Kay Sorensen




Kay Sorensen




Kay Sorensen


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Salem, Wisconsin


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Kay Sorensen. Kay is in Salem, Wisconsin and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is October 8, 2009. It's now 10:02 in the morning. Kay, thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "In Living Color."

Kay Sorensen (KS): When Jinny Beyer first came out with her palette fabrics I was so excited when I saw them that I had to design something to use them right away. I started out with the second round from the middle. Starting in the center, the star is the first round. The next round is where I began. I used all of the 100 colors. I only had a five inch square of each fabric so it didn't cover the entire square which then made it necessary to come up with something to fill in the hole and that's when I did the appliqué leaf design in the center. After I had made all these pieces I played with them for a while and came up with the idea of the star in the center, which was all appliquéd again using the palette fabric. About this time one of my students said, 'Gee, I know you like Jinny Beyer fabric and she's having a contest. I just saw it in a magazine.' So I found the magazine. I can't say my quilt was designed for the contest. It was almost like the contest was designed for my quilt. I finished the quilt, entered it in the competition and I won First Place Professional with the quilt.

KM: How do you use this quilt?

KS: Right now I have it in my studio and it is displayed on a round quilt hoop on a floor stand. I don't have it in the hoop, I just have it hanging over the hoop. I have so many quilts that a lot of them are not out on display, but this one is currently on display.

KM: Why did you choice this particular quilt for the interview?

KS: I think because it says a lot about me. I'm really all about color. Even before Jinny designed the palette I was using colors in what I call "a color flow order" and I love color. This really speaks of color. It speaks to just about everybody. I think the contrast between the blacks and the grays and the palette colors is what makes it so appealing.

KM: Is this typical of your style?

KS: My style is really all over the place. I've been quilting for over 50 years so I've developed different things as I've gone along. I do find that a lot of my most impressive pieces though do have a Mandala effect, in other words they radiate out from the center.

KM: This quilt is 42 inches by 42 inches, is that a typical size for you?

KS: I guess, again there's no typical size for me because I've done everything from the world's smallest quilt which was documented in Quilter's Newsletter up to the largest piece I've done was 118 inches by 118 inches. I do think my best work is probably in the 50 to 60 inch area for the most part, although two of my really exciting quilts are over 100 inches square.

KM: Tell me about the smallest quilt.

KS: When I was a somewhat beginning serious quilter I took a miniature class. I really didn't want to do miniatures, I didn't feel that was where my interest was but since this was only a half day class I thought, 'Okay, I can devote a half day to taking a class and then I can tell people why I don't like to do miniatures.' What happened was the instructor had us design on graph paper and all of a sudden a light went on in my head and I realized that I could sew on the graph paper and nobody else had done that before so I started a Double Irish Chain in that class and it did get finished. I also came up with two other techniques using graph paper and one of them used strips and although I started with graph paper I actually worked my way down to making my own graph paper with lines that were 1/42nd of an inch apart and that is how I did the very smallest quilt. It is 1.25 inches x 1.5 inches. There are two others that are almost as small.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

KS: Quiltmaking is a big part of my life. It's allowed me to meet a lot of people. It also allows me to express myself. It just is a wonderful part of my life. I sometimes spend a great deal of time daily on quilting, other times I don't have as much time to devote to it. It just fulfills so many needs for me.

KM: You said you've been doing this for 50 years. How did you get started?

KS: I got started the way many, many quiltmakers get started. I was expecting my son and somebody gave me a kit for a quilt. Having more time than money I appliquéd the quilt. I didn't get it finished though because at that time it was hard to find backing, batting, and so forth, so I didn't get it finished until his birthday, his 29th birthday. [KM laughs.] Then the next quilt I did were quilts for my mother-in-law and father-in-law for their twin beds. Again having more time than money and also having a lot of scraps left from being a clothing sewer I made two twin size quilts that were made up of two by four inch finished size pieces and they were Patchwork on both sides and they were tied because I had no idea how to quilt. I used the plain old fashion Mountain Mist cotton batting in them. Fortunately my mother-in-law never used anything you gave her, because if she would have used them there would have been a ball of cotton inside them had they been washed. When my mother-in-law passed away, I again acquired these quilts I took them apart and they are still waiting to be reconfigured and put back together with Patchwork on just one side.

