Susan Hinkel




Susan Hinkel




Susan Hinkel


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Harrisonburg, Virginia


Evelyn Naranjo


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is April 26, 2003. It is 10:05 A.M. and I am conducting an interview with Susan Hinkel for the Quilters' SOS - Save Our Stories, a project for The Alliance for American Quilts, and we are in the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

LR: Good morning, Susan.

Susan Hinkel (SH): Good morning, Le.

LR: Thank you for coming. This is quite a piece you have brought. Tell me about this quilt.

SH: It was really a teaching tool my mother thought up to show me how to do counted cross-stitch. That was her favorite kind of embroidery. On coarse woven cloth like huck toweling her stitches could follow the cross threads of the fabric, but on smooth cloth like this she would baste a piece of waste canvas and sew through its openings, then removed the canvas, thread by thread, leaving only the embroidery on the cloth. Mother's idea was for us to work together on a quilt for my bed, but since I was only 8 and a slow learner at that, I completed only one square while she did all the rest. Quilting didn't interest her, so she sent the completed quilt top to a Mennonite church where the ladies quilted it for her. I slept under it for years and it regularly went to a finished laundry along with other bedding. It's a wonder the wear-and-tear didn't destroy it! As you see, the designs on the squares are simple animals and objects of all sorts. Some of the patterns that she followed go back to booklets from World War I. They're all simple – insects, trees, birds, objects of various sorts, a couple of airplanes, candle, which seems to not be very straight, a wreath with my initials in the center. Teapot, parrot, somewhere here. The most awkward looking of the figures, is supposed to be a dog, and I believe that's the one I did. [pause: 11 seconds.] Yes, here it is, and it wasn't centered so she wrote the dog's name above it.

LR: Which is?

SH: Cricket.

LR: Cricket.

SH: A number of years later Mother made a cross-stitch quilt for herself with rose and white sateen blocks, a multi-colored bouquet in the center, floral swags at each corner and tiny rosebuds along the borders. Still later she made a green and white cross-stitch quilt top for my brother, Art, who was a landscape architect. He graphed many different trees for her to stitch on the small blocks and a house for the center. Her last quilt was a yellow-gold one for Gene, my eldest brother. By then she was terminally ill so I sat by her bed stitching the patterns she chose of swans, parrot, hen, rooster, and many others that she couldn't handle anymore. Each of these quilt tops, like my blue and white one, were sent to the Mennonite ladies for quilting.

LR: What are your plans for this quilt? How do you use it?

SH: I don't use it anymore. It has been folded up in a chest for many years. But before putting it away again I'll wash it gently by hand, dry it outdoors face-down on a cloth in the sunshine then refold it for storage. I don't plan to attempt any repairs.

LR: Interesting. Talk a minute now about quilting in your life and beginning with this quilt you were taught to cross stitch. So how did you then move into quilt making?

SH: Once again through cross-stitch. When my youngest daughter was 17, she said, 'I haven't anything to do this summer. How about making a cross stitch quilt both of us together?' And I said, 'Sure. Why not?' She was already a good cross-stitcher, but it was a challenge for us both and the quilt she wanted would be queen-size. I bought the cotton fabric, white for the embroidered work and a tiny tan print for between the blocks. We chose patterns together, this time multi-colored scenes and figures, and I designed the over-all layout. It included large scenes from all 4 seasons and small squares of children and animals, and it was fairly complex. I did most of the larger blocks and Priscilla, my daughter, did the smaller ones – maybe 4- or 5-inches square with single images of dogs, cats, birds, salamanders – all kinds of things. It was almost like a storybook of childhood. Scenes around the edges followed the seasons: fishermen in a cold, March rain; a windy washday; children in swimming; kite-flying; apple-picking, haymaking; skating and sledding. And in the center, children at a carousel. I designed some of the scenes and figures, but many others were from DMC books.

LR: What are DMC books?

SH: The DMC company began many decades ago in France and I believe it's still headquartered there. Its specialty is fine, colorfast, cotton embroidery threads and in the '70's they published some excellent cross stitch pattern books in color. I have many of them.

LR: But did you have a background in art? How did you come to design?

SH: I drifted into it, I guess. I'd studied art in college, but my major was English, and I intended to be a writer. Art was secondary. Then theatre took hold on me and, much against my parents' wishes, after graduation I joined a repertory company in Pennsylvania. Seven years later I married and moved to Maryland where Bob and I had 4 children. Once they were all school age, I began writing musicals for a children's theatre where, as in repertory, the demands were multi-faceted. Adventure Theatre wanted puppetry included in its program and that was another venue which required artwork. In fact, back in my early childhood my father had made rudimentary marionette shows on a card table-sized stage to amuse the family, so I did the same for my children. My first marionettes were tiny and made of clay about so big.

LR: 6 to 8 inches.

SH: That's right. Then came the challenge to develop full-scale marionettes and form a separate touring company. But this was all decades ago and far off the subject of quilting.

LR: That's what I was going to ask you. How did you go from all your creative talents and cross-stitching to quilting?

SH: Once Priscilla's quilt top was sewn together, I wanted to do the quilting myself but didn't know how. It happened at that time my husband retired, and we moved to Markham, Virginia where he'd been born and raised.

LR: Where is Markham?

