Cathy Kleeman




Cathy Kleeman




Cathy Kleeman


Susie Krage

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association


Ruxton, Maryland


Kim Greene


Susie Kragie (SK): My name is Susie Kragie, and I am interviewing Cathy Kleeman in her home in Ruxton, Maryland. The interview is for the Quilters' Save Our Stories Project. It is 11:12 in the morning of March 23. Good morning, Cathy.

Cathy Kleeman (CK): Good morning, Susie.

SK: I see you have a quilt in front of you, an art quilt, right?

CK: Yes.

SK: Can you tell me something about it?

CK: Okay. The name of this quilt is "Nine." And it's a little different from the quilts that I normally make because this one actually has some emotional meaning behind it. Most of my other quilts tend to be plays with color and texture and some design. This one I made in remembrance of my mother-in-law. She died in 2001. Actually, right before 911.

I was on a plane on September 10. I made this quilt after, was sitting in the church and listening to the priest talk about my mother-in-law. He mentioned the fact that she was the mother to nine children, and she raised each one of these children, and each one of them is different and it was similar to a coat of many colors. Joseph's coat of many colors. Once he said that, I didn't listen to a word of the rest of the sermon and kept thinking about how this would make a wonderful quilt that would honor my mother-in-law and the fact that she raised such a wonderful family. So, on this quilt there are nine different panels, each one representing one of the children. Within each panel is an inset panel with nine different fabrics, each outlined in black. And then, - one square of each of the inset panels is a bead and the bead is on a different location in each one of these. This is more or less to represent that they are each unique. There is a lot of reference to nine in here. There is like nine rows of stitching and nine zag stitching kinds of things.

SK: It looks like the stitching is done with pearl cotton and there are big cross stitches.

CK: Yes, these are big pearl cotton yellow stitches holding each panel to its adjacent panel. And that just more or less represents the closeness of the family. The family--once every three years we have a family reunion in Nags Head, North Carolina where the entire family comes with all of the children and now grandchildren. In 2001 was the last one that my grandmother was on. We actually had four generations, because we had her and my husband and our children and our first grandchild. So, this quilt has a lot of meaning for me. I didn't know my mother-in-law very well, we were not close, but I think that she did a fabulous job raising nine children.

SK: Are these hand dyes or commercial fabrics?

CK: When I made this, I was still using mostly commercial fabrics. Since that time, I have changed and now I use only fabrics that I have designed myself. So, I dye or paint or stamp or use batik or use silk screening. So, I use only my own fabrics now.

SK: You don't have a traditional border. Can you describe how you finished the edges?

CK: I just finished with a narrow zigzag and the reason I chose to do that is because the shape of the quilt is not regular, so that you know we don't have straight sides. Straight sides are easy; putting the traditional binding on here is extremely difficult. [clears throat.] And so, I've been finishing quilts with a narrow zigzag, or sometimes I will stitch a facing on it and turn it to the back. This one has the zigzag stitch on it.

SK: And I noticed it is quite thin and flat.

CK: Um, hum. I like my quilts quite flat. [laughs.] It's a cotton batting, because I haven't used one hundred percent polyester for a long, long, long time. So, it is probably a cotton natural type batting or maybe an 80-20. But I like the flat look.

SK: And you have machine quilted?

CK: And it is machine, mostly machine quilted. The yellow stitches are hand stitched. The cross stitches with the pearl cotton thread, those are hand stitched.

SK: And how do you use this quilt?

CK: Well, it is designed and meant to be hung. It's not, it's not something you would put on a bed or wrap somebody in.

SK: You hang it in your own home?

CK: Sometimes. I rotate quilts.

SK: Do you have any other plans for it, such as showing it or?

CK: It has been shown several times and I still enter it into things when it meets the criteria, because it is now getting sort of old, and a lot of shows won't let you put anything in that is more than five years old.

SK: Tell me something about your interest in quilting.

