Elsie Campbell




Elsie Campbell


Karen Musgrave sits down for a phone interview with Elsie Campbell of Dodge City, Kansas. Musgrave and Campbell discuss Campbell's quilt entered for Ami Simms's "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece" exhibit and how her son's time as a caretaker for a man with Alzheimer's inspired the design of her quilt. The two also discuss how quilting has allowed Campbell to travel and see the ways that quilting is taught and practiced in Brazil and France, which differ from the quilting in her region. Campbell also discusses the importance of practicing and self-critiquing in quilting, as well as how supportive her family is of her quilting career as her home studio spreads throughout her entire house.




Elsie Campbell


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Susan Quinn


Dodge City, Kansas


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Elsie Campbell. Elsie is in Dodge City, Kansas and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is March 14, 2008. It is 2:01 in the afternoon and we are doing a special Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories which is based on the exhibition "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." Elsie, tell me about you quilt "Confusion" that is in the exhibit.

Elsie Campbell (EC): It is a small quilt kind of based on a Lone Star pattern, a variation on that. You want me to tell you a little about how I came up with the idea?

KM: Yes. Please.

EC: I was right on a deadline for this one and I couldn't come up with an idea. I personally have never had any experience with this disease other than second hand experience through my son Kerry's eyes. Kerry returned from a year studying in France, and needed a part time job while he finished his degree. He found one living with and take care of some of the needs of a man who had early onset Alzheimer's. In payment, Kerry received room and board and the use of Michael's jeep to run errands around town. Kerry did a lot of studying online, reading about the disease. He knew a whole lot more about Alzheimer's than I did, having lived with Michael for a year. I called Kerry and told him that I was stuck on this project. I simply didn't know where to start. I told him that I thought I would make a Lone Star quilt and maybe leave holes in it. Kerry stopped me right there and said, 'No Mom, Alzheimer's is not like holes in your memory.'

I said, 'Okay. How would you describe it if you had to, in one word?'

He said, 'I need to think about that.' He called me back a little later and said, 'Mom, that word would be confusion.'

That's where the title for this quilt came from. I started to think about how I would illustrate that single word - Confusion - in a Lone Star-type quilt. There are eight points in a Lone Star quilt. In my quilt, one point is perfect with everything in the right order. Going clockwise around the quilt, the next point has a couple of pieces juxtaposed. Continuuing around the quilt, the points get a little more mixed up - confused, if you will, and some of the pieces are turned the wrong side out so that the seams show. In the lower points, some pieces have become misshapen and some have dropped out and lie along the bottom the piece. These parts of the star have beguns to fade and to lose color. I used pastel shades of similar colors to those used in the upped points so they would seem to just fade away. Some kind of look like they are lying on a table where the points fell apart.

However, the center diamonds are a brilliant purple and they remain consistent and perfect until the very last diamond. These purple diamonds are supposed to represent the long term memory which in most cases, is the last to go. An Alzheimer's patient tends to remember things from childhood more clearly sometimes than things that happened the day before. With Alzheimer's, I think that is one of the most exasperating things for the caregiver. So those purple diamonds represent long term memory. I used some hand stitching for embellishment, to look kind of like primitive stitching. Making this quilt was a lot of fun and once I got the idea as to how I wanted to do this, it went together quickly in just an afternoon.

KM: What do you plan to do with the quilt when it comes back?

EC: It will become part of my trunk show. I travel around the country and lecture and teach about quilting. I will probably tell the story and spread the word about Ami's efforts and the organization that she has started to raise funds for research for Alzheimer's.

KM: Tell me about your impressions of the exhibit.

EC: I have seen it more than once. The first time I saw it I barely got past the third or fourth quilt before the tears came. It is difficult to go through the exhibit and read all the stories that go with them. You need to have a box of Kleenex's with you. The stories and images are heart wrenching. It is a very moving exhibit. I think everybody should see it.

The last time I saw it in person was at a quilt show last summer. I took a friend with me and we ended up having a lot of the similar feelings about the exhibit. It was like the third or fourth time I had viewed it but it still moves me. I see new things every time I view it. New ideas, new details in each piece. There is so much thought that went into each piece. Representing an abstract idea is, in my opinion, a really difficult thing to do visually. I usually make traditional quilts, things that are very standard, maybe not standard what is the word I want to say, well they are not intended to be art or anything like that, they are just beautiful, useful objects. But the quilts in this exhibit represent ideas that are abstract and in such a way that I think the meaning comes through even more clearly with these visual images than if you used words. Does that make sense?

