Patricia Cox




Patricia Cox




Patricia Cox


Heidi Rubenstein

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Annette Becker


Edina, Minnesota


Heidi Rubenstein


Heidi Rubenstein (HR): This is Heidi Rubenstein. Today’s date is May 30, 2012. We started the interview at about 10:05 a.m. I’m conducting an interview with Patricia Cox for Quilters’ Save Our Stories project in Minnesota. The interview is taking place at Patricia’s home in Edina, Minnesota. [this introduction appears later on the tape recording].

Patricia Cox (PC): [indicating her touchstone object quilt] Bernice Enyeart, who lives in Indiana, wanted to make one of these [Baltimore Album Style Quilts] and I said to her that most of the ones I had seen didn’t really interest me very much. They were kind of a mish mash of blocks, but when I saw this exhibit and saw some of the best examples of the genre, I offered to draw her a design. For the next two years we worked on the quilt that she made and then it was exhibited at Houston and made the cover of Quilters Newsletter. Since then, I’ve been very interested in that particular style of quilt. The original ones had blocks that meant something to the maker. That’s the genesis of my teaching of it. Not just a replication of the antique blocks, which is what Elly [Sienkiewicz] teaches. I want people to pick out blocks that mean something to them. I’ve been teaching Baltimore Style Applique in England for twenty years. This [touchstone quilt] started over there as part of my teaching. I have the eagle, [pointing to one of the blocks] which is my country of course. The two top blocks have the English birds in them. That’s a little English robin and the other is a blue tit on the other side, which are very common British birds. Down at the bottom I’ve got the swans. England has a lot of swans on their rivers. Down here I put the loon for Minnesota, and the lady slipper, which is our state flower. I grow a lot of flowers, as you probably gathered trying to get in the gate [laughs.]. So, there are flowers on here but there are strawberries and cherries and grapes and plums, which I’ve had in the yard through the years. All of these wreaths: there’s the plum and the strawberry and cherry and grapes. So, there are those four wreaths. And then the cornucopias are, of course, for plenty. In the middle is ‘Bless this House’ for my home. And then the house and down here my husband’s name and mine. Since he is of German Irish background, I did the scherenschitte blocks, which are the red ones. Just mostly flowers for the rest of it because that is a lot of what I do. Oh, the music: my husband and I both play the piano and we’ve done a lot of duo piano programs. The harps are for our music, and of course, the pineapples for hospitality. That’s the meaning of the blocks. So, this quilt has a lot of history and a lot of personal things in it.

HR: It sounds like for every block you thought of some connection.

PC: Yes. When I came back originally from England, I did not have the eight blocks in the middle. I was going to try and get by with only twenty-four. Then my class said to me that it looked too bare in there and I had to do something, so I wound up with the thirty-two blocks that are in it. It has a double swag border on it. One of them has houses on it, which again is just symbolic of home and hearth. This may be the one I’m going to give to Lincoln. I haven’t quite decided. They want something that has a personal history with it. I don’t know whether Vici [Victoria Miller] told you: I recently donated 53 quilts to Lincoln. They asked for one of mine and I’m still wavering as to which one to give them. But this maybe it because this is the most personal one, I have. Mary Brown is a museum quality quilt, but it doesn’t have the personal history with it. They didn’t want the quilt my grandmothers gave me. It was too tattered [laughs.] They asked for it, but I said it was all worn out. That was how I got into quilting, because I loved that quilt, and I basically loved it to death and my mother gave me a stern lecture on why hadn’t I taken better care of it. I didn’t know how to take care of a quilt back then. It’s tattered and torn. It’s had a sad life, a long happy one, but they decided they didn’t want it [laughs].

HR: Did you start this one in England?