WH: In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about halfway between Marshall and Front Royal. I was sure someone around there could teach me to quilt. Sure enough, Wanda Parker, a neighbor of ours, headed a homemakers' extension service in Warrenton and she had a group of local quilters which I could join. Quilters are friendly, generous people. Have you noticed? Next thing I knew they had adopted me, and we were all crawling around the floor basting my sandwiched quilt layers together. It took me 3 years to complete the quilting, and as I worked out from the center with an oval quilting hoop, my stitches gradually became smaller and more even. But one awful thing happened along the way. I kept the quilt on the sofa where I worked on it each evening and was eagerly joined by one of my cats. One day when I picked it up it had a horrid smell – the work of a cat marking territory! Since most of the quilt was only basted, I didn't dare wash it, so the stain dried in and remained until I'd completed the quilting. What to do now? One of my quilting friends said, 'Dissolve a nonchlorine bleach in a bathtub full of warm water and soak the quilt overnight. Then drain it off and hand-wash it in Ivory Snow. Rinse thoroughly, gently squeeze it damp-dry by wrapping it in many towels, and lay it face-down on a clean sheet on a sunny lawn.' I did, and not a trace of cat-stain remained!


LR: Wonderful

SH: At the time I joined the quilt group which later took the name, Piedmont Quilters. Bob's Ruritan wanted to raise funds with a quilt raffle, so we volunteered to provide the quilt. We chose Carolina Lily for the block pattern, 4 blocks centered in a rectangle and another 18 around the quilt's edges. Instead of a continuous crosshatch we quilted garden critters around the flowers: bees, butterflies, snails, turtles, and grasshoppers. This was the first of 3 Ruritan quilts I designed. 'But keep it simple,' they said when I approached the second one, 'Simple, like Churn Dash or Shoo-Fly.' Then I discovered that a sashing strip with one centered square placed between two Churn Dashes would create a Shoo-Fly in the middle! Nifty! And if I played with the color arrangement of our four fabrics a Barn Raising design would appear across the whole quilt. Simple? To make this happen I had to make separate-colored patterns for each block in the quilt, because no two were alike. Oh, well. When we decided to lap-quilt each block separately I decided to use another pieced block, Long Legged Star, for the back of each square so that when the ordeal was finished and the quilted squares joined, we'd have a reversible quilt – Long Legged Star on the back and Fly in the Butter Churn on the front where we'd put a cross-stitched housefly in the central yellow square. Our third raffle quilt was a simpler idea; variations on the Dresden Plate pattern. It resembled a banquet tablecloth, so we called it Dresden Dinner. Since it called for appliqué as well as piecing, however, the construction was more difficult.

LR: Could you maybe, because I don't want to leave this out. How did you get to your design for the big folk-art quilt? You are progressing, I can see as you go. Things are simple, yet very sophisticated.

SH: The idea for the folk-art quilt grew out of a small wall-hanging. One of our members said she and her husband were going to move away, so 5 of us who had known her for a long time decided to make her a wall-hanging, as a parting gift and I was asked to design it. Small and, of course, simple. So, what I did--you know these paper cutouts where each figure is holding the hand of the next, so they form a strip? Well, instead of a strip we made a circle of 6 little ladies, each wearing an apron with space for a signature at the hem. For the outer border we pieced the Spools pattern. Then one fine day as we were finishing the quilting our friend remarked, 'We've changed our minds. We're not going to move away after all.' We all looked at each other. 'So, what to do with the thing we'd made?' So, the 5 of us drew lots for it and Pat Leonard won. She's being interviewed today. Later one of the others said to me, 'I'm one of 6 children but 2 of them are boys. Could you design a boy figure to replace 2 of the girls?' So, I thought the men should be taller than the girls but to make the circle work I want all the heads to be even. 'Let's give the men bent knees.' I gave her the design, but I kept thinking about it. There should be something circular to fill the space at their feet. A hex sign or something like that. Well then, the figures could become Mennonite and Amish. And the hex sign should be big and important with 12 figures around it instead of 6? Then I'd have to draft a 12-sided figure – a dodecahedron!

LR: Wow.

SH: And here is a photo of the big quilt. Having done the center part, I thought what will you put around this? This is kind of a big wall hanging. Suppose it is for a bed.

LR: But it is beautiful. You know what I am thinking is that we cannot put all these pictures on our website where the interview will go but I would like to have them in our permanent files here at the library at the museum so that people can--

SH: I have already given Joan [Knight, Director, Virginia Quilt Museum.] a copy but Joan asked me if I would make copies of these others too.

LR: Certainly, these ones that we've talked about I would like to have in your file here at the museum.

I just wanted because our time is almost running out. I just wanted to ask you about how you--what you think about of quilts in women's history? How important has that been in women's history? How important has that been in America?

SH: I don't feel competent to reply on this subject, so you would probably do well to omit my response. Obviously quilting and other forms of needlework have been both a necessity and a pleasure for women back into pre-history. Women took pride in their creative skills and dexterity even when they were unsung. Today, however, quilting has been promoted and commercialized as never before and has taken on new dimensions. At the same time 'liberated' women have become too busy to experience the ambience and contentment which characterized quilting in their grandparents' day. Many now can delight in learning to quilt with marvelous tools and materials undreamed of even a couple of decades ago. And machine quilting speeds up one's output and produces small, even stitches beyond anything a beginner can aspire to so why bother? The downside of such wealth is the compulsive speed and greed to produce more and more faster and faster. Why not? And who misses the psychological repose which was once the wellspring of creativity?

LR: Yes, yes. Our time is just about up. This has been absolutely delightful, and I want to thank you, Susan, for allowing me to interview you as part of our Quilters' S.O.S. - Save our Stories project. And our interview was concluded at 10:50 a.m.

SH: You are quite welcome.



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