Carlie Nichols




Carlie Nichols


Carlie Nichols has lived her philosophy of quilting, that quilts are for comfort, by giving away most of the quilts she has made. She has dedicated her time to creating quilts for children in need and she has been a champion of Quilts of Valor for many years. Carlie always includes a label on her quilt to preserve and document the history of the quilt for future generations.




Carlie Nichols


Susan Skuda

Interview Date

June 8, 2012

Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Cullowhee, North Carolina


Emma Parker


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Susan Skuda (SS): Hi, this is Susan Skuda and I'm interviewing Carlie Nichols for the Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories project. We are at the North Carolina Quilt Symposium at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. It is 10:07 AM on June 8th 2012. Let's begin! Carlie, thanks for being with us today. Tell me about the quilt you brought with you today.

Carlie Nichols (CN): The quilt I brought with me today is a patriotic quilt, I'm always looking for interesting, new patriotic patterns and this one I designed after seeing a picture on the internet of a quilt that was going to be on the cover of String Quilt Revival. I love string quilts and have made many of them but this one was a little different, so I took the picture, I sketched it myself and I drew it to be a little bit larger and made it into more of a patriotic quilt and it's very patriotic, actually. The stars on the quilt are navy blue, and the border, as you can see, is red, white and blue and it's plainly patriotic. It's going to be a hard one to let go of but I think I'll be able to.

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

CN: Well, it is a Quilt of Valor and since I began working with Quilts of Valor I've been looking for patriotic quilts. And I know it will go to one of our service members or veterans, and from my experience in the last three or four years I realize how much they appreciate them. So knowing that they will go to someone who has given so much for our country means a whole lot to me.

SS: Now you said you work with the Quilts of Valor, can you please tell me about that?

CN: Yes. Quilts of Valor was actually started by Catherine Roberts back in 2003. It's a national effort to honor our military service members and our veterans by given them a Quilt of Valor. I made my first Quilt of Valor in 2004 after seeing some articles, actually in the back of Fons and Porters' Love of Quilting. At that time they were called Quilts for Soldiers and I saw some pictures and I thought, oh, this is really interesting, somebody is thinking about honoring our service members and veterans with these quilts and I can do this. I've made quilts for children and I've made quilts for family members and I can make a quilt, a patriotic quilt. So, I made my first patriotic quilt and I went through the website, because learning how to use the computer was something new for me and it forced me to do it. So I followed the instructions on the quilts of valor website, I found a place to send it, actually it went to Blanchfield Army Hospital in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and I was told not to expect a thank you or anything but lo and behold I got a letter back from the chaplain. And it was a beautiful letter and it came at a very difficult time in my personal life so it was just the kind of motivation that I needed to make some more. So I started another one and I took it to the guild and I showed it for show and tell and told them what I was doing and a short time later they asked me if I would organize a bee, to make Quilts of Valor, and they would take this on as part of one of their service projects and I said "okay" and I set a meeting time, and I thought "oh, this'll be fun, we'll have a nice small group, we'll have about five at my dining room table and we'll just sew and have a good time and make these quilts", so I set the meeting time and 11 people showed up. Now, my house is very small and I knew there was no way I was going to get 11 people around my dining room table so we started looking for a place to meet that would accommodate more, which we were able to do, and pretty soon I had a list of about 25 quilters in the guild who were interested and then it went up to 60 and I was a little bit overwhelmed but I had some good guidance as to how to get organized, and what to do, and we've been going very strong since 2008. January 2008 is when we started.

SS: So is this part of an offshoot of a guild, a specific guild?

CN: It is the Smokey Mountain Quilts Guild in Franklin but we have members from all over Western North Carolina and north Georgia. They asked if I would do that and when I met with the first 11 people they suggested, well, if the guild wants you to do something like this, you need to ask them for support, as in: money (CN laughs)! So we did and they gave us a very, very generous budget for the two years and the years since then. So it helped us get started and now a lot of members provide their own materials and we've had generous donations from the community and community organizations. it's almost to the point where I'm overwhelmed with the generosity of the people in the area, it's been amazing, I never thought that this was going to happen, so it's been really going strong since 2008.

