Victoria Miller




Victoria Miller




Victoria Miller


Heidi Rubenstein

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Annette Becker


Northfield, Minnesota


Heidi Rubenstein


Heidi Rubenstein (HR): This is Heidi Rubenstein. Today's date is March 19, 2012. It is 1:10 in the afternoon and I'm conducting an interview with Victoria Miller for the Quilters' Save Our Stories project in Northfield, Minnesota. The interview is taking place at Victoria's home in Northfield. Could you please tell me about the quilt you have with you today?

Victoria Miller (VM): I made this quilt in honor of the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. I call it Celebrate America. This one is very special to me because I have silhouettes of my husband and two children in the center block with their names and birthdates. Many of the blocks are inked with friendship sayings. In fact, four of the blocks in this quilt were made for me by friends and added to the quilt. I'm quite proud of this quilt because it was the first major award, I ever won at the International Quilt Society show in Houston in 1992. The two teachers I really think are exceptional, are the person who draws my patterns, Patricia Cox, from Minneapolis and the other person is Elly Sienkiewicz who is from the Washington, DC area and who has written many books on the Baltimore Album type quilts. Patterns from both of those women are in this quilt. Pat drew this border especially for this quilt. And this quilt was published in one of Elly's books. I nearly forgot about that. [Borders and Medallions by Elly Sienkiewicz.]

HR: So, Elly lives in the East and Pat lives here in Minnesota. This was a collaboration.

VC: I just used a book of Elly's. But I do work a lot with Pat and her patterns.

HR: Did your friends know you were working on it and want to contribute?

VC: Yes, definitely.

HR: The blocks that they did, did they choose the pattern?

VC: They did.

HR: From different sources?

VC: I believe they all came from Elly's books. She's written any number of them on Baltimore Album type quilts. Being near Baltimore, she sees all of the antique ones.

HR: Did you have the quilt done when she [Patricia Cox] designed the border?

VM: The inside blocks were all finished and not sewn together yet. And then I added the sashing between the blocks and then she designed the border for it.

HR: So, she was looking at all these blocks when she designed the border?

VM: Correct.

HR: The fabrics look like they are from different sources?

VM: Yes, there are a lot of different sources. Elly designed a line of fabrics just for Baltimore Album, so a lot of those are in here.

HR: It looks like it is all hand appliqued?

VM: Yes, hand appliqued and hand quilted. That's maybe something you want to ask me later, but that's where I learned to applique was from Pat Cox. That was in 1988.

HR: Was that part of a class?

VM: Yes, a class.

HR: In Minneapolis?

VM: Actually, she came here to our quilt group.

HR: Just as a one-time thing?

VM: It was a regular class. She came maybe four different times for our group. I can't remember exactly. That was awhile back.

HR: How do you use this quilt now?

VM: It's mainly just to hang for display.

HR: Did you know you were going to be taking it to Houston when you made it?

VM: No, I did not know that. In fact, that's the only place I've ever shown it, well at the Minnesota Quilt Show.

HR: Have you gone to Houston very many times?

VM: No, not to Houston. I haven't displayed anything there again. I've gone to the AQS shows in Paducah and the Des Moines show.

HR: It's very beautiful and I love that it has so much personal information.

VM: That's why I chose this one, the personal side of it, the things that mean something.

HR: Have you done other Baltimore Album style quilts?

VM: Oh yes, lots of them. I must have at least five or six of them. That's the kind of thing I really like. That one [indicating another quilt in the room] is a Baltimore Album type too, although it's more flowery than these signature blocks. There's so many of these in the real antique. The Baltimore Album quilts were popular in 1848 and that's just about it. There's so many of these patterns that are from that era.

HR: Is this one of the first ones you made?

VM: Yes, it is.

HR: Now I'll ask you a few questions about how you got started. What age were you when you started and how did you learn?

VM: Well, I was 33, that was a year or so ago [laughs.]. I'm pretty much self-taught other than the applique classes that I took from Pat. And from books and things like that.

HR: So, you were attending the guild meetings?

