Susan Brittingham


VA24149-001 Susan Brittingham.jpg
VA24149-001 Susan Brittingham 2.jpg


Susan Brittingham




Susan Brittingham


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Riner, Virginia


Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting an interview with Susan Brittingham for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. It was important to me that Susan be included in this project, so we are conducting this interview by e-mail. We are beginning this interview on April 24, 2006. Thanks, Susan, for agreeing to this interview. Please tell me about the quilt that you selected for this interview.

Susan Brittingham (SB): "Root Cellar" was made in answer to a challenge. Sometime in the mid 1990's about a dozen quilters, teachers and shop owners in my area formed a group called Fringe Benefits and we met quarterly to share our work and ideas. We did a few challenges during that time. This particular challenge involved using a word that expressed an emotion as the basis for a quilt. We chose four words: Joy, Anger, Confusion, and Tranquility with which to work. My word and subject was Tranquility.

It was summertime, and I sat out in my lawn chair in the shade with a glass of iced tea in the late afternoon, as an escape from the heat, wondering what I might do for this challenge. I could hear the sound of the creek burbling by the lazy buzzing of bees and the view as I looked before me was a grass and flower covered hill above the Root Cellar.

The root cellar is built into a hill and is a wonderful place to store potatoes and root crops over the winter. The door is surrounded by various flowers, which at that time included day lilies, a blackberry vine, clematis and a hollyhock. We also stored some home canned vegetables in there.

Looking at this scene, I realized that I had found the subject for my 'tranquility' quilt.

This quilt was constructed from the center out, beginning with the interior of the root cellar, filled with colorful jars of food, but seen in deep shadow. The doorway came next. When I was working with the doorway, I quickly realized that I did not have enough of the wood grain print that I had started to use for the door. I looked in fabric stores all around my area to find some more of that same fabric, but found it only in another, lighter colorway. I had to complete the door with the second fabric. This turned out to be fortuitous, as I think the quilt is much stronger for the change of color.

The planks that make up the door have tiny spaces between them. On my quilt I pieced narrow, 1/8" (finished) strips of dark brown fabric between the larger planks.

The stones that make up the wall are individually appliquéd. I hand-dyed a gradation of related tones of taupe and grey in order to vary the color of the stones within a controlled range of hues.

Most of the flowers were appliquéd or embroidered off the surface of the quilt, then attached to the surface. This allows me to control any puckering that might result from heavy thread work on the surface and to have some freedom when I decide on the placement of each element.

"Root Cellar" is a quilt that says something about my life in the country. When it has been shown, I can see that it also speaks to many others who recognize a lifestyle that is quickly disappearing from America. It stirs memories in many who see it, as they think of the times, they spent in their childhood visiting grandma, who might have had her own root cellar. It has received several Viewer's Choice awards, so I know there is something about it which resonates with others.

Unlike many of my other quilts, I did not begin this one from a sketch or photo. It grew organically from the center. I added and subtracted elements as I worked with the concept.

KM: When was this quilt made? You stated that this quilt was not made like many of your quilts. Please share your process for making quilts.

SB: "Root Cellar" was made in 1999.

My process has evolved over the years. In part that evolution has to do with the images I wish to create and developing the skills to make them happen. I feel like my quilts are becoming more realistic. I try to use techniques that will help me achieve a sense of realism. For me, machine appliqué and embellishments seem to work best.

I often work from a full scale sketch or pattern. The pattern can be developed in several ways, but in recent years, I most often begin with a photo of a scene I wish to recreate. From the photo, I make a line drawing, which can be enlarged to whatever size I wish the quilt to be. I use this full scale line drawing in several ways. For the larger pieces, I make freezer paper templates. For areas of detail, I use a process I call "Upside-Down Appliqué."

For Upside-Down Appliqué, I draw my design or portion of a design on tear-away stabilizer. I use this stabilizer drawing, as a pattern working directly on the stabilizer. I can place fabric on the front of the stabilizer, stitch an outline around an object by machine from the wrong side, or upside-down, then trim the excess fabric away, leaving a perfectly sized appliqué shape in exactly the right place. I work through the image piece by piece, selecting fabrics as I go.

This was a technique I was perfecting when I made "Root Cellar." It allowed me to work off the surface and use a combination appliqué and free motion machine embroidery to build various units to add to the surface. The blackberry vine, for example, incorporates a great deal of thread work and embroidery for the berries and the stems in addition to the fabric appliqué for the leaves.

Once the basic image is complete, I can embellish it further by using tulle for shading or adding embroidered details with machine needle lace.

So, the quilt top is completed and most of the embellishment is in place before I quilt the piece. Since I make mostly pictorial quilts, I consider the quilting to be secondary. In general, I want the quilting to be subordinate and not call too much attention to itself which is not to say that I do not put a great deal of thought into it. But the quilting designs must fit into the environment I have created.