SS: Wow, that's wonderful. How many members do you have now, currently?

CN: Um, we have, I would say, 25 really active ones and then we have other people that I call my cheerleaders and they sometimes can't participate but sometimes they bring me fabric, from, you know, going around to different places--yard sales and thrift stores. So they do that, or they point me in directions for different organizations where I might be able to get some support so not everybody sews but everybody is very supportive and I call them my cheerleaders. And every group needs cheerleaders.

SS: Yes, that's wonderful. Do you have any idea how many quilts your group has produced?

CN: I know exactly how many quilts. We have a very elaborate method of tracking our quilts. We register them, and when each quilt is started it's given a name (or completed, it depends on when we first see it), we give it a number and try to name it at the same time and we know how many we have shipped and how many we've given locally and up until today we have presented 326.

SS: That's fabulous--

CN: And, a lot of times people think "well, that's just a quilt" but it isn't just a quilt. We follow the guidelines for Quilts of Valor and a presentation case, which is a pillowcase but we like the pillowcase, most of the time, to match the quilt. So, that comes with the quilt, a label saying "Quilts of Valor" and a letter of appreciation and we also take a picture. We have a member who is a quilt photographer and for most of my quilt, she takes the quilt, takes a picture of it and has a letter of gratitude that's printed in with the card so when they get the quilt, sometimes it takes them a while to realize that their quilt is on the cover of that card. So that's something very unique, I think, to our group.

SS: So are they presented in person, at other locations? How are they actually presented?

CN: We have tried, because of the cost of shipping, we have really tried to present most of our quilts locally, and I say locally is western North Carolina. From time to time when the district coordinator tells us that there's an urgent need, maybe in--well we sent a large group down to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for a returning marine, well, battalion or whatever, I'm not sure sometimes about the term--the military terminology--but we will send quilts like that occasionally but our main endeavor is to keep them locally as much as possible so with that in mind, we were able to present a large number to... We have a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in Franklin that encompasses western North Carolina so we have worked with them. Also with the Rotary Clubs of Jackson County and Macon County and so we presented a large number of them through the Rotary Club and then the American Legion, we presented 27 quilts to women veterans in Cherokee, North Carolina, most of whom were Indian descent, Cherokee Indian descent.

SS: So where... through these groups, is that how you get the names or the destination for the quilts?

CN: Yes, we work with the president of the Vietnam Veterans organization. They don't actually give us the names, they give us the numbers and then we go to the different events we will write the name of the person on their quilt. And we don't, because of privacy issues and all of that, we don't publish names but most of them want their name on their quilt so we will do that, so that's the only way we really know names.

SS: So have you, you mentioned that you've received a letter, a thank you letter, from your first quilt of valor, I have a feeling that you've probably received more since that time?

CN: We certainly have, we don't expect letters but when they come they are absolutely priceless. I share them with our group and we sometimes cry over them and we just know that they appreciate the work that goes into making a quilt. These are not store-bought, they're not factory-made, they are made by us. Quilting has a very long history in the Western North Carolina mountains and they all know what quilts mean and how hard they are to make, so they really do appreciate them and like I said the letters, and sometimes we get pictures back from them and they really are priceless.

SS: Does any one story stand out in your mind?

