Nancy Dickey




Nancy Dickey




Nancy Dickey


Donna Mikesch

Interview Date

November 3, 2011

Interview sponsor



Houston, Texas


Alana Zakowski


Donna Mikesch (DM): This is Donna Mikesch and today’s date is the 3rd of November, 2011 and it is 10:28. I’m conducting an interview with Nancy Dickey for Quilters’ Save Our Stories a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. Nancy and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston [Texas.] Nancy, will you tell me about the quilt you brought today please?

Nancy Dickey (ND): I brought my quilt called “Transformation” with me today. It’s a small-sized art quilt that was originally done to enter in the Hoffman Challenge. I do this challenge each year and I enjoy it because it gives me the opportunity to work a little bit outside of the box, and it challenges me to use the fabric that’s designated and try and come up with an original idea for the quilt.

DM: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

ND: I like this quilt because I have been wanting to make a design using art, or graphic design, tools, whether it was pens or pencils, paint, tubes of paint, watercolor, and so forth. For this quilt I enjoyed starting with the tubes of paint, knowing that the theme was butterflies and then trying to tell the story of how the paint, starting in a black and white mode, came out, became colorful, and transformed into the butterfly patterns.

DM: So the butterflies were already on the fabric, is that correct?

ND: Butterfly wings were on the fabric.

DM: Ah ha, that’s right.

ND: Although I usually try to take the annual Hoffman theme fabric and use it in an unusual way, this particular butterfly design seemed to fit. The paint tubes represent what I consider some basic traditional beginner starting quilt patterns, and as the patterns flow out of the paint they become a little more complex, they pick up a few more colors, then they start incorporating the Hoffman Challenge fabric, and then pretty soon they turn into more or less realistic butterflies that actually are flying free from the binding of the quilt. To me, it kind of described the journey that quiltermakers take when they first start out from simple patterns and work their way up, becoming more creative and more experienced with color and pattern until they actually test their wings and do original designs.

DM: How do you use this quilt and probably add into that question, what are your plans for this quilt?

ND: As I said, I made this quilt for the Hoffman Challenge in 2004, entered it, and won first place in their appliqué category, which was nice. Then it traveled for a year with them. When it came back, I entered it in a couple of other quilt shows, including the IQA Quilt Festival here in Houston [Texas.] where it won second place. Then I semi-retired it to incorporate it into part of my lecture. I give a lecture called “Creating a Winner” that features one of my larger quilts where I explain to the viewers how I made it, what the thought process was, how I auditioned the fabrics, how I decided on a quilt design, and so forth. Then after I have completed the lecture, I have a small trunk show and this is one of the quilts that I use to show additional samples of my original work.

DM: Let’s go on to, tell me about your interest in quiltmaking? What age did you start?

ND: I started in about 1982 or 1983 getting interested in quiltmaking, which would put me at about my early thirties. I was subscribing to a couple of decorating magazines at the time and one of them featured a quilt used as a tablecloth. I thought, “Oh that looks like such a charming country look,” and I thought that would be really fun to have. I looked at some quilts in the stores, and I thought, “Oh I can do that.” I went home and raided my mother’s dressmaking scraps and went back to my apartment and tried to make a sampler quilt. It worked pretty good. I picked out six designs and I managed to get four of them put together, not realizing the other two were advanced patterns, so at that point I had to break down and take lessons so I could finish the quilt.

DM: That runs us into the next question, which is, from whom did you learn to quilt?

ND: From a lovely lady who was teaching at one of the local quilt stores in Dallas, Texas.

DM: Who was that?

ND: I don’t remember her name, I’m sorry.

DM: At least she was a lovely lady.

ND: She was very lovely. We made blocks from scratch (by hand), making templates and hand piecing and quilting; everything traditional, the good ole’ fashioned way by hand, which was a great experience.

DM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

ND: At this point, it varies, but on average I’d say, 25 to 30 hours. Now, that could be more or less depending on if I’m making a quilt for a deadline, a challenge, a quilt show, or a gallery show - then I will put more hours in as needed to complete my project.

DM: How did this quiltmaking impact your family at all?