PC: Started in England, then America. It was worked over about five years in both places. I dragged it back and forth for years. It was to show them. What I taught them in England was basically applique and scherenschitte and broderie perse. Oh, incidentally, this has broderie perse in it. It has cut out flowers. [indicating the center of her touchstone object quilt] We did a basket of flowers. We did three-dimensional flowers. So those were the things that I taught them that were the techniques of the Baltimore Style Quilts. They turned out some nice quilts. We’ve had quite a few that actually finished them. Over there the first five years were very tough because I was an American teaching in England. In the first place, I got the job because the English teacher was very strict and very ‘you do it my way or forget it.’ And the class mutinied and said they didn’t want her anymore, so the director of the Residential College had heard that I was teaching over there, and he called me and asked if I’d be willing to come and teach. Fortunately for me, he connected me with an English teacher. Now she was not a quilter; she was an embroiderer. Very high up in the embroidery hierarchy in England, on the board of the Embroiderers’ Guild. She was invaluable as far as I was concerned because she had all the English connections. We clicked. We worked very well together. The local opposition and the local teachers were very much against my being there. As I said it was tricky being there. The first couple of years I had a whole bunch of English teachers and, of course, they are difficult to teach. They don’t really want to be taught, that is [laughs] some of them. And they were from London, which made a big difference too. I don’t know if you know anything about England, but there is quite a class system there. This was up in Lancashire which is two-thirds the way up the country. It was like the people in Los Angeles and New York think that we are fly-over country [in Minnesota]. Well, that’s what Lancashire is for people from London. You don’t go there. Nobody goes any higher than the middle level of England. So, Lancaster was unchartered territory for most of those people going north. Betty, my co-teacher, was a saving grace and smoothed the way for me. We had students there for the last fifteen years who came back every year. I’m still teaching some of them. I go over to Exeter, which is down in the south because that’s where some of the people I taught came from. They’ve set up a week of teaching for me. It was a wonderful experience. I’ve taught all over England, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Arran. I met a lot of English people and had a lot of experiences, good and bad [laughs.].

HR: Was it your original idea to go and teach there?

PC: It started because I’ve been going to Houston ever since Karey Bresenhan started running the show herself. One morning I just happened to be passing by this table where a couple of women were having breakfast and I stopped to say hello and they were from England. One of them asked me if I’d like to go teach in England and I said sure. They arranged the tour for me. I started teaching there in 1989. I went all over England, and I met a lot of people. In fact, Barbara Chainey, who is a very well-known English quilter, became a good friend. We have remained friends ever since I taught in her area, which is Staffordshire, the first year I was there.

HR: So that was about the starting date for this quilt also? 1989?

PC: Yes, I did start this one about then because I think the finish date of this one is 1995. That’s on the back of the quilt.

HR: I think we’ve covered everything for the quilt that you have with you. Before we go to the next question, I’ll give some information about this interview, so we have it on the tape. This is Heidi Rubenstein. Today’s date is May 30, 2012. We started the interview at about 10:05 a.m. I’m conducting an interview with Patricia Cox for Quilters’ Save Our Stories project in Minnesota. The interview is taking place at Patricia’s home in Edina, Minnesota. Patricia just finished telling us about the quilt she has here at her home today. The next part of the interview is about your involvement in quilt making and how you got started. I’m wondering what age you started quilting.