CN: Yes, actually it does. It was a quilt that I made with my grandchildren and at the time I had seen some things on the internet about getting children involved and I thought "okay, this is a wonderful way to do this" and I had drawn stencils on muslin of hearts and stars and asked my granddaughters to color them and write a message of thank you--I told them what they were going to be used for--so there were those children's' blocks all in this quilt that I made and I put in our last quilt show and since that time, I don't know, we've gone through a lot of discussion of what's appropriate and what's not appropriate, and I thought afterwards "maybe these childish drawings are not appropriate for a veteran", it just ran through my mind from something that I'd heard or seen, so I know that one was going to probably sit at home for a while until I found the right person. Well, one of our guild members from Franklin was, is working with a prayer shawl ministry and she happened to tell me about a mother in her church whose son is a nurse, or was a nurse, in Afghanistan and he was coming home and he'd had some injuries and they were not battle related injuries, but from lifting patients and he had also seen what war does to children and he has children of his own and when I mentioned to Rosalie what kind of quilt I had, would this be appropriate for Chris and she said "oh, yes!" and then she said "he loves children and these are darling". I mean, they weren't scribbles or anything, they were done well but they were still children's works, so he sent us a picture of the quilt and a very long letter and told us how much the quilt meant to him and that it was like he had won a medal of honor. Takes the breath away. Since that time we've kept up, we'll talk about how he's doing and what's he doing now and everything and the quilt helped him mend in some ways and at least showed him that the people at home cared enough to want to be able to do that for him.

SS: So you continued--continue to be in touch?

CN: Well, we do, through word of mouth. I don't write letters to them but I know she knows the mother who knows the son, so... Mothers kinds of keep up with kids this way, so that's kind of what we do. And that's not the only one; there've been a number of them.

SS: That's wonderful. You mentioned that your granddaughters quilt with you...

CN: Well, they do a little bit. Not too much. I have, they would like to but unless you're right there, they live a good distance away, unless you do it on a pretty daily basis, they don't really do it on their own. But I've planted the seed and they all have quilts I've made, so they know what I do, too.

SS: Do you have any other quilters in your family?

CN: Actually, I was thinking about this, I do come from a rather long line of quilters. My grandmother was a quilter in upstate New York, my mother was a quilter. My father's aunt was a quilter, she was the only quilter and sewer in the family. So, it comes down through the family somewhat but they never taught me how to quilt, the quilts were just there and I grew up knowing how to sew--I told people that I didn't remember when I didn't have a needle and thread in my hand or knitting needles or crochet hooks or something of that sort. I've just always known how to sew or do needlework.

SS: How did you transition into quilting?

CN: Oh man. Well, back in 1992 we were living in Atlanta and my husband when up to Unicoi Park and there was a little quilt shop, a shop of crafts, and he brought me home a gift, and it was a small baby quilt-sized quilt that was all, well, it wasn't machine-made, it was a log cabin, a very rough looking log cabin, all hand-made, and it was in blues and I really liked it and we put that on the back of our sofa and eventually with washing and all that it started to wear thin and started to wear out. And I thought "I need to make another one to take its place" so I got books from the library and I thought "Well, I should be able to do this" and I thought all quilts were hand-pieced and hand-quilted, I just thought that's what they were and that they were made by one person, start to finish. So my first quilt, which is, appropriately named "My First Quilt", is a log cabin block that is totally hand-pieced and hand-quilted. And afterwards, I had laughed about it because it's the easiest quilt in the world to machine-make but not me, I did it all by hand. And I had a sewing machine, so it wasn't that I didn't have the use of a sewing machine but I just thought they had to be all hand-done.

SS: And what year was that?

CN: Nineteen--I started it in 1992 and I finished it in 1998. (laughs) I had a son in there, you know, was going to school and was doing all other kinds of volunteer work, I was not really quilting at the time, I was just doing that at home for something to do in the evenings.

SS: From what you've said, I'm assuming that you have transitioned over to machine piecing (CN laughs) and/or quilting? How did that transition come about?

CN: Yes! After, well, we moved once again, we moved to Nashville, Tennessee and I thought I would like to continue to make quilts and I went to a fabric shop and I just happened to be talking with the lady as I was buying some fabric for something--I was into making crafts too, at the time--and I said "you know, I'd really like to learn how to quilt. I made my first quilt and I'm sure there's any easier way to do what I had done and she said "Oh, we have a very active guild out in Franklin, Tennessee" and I said "Okay, how do I join?" so anyway, to make a long story short, I joined and I went and I started taking classes and I learned you could do these things on sewing machines. So I had an old Kenmore--and I mean an old one--I got when I graduated from college and I started using that but it was one of those that's in a case and it doesn't come and it doesn't move, it's there. I persuaded my husband to let me look at a quilt--a sewing machine that I could transport to these workshops that I wanted to go to so I bought my first sewing machine that was portable then, and that would have been in about '85, about '86?