ND: I’m not sure how it impacts them; we each seem to have our own activities and interests, so I guess it would impact in a positive way in that when everyone else goes to their corner to do their own interest, I have mine as well [laughs.]

DM: Good.

ND: So it all works out pretty well.

DM: Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

ND: No, fortunately I haven’t had too many difficult times.

DM: That’s nice. What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

ND: What attracted me to quiltmaking in the first place was that it was portable. I could take it with me to guild meetings, to sit-and-sew at other people’s homes, or to community centers. It was a very social activity. I had just started quiltmaking after ten years of being a calligrapher, and doing various arts and crafts before that. With something like calligraphy, painting, or watercolor, you have to set it all up and you have to get out the pens and the inks and the water and sit at the drawing board, but with quiltmaking you could put all the little pieces of fabric in a basket and tote it with you. If the phone rang or you needed to get up and make dinner, or whatever, you just stop the needle and get up and go. So it was very easy to keep going and be able to work on it anytime that I wanted to, whenever I wanted to. It was fun. I found out that quilters traded patterns, shared fabric, etc. It was just fun. It was a lot more of a social activity, so that kind of got me hooked, along with the patterns and the fabric colors and everything else.

DM: What aspects of quilt making do you not enjoy? Are there any?

ND: [laughs.] Well, I guess the least enjoyable is. . . . well, maybe I should start with the most enjoyable, and work my way down. The most enjoyable for me is going through the process of thinking up the idea and creating the design. Then, the next step after that would be deciding the colors, selecting the fabrics, deciding on what technique to use, and then getting started and seeing the pieces begin to come together. At that point, I’m pretty much “done” [laughs.] The least enjoyable is then having to sit there for the following several weeks or months and actually complete the thing. Same with the quilting. It’s another fun design challenge for me to think up how it should be quilted. Since I come from a graphic design background, I’m perfectly happy with a completed top looking nice and pressed flat and pristine, but then to make it into a quilt I have to actually quilt it. Again, once I think of the design idea and start quilting it, and it begins to looks great - then there comes the following hours, or weeks, to complete it.

DM: To get it finished.

ND: To get it finished.

DM: Do you hand or machine quilt?

ND: I know how to do both, and in fact I’m currently working on a hand quilted project for an antique top that I bought, but I do it a little bit at a time and it sometimes takes me years to finish a quilt. Basically, I guess at this point I do more machine work because I have so many ideas and I would like to see them completed. I have tried to educate myself in doing machine work skillfully for my quilts, so they can get done, especially in time for a deadline.

DM: Have any advances in technology influenced your work, and if so, how?

ND: I’d have to say probably “somewhat”. I’m pretty open to trying new sewing or art techniques, although I haven’t settled on any particular [electronic] technology to stick with that would help me to develop a style. I do know that when I research my ideas, it is nice to be able to sit down at the computer and look up more information on the internet. I usually add to this by going to the local library and actually getting some books to peruse through, but the internet can really get me started doing that. As far as other technology, I just think that all of it combined presents a nice array of new techniques/tools to try out. I like to learn these so that when I interpret my own ideas, I have different styles and processes to choose from to depict the story I’m trying to tell.

DM: Since you mentioned techniques, do you have any favorite techniques and materials?

ND: At this point, I seem to always keep coming back to some form of appliqué. Whether that’s hand or machine, turned edge, broderie perse, etc. I’m even getting a little bit into the raw-edge look as long as I’m sewing the edges down. I’m also branching out. As I said, I used to do calligraphy, so now I’m trying to learn how to incorporate letter forms onto the fabrics and combine all of that with a little bit of paint technique to graduate from strictly a graphic design look into a more painterly, artistic look.

DM: Describe your studio, the place you create.

ND: My studio is an extra room in the house. I have wall-to-wall fabric [laughs.], tools, and embellishments. I do have a design wall that I’ve had for years that I use consistently; I think that’s one of the major items that should always be incorporated into a studio. It’s one way to put all of your pieces up, or your drawings, then step back and look at them so you can get an idea from a distance whether the creation is balancing, or if the colors are working together. You can assess visual impact when it’s on a wall rather than on a table or the floor.