PC: I’m not really going to tell you that because the minute people start talking about age, they assign certain impressions to that. I’m like Gladys Raschka. Gladys never told anyone how old she was until she retired from the shop. I’ll just say I’ve been working at this for over forty years, let’s put it that way. The interest started when I got scolded for not taking care of the original quilt that I had. So, I started looking around for somebody who knew something about quilting. This was in the late 1960’s and there were no visible quilters around. I advertised in some small-town newspapers trying to get in touch with some. I got about three replies. One was a little old lady over in Wisconsin. She was in her eighties, and she had been quilting all her life and she was willing to show me a few things about it. She was, of course, from the 1930’s when you pieced pieces, and you made every little scrap count. I had decided that I did not want to do a two-inch square that had three seams in it. I went on from there, kind of self-taught. In the late 1960’s, early 1970’s I was working with a group in Kenwood, which is an area of Minneapolis, that was raising money for Children’s Hospital. The Pinocchio chapter was there. They decorated a house for Christmas each year. They sold admission to the house. They sold everything we made for it and the instructions. One year they wanted to make a quilt. They did a quilt-as-you-go one. Everybody did a block and we put it together. The gal who did it said never again. So, the next year I designed a quilt, and we raffled it off at the house. That has led to teaching because a lot of these young women had never done anything and I’d been working with stitching since the time I was a little girl. My grandmother would come and visit in the summer, and she’d always bring something for us to do. I started hand hemming linen dishtowels and went on to do all different types of embroidery and sewing. She was not a quilter. She used to buy quilts from the women at the church that she belonged to. I have several of those quilts that my mother was left, half a dozen of them. I knew a lot more about sewing than many of these young women did, so I started being the teacher. This was the beginning of everybody getting ready for the bicentennial in 1976: ‘Oh, we want to make a quilt for the bicentennial.’ So, I started teaching with little four-lesson classes, and I was just barely one step ahead of the students, really. Then over in St. Paul Jeannie Spears, who had also gotten interested in quilting, put an ad in the paper and asked for those that were interested in quilting if they wanted to come to the YW [YWCA] over in St. Paul. There were about eight of us that showed up for this. It grew from there. Jeannie and I travelled the country for three years. She had a camper, and we went from Toronto to Washington to Mill Valley out in California to every show that was around trying to learn how a quilt show was put together. Jeannie had very big ideas. If it weren’t for her, there wouldn’t be a Minnesota Quilters. It was her idea to start the organization and to have a quilt show. This was a group of 20 women by that time and we put on a quilt show in 1979, The Winter Fantasy. We had all the well-known teachers at the time. We had the Gutcheons; we had Michael James; we had Virginia Avery; we had Carter Houek. We had most everybody who was known in quilting come and teach at this. We had no money. Two hundred dollars was our kitty to run this show. We had to guarantee about a hundred rooms at the hotel over in St. Paul in order to get the space to set up this show. It was quite an experience because we had temper tantrums from Michael James. We had temper tantrums from Joyce Auferdide who had a quilt collection in southern Minnesota, and she didn’t think she was getting as much recognition as she deserved which was probably true because we were so busy running this thing that we didn’t have time to cater to people. We did the show and we wound up with two hundred members for Minnesota Quilters and actually made a profit of just under $3,000 after paying all the teachers who came. After going around the country and talking to all these people I’d said if we made money I’d pay you, but you’re coming sort of on speculation, but we did make enough money to pay everybody. We had Ginny Avery and Jeff Gutcheon play the piano at the banquet. Betty Haggerman was up here from Kansas; it was quite a deal for all of us. It was a big beginning. Since then, the organization has grown big and has gotten smaller because of the other auxiliary groups around here. But that was the start of it. The next year I ran the show, which was Log Cabin Fever. From then on, I turned it over to other people in the group because I’d spent five years up to that point pretty solidly organizing and getting ready. I had started my pattern business when I started teaching in the early 1970’s. The first show, the big show that we went to, I think was when Jeannie drove down with a bunch of others to the Bicentennial quilt show which was in Warren, Michigan which was just outside of Detroit, we had Bonnie Ellis and Jeannie and I and there was another gal who was a teacher over in St. Paul and one other person. There were five of us in this camper and we parked in the parking lot of this school, which was where this exhibit was being held. The security guy came and tapped on the door in the morning ‘Is everybody all right?’ [laughs.] We used the school facilities to shower and so forth and then we went on over to the Dearborn Museum in Detroit before we came back. The first big national show was the one in Lincoln in 1977. That was where I first started selling patterns nationally to all kinds of people. But through these travels and talking to other quilters I developed whatever techniques I use today. So basically, I’m self-taught. I didn’t have any teachers. I didn’t take any classes.

HR: Your grandmother sewed, but other than her were there other quilters in your family?

PC: No, my mother did needlepoint, and she could sew, but she was too busy to do much of anything. She lived in a small town, and she was doing everything. And besides she was more of a gardener. Gardens were her thing.

HR: Is your family from Minnesota?

PC: My father was. My grandparents immigrated from Norway separately at about 17 and 18 years of age. Came over here without relatives. Met over here and got married up in Two Harbors, Minnesota. They had twelve children. My father was number four in the list. Nine of them lived to adulthood. My mother came from St. Louis, and she came from a rather pampered background where they had help in the house. It was quite a jolt for her to come and be a country doctor’s wife. My father was a doctor and she had to do everything herself. Whereas she grew up in a house where all the cooking and cleaning was done, so it was quite a culture shock for her.

Victoria (Vici) Miller (VM): But didn’t you grow up not in Minnesota?

PC: Actually, the first eleven years I was in Wymere, North Dakota, which is 25 miles from the border of Minnesota. The hospitals were at Wahpeton and Breckenridge, and my father had to make the trip there every day to see patients. He became ill when I was about eleven. When my grandparents in the summer came up, they wanted a lake to stay on, so we built a lake cottage on Lake Lizzie which is near Detroit Lakes. So, I’ve been in Minnesota for years from the time I was a little kid. When my father got ill, we lived full time in Minnesota, and I went to school in Pelican Rapids. When he got better, he had to look for a job because he could no longer do private practice, so he worked in industrial medicine in North Chicago. We moved to Highland Park which was a big change for me going from small town schools to a school where there were a lot of rich kids. That was interesting because just north of Highland Park is Highwood which is where Fort Sheridan is and is near the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. There was a segment of Italian immigrant children who came from Highwood because their parents ran the bars there. Then we had all these rich kids who were kicked out of private schools and were forced to go to a public school, and they were in their little group and then there was just this itty bit of those of us in the middle. But it was a wonderful high school. They had a whole vocational set up. They were training these kids from Highwood for jobs in mechanics and how to fix a car and they built a house every year and sold it. So, it was terrific for the Italian kids who got all that vocational training. They had wonderful teachers. That was the only saving grace for the place because it was very structured and the rich kids were willing to rip you off for anything they could, ‘you do my work for me’ and so forth. When I was through with that high school, I did not want to stay in the Chicago area, so I came back to the University of Minnesota. Because we had lived in Pelican Rapids, I was able to go to the University of Minnesota as a resident rather than out of state, which helped because I had to work my way through college. I did it in two years and nine months. I picked up mononucleosis, which was common in college. While I was in school, I met my husband. He switched majors so he was still in the middle of getting his degree, so I worked for Pillsbury Mills downtown until he was through with school. He got a job with Proctor and Gamble. It was a bad time economically and he was the only one of his graduating class in engineering that got a job, so we packed up everything in a truck and drove down to Cincinnati. We were so naïve that we didn’t realize we could ask for an advance on salary, so by the end of the first month we were down to pennies. We had an apartment there and we didn’t have a car at that point. I used to walk to the grocery store and everything. Then I started having children. He worked for Proctor and Gamble for five or six years. Then his father, who ran a construction company, wanted him to come back and work for him. So, then we moved back to Minnesota, and we’ve been here ever since.