Finally, I might add some beading if I think it will fit into the design.

KM: How much time a week to you spend creating?

SB: This is a very difficult question for me to answer, because it can vary tremendously. I would love to be able to say that I work in my studio for a few hours a day, and sometimes that's true, but there are certainly days and days that will go by without getting much done other than thinking and planning.

I tend to work in fits and starts rather than steadily. If I have a deadline or a special project, it will occupy me for many hours a day. Other times it is more like puttering.

KM: I also know you that you teach so how does teaching impact on your creating?

SB: Teaching is a very important part of my life. Often my projects will be related to teaching, some of them very directly. For example, I might wish to illustrate a concept and in order to do that I will need to make a small quilt or at least to make a demo piece to show my students how that concept works. I am a very visual learner, so it is important for me to illustrate with examples as much as possible.

Conversely, a project that I may begin just because I want to may lead to a new class or serve as another example in an existing class. Teaching and creating feed one another.

When my classes are busy, I can spend several hours a day on the internet answering questions from my Quilt University ( students. I try to be very thorough and give my students as much information as I can about the given subject. I think this helps them to make their own decisions about how to proceed. I always want to encourage them to work with their own ideas. One of my main goals is to encourage my students to think about things in new ways and to observe the world around them. Then, if I can provide some help with skill building, they can be free to develop their own images and make whatever kind of quilts they wish to make.

There is no doubt that teaching cuts into time for being creative somewhat, but I also find my students to be an inspiration. They do such wonderful work that it stimulates new ideas for me as well.

Teaching has lead me to be more thoughtful about my own work. When one is trying to explain a technique or an effect to others it requires a deeper understanding of the process.

KM: If you would also give some background on Quilt University for the people that read this interview and don't know what QU is that would also be helpful. Also how did you come to teach through QU?

SB: Quilt University provides classes in quilting through the internet. There are currently 38 instructors offering a wide array of classes in all types of quilting and dyeing and embellishment. Students from all over the world look to Quilt University to provide high quality instruction in subjects that range from traditional hand work to computer quilt programs to landscapes and fabric painting and dyeing. The classes are interactive, so it is far more personal than reading a book. Students can ask questions and receive valuable feedback on their work from the instructor, as well as lots of encouragement from their classmates.

Before a QU class opens, the students receive a password that will allow them into the 'classroom.' This is a web site where all the class information is located. Once a lesson is posted, it remains available for the duration of the class, so no one needs to be at their computer at any specific time.

I joined the QU faculty in 2000, which was probably about 6 months after it began. I was invited to submit a class by Carol Miller, the founder of QU. We had gotten to be friends a bit before that, through online lists and some other organizations to which we both belonged. She knew of my teaching, as I had visited her guild in Richmond, Virginia, and she thought my classes might be of interest to online students.

I was skeptical at first about how my classes would work online. Now, after almost 6 years, I really believe it is a fantastic way for me to teach and students to learn. At Quilt University I do not have to follow the strict time limits of a live class. This allows me to teach everything much more in depth. The students have time to absorb more information as well. If they are able to send in photos of their work in progress, then they also benefit from detailed, thoughtful feedback just as much as if I were standing right next to them.

I appreciate the opportunities that QU has provided me to reach and get to know so many quilters all over the world without ever leaving my home.

KM: What do you teach through QU?

SB: I teach eight classes through Quilt University:

Miniature Landscapes, which introduces some principles of landscape quilt making while working on a small scale,

Machine Embellished Surfaces,

Triple Treat Tulips, an introduction to machine appliqué, Upside-Down Appliqué,

Viewpoints, a class in perspective for quilters,

To Bead or not To Bead, a hand beading class,

On Land and Sea, which is my full-scale landscape class,

and my newest class, Flower Power, which details numerous methods of working with flower images in quilts

KM: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

That is a very difficult question. I don't think there is a simple answer and there certainly is no universal answer. Art is so subjective.

My first thought is that an artistically powerful quilt evokes an emotional response. It may take one on a journey to a different place and time or capture a perfect moment. There are pieces of art that can engage my interest and make me want to stare for hours at them and take in all their intricacies. They have emotional and visual depth.

One of the first things that attracts me to a quilt, or quilts in general is color. I like seeing a sophisticated use of color, color used in unexpected ways to create effects and illusions. Light and shadow define form. When color and value can be brought into play to create a sense of depth and movement, then that is very effective.

I am strongly inclined to appreciate representational pieces. These are the pieces that tend to draw me in and capture my attention. Although I have an appreciation for traditional quilts or innovative geometric quilts, which can be masterful in their use of color and form, these do not often stimulate my emotions on the same level as more representational work. Well done abstraction can be glorious, but it is harder for me to attach meaning to fully non-representational pieces.