KM: It makes a great deal of sense. There is a CD that accompanies the exhibit and each quiltmaker was asked to call Ami up on her telephone and record their artist statement. Tell me about that experience for you.

EC: It was a long time ago already. I don't know. It was nice. It was interesting. I have several copies of the CDs and I have given them as gifts.

KM: I thought it was very clever of Ami to have an audio component.

EC: Absolutely. I don't know where the spark comes from, but Ami is amazing. There is no other way to describe her. Her sense of humor is so fresh and quirky. I've always enjoyed being around her and seeing her lectures. This was just a unique thing and I know she was working through her own grief over the loss of her mother's memory and her mother's support. I lost my own mother five years ago. My mother was my biggest fan and shortly after her death, whenever I got some award or I would be make a new quilt, I would find myself wanting to call my mom. Then I would think, 'I can't call her anymore.' I'm sure Ami has the same feelings only she is dealing with even more intensity, because her mother's physical body is still with her. That lack of support, and missing the person her mother used to be is just really tough to deal with. I'm sure that is what she has been working through by throwing so much effort into developing this project.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

EC: I have always had a needle in my hand. Mom said I was eighteen months old the first time she put a needle in my hand. Mom said that she would be sewing and I would sit at her feet and scream until she put a needle and thread in my hands too in a piece of fabric so I can't remember not knowing how. I can't remember not being able to sew. Mother was a dressmaker. She earned money by alterations and making clothes for other people. I have two sisters and we all took piano lessons, we all played clarinet, we all sang and we were able to do all of these things because Mom used her sewing money to pay for them. She sewed so that we could have those things that were not necessary but were nice. As my sisters and I got older, we always had several sewing machines going at once. We all learned to sew and make quilts but mostly, at that point it was dressmaking. Making our own clothes was necessary for financial reasons besides being pleasurable.

Making quilts and sewing is like life blood. I don't think I could ever stop. I've had several surgeries on my upper extremities over the past few years, and I'm facing another one for a trigger finger here in the next month, but I just keep at it. Probably one of my biggest nightmares is not being able to use my hands or not being able to sew. These surgeries have reminded me that I am human and that I need to slow down and pace myself. Most of my surgeries have been because of repetitive motion injuries. [laughs.] I'm learning, but it's something I cannot not do. I must sew, I must create and I must make something with my own hands. Is that what you are wanting?

KM: Yes. Expand upon this because you are an award winning quiltmaker. You are a teacher. You are a writer. You are an editor. Tell me about those experiences and how they all relate.

EC: One thing kind of feeds into the other. The writer and the editor part happened because I am a quiltmaker. I also have a master's degree in special education: My bachelor's degree is in Home Economics with emphasis in clothing design and construction. I've got basically two master's degrees in other special education areas, but everything I have done seems to lead back to sewing. I've also been an insurance agent, a custom framer, and I taught piano for thirty years. I've taught swimming. [laughs.] I was a lifeguard and a licensed daycare provider. I've done a lot of different things, but I always come back to the needle and sewing in some way, shape or form. I think I'm kind of like a closet artist. I would love to be able to paint and I've done some of that, too, some watercolor and acrylic fine arts, but, for me, there seems to be more satisfaction in the needle arts.

KM: Is "Confusion" typical of your style?

EC: Is "Confusion" typical of my style? [KM hums agreement.] No. Not at all. However, I've done--well, I will try everything at least once. I can say that "Confusion" is not the kind of quilt I would put in a competition. There are a lot of art quilters out there that make fantastic stuff. I aspire to make art quilts (and I have made a bunch of them) but they are not the ones that would win the awards for. I win awards basically for craftsmanship because I'm very good at it. I've developed a great sense of color and value, which are really important, but "Confusion" is not what I'm known for. It was lots of fun and I have done other work like that. Most of it was commission work but it is nothing that I usually do to show for competition or anything like what I teach.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

EC: You know what if I stopped to count the hours, I would be wasting minutes I could be using quilting. [laughs.] When you are enjoying yourself, it doesn't matter how much time or how little time you spend on it. That has nothing to do with anything. People ask me how many hours it took me to make a certain quilt and I have a very hard time responding to that question because it makes no sense to me. It's like, 'Where did that question come from?' To me that just seems like a big question mark. It has no meaning to me. It simply surprises me every time.