VM: Yes, we had just started really. Our guild was about two years old.

HR: What year did you say?

VM: This is 1992. I finished it on Columbus' birthday [laughs.]

HR: So, the guild started in what year?

VM: 1987

HR: Were you with them from the beginning?

VM: Yes.

HR: Were there quilters in your family?

VM: My grandma. It's funny because I went to a lecture a couple of weeks ago and this gal was talking about how she remembered a quilt when she was little, and it was a Sunbonnet Sue that her grandma had made. And my grandma had made us girls, there were five of us girls, she made our Sunbonnet Sue. [Unfolding another quilt in the room]. I thought this was long gone. My dad passed away in 1991, and low and behold I dug it out of a corner of a closet. It was nice to be there, or it might have been gone forever. Of course, most people love Sunbonnet Sue, a lot of people hate her, but I love her.

HR: That is a very sweet one.

VM: I did put a new binding on it and there are a couple of spots. But mostly it's in pretty good shape. I couldn't believe it was still there.

HR: Do you remember having it as a girl?

VM: Yes, it was on our bed. It was the most fun. Anyway, I wasn't supposed to get out another quilt, but it's here.

HR: I'm glad you did. Do you have memories of your grandmother making quilts?

VM: I do not. I just remember her sewing machine. That's it. [motioning to an antique sewing machine in the room]. The only quilt that got left was all in pieces and a friend of mine made a bear out of it for me.

HR: What is your first quilt memory?

VM: This one [Sunbonnet Sue] for sure.

HR: Your sisters had ones like it?

VM: No, we shared it, but I'm the only one who quilts so they let me have it which is really nice.

HR: How does quilting fit into your days now?

VM: Oh my, I just quilt whenever I can. It's relaxing.

HR: Any time of day?

VM: Anytime, but mostly in the evening.

HR: You do mostly handwork?

VM: I do.

HR: Do you do some machine work?

VM: Very little. I do some piecing, but not very often.

HR: Are there any aspects of quilt making that you don't enjoy?

VM: Having to hurry to get one done [laughs.] I'm desperately trying to finish that one [indicating the more floral Baltimore Album] because I need to have a photograph by the 15th of April for the Minnesota show. And it's not fun when you are really hurrying, but I think that's really all. I can't think of anything that I don't like.

HR: What is your favorite part of the process.

VM: The applique, definitely. Although it's really fun to pick out the fabrics.

HR: How do you pick out the fabrics?

VM: I usually have a focus fabric that you pull colors from. This one I didn't because I had used all those fabrics before, so I knew that they went together. The designers know color and pattern, so it's really easy to pick a big floral design or even a geometric that has a lot of colors in it, pull fabrics from that.

HR: Do you have favorite stores that you go to?

VM: Not so much. There are shops all around. I'm not real particular, wherever you can find it.

HR: Maybe you could say a little more about your technique for applique?

VM: Its needle turned applique. That's what Pat has taught and that's what I like to do. The pattern is drawn on the fabric with a marking pen of some kind whether it's a white one or a pencil or whatever will show up on the fabric. Then I cut the pieces out. It's much less than a quarter of an inch seam allowance because it's easy to turn that way.

HR: Like an eighth of an inch?

VM: Sometimes even less than that. If the pieces are really, really small you need a smaller seam allowance. I would say sometimes as small as a sixteenth of an inch.

HR: If there is too much seam there it's hard?

VM: It's hard to get it to turn because it doesn't lay flat.

HR: You've won awards, locally and nationally, for your applique work. Do you have any more advice about how you do your applique?

VM: My helpful advice would be to take a class because it's well worth it.

HR: You said you draw it [the shape of the piece] on the background fabric and then do you pin it on?

VM: I pin the pieces on just with a straight pin.

HR: It comes out so beautifully. Do you use all cotton fabrics?

VM: Yes, I do. Rarely do I use anything else.

HR: What kind of batting do you prefer?

VM: I like a polyester high loft. The quilting design shows up much better.

HR: You do different kinds of color schemes.