HR: When you started your classes were you teaching applique?

PC: Just as a minor thing because when I began there were really no teachers to speak of. This is 1970-1971 we are talking about. There were very few cotton fabrics. It was difficult to find needles and thread. So, I was teaching a pretty basic course, mostly piecing and things like Cathedral Windows and a folded fabric deal, things that weren’t necessarily in the real mainstream of quilting, but which people associated with quilting and wanted to learn. But I didn’t start to do much in the way of applique until 1974 or 1975 because that was how I really started the pattern business. One of my students from White Bear Lake wanted to do this Pennsylvania Dutch quilt that had been on the cover of Redbook magazine and Redbook was offering a kit along with this. I sent for the kit. I wanted to see what they were selling. The fabric was almost impossible because they gave you a strip and here you have a circle you were supposed to make out of this strip. Just like later with the Baltimore Style quilts, I thought ‘well, I could do better than that.’ So that’s how I started drawing patterns. Then Richard and I drove out to Kutztown for the festival in Pennsylvania and I had gathered a lot of material on Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs and the history of those people. So, the first set of patterns I drew were this Pennsylvania Dutch set of patterns. That was applique. So that got me started. Jeannie and I were still travelling together, and we used to go up to Michigan to Lutheran High North, which is near Romeo, Michigan just north of Detroit. They had a big quilt show there in this huge high school. The first antique quilt that I bought was at Warren. I bought it from Mary Silber who is Julie Silber’s mother. Julie is into quilt research and Mary was also selling quilts at that time. So, I have a lot of Michigan connections as well. I just got started selling at a bunch of shows and went all over the country selling, to Denver, to Arizona, to Kansas, to Washington, to Hazel Carter’s Continental Quilting Congress. Out to California to Joyce Gross in Mill Valley. She put on several shows. We travelled all over the country.

HR: You would put together a whole quilt pattern and kit?

PC: No, I just sold patterns. No fabric with it. In those days, fabric was hard to come by. We didn’t really start getting cottons until the end of the 1970’s, early 1980’s. Up to that point you had dress fabrics or cotton/polyester. One of the first quilts that I made was for my daughter, a big flame colored thing with all the variations in red, yellow, and orange in cotton/polyester that Burlington Mills put out. That one actually wound up in Quilters’ Newsletter because it was displayed at an exhibit and won a blue ribbon at the Needlework Guild Show of all things. From then on, it’s mostly been teaching all over. I’ve figured out that I’ve taught in over 40 of the 50 states. I’ve taught in Canada and Mexico and Australia and New Zealand and South Africa and all over England and in France. Richard and I played piano duos for the opening program in Innsbruck, Austria for the Quilt Expo, which was one of Karey Bresenhan’s shows. Quilting for me has been an education. Richard has gone with me to South Africa and New Zealand. It has been a wonderful experience through the years.

HR: The classes have been of varying lengths?

PC: Oh yes, I teach specialty things too. I teach Crazy Quilting and I teach hand quilting and ethnic quilts, Japanese style quilts, Fraktur style quilts. Sometimes those courses can be a couple of years in length. The Baltimore class that I taught in 1980 lasted two years and those people completed their quilts in that time. I did a correspondence course that went along with it. In 1991 I had an exhibit for the people who had finished the correspondence course plus I wrote to all kinds of people around the country, so we had an exhibit of 50 quilts at the Duluth Minnesota Quilters Show. That exhibit reached quite a few people. There are still people who say they remember that one because it was the first time, they’d seen a lot of these quilts. Elly didn’t come into the picture until the middle 1980’s. I had already been doing it for about 4 or 5 years before she really got into it. Around here, it was the first chance people had to see that style of quilt. They are elaborate applique quilts, and they are not as common here. We still don’t see very many of them and we don’t see people who want to do that much applique. I should have brought down Mary Brown for you because that quilt is from the same era, 1840-1860. This was a quilter in Baltimore who made quilts for sale. We have pictures of two that we know she made. One of them inspired me to draw a set of patterns. Incidentally, there’s going to be a folk art one at Des Moines this year too. I got a letter from a lady who has entered one at Des Moines at the same show. It looks like a nice quilt.