DM: The floor.

ND: Believe me, I know from experience [laughs.] Something will look great on the table, but once I hang it up on the wall, it doesn’t quite look the same.

DM: I understand.

ND: I use my design wall constantly. There are all kinds of things you can do on a design wall that make it more effective to get the correct perspective.

DM: Vision of it.

ND: Vision of the quilt.

DM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

ND: I think a great quilt, for starters, needs to have a positive impact on the viewer. It needs to have great color and really, other than color, it needs to be a great design. By that I mean, it incorporates traditional design elements, like balance, composition, you know, line.

DM: I think you’ve covered the artistically powerful aspect of this. Is there anything else you wanted to add on that, the impact?

ND: Yeah, the impact. One of the things for me that makes a quilt artistically powerful is when - and I’m thinking in terms of being at a quilt show where the quilts are hanging on a wall - I walk around the corner and look up and go, “Oh my gosh, look at that quilt!” It’s usually the design and the color impact that draws me in. Once I step closer to the quilt, it’s nice to see techniques that are used. When I get even closer it’s nice to see the quilting stitches, and if I can possibly lean over the ropes [laughs.] and get really close, it’s fun to see embellishments like tiny beading, or crystals or whatever they put on it. What also makes it powerful for me is if the quilt has been skillfully done. If the craftsmanship is done well. In other words, if the border is crooked, I want it to be really crooked and I want to be able to feel that that’s part of the design and that it was intentionally done. I don’t want to walk up and see a quilt that looks like it’s supposed to be hanging flat and straight, but it’s not. I don’t want to say every point has to match and that kind of thing, because it depends on the quilt, the style of the quilt, and the story the quilt is trying to tell. Whatever it is, I want to feel that the artist did it with enough control, and in the best technique possible, to tell what message they’re trying to get across.

DM: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

ND: I think that would be a combination of your previous two questions of what makes a quilt great or what makes a quilt artistically powerful. I think museums and special collections traditionally try to collect the “best of the best”, whether that’s a traditional quilt, an art quilt, an art quilt/contemporary quilt, or whether it’s pieced, appliquéd or done in some other technique. I just think they want it to be a good representation of the best that can be done at that time when they’re collecting.

DM: I think probably you’ve answered what makes a great quiltmaker in the artistically powerful, but do you have something else to add to that?

ND: Just to sum it up, I would say a great quiltmaker is one who takes the time to think about their composition and to learn about the art elements/design elements, and then to take the time necessary to execute it according to where they feel confident that they’ve done their best.

DM: What works are you drawn to particularly, and why?

ND: I’m actually drawn to a little of everything, from traditional to whimsy, to some of the landscapes. Just a variety. I think if I see a quilt that interests me, it isn’t necessarily one category, it’s just if the design and the color and the impact appeals to me. I’ll stand there and look at it whether it’s a miniature or a huge quilt. Really it’s the color, techniques, the subject matter, and good workmanship that interests me.

DM: Is there an artist or any artists that have particularly influenced you in your work?

ND: I will say over the years I’ve taken quite a few classes, all of them have been good and I’ve learned something from each instructor. I can’t possibly list all of those. I will say my current favorites are Jane Sassaman, who has a very graphic design style. At the moment I’ve become fascinated with Leslie Gabrielse, who’s from Europe, and his style is a combination of illustration and a painterly technique, in other words he incorporates paint with fabric and hand embroidery and it makes for a very interesting result. Before that, I guess in general as far as the old masters, I’m influenced by Impressionism, which reflects really great use of light and colors, especially Claude Monet. My favorite artist is Henri Rousseau, a French Post-Impressionist painter in the Naive style. I also like Surrealism because the artists seemed to be working with a concept and coming up with original twists of reality, which I appreciated.

DM: We’ve talked a little bit about machine versus hand quilting; I think we’ve covered how you feel about that, but what do you feel about longarm quilting?