VM: I do. There's so many of them that are floral, so a lot of them have to do with flower colors and of course a lot of green leaves.

HR: I'd like to hear more about how you get your patterns.

VM: Pat [Cox] draws all of these elegant, beautiful, graceful patterns. I've done hers almost exclusively. Actually, since I've done this one, I've done all Pat's patterns. In fact, she will use my quilts to sell her patterns. For that one I chose 13 of her Baltimore Album blocks and then I turned them on point, and I drew the red sashing to go on that border myself just to enhance her gorgeous border design. I think it sets it off.

HR: Do you use a hoop for your quilting?

VM: I paid three dollars for a quilting hoop at Ben Franklin 25 years ago probably. I'm still using it. When it works, you just don't change it.

HR: So, it's probably a standard size.

VM: It's probably a 14-inch, real basic.

HR: You do your marking with regular pencil?

VM: I've been using a wash out blue fabric marker because whenever you're showing a quilt the judges get real particular about that. Hopefully the marks won't come back again, we'll see.

HR: They sometimes reappear?

VM: I haven't ever had a problem with, but people are really nervous about that kind of thing on down the road years from now. This one was done with just a regular No. 2 pencil.

HR: So then is it hard to get the marks to go away?

VM: Yes, you have to use alcohol and water and a couple of drops of soap and scrub it. Obviously, I'm not real thrilled about it. There you go, that would be something I wouldn't want to do. Most people will wash those after they are done working with it in cold water, but I just spritz it away. I don't wash the background fabric so that blue marking pen just kinda sits on top because the fabric still has a lot of starch, so I haven't had any problem it, cross my fingers.

HR: So that's the reason, so that the pen doesn't sink in. That's interesting. But the other fabrics are washed.

VM: Most of them.

HR: It probably looks more flat and nice.

VM: Yes, because it takes the starch out of it so it's easier to work with.

HR: How do you choose your quilting designs?

VM: I was always told that if you do geometric pieced design that you want something curved for the quilting design. So that's pretty much what I stick with.

HR: Do you use stencils?

VM: Usually I just trace it. The backgrounds are usually light enough that you can either use a light box or in this case you can just see through the backing.

HR: So then you can use a quilting pattern out of a book.

VM: Yes.

HR: It looks like you do a lot of straight lines behind the design.

VM: Yes, there's cross hatching behind. This one here has cross hatching in the center and then straight lines out. There's a feather design in between.

HR: You decided to have the sashing be the same color as the background. Is that what you usually do?

VM: Not always.

HR: Could you describe your sewing room or the place you usually quilt?

VM: My husband says I have it all over the house and I do. But I do have a sewing room downstairs. I have big tables set up so I can baste quilts and I have lots of room.

HR: You usually are sitting to do your applique work?

VM: Yes, sitting in a chair. We have a family room.

HR: You don't use a hoop while you're quilting? Just holding each block?

VM: Yes.

HR: Do you ever use a design wall?

VM: I do have a place to put it on the wall, but I rarely use it. I usually just lay it out on a table. I have this big, big table. Sometimes you need to get back and look at things, but I have a couple of bulletin boards that I can hang things on.

HR: Are there any advances in technology that have affected how you do things?

VM: It's really nice to have a computer to enlarge things. And it's really fun to look up a lot of the antique patterns, especially to look at how they quilted things.

HR: The designs they chose?

VM: The designs, yes. You can see things online from the museums. That makes it nice and easy to grab something if you want it.

HR: You do some enlarging of patterns?

VM: I have, yes, you can get ones out of a book, but it is rarely the right size.

HR: You said that you changed the size of those silhouettes?

VM: I just used a copy machine and reduced it to get it the right size. That was awhile back. I forgot that.

HR: How many quilts do you estimate you have made?

VM: Well, I had to go and count them. Depending on if you count the smaller wall quilts, there are somewhere between forty and fifty of them.

HR: How many full sizes do you estimate?

VM: Probably thirty or so.