KM: I always answer that question by telling people whatever my age is at that time. [EC laughs.] How long did it take you?

EC: How ever old you are that makes since, yah fifty-two or whatever.

KM: Right, whatever it is and because I think it is a process and it is ongoing and so it took me fifty-two years to get here to make this quilt.

EC: I don't even bother counting UFOs [unfinished objects.] anymore either, you know those unidentified objects, because that really doesn't matter either. What matters is the process. I learn something new from everything I do. I have to keep thinking and keep the wheels turning upstairs. Maybe I'm preventing Alzheimer's because every time you make something new you have to rethink it. I have to ask myself, 'Did that work as well as I would like?'

I teach gifted children in public schools. That is what I've been doing for the last fours. Well actually I have been doing it about ten years, but off and on for the last fifteen years. Bloom's taxonomy states that there is a systematic way people learn things. There are different levels of learning. The first level is Knowledge and that means that you can recite back what you have learned verbatim. The second level of learning is Comprehension. The learner goes beyond verbatim recitation and demonstrates understanding of learned facts. The higher levels involve -Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. When I'm working on a quilt, I am working in the upper level thinking skills of Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. I am pulling everything I ever learned together to make a new product. When I am finished, I look at it and say, 'Oh, this went really well. I really like what happened here, but I think I could have done this part better. How could I do it better? Why would I do it that way?'

I think probably those who suffer from Alzheimer's lose the upper level thinking skills. I've heard that you can maybe sometimes keep your mental health or your brain working if you exercise it, so I guess I do a lot of exercising. To go back to your original questions, I probably quilt or work on quilt-related activities sixty to seventy hours a week. Eight to ten hours a day at least. If I'm not actively doing something with my hands that is quilt related, I am thinking about quilting or I am writing about it or I'm on the Internet with e-mails, research, or watching/reading about quilting related subjects. If I had young children, I wouldn't be able to spend all that time on quilting, but my kids are grown and my husband is very relaxed about the housekeeping. He does a lot of the cooking these days, too, so I'm kind of free right now to indulge in what I love to do.

KM: How wonderful.

EC: Yeah, it really is. [laughs.]

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

EC: They have always been very tolerant and supportive. I have two sons and now a daughter-in-law. For example, about five years ago I won one of the top awards at the AQS [American Quilter's Society.] quilt show in Paducah, Kentucky. Big, big surprise to me. My son and daughter-in-law were moving from Memphis, Tennessee to Ottumwa, Iowa the weekend prior to this show. When I called him to tell them about this award, he told his wife of about six months to pack her bag because they were going to a quilt show! Hilary had no clue what she was in for. She had never seen a quilt show, certainly not one like Paducah. They had to drive eleven hours to get to Paducah so they could be with me and to see the quilt with its ribbon. Her mind was just totally blown away. She had never seen anything like it. She had no idea. I mean she comes from a quilting background, her grandmothers all quilted, her mom quilts, but she had no idea that quilts could look like that - the competition quilts, the art quilts and so forth.

A couple of week's prior to that big award, I told my eldest son, Kelly, that that particular quilt was his. (I put each son's name on particular quilts that I make so they will have that quilt when I pass on.) [laughs.] When I called him to tell him that I had to take back my promise of this quilt, Kelly said, 'Well that is okay Mom. It will be in the museum. I can go visit it once in a while.'

I said, 'Yes, that's right. I will have to make you another one.' So he was fine with it. He understood how important this award was to me.

My younger son Kerry got to help hang the "One Hundred Best Quilts" ["The Twentieth Century's Best American Quilts" exhibit and book. ] when they appeared in Europe with the International Quilt Association show while he was living and studying Chemical Engineering in France. He was living in Nancy, which is near Strasburg, where the European quilt show was to take place. Karey Bresenhan from IQA [International Quilt Association.] hired Kerry and five of his friends to help set up and hang the show, act as interpreters and help with the take down. They were American kids in Europe and that was kind of a neat deal for the students—they got paid in American dollars.