KM: What is your first quilt memory?

KS: My first quilt memory is probably the fact that I started a quilt when I was 13. I had just been sewing for a year or two and I had no idea how to put a quilt together so I just put all these pieces together, various different shapes and had no idea how to put them together and ended up with just a big mess. I can't even really remember the quilt. The only thing I can remember is the wastebasket I threw it in [laughs.].

KM: What made you decide to make a quilt at 13?

KS: Because I had scraps of fabric and that is what I thought you did with scraps of fabric. [laughs.]

KM: Where there quiltmakers in your family?

KS: Yes, and yet I probably wasn't aware of it. My grandmother and her sister each made a quilt tops probably in the 20's, possibly 30's and I do have both of those quilts now. My grandmother's quilt is partially quilted. Since I can no longer hand quilt, I've found a lady who did beautiful hand quilting and she started quilting it, but then her wrists gave out so it is only partially quilted. Her sister's quilt has been quilted. I wasn't real pleased with the quilting job that my quilter did on it so I still haven't bound it, although I will do that. My grandmother's quilt was responsible for reigniting the quilting fires in me. I was one of the quilters featured in Julie Silber's lecture, "The Grandmother Connection."

KM: Tell me about your creative process. How do you go about deciding what you are going to do?

KS: Actually it's the fabrics generally or some type of feeling that starts me off on a quilt. I have a 30 foot design wall and I'll just pull things out of my palette of fabrics and put them up on the design wall. Very often I will pull a whole group of fabrics and if I'm happy with those fabrics I'll start creating with them. I no longer work in a very planned format. Very often I just start designing on the wall. I may start sewing. I may start sewing strips together. I have a lot of strips that are already sewn together so that if I want to do something and I really don't have the energy or the desire to just start sewing things together, I'll just take some of those strips, cut them up and make something from them. It is a way to get me working when I really am not feeling like working.

KM: Describe your studio.

KS: My studio is a dream studio. [laughs.] It's about 1,250 square feet. It is the second floor of our home. My studio has a lot of windows, state of the art lighting, skylights, and a 30 foot movable design wall with 12 inch deep shelves behind it for my major fabric collections. There is space for my many sewing machines. I have many interesting cabinets to store my notions, threads, paints, yarn and tools. It also includes an office and a large storeroom.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

KS: I have belonged to them in the past. Right now I really am not because I live two different places. I belong to a small little guild where I live in Florida and another guild in Florida, but I'm not able to be active in either one of those. [in the past I have been a member of and was very active in Northwest Suburban Quilters in Illinois, Illinois Quilters, Wisconsin Quilters, Studio Art Quilt Associates, Inc., Friends of Fiber Art, and various other art/quilt organizations.]

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

KS: I guess rather than saying I'm drawn to quilters' work, I have two favorite artists and one of them is Yaacov Agam and the other one is Victor Vasarely. Again, it's the color. It's the way they use color. It's the progressions. I'm also drawn to some ethnic art because of the ways they use color. When I was growing up my uncle was in the import/export business and he traveled around the world and he brought back a Guatemalan serape which my mother kept on top of the cedar chest. The beautiful colors and the way they flowed from shade to shade and color to color made an early imprint on me as far as the way I work with color.
KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

KS: I think sometimes they're indifferent because it's something that I've probably done as long as they can remember. [my husband grew to appreciate what I was doing when I first took his advice and named a quilt "Jerry's Quilt."] I can remember my oldest son going to my first solo show and his only response was, 'Oh I didn't know you'd made so many quilts.' I think my other son is probably more appreciative and likes what I did, is more interested than the older son. The grandchildren at one time were very interested. They're at the stage now where they're just too busy with their own activities, although they did appreciate the quilts I did for each one of them for the Millennium.

KM: Why did you decide to make quilts for them for the Millennium?