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

VM: Nothing difficult really, but when 9/11 [September 11, 2001, attack] happened I was working on patriotic type quilt, so I dedicated it to the 9/11 disaster. There are little flags on fabric, and I made the label out of the flags.

HR: I have a few questions about quilt groups. You said you were in the Northfield Guild at the very beginning in 1987. Have you been in any other groups?

VM: Yes, I belong to the Minnesota Quilters, and I belong to the American Quilters Society.

HR: Do they all have shows? The Minnesota Quilters has an annual show? Do the American Quilters have an annual show?

VM: I think they have four shows now. That's something where you need to be juried in. They used to have a show in Nashville, and they moved that one to Des Moines in 2007, maybe. I've shown there since, I think, 2008.

HR: So, it's easier for you to get to that now that it's in Iowa.

VM: Yes.

HR: Do you submit a photo of your quilt?

VM: Yes, they want digital photos now. They choose quilts to be in the show. It was really fun. The first year I entered [the AQS show], they wanted to know if you were going to be there for the awards show. You were supposed to check it [the box] if you were going to be, so I did. It got to be such a mess trying to get there. Somehow or other, we managed to make it to the show on time, my husband and I, but it was 1:00 and we hadn't had anything to eat yet, so I said I'll go to the awards thing, and you just go grab something to eat, I'm not going to win anything anyway. And then they showed slides of the winning quilts, and I won Best of Show, and I thought 'Holy Cow, this is unbelievable.' They handed me the check right away and it was 10,000 dollars [laughs.] So, then I had to tease my husband when he was waiting for me and I handed him the envelope with the check in it and I said 'well, I did win something.' So, it was fun. I don't expect that to happen ever again, but it was really fun because it was such a big surprise. And I almost missed it. [laughs.]

HR: So, they don't give you any warning about it?

VM: No, they don't.

HR: That's exciting.

VM: I said, 'Good grief, good thing I don't have a bad heart or something.'

HR: Do you know people who were there?

VM: There are quite a few people who show quite often, so yes.

HR: Anyone from Northfield?

VM: No, just a couple of people I know from the Minnesota group.

HR: Do you ever work on quilts with others in a group?

VM: I have, we've done raffle quilts.

HR: Those are for the Northfield show? How long do those quilts usually take?

VM: It depends. Sometimes forever. [laughs.] They like to have them hand quilted, so it takes quite a while because they get passed around.

HR: I was going to ask if you get together to work on them.

VM: No, they just get passed around.

HR: What are the joys and challenges of putting on a quilt show?

VM: The challenges are getting enough people to work, but I think that is for any show that you go to, unless you pay people to do it, but most of these shows are volunteer. But once a show is up its really fun for the camaraderie and to see all of the people coming to see the quilts.

HR: Now I have a few questions about aesthetics, craftsmanship and design, so a little more general. What do your favorite quilts have in common?

VM: Of course, I just love the applique and I still enjoy the hand quilted ones.

HR: What do you think makes a quilt great?

VM: I would say color choices are the biggest thing. It can be the most beautiful quilt and if the colors aren't great, they are not great.

HR: Do you feel that that is an intuitive thing? That some people just have a knack for color?

VM: I really do because what is pleasing to one person is not so very pleasing to others.

HR: It seems like a hard thing to teach. That some people just seem to know what to put together.

VM: It is, and I don't know that I'm so great at it either, but I'm sure you know yourself if you've seen a really great quilt, you know why you like it.

HR: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

VM: Any of the hand applique artists and I especially like the hand quilting. I don't think I'll ever get over that. There are machine quilters who do just absolutely beautiful work, but it's not the same.

HR: Are there any artists who have influenced you?

VM: Pat and Elly.

HR: Do you consider quilt making more of an art or a craft?

VM: It depends because there is a place for both. You aren't going to spend a year or two working on something that would be for a baby or to give to someone who is really going to use it on their bed. I like to make the more elaborate things, so I hang them.

HR: So, they aren't usually used on beds?

VM: I put them on a bed, but just to look at. We don't use them.

HR: How do you store them?