VM: I’ll take some pictures for you.

PC: Yes, and Mary Brown [the pattern], made by one of my students, actually won a blue ribbon at Paducah this spring. It’s a good design is what I’m trying to imply. A lot of people have made it and enjoyed it.

HR: Do you have formal training in drawing or art?

PC: Yes and no. I’m very much a traditionalist. That’s part of the problem. Presently, most of the art quilters want something that’s totally non-representational. Even when I went to college art was beginning to be very abstract. You didn’t do representational things, so I didn’t fit in the mold. When I was in high school in Highland Park, I did go down to the Chicago Art Museum every Saturday and take classes there. I wouldn’t say I ever had a formal art education. I did take some drawing classes but that was about it. Art and music have been the only two things that ever really motivated me. When I was in college everything was non-representational, very abstract and I just didn’t fit in. Actually, the same way in gardening, because I was in a garden club for years and when they got to the point when they were doing all of these very abstract designs to win any shows I thought ‘that’s not me. I like flowers.’ And I got out of that.

HR: What was your degree in at the University of Minnesota?

PC: Personnel Psychology with Business and Humanities minors. I took statistics and Psych classes in college. There weren’t any jobs. You realize I’m considerably older than you are, but when I was going to college there were very few options for women. You could be a nurse; you could be a teacher or a Home Economist or a secretary. That was it. What I would have liked to have been was a musicologist or something like that, but you couldn’t make a living with that, so I was a secretary, basically, when I worked at Pillsbury. I was in the Personnel Department, but basically, I was a secretary.

HR: Art and music weren’t really an option in college?

PC: Not to make a living, no, not to make a wage and support yourself, no. So, I went into business.

HR: Do you feel like you’ve developed an applique technique?

PC: Yes, needle turning, which is not actually all that new, but I’ve developed a few little tricks and things that people can use. In the classes I also try to teach them design as well. I don’t like to teach it as a class because it is too wide ranging, and they really need to work on a specific project to understand why you do this and why you do that rather than art classes. Most of these teachers who teach color, they teach the color wheel. Well, that’s fine and dandy to know that red and green are opposites, and yellow and violet and all the rest of it, but that doesn’t go into the styles that the fabrics are in. Whether you’ve got a Jacobean print or a country one or an abstract one. And how do you use these pieces and put them together to make them look good. Even in decorating you don’t mix Swedish modern with Victorian unless you’re really good at mixing the styles. You need to know a lot about the history of design. If you are in the business, you also need to know that some of the things you photograph are not going to turn out well because of the chemistry of photography. There are just three colors that show up in photography and you might have a piece that looks lovely, but it doesn’t photograph well at all. So, you have to think about a lot of different things like that when you are designing patterns and so forth. For me, designing patterns was to do things that looked difficult but weren’t that hard. This is a very fine line. I’ve seen other designers whose patterns are so difficult, so many itty-bitty pieces that they turn people off. So, if you are trying to sell patterns you are trying, also, to show these people that they can do something interesting but it’s not so hard that they are going to get mired down in the middle of it. Then, of course, you meet a few exceptional people who can do anything. [implying Victoria Miller].

VM: One thing you always tell me is let the fabric do the work for you.

PC: I do have to give Bernice Enyeart credit for some of that because way back years ago she would focus on little bits of fabric. When she was starting out you couldn’t get a lot of interesting fabrics, so she would cut out the small designs and exploit them in a particular pattern. She’s a great quilter. She’s won quite a few prizes.

HR: Vici said she learned when you came to Northfield and did a short class in applique.

PC: I started specializing in applique because when more people came into quilting, they were all into piecing and nobody was doing applique. I could do applique. I could do piecing as well. But it was a niche that nobody else was filling. We ran a quilter’s retreat for twenty years, Jeannie Spears and Helen Kelley and I. We did everything at the retreat. We had national teachers come from all over. This was held at Silver Lake in Roseville. It was a Salvation Army camp. It was a weekend, Saturday through Monday. We had people come from all over, a couple of gals from South Africa once. It was Jeannie’s idea to start the retreat. It was her idea to have the show and to start Minnesota Quilters. She doesn’t get any credit for those things, but she’s the one who had the ideas for them. The rest of us carried through. I was the one who made the things work. At the retreat I was the one who did all of the business stuff. At the shows, I was the one who did all of the organizing and getting it going, but I never would have had the nerve to start all on my own because it was scary. We didn’t have any idea whether anything was going to work. Since then, Minnesota Quilters has become very good at running shows. They now have a $500,000 budget for their shows. It’s a big deal. It’s morphed into an awful lot through the years. The quilt contests and their quilt exhibits have generated a lot of interest from Paducah for the catalog and the calendar that they do. I’m proud of the fact that we got it started. It was a lot of people sticking their necks out and not knowing what they were doing.