CK: I started quilting in the late eighties, and I got interested in it because I was visiting one of my sisters-in-law and she had made a "Quilt in a Day" Log Cabin quilt. I have always done handwork and needle crafts. I did macramé when that was in style and I did cross stitching and a little bit of needlepoint, knitting and crocheting, so I always liked hand crafts, and I always wanted to make a quilt, but just thought this was too big of a time commitment, I would never finish it. So, I saw this "Quilt in a Day" Log Cabin quilt and that she had the book and I read it. Well, I can do this, this won't take me forever. And that was my first quilt, a Log Cabin "Quilt in a Day" with Williamsburg blue on one side and cream on the other and sort of a rosy center all with the little calico prints that were in style in the late eighties. So that got me started, it wasn't even quilted, it was just tied. And, so from then I realized I could do these quilts, and I did a bunch more Log Cabin quilts as wedding presents for family, and I made some other regular pieced type quilts, and it wasn't too long, maybe a couple of years before I decided that I wanted to be more original, and I wanted to design my own quilts. I have a hand quilted double Irish chain that has been on my bed for a long time, and it took me four years to quilt that. Once I finished that, I said, 'This is not going to happen anymore,' and I sold the quilting frame that I used for that, and now I exclusively machine quilt, but I like to accent my quilts with hand stitching with heavy threads and big stitches.

SK: Have you taken classes aside from reading the book on the Log Cabin?

CK: I have taken lots of classes and in particular I have attended the Quilt Service Design Symposium in Columbus, Ohio. The first one I went to was in 1993 where I took a class called "Problem Solving Approach to Design" and that was taught by Joy Saville. And that was my first venture out of the comfortable area of traditional quilting and into art quilting, and I was lost. I was so out of my element, because it was so unfamiliar to me. I found that all kinds of people who were well known in the art quilt world, and I had no idea who they were. We went to see Quilt National, and I was, I could hardly find any quilts that I liked because they weren't quilts, they were something else. They were--they had unfamiliar materials in them, they had unrecognizable designs. So that was an eye-opening experience. And then we also saw the Fairfield Fashion Show. And, you know what is in that show. So, I, you know, it was, it was an eye-opening experience, and it took me several years to assimilate that, to make that transition from totally traditional into, well you know maybe I can do this art quilt stuff and working on that. It was four years before I went back to QSDS [Quilt Surface Design Symposium.].

SK: But you did go back?

CK: I did go back. And I, you know, I skipped those four years not because I didn't want to go, but because we had other things going on. Like my daughter got married, we went on a cruise. You know things that just interfered. So, I couldn't go back until 1997. And I have been every year since then. And I have taken classes with Nancy Crow, David Walker, Ann Johnston, Sue Benner. In the summer I am taking a class with Michael James. I look forward to it a lot, but I am a little nervous.

SK: Are you involved in any other quilt related activities, such as writing or teaching, exhibiting?

CK: I exhibit a lot. And do a lot of juried shows, and I probably have been in at least ten to fifteen shows per year. I have had a few gallery shows. I have received Maryland State Individual Artist Award; I have won three of those. I did, I have taught classes in machine quilting, and I have given lectures to guilds, but it is not something I do a lot.

SK: What about writing?

CK: I wrote one article for the Professional Quilter Magazine. That was a while ago.

SK: What was that about?

CK: It was about networking via the Internet. And this was before it became so easy to do. I have been involved in quilting groups on the Internet way back when Quiltnet first started, and when that sort of got too large and unmanageable I became part of another group called No-Trad-L. I have become parts of a couple of other groups, and they are all small groups, they are like fifteen to twenty people each, so we know each other very well. There is talk about quilting and art, but there is also talk about families and what is going on in people's lives. And, these two groups, one is called The Fiber Connection and the other is called Fiber Gallery. I have personally met most of the people in both of these groups, even though they are international, which is really nice.

SK: From where do you get your ideas and inspiration?