The pieces that I love the most go beyond simple representation and something of the artist shines through. There are indefinable qualities, perhaps of light, the interaction of colors, perhaps of line, but which I just call magic.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting art quiltmakers? What

is your biggest challenge?

SB: I think many of the challenges facing quiltmakers have a great deal to do with modern life. Similar challenges can be found facing all forms of art, craft and even sports that involve skill building. Instant gratification seems to be expected from most endeavors. We expect to be instantly entertained and to have perfect results from day one. I feel that there may be fewer people willing to develop their skills over time in order to get superior results from the efforts they put into quilting.

I think that in order for quilters to realize their vision they need to have a strong repertoire of skills. It takes time and effort to build skills.

The current trend in quilting seems to be technique oriented. Lots of people trying lots of new techniques in surface design. Techniques are a means to create images but are not necessarily an end in themselves. Technique cannot take the place of design. So, although it is great to have lots of techniques at one's disposal, I think it is easy to get carried away with trying the newest techniques while losing sight of the goal of creating good quilts.

Modern life also offers so many distractions, that it can be hard to find time for an activity like quilting which is usually solitary and demands large amounts of quiet time for work and reflection.

For me, my biggest challenges include self motivation and distraction. It is difficult for me to stay motivated at times and to keep going into my studio to do the work. When my motivation is low, I tend to start more than I finish and loose sight of my goals.

My second challenge is perhaps so closely related to the first that they might be considered the same. I let myself get distracted by everyday life, cooking, working on the computer, family time and at the end of the day find I haven't spent any time on my quilting.

KM: I can certainly relate to what you have said. Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

SB: The kind of quilting I tend to do when I am stressed in a big way is of the mindless sort, just simple piecing, playing with color and not with big art ideals in mind. But I find this to be very calming. After I have played with my colors and sewn simple seams for awhile, I feel better able to tackle more complex tasks and designs.

If I have a more complex design already going then I can work on that, but it is hard for me to start something new and "serious" if my mind is not at ease.

KM: Are there quiltmakers in your family? What is your first memory of a quilt?

SB: Yes, there have been quiltmakers in my family. Both of my grandmothers made quilts and my mother started quilting rather late in life, after I had left the nest. There were a few quilts around the house. I have a Dresden plate made by my maternal grandmother and another 1930's style quilt, not sure what the pattern is called, made by my paternal grandmother. I value these tangible connections to my past.

My early memories of sewing and crafts are related to other types of sewing. My mother sewed many of my clothes when I was small and I remember the smocked dresses, made of gingham and other 'outfits.' I have memories of fabric shopping at various department stores, because in those days all the nice department stores had large fabric departments. I loved looking at all the beautiful and unusual buttons. I had a button collection. When I looked at my buttons many years later, many of the fancier ones had disintegrated, because they were made of some sort of paste, typical of the time.

I did different types of sewing and embroidery all my life. When I was in my early teens, I had the idea I wanted to make a quilt and sewed together squares of fabric into a quilt top. I used denim and light cottons all mixed together from my mother's scraps. Much, much later, when I was away at school, she made into a tied comforter, bordered with muslin. It is still around somewhere.

KM: Do you sleep under a quilt?

SB: Absolutely! Even this time of year (end of June), I have been sleeping under a lightweight summer quilt. In the winter, I sleep under more than one. There is something just so cozy and comforting about sleeping under a quilt. Add a cat and its heaven.

KM: It's my understanding that quiltmaking is not being taken up much by the younger generation. How do you see the world of quiltmaking in the future?

SB: It is hard for me to say, because I can see two sides of the issue, but on the whole, I see more of what is happening in what is called the art quilt world than in traditional quilting. It may be there is less interest in traditional quilting than there was a few years ago, I don't know, but to me, it seems that innovative, art quilting is tremendously popular and continues to grow.

However, it is possible that quilting and in fact, most crafts may be in danger. On the one hand, in my classes, I see that enthusiasm is high among quilters learning new ways to express themselves. There is a great deal of excitement when quilters who have never worked without at pattern before first experience the thrill designing their own work and expressing their own ideas. Embellishments and surface design techniques are also incredibly popular and are keeping those who are currently into quilting interested. In fact, we have quite a number of artists trained in painting who are entering the field. So, in many ways quilting, or at least "art quilting" seems to be expanding.

When I began quilting, I began with traditional forms and blocks. I still have a fondness of them, although it is not what I do for the most part. But that's what was happening in the quilt world when I began in the mid 1980's, a resurgence of traditional forms. Now, there seem to be more quilters all the time who are skipping what to many of us was our initiation into quilting; time making traditionally inspired quilts. Many new quilters are coming into the field wanting right off to make art quilts. This trend can be seen in shows where the number of quilts entered into traditional categories are dwindling. When people say that quilting is dying, it may be because there are fewer "traditional" quilters than in the past. I am really not sure.