HR: Are you part of any more local guild now?

PC: Not really local. I’ve made a list of all of the organizations I’ve been involved in.

[Turned tape over]

PC: …I’ve written two books [with Maggi McCormick Gordon], American Quilt Classics and The Ultimate Log Cabin Quilt Book. We had an applique book that we had all ready to go and then the publisher sabotaged it and so we never got that one off the ground. I had all the work done for it and all of it written and all the proofs. It’s a long, sad story, but it didn’t get published. And maybe now it never will. That’s the one regret I have. I would have loved to have had an applique book. It’s my biggest love. But anyway, I got two of them out of it. Maggi has been very successful. She’s written a lot of books. She is now in New York City, so I don’t have contact with her anymore. When she lived in Milwaukee, her husband was director of the art museum there and then we got to see each other fairly often.

HR: There are a lot of questions about the materials that you use. Would you like to point out any?

PC: Well, I have a lot of fabric, to put it mildly [laughs]. When I work on Japanese pieces, I use oriental style fabric. I have done broderie perse and I’ve found fabrics that I can cut apart and use like that. I don’t work much with silk. I would like to but there are not good sources of silk, so it’s hard to get what you want. Basically, I use cotton. I don’t know exactly what else to say to you about that.

HR: A lot of quilters now talk about how new technologies have changed their quilt making. Would that be the case for you?

PC: Only from the fact that there is such a wealth of fabric that’s available that was not when I started. When I started there were five fabric companies, basically. Now there are maybe 35 or 40 of them and you have your choice of so many things. The rotary cutter, the mats and rulers have made it a lot easier to cut borders and sashing and things and I use those. I’m not totally a hand person. My beginning class is handwork. Right now, we are finishing up and they all want to know whether they can put the blocks together by machine. I said I don’t care. They can do it either way, whichever works for them. Mostly I like the handwork part of it. The spending a day at the sewing machine is work, hard work. When I have to put a top together, when I have to sit there all day and sew, ugh, [laughs] that’s not my thing.

VM: The variety of fabrics you use in a quilt is just astonishing.

PC: Well, yes, in my first Baltimore quilt there were pieces from 500 different fabrics. I would guess if you wanted to look at this one there are probably 250 different fabrics in there. Thank you, Vici, she’s my helper here. That’s basically what I do: search through tons of different stuff to find just the right little piece.

HR: Do you have a dedicated workspace?