CK: I get my ideas and inspiration from nature. I know that sounds sort of hokey, but I like colors of nature and I love spring. I love watching the transition from winter which is so dull and gray to spring which is just wonderful. So now we are looking at forsythias blooming, you know, daffodils have bloomed, and we just had the first day of spring, and I am real interested in how much light there is, because I hate the dark of winter. And, colors of nature, and also landscapes. My husband and I vacation a lot out west in the desert and in the mountains, and what I see out there inspires me, not that I make quilts that are representational of what I see, but it is more of what I feel and the colors that come to me and the shapes. I have one quilt that was called, that is called "Wheatfields" that I was inspired by the crop circles, the crop irrigation circles as you fly over the Midwest; because it is so dry, they have these big circles that irrigated. You know the different shapes, well they are all circular, but they are different colors, and some are like a quarter of a circle, some are half of a circle, some are three quarters. There are rows in between; there are semi-circles in the rectangular fields with the rows in between. And I made a quilt solely based on that, which amazingly enough was displayed in a gallery, sold and I didn't even have it more than a month. So that was, not that happens a lot, actually that is the only time that has ever happened, but I really liked that quilt, and it belongs to somebody else now. It has been published in "Fiber Arts Design Book 7."

SK: Is there any part of quilting that you don't like?

CK: I like it all. There isn't anything that I don't like.

SK: So, you do all the processes yourself, from the design, selection of fabrics?

CK: Yes. Sometimes, you know, if it is a good size quilt and the quilting is a lot, I box myself into a corner by putting lots of stitching on it, I might think, well this was not a good idea. I am spending too much time on this. But, you know, I still like it. I guess what I don't like is having to clean up the mess that I leave down in the studio. Sometimes it gets so messy, and I can't work, and I have to clean it, I have to put things away.

SK: How do you balance your quilting and family and friends?

CK: It is easy to balance quilting with my family because right now it is my husband and me in the house. My children are grown and married and have their own children. Although they live close by and we see them a lot, I don't have to worry about making time out of my day for them. So, we have, we do a get together frequently, actually weekly, Friday nights and Sunday dinners. They all come over here for Sunday dinner and Friday nights we get together at my daughter's house. So, we see them a lot. Making time with my friends, well, well it seems like all my friends are quilters [laughs.] and so it is not a problem, because we are always thinking of things we can do together, places we can go together. Two weekends ago I went with a friend up to New York City and two other friends flew in, one from Florida and one from Washington State, and we spent the weekend in New York City going to galleries and museums. So, not a problem.

SK: What do you think makes a great quilt?

CK: Good design, good use of color, interest both from far away and when you get up close to it you can see things that you can't see from far away, interesting things, stitching or subtle things. Those are some of the things that I think make up a great quilt. I don't know that my quilts always meet that criteria, but I try.

SK: What makes a quilt worthy of a museum collection?

CK: I would love to have one of my quilts owned by a museum. I think that in order to be shown by a museum, you would have to be more than just a good quilter, or making good quilts, I think you have to be a presence in the art quilt world. [inaudible.] Somebody who has not only, makes great quilts, but has pushed the art form forward.

SK: And what makes a great quilter?

CK: I think you have to not only make, be a maker of quilts, but you have to be a promoter of quilts. Like you have to maybe curate shows or write articles. You have to be somebody who is constantly bringing the fact of art quilts into the art world, because that's a challenge right now, getting people who are in the art world to think of quilts as art and not as something that grandmother made.

SK: Is quilting an art or craft?

CK: I think it's both. And, I don't have a problem with that. I know some people don't like quilts to be called craft, but I think it is a craft. Every, every art has a certain amount of craft. You have to be able to do it, you have to be able to do it well enough to get across the idea that you are trying to get across. You--if you are a painter and your paint, your painting technique is awful then, then that gets in the way of appreciating the painting as art. So, I think you have to have enough skill at your craft so that you can do what you want to do and when you do it, it does not detract or get in the way of somebody looking at it and saying, saying, 'Whoa, that is really wonderful' and not saying 'Oh look, it is falling apart.'

SK: Do you think technique comes first in making a really good quilt or a museum quality quilt?

CK: That is going to get me into trouble. Technique, you know I am not going to define technique as you can get all your points perfect and your seam allowance perfect. To me technique is that I can do, what I want to do, and it looks good. So, if, you know, right now my, my work is all raw edged and you know, for a lot of people raw edge is not good technique. But it does for me what I want it to do, so it is good technique.

SK: But how do you use technique to let you do what you want to do?