SS: Do you remember the name of that guild and do you continue to be involved with that guild?

CN: Yeah, it was the Cumberland Valley Quilters Guild and it's in Franklin Tennessee and I think I was a member for about 4 or 5 years before we moved to Franklin, North Carolina, so I took all the classes I could and they brought in well-known speakers and teachers and I just thoroughly enjoyed learning how to quilt.

SS: And then you moved from Franklin, Tennessee to Franklin, North Carolina. How long was it before you found a quilting guild in North Carolina?

: Oh, I didn't agree to move to Franklin, North Carolina until I'd checked out to see if they'd had a guild (CN laughs). We were looking at some other places to move, all over North Carolina and they didn't have guilds and I told my husband that I wasn't moving anywhere where they didn't have a quilting guild. (CN laughs) I know, I know!

SS: And did he appreciate your priorities?

CN: Probably not! (CN and SS laugh) Probably not but it so happened that before we had even fully moved into our first house in Franklin I went to my first guild meeting and was welcomed with open arms, I told them I was a beginner and they said "we have room for beginners" and we'll be glad to help show you the way and so they have.

SS: And so that was... when did you move to North Carolina?

CN: Oh gee, you've stumped me here. We've been here, okay, we moved here in '99 because we've been here going on 13 years.

SS: And you've been active with that guild--

CN: Ever since.

SS: And the Quilts of Valor, is that just through that guild or are you involved in the national association

CN: No, they asked me to be a coordinator or distributor, a coordinator but I know from being in other organizations, volunteer organizations, if you get put in charge of something you don't get to do the thing you really love. My mother's words rang in my ears that if you join and you become a leader, then you don't get to do quilting. And I told them, I want to sew, I want to quilt. I do not wish to be a leader. Now, I have taken some leadership roles in the guild but I really just want to sew and quilt.

SS: I just want to backtrack a little bit. We talked about all the quilters in your family and I'd just like to ask you: what is your first quilting memory?

CN: My grandmother's quilts. My grandmother lived in Watertown, New York. She had a treadle sewing machine, I can still see it, it was in her bedroom in a bay window, and I can hear that little clickety-clickety-click noise from that old treadle machine. On the bed that I always slept in was a beautiful quilt that was, I can't remember the patter, but it had lots of different pieces in it, lots of different colors, with a white background, I do remember the off-white background. And I always had a good night's sleep under that quilt. I never saw her piecing quilts and I never saw her quilting them but I did see them on the beds.

SS: Do you know what became of that quilt, is it still--

CN: Oh, I--all of-- yes I'm sure it's destroyed. In fact I'm sure that all of her quilts were destroyed, as I'm sure my mother's quilts were destroyed, too. People did not appreciate them; family members did not appreciate them. They made quilts just to keep warm and you know, when heat came along and electric blankets and all that kind of thing, they didn't need those quilts anymore. So when my grandmother's house was--they tore down the house and put up a parking lot and I know they all went to the dumps. I mean, it breaks my heart to think that but they did and I didn't realize or I really would have... There were a few things in my grandmother's house I really would have liked to have had but nobody asked, I was a child, you know, so they didn't ask children what they wanted. But unfortunately I did the same with my mother's quilts. I did not appreciate them at the time. I remember my father and I deciding that we needed to get these quilts and my mother's sewing stuff out of the house and we put it in the attic and in storage and we packed them all away in plastic bags in an attic that probably reaches 120 in the summer time and freezes in the winter time. I asked my brother a number of years ago if he had been in the attic and gone through and seen any of the quilts and he said yes, he said they all disintegrated. He said he pulled them out and they all fell apart. So everybody that I talk to, I tell them "don't' store your quilts in plastic bags". I even, with the veterans we tell them, you know, when they think something is too good to keep out I tell them, that's why we gave you this presentation case. If you want to store your quilt, store it in this. Don't put them in plastic bags, they'll disintegrate.