VM: I have a really big armoire from our family with lots of room. But I also have about four or five of them laid out on a bed, one on top of the other. Princess and the Pea. [laughs.]

HR: Most of your quilts probably have hanging sleeves?

VM: They do. I always put one on.

HR: Looks like you are good at labels too.

VM: I label them all, yes.

HR: How do you think quilts are appreciated in Northfield alongside another artwork?

VM: I don't really know the answer to that.

HR: They are usually displayed at the quilt show, and you don't see them other places?

VM: Not really, no.

HR: Are there ways in which your quilts reflect your community?

VM: I don't think they do other than I do have one that we used in a block exchange at the quilt meetings. In 1990 we did one depicting blocks of Minnesota, so I have one that is sewn together in the shape of Minnesota, so that one will.

HR: It seems that it's harder to tell quilts by region now since things are shared differently, by internet and all.

VM: Yes, they used to be able to almost pinpoint the region like Lancaster or Baltimore Album types. You get things from all over the place including foreign countries now.

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

VM: In the Baltimore Album tradition women made the quilts more decorative, but there are so many that pioneer women or back in the 20's and 30's and forward of that, they were just making quilts to keep warm. I suppose partly as a pastime to do something that they enjoyed and to make something beautiful. But so many of them were just utilitarian and I don't think a lot of the ladies thought they were doing anything great, but it's sure fun to see them now.

HR: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

VM: Well, you're doing a good job of it. I guess that's one thing with the awakening of people really interested in quilts I think they are more well taken care of. They have museums that specialize in that now. Hopefully with more awareness, people are taking better care of them, the family heirloom type quilts. Although some of them are made to enjoy, so enjoy.

HR: Do you think of quilt making as more cooperative or more competitive?

VM: I think it is a little bit of both, but people are willing to share, mostly and that makes it more cooperative. Even some of the people who have won lots and lots of competitions are still so willing to teach and obviously they get paid for it, but they wouldn't have to, so I would say cooperative.

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

VM: I'm beginning to think it is price because when I started quilting fabric was three dollars a yard and it's gotten up to twelve now. That's a big difference. So, I'm hoping people can still make quilts and enjoy.

HR: Do you think the fabric has gotten better in quality or stayed the same?

VM: It has in the fact that the fabrics used to bleed an awful lot, and I don't know how they did it, but the designers realized that they couldn't have these fabrics bleeding all over. That one, for instance [indicating another quilt in the room] was my first applique. I washed and washed those fabrics to begin with and they still bled when it got washed. The stability of the dyes is much, much better. Otherwise, I think the quality of the fabric is just as good. I don't think it's any better, but it's just as good as it's always been.

HR: The price is going up for even the backing fabrics?

VM: Actually, there are some of the wider backing fabrics that I don't think are very good. I like to buy it and piece it.

HR: I was going to ask you if you keep a stash?

VM: Oh yes, lots of fabric. Have to have lots of fabric.

HR: Is that where you do most of your mixing and matching rather than at the quilt store?

VM: Yes, I do. I don't think I bought any fabric for that quilt except the background and the backing. Those are just things that I had.

HR: That's amazing.

VM: And when you see any good green fabric, you just buy it. Greens are good.

HR: We are just about at the end of our time. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

VM: One thing you didn't ask is what happened to quilts that are made for friends or family. I told you we have two sons, so we don't have any girls to enjoy our quilts. But our youngest son has a two story [house] with an open staircase and I think that was even better than winning best of show. When they bought their house, of course, we had to go visit and see it and he had the quilt displayed on the wall in the stairway and it's all lit up and it was so fun. So, he has a really great place to display.

HR: Did he do it as a surprise for you?

VM: Yes.

HR: That is really sweet. In your count of quilts, you included the quilts you've given away?

VM: Yes, he has about three of them. Yes, I included them.

HR: I'd like to thank Victoria Miller for allowing me to interview her as part of the Quilters Save Our Stories project in Northfield, Minnesota. Our interview concluded at 1:55 p.m.



“Victoria Miller,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024,