CK: My technique has to be good enough so that it looks good. On this particular quilt here, if, you know, since it has been so long since I have done this, I don't remember exactly how I did this, but I would assume that these panels are not inset but are sewn down on top. But, if I meant to inset these and the corners all looked icky, I wouldn't like that, and so I would say to myself, 'I can't do that technique, I am going to have to figure out a different way to do this so that I'm not unhappy with the way it turns out technique wise.' So, I have to use technique as sort of a tool to get to the design and composition that I want.

SK: I guess what I am trying to ask Cathy is that you are talking a lot about your about skill to be able to do what you want, but obviously color plays an important part in your quilts because you use a lot of color.

CK: Uh, hum.

SK: And design and composition. All of those things work together.

CK: All of those things work together. Design and composition are first in my head when I am working on a quilt. Sometimes I will come up with a design. I compose my things on a design wall. And usually without a very detailed idea of what it is going to be. So, I might have a sketch, I might have something in my head, and sort of, I began putting the fabrics on the wall to try and express that idea and often times it gets its own idea and goes someplace else. And sometimes where it goes presents a challenge for me in how to put the thing together. And so that is where the technique comes in. You know, I have to be able to put it together. Recently I had a quilt top. I hadn't batted and quilted it yet. And when I was showing it to some friends and held it up to the light, and the light coming through from the back showed where all the fabrics had overlapped and it made a secondary design that was, that I really, really liked, and thought this would be really cool if I could capture this and preserve this on this piece. And I fiddled around with various ideas, and in the end could not think of a way to do it. And so, I went ahead with the normal put a batting in and put a backing on it and stitched it together. So that was one situation where technique failed me because I couldn't figure out how to do it. Maybe in the future I will. It is in the back of my head cooking, and maybe one day I will think of it. And it might eventually be that I will have to get away from putting the batting in and putting the backing on, because that is what makes it opaque and not so easily seen when the light is showing through.

SK: Let me summarize this. Correct me if I'm wrong. Your idea comes first and then your design.

CK: Um, hum.

SK: And then technique?

CK: All come together to make a good piece. I think that design and composition are a little more important, ah, for me at least. I want to look at a piece and say, 'Yeah that looks pretty good', you know I like the way this looks, and I like the way it feels, even though you are not supposed to touch quilts. They are, they're fabric, they're textile, they're meant to be, you can't help but touch them. And, so, I don't want them to fall apart.

SK: Why is quilting important in your life?

CK: In my life, because I like working with my hands, doing crafty things. Like making things that--ah, pretty isn't the right word. Things that give pleasure to people or give pleasure to me. I make, I make my quilts to make me happy, not to make anybody else happy, although I am thrilled if somebody else is happy enough to actually want to buy one. And, I have a bit of a competitive nature, and so I like to enter shows. For a while I was entering the quilt show circuit, the weekend shows and competing for prizes. And I won a few prizes, but that, that area of quilting has gone off in a different direction from where I want to go. I mean, well, we have just both gone in different directions. I think to win prizes in quilt shows today requires a commitment and a level of skill and attention to detail that I'm not interested in. And quilt show quilts are very big and require a great amount of time for just one piece. And I'm not patient enough to spend six months or a year of my life on one piece, because, as I am working on something I am thinking about this is pretty cool here, how am I going to do this on the next one. So, you know, I am already thinking ahead to what I want to try on the next one, or I am doing printing on fabric and want to use some of that fabric in a quilt and then do some more printing and want to use that fabric. So, you know, medium size is good for me. Great big ones aren't.

SK: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or the region in which you live?

CK: Mine represent the region in which I live in the intense colors. My quilts most always have red in them. And red is not a color you see around a whole lot in nature, but I think the colors around here are, ah. You know in the summer we have intense greens, in fall you do see reds, as opposed to when you go out to the desert and the color palette there is so muted and different. When you go to the desert and I see that, and yeah that is a nice color palette, but then when I come home, and the color just knocks me out. And so, I think. Sometimes I wonder if I lived in the southwest would my color palette change. I don't know.

SK: How do you think quilts are important in American life?

CK: Traditional quilts or are you talking about art quilts?

SK: You can pick.