KS: I had only gotten on the internet shortly before that and through some group there was a fabric trade where you would take 25 squares plus a signature square, send it to somebody and they would send you a similar packet. I thought that sounded like fun. I could have made the quilts without trading with anybody, but I think it just made it a lot more fun. [I traded with 350 people from around the world.] In each quilt I used 2 ½ inch cut size squares and of course I used 2,000 squares, each a different fabric, in each quilt to represent the Millennium. They were arranged in a pleasing color order. They're very exciting quilts and they're approximately king size. They are each finished with a Millennium fabric border that Jinny Beyer designed. The local grandchildren got theirs on Christmas Eve and because of the fear of computers shutting down my other son who ran the computer department for a large company could not leave so on Christmas Day we flew up to Minneapolis with the quilts. We bought three seats on the airplane. One for myself, one for my husband, and one for the quilts and we delivered the quilts to the children up there. The quilts are made for them to sleep under on New Years Eve and other special occasions. They're not every day quilts because I want them to have them for a long time. Along with each quilt they received a journal and the journals are to record where they were, who they were with, anything they'd like to about what they've done when they've slept under the quilts. I made a total of eight quilts because I had eight grandchildren at the time.

KM: Have they written in their journals?

KS: Well, one side of the family has, the other side I really doubt that they have. The ones that do write in it, their tradition is also to sleep under the quilts in the living room, not their bedrooms on New Years Eve, which is where they have the Christmas tree and they take pictures every year.

KM: Very nice. What advice would you offer someone starting out?

KS: I think my advice would be to possibly take a class. Just don't be afraid to do anything. You can only get better and every piece you make is going to be something that somebody is going to get joy out of. You're showing your love for people every time you make a quilt, whether it is for a specific person or whether it's just making a quilt and somebody is going to enjoy looking at it. As I look back at some of my first quilts, I love to share those with beginning quilters because I want people to realize that I didn't start where I am today. Most quilters that are starting today are starting several steps up from where I started. Of course, today quilters have so much more at their disposal. The rotary cutters, the wonderful fabrics, and all the other wonderful tools and things available to today's quilters. When I start thinking about my own quilting and I start getting kind of smug, 'Okay you've gotten so much better and your so much more wonderful than you used to be,' then I stop and tell myself, 'Okay it's the fabric, you couldn't have done that with the fabrics you had at your disposal way back then.' The fabrics and tools get a lot of the credit. Although I have also been working with a lot of hand dyed, hand painted fabrics that I've created recently. I still use a lot of commercial fabric.

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

KS: The biggest challenge is probably deciding what to make, what fabrics to pick because there's just a million choices out there and I think that's possibly where the fact that a class can come in very handy because you've got some direction, you're learning specific things. You are told to do this, to do that, whatever. One of the things that I don't believe many classes are doing today, but I think it was a very valuable experience for the students I had 20 or more years ago was the Sampler quilt. Some people have decided, okay Sampler quilts aren't beautiful, and I don't think that is necessarily true. I think with a good choice of fabrics they can be a very wonderful quilt. Each block in a Sampler quilt hopefully will teach some new technique, some new way of putting fabrics together. Many Sampler quilts also have appliqué blocks. I can remember I had one student and probably she was the only one, she just loved the appliqué blocks. I asked her why she liked them and she said, 'Because when you finish an appliqué block it's the size it's supposed to be. When you finish a pieced block, it may not be the size it's supposed to be.' I think accuracy is important. I'm from the school where I want my work to be nicely done, nicely finished. I'll do whatever I have to do to make that happen and I hope I inspire students to do that too, although I'm not currently teaching.

KM: What did you like best about teaching?

KS: I think just sharing all my discoveries with students and seeing them create beautiful work. Of course the personal contact too. Quilters are the most wonderful people and I have met so many wonderful people through my quilting, both locally and in other parts of the country. This happens whether I was teaching, visiting shows, taking classes or participating in other quilting activities. There is just not a better group of people.

KM: What makes a great quilt?