SS: Aside from the storage issue, how do you think quilts can be best preserved for the future? Or what's a good way to, the best way to stress their importance to people?

CN: Well, I think it's really important to document them. None of my mothers' quilts had labels; none of my grandmothers' quilts had labels. Labeling I think would have made people understand that she didn't... where she got the quilts. I know my mother made the ones that I had but I don't know if other people might have helped my grandmother make those quilts or not. Documenting them and maybe finding a member of the family--there's always somebody in the family who will appreciate them. My mother would have appreciated them but they weren't offered to her. I think finding somebody who appreciates them and understands the work that goes into them and has taken the time, and I'll admit sometimes I'll hurry up with the quilts and I don't document them as much as I should but I'm going to try to be better about that (CN laughs).

SS: One other thing you mentioned was the history or importance of quilts in the Western North Carolina region. Could you expand on that a little bit?

CN: Well, it's been really interesting, especially with these older veterans--well, not even the older ones, the younger ones have told me these stories too. When we go out and display our quilts and tell them what we're doing, most of them will say, "oh, my mother had a quilt and the ladies all came over at least once a week and they all worked on it and in between they rolled it up and it hung up on the ceiling and it just was up there and they told us and they'd bring it down when the ladies would come--we just loved it when all the ladies would come and work on the quilts because we got cookies and snacks and we could play under those quilts and we could pretend they were a tent and everything" and I've read books and I've seen other stories about how important, in Western Carolina and even when I was a young child, I remember quiltmakers from Western North Carolina coming to the North Carolina State Fair and every year, they'd let kids out of school. I grew up in Cary, North Carolina and they'd let us out for Fair Day and everyone else wanted to go ride the rides but I wanted to go down to the building where all the crafts and the quilts and the, you know, the folk art kind of displays were. And that's where I spent my time, was looking at them. I loved looking at them and would say to my mother, "one day, I want to make one of these".

SS: I think that's just wonderful, that's just a heartwarming story. Quilts have obviously been a big part of your life, is there anything else you'd like to tell us about quilting or quilts in your life or who's influenced you or just anything about how they've touched your life?

CN: Well, I, this kind of borders on my philosophy of quilting. My philosophy of quilting is a little different. I appreciate art quilts and I realize that there are a lot of--that the trend is in the art quilt realm. I don't make art quilts. I have often said I don't make wall hangings either. I appreciate them and I will buy them, occasionally, but I don't make them. My philosophy of quilt-making, and I started, when I really started learning I made a lot of kid quilts because you can practice on them and children's who are in need, they don't care if my points don't match or my stitches are a little bit crooked, they just want something to snuggle up in. So my kind of philosophy is, it needs to comfort somebody in some way or another. And if I can't sleep under it or if I can't wrap up in it or I can't wrap my feet up in it or my head or in some way use my quilt, it doesn't fit my particular need. That's my thrust and my philosophy. Now, don't get me wrong, I, like I said, I do appreciate the art quilts but I won't be making any because they take too long and I give most of my quilts away now. In fact, almost all of them. This past year, I have made it a goal to make 1 quilt for myself or myself at least once a year, and so far I have made one. I have finished one, actually, I should say because I have a lot of them I've made and I've lost interest in and I put them away. So this year, starting and going forward, I've realized I'm not getting any younger so I need to finish up some of them. But all of the quilts that I'm going to finish up are bed-size, twin-size or comfort-size quilts.

SS: Now you said, I think we just touched on something else that you've done, you mentioned making quilts for children in need.

