think I want to contribute those things, I think they are important and I want them to be out there before I move on. At this point, I just can't decide which book to start on first, because once I start I am involved for quite a long time, so it is kind of hard. Right now, everything is floating around in my head, and soon I will focus in and do one or two at a time.

PK: We are coming to the end of our time, and I wanted to ask you if there are questions you thought I would ask you that I haven't yet.

SM: No. I don't think so. I think you have covered a lot of things. Why I started, how I started, the general movement, the general progress. I think you have covered pretty much everything.

PK: I would like to ask one more question, why are quilts important to you?

SM: Quilts to me are--I'm very interested in women's history and what women did, particularly in the ninetieth century, and I think quilts tie us together. I think it makes us a part of a tradition that is hundreds of years old, but particularly from the early 1800's on. The fabulous quilts being made in the 1800's, we are carrying on that tradition, and I hope that this tradition will be carried on yet again so that in a hundred years people are looking at our quilts and speculating on why, when, and who did that quilt? Who was it for? Why didn't she sign it? Where is the label? All such things. I just hope the interest continues in sewing and quilting. That is our job--to make quilting exciting enough that people will want to keep quilts, show them, save them, protect them, and talk about them.

PK: Thank you, it has been a real pleasure having a chance to talk with you this afternoon.

MK: You're welcome. It has been a pleasure waxing poetic about quilts.

PK: This is the conclusion of our interview. It is Friday, September 21, 2007. This has been an interview with Susan McKelvey, Easton, Maryland and my name is Patricia Keller.



“Susan McKelvey,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,