KS: What makes a great quilt? Okay, that's a very good question. I think one of the things that makes a great quilt is color and I'm not saying any particular color, I'm not saying any particular combination of colors, but I'm saying the way people put the colors together. One thing that of that makes colors work is not a particular color but its value, which I think people have a hard time with. A beginner will probably pick fabrics that are too close in value. We all have particular likes and dislikes. I find it very hard myself to use very light colors. I'm drawn to the medium and the dark colors, but I know that I have to use those light colors and so sometimes it's just that little tiny bit that I wanted to take out but if I had taken that out the quilt would have died. If you ask anybody about the first quilt they saw that got them excited, the first thing they're going to tell you is, 'Oh I saw a red and black quilt,' or 'I saw a green and purple quilt.' They're not going to say I saw a quilt that was made with pattern X or pattern Y because color is the first thing we notice. That tends to be my strong area, working with color.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

KS: I guess I want to be remembered as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, and an artist. And I would have never selected an artist when I was in high school because I was totally turned off to art because of my high school art teacher. When I got to college and had a wonderful design teacher my whole outlook changed, but of course it took me many years to be able to come to the point where I now consider myself an artist because in the intervening years there were other priorities in my life.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

KS: I think part of it is the love of fabric and the love of color, the way I can express myself. There's just, I guess there's a million reasons. There's nothing that gets me more excited than seeing a wonderful group of fabrics. I love to pull fabrics off the shelf and sometimes they will never make it into a project. Sometimes just putting them together is enough of an experience using them. They may get used for something else in a later project. I think the fabrics and the fact that I'm expressing myself are two of the main things that appeal to me about quilting.

KM: What are your plans for your quilts?

KS: That is a really good question because of course I've sold and given away many of my quilts but I still have a large collection of quilts. One of the things that I do think about right now is that when I'm no longer around where are my quilts going to go. There are far too many for my family to be caretakers for so I am currently thinking about where my quilts are going to go so that they would be preserved, appreciated, shown, etc. That's not to say that some of them still won't be sold or given away, but because there's such a large body of work I'm going to have to make some arrangements for the future.

KM: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history?

KS: I think it's one of the few places where women have really had an important voice. Yes there were day to day chores, but nobody is going to remember a clean house, generally they're not going to remember the wonderful food women cook, they're not going to remember how the women helped their husbands in the field, all the other things, but a quilt is a tangible thing that a woman has done and that people can look at and say, 'Oh my goodness yes, didn't she do beautiful work, didn't she have a wonderful sense of color, didn't she love her family enough to make these beautiful quilts for them.'

KM: What do you think is your greatest achievement?

KS: I guess my greatest achievement probably isn't quilting, it would be my family and then quilting would come down the line from that.

KM: What is your greatest quilt achievement?

KS: Probably my greatest quilt achievement has been winning two international competitions. I don't enter a lot of competitions. At one time I did enter my work in a lot of juried art shows. I also entered quilt shows, but I came to the realization that I really didn't have time to do those types of things so I only would enter a competition if it had a prize I really wanted to win. [KM laughs.] I did enter "In Living Color" in Jinny Beyer's Palette competition and I did win a new sewing machine. I didn't realize how much I needed a new sewing machine but when I got it I was thrilled with it. About two years later I was also given another sewing machine by another company who wanted me to use their machine. The second international competition I won was Jinny Beyer's Border competition and for that competition the idea was to use her border fabric for a great percentage of the quilt and the prize for that was an all expense paid trip to her seminar at Hilton Head [South Carolina.]. Since I normally went to the seminar at Hilton Head anyhow, I thought well this would be a contest worth entering because everything would be paid for me. I figured if I could make a quilt in about a month for that competition and win I would do that and I did win that competition too. I won first place in large quilts. Those are two of the biggest accomplishments. The other two that would be right up there would be I've had two solo shows at the Anderson Arts Center in Kenosha, Wisconsin and I'm very proud of that because they always say that your own area is the last place you're recognized. Although my quilts have been shown all over the world, having two solo shows that were extremely well attended in my local area was a wonderful feeling. The first solo show I had was about 13 to 15 years ago and that one set the record for attendance at the Anderson Arts Center.