CN: Oh, yes. That's--that was I did before I got into Quilts of Valor. Through our guild we make baby quilts and children's quilts for KIDS Place that works with abused and neglected children, or Head Start or the hospital. I've also made quilts for Project Linus. When we were toying with the idea of moving to Greensboro, you know, moving from Franklin, actually moving completely to Greensboro, that didn't happen in the end but we were thinking about doing that, I got involved with Project Linus and actually met two mothers whose children had gotten quilts. One was a little boy who was a premature baby in the hospital in Greensboro and the other one was a mother who was in Greensboro after Hurricane Katrina and her children had received quilts through Project Linus and when I heard how much they meant to those children, I was hooked. So one year I, actually it was less than a year, I made over 50 quilts for Project Linus. Not all of them are three-layer quilts, they do a lot of Polarfleece type quilts but they were either tied or turned or somehow--they were called Kids Quilts. I continued making them, I made a good--well, with Quilts of Valor now I can't do it as much but I try to say to myself I make at least 10 for the guild a year. But I used to make nothing but kids quilts. I like making patterns that are quick and easy and what we call "forgiving"--that you don't have to master the quarter-inch completely in order to make them work. So--

SS: What's your favorite quick and easy pattern for other people who might, advice for other people who might want to get involved with this?

CN: Well, it would actually have to be the string quilts. They are easy to make, the way we--we started out making string quilts for the veterans quilts and they liked them because they're not two colors, they're lots of different colors. They can be cut all kinds of different ways and you can turn them into all kinds of different patterns and they're just, they're fun to see how they evolve. And it's, I told my folks "this is not a new technique" I'm also a big fan of Gwen Marston, and I took a class with Gwen Marston when I lived in Nashville and she's very much into liberated quilt-making and string quilts. In the first book that's my prized book, Liberated Quiltmaking, is a gallery of antique quilts from Tennessee, Eastern Tennessee, and they're all string quilts and they're all made from feed sacks and, you know, old scraps and things like that and in the beginning of our Quilts of Valor committee, we got scraps from everybody and they weren't enough to make a whole quilt out of and it was really challenging to make a whole quilt and make the colors match, but in string quilts, none of the colors have to match. So I have a number of folks who just want to make those because their skills are limited and after you turn them over and you cut them to size and you put them all together, you don't know that they, that a beginner made them. So that's probably my all-time favorite.

SS: What advice would you have for someone that wants to get involved in this kind of, the projects... Project Linus or Quilts of Valor. What advice would you give to someone?

CN: Find a group that's already doing it and ask how you can start; we have jobs for people who don't even know how to sew. We always need people who can press fabric, who can organize, make up kits, you know, counting out fabric squares and making up kits, we can put them to work no matter what their skill level is. So, just find a group, ask, and they'll put you to work. There's much to do and very little time.

SS: Do you have anything else that we haven't talked about that you'd like to express? Any thoughts or feelings about quilts in general or the projects you've worked with or just what quilts mean in your life?

CN: Well, I will say that I could not do any of what I have always done in my life without the help of my family, particularly my husband, John. And he reminds me that I make the quilts, he provides the money. And it is true, and sometimes he doesn't know how much money he has provided. I, in fact, the first really ornate quilt I made, I made for him. It did win prizes, it did win a prize, it was what I would consider an art quilt, it is a bed quilt, and he reminds me it's the prettiest quilt, the best quilt I've ever made. But that's his opinion and I'm glad he loves his fish quilt and he's very protective of it and I just, I couldn't do what I do without my family. I've gone through lots of stages in life. This is just one of many. And every time I get involved in something, my family and particularly my husband, has supported me and encouraged me. So, I couldn't do it without him.

SS: Well, Carly this has been an absolutely wonderful interview. Thank you, it's been delightful. I appreciate you coming to talk with us today.

CN: Oh, and thank you for asking me. I'm just honored that you would even want to hear my story.

SS: Your story has been inspirational. I think we'll wrap it up there, it's 10:47, again, thank you so much, just truly enjoyed interviewing you.


“Carlie Nichols,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,