Although there seems to be continued enthusiasm for art quilts, it does seem that most quilters are older. There may not be as many new young quilters coming along. I think this gets back to the pressures of modern life once again. Younger people are not growing up with arts, crafts and sewing. Most of their pastimes are electronic, highly scheduled and directed. I think it will be difficult for them to develop an interest in sewing and quilting as adults when they have no reference for it or similar activities from their youth. One thing about quilting, it requires a bit of patience and skill development. It is not really about instant gratification. I think that may be what keeps some people away in the future.

Quilting is not the only activity that seems threatened, but most crafts and even sports that require a long period of skill development are in jeopardy. My husband is a wind surfer. Wind surfers are lamenting that their sport may be dying. Younger people do not seem interested in spending the time it takes to learn the sport. Much like quilting.

I think that it is important for parents and grandparents who quilt, to introduce the craft to their children and grandchildren. Let them play in the fabrics, make their own quilts and learn to love the creativity that quilting provides. Because the possibilities are truly endless.

KM: How do you see the world of quiltmaking in the future?

I think we are seeing some future trends now. More and more people are turning to art quilts and expanding the medium to include a wide variety of painting and surface design techniques. This seems to be the segment of quilting that continues to grow.

Quilting is no longer a skill closely related to survival, as it was in earlier times. I think that now its main function is becoming art. Many of us still enjoy making utility quilts from time to time, quilts meant to keep us warm, but the urgency of need is not usually our motivation, it is the urge to create. As long as there are some quilters willing to continue to create in this way, it will endure.

KM: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in the U.S.? And the world for that matter.

SB: Needlecraft has always been one of the main ways in which women expressed themselves. Any cursory look at history shows us how few outlets there were for women in most fields of endeavor. They were not allowed to become painters and architects, but they could make beautiful things from fabric and thread, with their quilting and embroidery. Even the most humble utility quilts were an opportunity for those with the desire to do so to arrange colors and shapes in a pleasing manner. Functional objects of all kinds were made beautiful by the efforts of women working by hand. When one considers how hard life was even 100 years ago, that is amazing. I think among other things, it shows an irrepressible urge to create.

Women's history prior to the twentieth century is not mainly about war and politics. With few exceptions they were not often decision makers. Quite often the only place the ordinary woman might express her views was through needle work. The history of women is about survival in a harsh world where they often had little say about their own lives and future. How many women supported themselves and perhaps their families working as seamstresses, or in textiles? How many poured their feelings of grief into mourning quilts or their worries into the quilts they sent off with their sons and husbands as they went to war? Many quilts were made to keep their families warm; the work being done by candlelight after a hard day's work.

Historical quilts are valuable, irreplaceable artifacts that give a glimpse into the lives of women, before they had much of a place as active players in history. Whether functional or decorative, tattered and worn, or in pristine condition, these quilts tell us something significant of women's lives.

We can also look at quilting as more than just a handcraft but also as a business that has grown in the past 20 years into something huge. Many, many women have made quilting their business and that has given them power within their communities.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker?

SB: I don't often think in those terms.

I have respect for quiltmaking skills and think they encompass a great deal of artistry. I firmly believe quiltmakers use the same skills as other artists in their work and there is not really any kind of dichotomy between art making and quiltmaking.

My classes involve a lot of art concepts which I believe are helpful for quiltmakers to learn in order for them to convey a sense of space, distance and realism if that is what they want to do. I read and study books on different art disciplines, like drawing, painting, perspective and architecture in order to understand concepts for creating spatial effects in those mediums and try to translate them into techniques I can use for quilting. Whether painting, drawing or quilting, it all comes down to light and shadow, value and color.

I think a lot about what I do and how to do it. I enjoy analyzing my work, both while in progress and after the fact to figure out what works and what doesn't and why. When I am in the middle of working on a piece, building it on my design wall, I have passion for the process and go where the quilt takes me, but I am thoughtful about it for all that and sometimes spend as much time looking and thinking as I do sewing.

I guess if pinned down, I would have to say I think of myself as a teacher.

KM: Susan, I want to thank you for taking your time to allow me to interview you. You've been wonderful. Is there anything else you would like to add?

SB: Thank you, Karen, for your time and interest.

I hope that my love for the art and craft of quilting has come through. Quilting has enriched my life and continues to do so. It has been a pleasure over the years to meet so many wonderful people through quilting, both in person and over the internet.

KM: Me, too. My Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Susan Brittingham concluded on July 2, 2006. Thanks again.



“Susan Brittingham,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,