KM: What do you think of the future of quiltmaking?

KS: I think quiltmaking will continue to be very important. I think there's going to be high points and low points. One thing I see now is the younger people don't have the time to do it because so many young women, and when I say women I know men are quilters too, but the majority of quilters are women, are so busy earning a living and raising a family at the same time that it doesn't give them time to pursue leisure activities in the way that many of us who worked in a different way when we were younger did and I see that the average age of the quiltmaker has increased by quite a bit. Quilting is something I don't think will ever die. I can remember teaching out in, I don't know it was either Kansas or Missouri, and women there were using their grandmother's scrap bag, so quilting had never died in that area. At one time I had all these cotton fabrics and I gave them to somebody because I thought I'm not going to use these cotton fabrics that are left from my sewing days, we've got these wonderful polyester double knits, why would anybody want cotton. Well of course I was very sorry I did that when I became a serious quilter years later. [laughs.]

KM: Have you ever sold a piece and wished you hadn't?

KS: I don't think that I have because if I sold a piece I've sold it for what I feel like it was worth to sell and to be able to part with it. There are some quilts that either don't have a price tag or the price tag is very high and I guess if I would sell those I wouldn't be sorry either that they were in somebody else's possession, hoping that person valued the quilt. I do have a series of quilts that I showed in my last one-woman show that I will not sell unless I sell the entire series. It is called "The Colors of My Life." There are 20 quilts. The grand finale quilt number 20 is three-dimensional. I won't sell them individually. These quilts have a very high cumulative price. The only people who could afford them would be a very serious wealthy quilt collector, a hotel, a business, or a large corporation. There is a cohesiveness of the quilts that is one of the reasons they should stay together, also the fact that it really is the story of the colors of my life. The colors that I used, both the colors and the style and the way I put things together are a result of a lifetime of living and many, many different influences.

KM: Do you often work in a series?

KS: I do, yet some of the series stop after two quilts and then they may resume years later. I work in series. I also work individually. Generally there is a continuation. Even though I don't always work in a series, my work for the most part has my signature on it, people can, and I'm not saying that I signed the quilts, I'm saying it has my color signature, my design signature so people will look at it and they will say, 'Oh that is a Kay Sorensen quilt.'

KM: Is there anything you would like to share before we conclude that we haven't touched up?

KS: I think one of the things I would like to share is that I have completed 349 quilts and when I say completed, every last stitch has to be taken before I count them. I keep a record on an Excel spreadsheet that documents each quilt I've finished. So often people say, 'Oh gee, I don't get anything done,' but I think by having this list of what I've accomplished I know that even though I have other lists of things I'm working on, I know that I have accomplished a lot. I also, below the finished quilts on the spreadsheet I keep a record of what I call "works in progress" and I try to keep that list of "works in progress" below 100. Right now, it's at 85 which to many people would sound like a lot, but when you figured that I worked on these things over a long period of time everything doesn't get done, particularly when I was teaching and doing other work. The last two years I finished a lot of work. In the past two years I've finished 60 quilts. If my list tends to get close to 100 I have two more lists, one is called "rework or abandon" and the other list is "maybe I don't want to finish these." If things get moved to those lists I don't have to count them. Sometimes a quilt doesn't tell me what it needs right away, so it may get put away for a period of time. One of the most recent quilts I finished, I started sewing strips together and I thought this isn't going to work, my corners don't match, blah, blah, blah, well I finished it, the corners don't match, I repositioned things, and it's really a much more effective quilt then it would have been had things matched up. Another quilt I just finished was started 12 years ago and that one again I just wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do when it came to quilting it and all of a sudden it came to me and I did finish it. The other more recent quilts, one was just started a few months ago and the other one was probably started a year or two ago. I'm not in a rush to finish things. I wait until I know what the piece needs. I let my quilts talk to me.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me.
KS: You're welcome.
KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 10:45.



“Kay Sorensen,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2094.