PC: I feel like Agatha Christie who used to work with a clanky old typewriter on a card table because I kind of work everywhere. I have a sewing room but it’s one that you’d have a hard time getting around in because it has stuff piled all over the place. What is supposed to be my cutting board is piled yea high with fabric. Mostly I lay out blocks on the living room floor and look at them. Or I lay them out on the bed so I can see whether I liked what I was doing or not. I don’t use design walls. I’m not into that. Since I’m not into piecing it’s kind of a different way of doing things. If I have it on the floor in here, I’ll pass by it several times a day and take a look at it at different times during the day and see if I still like what I picked out or whether I don’t. Usually, I lay out the whole top before I start. The last one I’ve been cutting out a couple of blocks every night so then I looked at it again to see how it was turning out. But I have all the drawings done first. I’ve helped any number of students who have just started putting things together willy nilly and then they say ‘what do I do with these blocks? How do I put them together to make them look good?’ That’s where I teach the design part of things. It isn’t color so much that people need help with. They need help with design. They don’t realize that that’s what it is, but they do. In color, it’s mostly value levels that they need help with. They get set in one very narrow line of value levels and they don’t know how to go up or down with it. It gets static looking, and they don’t realize that that’s not the right thing. As far as the new tools, they come out with a new needle every once in a while. The ones I used to love they don’t make any more, so I’ve had to go out and find others. Thread is improved. Cotton thread, if you like it, is much better now than it was when I started, well, you couldn’t find it in the first place. Basically, all I need is a needle and thread and pins and scissors and a thimble. Ah, thimbles. I wear a silver thimble, which is made by one outfit out in Philadelphia which is a pain in the neck to deal with. They make the best thimble on the market, but it’s a very small part of their business, so it’s totally uninteresting to them whether they get an order finished or not. I’ve waited six months or a year for thimbles. I have some I’ve ordered for Barbara Chainey she has an extra-large finger. So, it’s a special size thimble. I’ve been waiting a year and a half now. I may never get them. Anyway, technology doesn’t affect me particularly other than the wealth of fabrics available. That is what has been so incredible. To be able to choose and find different value levels of things. That’s how people started in the hand dyeing business because they couldn’t get value levels of fabric. That was one thing I wanted to show you. See this was my idea. When Jan Myers was here, she did all the dyeing in gradations. I didn’t want just little old ordinary value levels, so I connected with Marit Kucera who lives in St. Paul, and she was willing to experiment in dyeing. I love Hawaiian designs. That’s another ethnic group. I had her dye special pieces going from the dark out to the light. Going from the blue to the red and the pink to the red. So, I started this in the very early 1980’s before the gal in Japan who thinks she started it, Kathy Nakamura, she’s a big guru in Japan for Hawaiian quilting. She buys fabric from Marit. She saw what I had done, but I was the one who started this with the fold and dip dying that Marit does, and she does the best job of anybody on the market. That’s why this gal in Japan still buys from her because she can’t find anybody in Japan who does it as well as Marit does. And it has kept Marit going through the recession. I was over to see her a week or so ago. As I was saying I love the Japanese fabric designs. With this piece, I actually didn’t quilt this because when I had the top all done and this lovely gal in Texas, Ethel Howey, looked at it. She is a Japanese gal who was born in Hawaii said ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful. May I quilt it for you?’ Well, you don’t turn down offers like that. Her name is on it, on the back, I think. You’ll have to pardon my age. Every once in a while, I can’t remember names. She named it Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. She quilted it and did a gorgeous job of quilting.

HR: So, it was your idea to dye it in this way and someone else did the dyeing?

PC: Yes, the multicolor ones. Now Marit sometimes dyes in three colors.

HR: You did the applique here?

PC: Yes. It’s been an experience working with Marit as well. This one we did with Make a Wish in connection with Disney World. Each one of these is hand painted with dye and then appliqued on the background, all the figures. I had permission from Disney to do it. But when Marit had this background over at her place she had a deluge of water into the basement and everything got waterlogged, so we had to go through and touch up all of this to make it look halfway decent to get this huge piece. She worked on the center to get all of those different dye elements in the center. I said I nearly lost my cool doing the seven dwarfs because if I messed up one, I was going to have to start all over again because it was all one piece. Painting with dye is very different because you have to do it strong enough that by the time you process it there is still something left. You go through about six levels of washing this and heating it before it is permanent. My daughter paid the highest price for it at this Make a Wish auction, so it stayed in the family. Otherwise, the White Bear Lake woman that I taught was going to put in a bid on it as well and she would have gotten it if Alison hadn’t. Tinkerbell was a real pain. Anyway, this was a fun experience, but nerve wracking.

HR: We’re coming to the end of our time, but there are a couple more questions I’d like to ask you. Thinking of your whole collection, what do you think makes a good quilt, in general? What do you look for?

PC: We used to call it ‘the wow factor’ or ‘the suck in.’ If you stood in front of a quilt and you went ‘oh.’ It’s like a great painting. It has to resonate with all levels. It’s not just for the elite, the artistic. It has to resonate with the ordinary person looking at it. The same goes for a great quilt. It has to attract the attention of all levels of people to be a really great quilt. Some of them that have gotten big prizes, I’m not sure I think are great quilts. Others that have been ignored, are. I look for good workmanship and I think that’s one of the things that is being neglected today in some of the art pieces. How can we throw some fabrics on there and do a little stitching over it or glue it in place and that’s not me. I want to see good workmanship on it, whatever the design is. I’m not against the art quilts. I don’t want you to think that because they brought a lot of new elements into the quilt world which was good. There was a lot more emphasis on color and the migration of color in a piece which people weren’t doing before. There were just repeated blocks. A lot of those art quilters brought new ideas into it and then made the whole area better. But they’ve also gone so far, the other way. The thread painting and fabric painting for instance are pictures really. They aren’t quilts; they are pictures that have a little bit of stitching that hold them together. They are textile paintings. They are textile art pieces. They are not what I would call quilts. What’s worried me the most is the lack of respect for traditional quilts today. To me, machine quilting should not be judged in the same category as hand quilting because they have two different effects on a quilt. The machine quilters have gone and done very artistic work. Some of them have gone overboard, again, but a lot of them have done beautiful work and they should be judged for what they are doing, not against someone who does beautiful hand quilting. There shouldn’t be one is better than the other. I think the lack of respect for good, traditional quilts is what I don’t like to see today. In the beginning the art quilters got very aggressive saying ‘those traditional quilters, they don’t give us enough respect.’ Probably that was true in the beginning, but the pendulum has swung the other way now and they say ‘Well, that’s old hat. You have to come up with something new.’ Someone like Michael James, if anything looks even realistic, he’s upset. It has to be totally abstract. Funny part is most applique antique patterns were abstract; they were not realistic. That is what I worry about for the future because there are people who still want to do the hand work or still want to make a crazy quilt or still want to do those things and yet, people say ‘oh, why do you want to spend all that time when you could whip through it and get it done in a hurry?’ Those of us who like to spend time doing it, we feel a little pushed to the side and, here again, if you are looking at exhibits or looking at books, what do you see? Mostly they are contemporary art stuff that is being done. Few books on traditional quilting are coming out. Mostly the other stuff is being publicized. How do I think quilts can be preserved for the future? Lincoln is one. We have more quilt museums than we’ve ever had before. If they can continue, that’s great, we’ll see. It’s hard for them because they all need money.