CK: I can pick. I think they are both important. Traditional quilts I think have a much bigger following than art quilts. I mean I think there are far more people involved in traditional quilting than there are, that are involved in art quilting. That is probably very good, because the traditional quilters support the quilt stores. You know, they buy a lot of fabric, and they keep those stores going for people how are quilters who probably don't, who probably buy as much fabric, but different fabrics. And so, the quilt store is able to be supported by people who buy lots and lots of fabric, and then they can afford to have the ones that [tape skips.]. Just the fact that, you know, there is the whole big part of society out there who likes fabric and fibers and stitching and doing that helps keep quilting in the main front. When you have a quilt show that is in an art gallery or a month-long quilt show, the attendance is always far greater than the gallery owner or the venue ever thought they would have. It is because a lot of traditional quilters go to those kinds of shows. Because, if it says quilt, they will go, they like that. They may not like the quilts once they get there, but some people might and then that brings more quilters into the art quilt side. They might come and look at that and say, 'That is not traditional,' or 'Two hundred years ago when women had no other means to express their creativity than making quilts.' So, even though it was a utilitarian thing, they could still have, they could still express creativity. They could, in their colors and fabrics. As a long tradition and I think it has been important in women's history.

SK: How do you think we can preserve quilts?

CK: Textiles. It's a problem with textiles because they deteriorate. Because in sunlight or just in polluted air they tend to deteriorate. So, if you really want to preserve them you have to pack them away. Which means you can't enjoy them. I am really not worried about how long my quilts are going to be around. They probably will last as long as I do and then, I won't be around to care. [laughs.] I think it is a problem that I think the archivers are going to have to worry about.

SK: What has happened to, I mean you have made quite a few quilts.

CK: They are rolled up in a closet upstairs.

SK: So, they are packed away for posterity.

CK: That's right.

SK: You said earlier that sometimes you rotate them in your home.

CK: Um, hum.

SK: And hang them.

CK: Yeah, sometimes I will hang a few, but I don't have a lot of wall space so I can't hang a lot of them. And, ah, also some of the quilts that I made ten years ago, you know, that is not the way I am making quilts anymore, that is not what my current quilts look like. And so, I don't want them, I don't want to look at them every day.

SK: How can we encourage young people to become involved in quilting?

CK: Those who go in schools and teach classes, that is not something I am good at. I'm not good at working with children, so that is not something I am going to be doing. But other people do it. They go into schools. They work with kids and make quilts. You know starting them young in sewing. You get both the boys and the girls into doing it, and I think that tradition will keep on going. That it is just going to get bigger and better, and we are going to see more and more art quilts in fine art shows. We are going to see quilts, art quilts hanging alongside of paintings and sculpture and not relegated to having to put together our own shows so that we can so that we can get ourselves out there. And I think that is happening. I have been in shows that are not just quilt shows. I know that other people have too. You should be buying quilts as part of their art. They buy paintings, they buy sculptures, they can buy fiber. I hope that quilting just keeps growing and growing. Both the traditional side and the art side. Because, like you say, the traditionalists are what, they are sort of the base, and we need them.

SK: What do you see as the trends in quilting?

CK: See a lot of people doing their own fabrics. Making their mark on their own fabrics. So, a lot of people are dyeing their own fabrics, painting them. A lot of people are using screen printing. And so, when you go to an art quilt show, you often, almost all of the pieces are made of fabrics that have been done by the artists. So, that, it is a total package. You know. The artist is totally expressing herself and it is mostly her own fabric.

SK: And you do that as well?

CK: I do that as well. But I have friends who like commercial fabrics. They like to use commercial fabrics in their art quilts, and I, I don't have a problem with that. It is still an expression of themselves and there are some gorgeous fabrics out there. You know, I get tempted too, but I have twelve boxes of commercial fabric. I have a fabric annex. And then I have another fifteen boxes of hand dyed in the studio, so. There is some wonderful stuff out there.

SK: Are you trying to resist temptation?

CK: I--yeah, I try to stay out of those fabric stores because it is really hard not to buy that stuff.

SK: Time is just about up. I would like to thank Cathy for allowing me to interview her today. The interview ended at noon.



“Cathy Kleeman,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,