ND: In the beginning, of course, I learned to do everything by hand, so for years I was convinced it wasn’t a quilt unless it was all done by hand. Over the years I have seen some excellent machine quilting, and usually once I see a new style done well, then I start gaining appreciation for it. At this point, I believe I am perfectly comfortable with hand, or machine, or longarm. I do appreciate - especially with the longarm - when the design still consists mainly of free motion quilting and where the designs have been created by the owner of the longarm. I am especially pleased when the artist quilts their own quilt or, in reverse, where the longarm artist has actually made the top that their quilting is on. In other words, they completed the whole quilt themselves.

DM: Right. Let’s see here, why is quiltmaking important to your life?

ND: It’s important to my life because I have always been interested in artistic endeavors. Quiltmaking particularly fits the bill because I can incorporate designing my own original work along with social interaction with other people. And at this point it’s become what I do other than my regular daily life routine. It’s become a large part of my life.

DM: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life? Also maybe we could throw in there what special meaning for women’s history do you see in America?

ND: I think it’s great to have something in particular that does represent women. Almost everything in America can be done by either men or women, but I think over the years, and also over the last several hundred years, quilts have been mainly made by women and it’s nice that they are still being made today and showcased as something that women do particularly.

DM: I think you’ve answered how quilts can be used type of thing, but how do you think quilts should be preserved for the future?

ND: For preserving quilts, I think part of it is in the hands of the vendors. In other words, companies that manufacture fabric have come a long way in creating fabric that doesn’t bleed, light-fast fabric, and higher quality fabric. I think that goes a long way. Threads also are non-bleeding, stronger, and just higher quality in general.

DM: Starting again, do you have a thought to finish there? [laughs.]

ND: I was talking about fabrics and threads that had color-fast dyes and non-bleeding and I was going to also mention what I call supporting products that quiltmakers use now, that won’t stiffen or discolor with age, like fusibles, interfacings, glues. A lot of those products are now acid free and archival quality. As far as individuals preserving quilts, I think it’s still a matter of educating people in caring for a fabric object in general.

DM: What has happened to the quilts that you made? Are those with friends and family?

ND: I really don’t know the answer to that for all of the quilts. I do know that some of the baby quilts that I made for people actually made it up onto the childrens’ walls [laughs.] and they grew up with those quilts on display for a while. I know a large quilt I made for my godson when he graduated from high school is still being used on his bed, and he’s now 26 years old.. So that’s nice to know it’s appreciated.

DM: That’s great

ND: It’s still in existence [laughs.]

DM: Well I do know that I have purchased one of your quilts at an auction, and it dominates my studio, so---

ND: Oh, great.

DM: Just thought I would add that to the interview.

ND: That’s great.

DM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quilters, quiltmakers today?

ND: The biggest challenge? There’s a lot of ways that can be answered, so I’ll just jump in first for the overall quilt industry, we covered it a bit just a moment ago but, preserving the quilt materials to more archival status, preserving quilt traditions and history which is what the S.O.S [Save Our Stories.] Project is trying to do now, and continuing education by groups, guilds, and quilt shows. For the general public, it would be to let them know that traditional quilts are still being honored today, and that those techniques are still being passed down and taught to younger generations. And also educating them that quilts can be art and that they have more uses than just being on a bed.

DM: Alright, I would like to thank Nancy for allowing me to interview her today for the Quilters’ Save Our Stories Oral History Project. Our interview concluded at 10:59. Nancy wanted to add one more thing to our interview.

ND: When you asked me the question about what is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today, I answered in the broad quilt industry, but also I wanted to throw in challenges for the individual. With all the array of techniques out there and new tools and possibilities, one challenge is just deciding where you fit in with everything. It’s about learning to be comfortable with that, learning to understand what’s out there and how you can grow and learn to do new things. I also think part of the challenge for individuals is to be more open about accepting the diversity of quilting, which would refer to both traditional and innovative art quilts, and get away from the “us versus them” attitude that comes out sometimes. For those who want to be original and innovative, take the time to learn good art principles, so that you will have a quilt or fiber art piece that you are truly proud of and can stand the test of time and possibly become a museum piece.

DM: Alright, at this point we will conclude the interview, it is 11:01.


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