HR: Do you have an estimate on how many quilts you’ve made?

PC: I’ve got about 225 sitting up there, but they aren’t all big quilts. A lot of them are small wall hangings, mini quilts, not bed size pieces. They are my art quilts [laughs.]. The crazy quilt that is on the back of the sofa there. Those were the art quilts of their day.

HR: In what ways do you think quilts have meaning for women’s history?

PC: Well, they are women’s history in this country. They were used to express politics, to express emotion. People have used quilts to assuage grief. They’ve used them to give them hope to keep on going. They’ve been a tool, a help, to an awful lot of women. And the sociability. The getting up for show and tell. There are a lot of women who are scared to death to get up on the stage to show their quilt, but we push them up there. And we get them to show off and it’s been good for them. It’s been good for them because most women don’t have much self-confidence in what they do. And they don’t get any support from their families. It’s, ‘are you still working on that old thing? When are you ever going to finish?’ Of course, now with machine quilting they can say, ‘well, it’s going to be done tomorrow.’ [laughs.] Quilts have been a great confidence booster for a lot of women. It gives them something that they can say ‘I made’ and it’s not only useful, but it’s pretty, and they like that. We no longer have to justify whether the quilt is going to be used or not because most of us who make them have more quilts than we will ever need or use. And why are you continuing to make them. I get asked that all the time. ‘Well, because I want to.’ I don’t have any use for them. All of my family has plenty of quilts as far as that goes. I just make them because I enjoy making them. They give me something to do that verifies my talent and that was important to me to have my talent recognized through the years. That has been a driving force. Because I’ve always wanted to excel in art and music. Music I had a chance to do a fair bit with, but you go to the limits of your talent and in both of the fields, it’s very difficult to succeed, monetarily. This one, quilting, has allowed me to use whatever artistic talent I have to the fullest. I get to draw. I get to make. I get to play with fabric. You don’t know how many women go and pat their little pile of fabric over and over again. We love to look at it. We like to feel it. We like to play with it. That’s the exciting part, finding just the right little piece for that particular spot.

HR: This might be a good place to end unless there is something else you want to add.

PC: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection? Now, that’s something I don’t know. That’s something I don’t think there’s an answer to because when the Lincoln people came, I brought down a whole bunch -- They had a list of stuff that they were interested in -- and then I brought down a bunch of other things and then they said ‘oh, well that’s a better version than the one I’ve got.’ What they are doing is filling out niches in their collection. They’re not necessarily collecting great quilts. They are collecting a bunch of kit quilts to build up that section of their collection. Or they are looking for something that is just a little different or extraordinary. I don’t think museums have a list of what makes something great. They are looking for exhibits. They are looking for how they can work it into whatever they have. Yes, Lincoln started out with the James collection, and she started out buying a bunch of inexpensive ones in the beginning and they got all that as well. Which maybe someday they will pass on, now that Ardis is dead and when Robert James dies, they probably won’t feel a compulsion to keep everything in that collection. They’ll trade it off for something that is a better fit for some particular exhibit that they want to do. But that’s how museums work. Robert Bishop at the New York Folk Art Museum used to cultivate collectors and tell them what he wanted and get them to buy it and then put it in an exhibit and then it would come to the museum. It’s a political process, museums are. They are not necessarily buying what everybody would think of as great.

VM: We’ve kept you longer than we wanted. I think she wants to get a photograph.

HR: I’d like to thank Patricia Cox for allowing me to interview her as part of our Quilters’ Save Our Stories project in Minnesota. Our interview concluded at 11:20 a.m.



“Patricia Cox,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,