I think my sons have helped educate their friends about quilting and that quilts are art in a lot of ways. They are very supportive. My husband does my videotaping for class instruction. He created my website, which now needs a little bit of maintenance work. Ken also teaches public school, so summer is when he does his work on things for me. He sometimes travels with me, sets up my media equipment, hauls my bags around, packs up the car, and yeah, he seems to be very proud of my work. He never exactly tells me that, but I hear from other people that he brags about me a lot, so it makes me feel good.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

EC: I love it all. Let me see if I can go back. You know, there are a lot of people who have influenced my career. In 1992 I entered a contest, the AQS contest, and my quilt was accepted. I actually traveled to Paducah to see it hanging there. I also saw exhibits in the Museum of the American Quilter's Society there. When I walked into the museum, the first quilt I saw was one of Caryl Bryer Fallert's work called "Cosmic Pelican." With all the spotlights on it, this thing glowed. At that point, even though I grew up with quilts on every bed, I didn't know quilts could look like that. I was moved to tears. I made it my ambition to some day have a quilt in that museum. I thought this was the impossible dream. I began working toward that goal. It is a real thrill now to actually have a quilt in that museum.

About that same time, I think it was in1993, I was a church youth group sponsor. I took my sons and several other teenagers to St. Louis for a Church World Conference. I was dragging along a quilt that I was working on. I would sit in the hallway and quilt while waiting on kids to get done with activities. A young man noticed what I was doing and watched me closely. He just stood there quietly and watched me stitch. I thought this is rather strange but interesting. He was just so intent on watching every stitch and he just got closer in, closer to my work, watching everything, but never said a word. All of a sudden, he looked at me and asked, 'Is that reverse appliqué?' I thought to myself, 'Oh my gosh, this cowboy knows quilts!' (He was kind of dressed like a cowboy with the string necktie and the hat and all that.) We struck up a conversation. Can you guess who that was?

KM: Ricky Tims.

EC: You got it. He was not known in the quilting world, he had just begun to quilt and I had just started to enter contests and that is exactly who it was. [laughs.] We have been friends ever since. We began to run into each other at quilt shows, so it has been kind of a neat way to watch his career skyrocket like it has. Matter of fact, we are going to Pueblo tonight and are planning to have dinner with him tomorrow night in La Veta, so I'm kind of excited about that. In 1998, we met in Paducah and he gave me his usual hug and kind of whispered in my ear, 'Elsie I have done it. I've done it, I've quit my day job. I'm quilting full time.' His taking that risk kind of encouraged me to do the same when my opportunity came about a year and a half later. So, in a lot of ways, he has been really influential in my career and my courage to do strike out in the world of quilting, too.

Another person who has influenced my more recent attempts at machine quilting is Diane Gaudynski. I had the privilege of taking a machine quilting class from her a few years back. I had never really machine quilted before. At least not that satisfied my standards for quilting. After that class with her and a little practice, my newest competition quilt Aunt MiMi's Flower Garden is getting Best Machine Workmanship awards. So far, it has been in five quilt shows and it has come home with six ribbons. Three of those awards have been for Best Machine Workmanship. I'm really thrilled. I've got to ship it out later today to the Quilter's Heritage Celebration in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I will be there with it in about a week and a half.

I never dreamed that quilting would take me to Rio de Janeiro but I taught quilting there a few years back, too. This has been an amazing thing to me. I traveled to France, too, and I have a quilting friend there, too. I never dreamed that my quilting would take me to these places so it is an incredible, incredible thrill to me.

KM: Tell me about teaching in a foreign country, how is it different?

EC: [laughs.] Probably each country is a little bit different. In France, I didn't really have an interpreter, but it was amazing to me that in the world of quilting, you don't really need language, because we all speak 'quilt'. I was just amazed at how little importance language is, really. A lot of teaching quilting is demonstration. It is a visual art after all, and I think most quilters are visual learners anyway. Rio de Janeiro was another experience. I did have an interpreter there who was an avid quilter. Some of the time I felt like she was telling the students how she would do it rather than telling them what I was saying. You understand.

KM: Oh yes.

EC: [laughs.] The best interpreter I had while in South America was one who knew nothing about quilting. [laughs.] The one who knew something about quilting seemed to color it from her point of view. [laughs.]

KM: I have had similar experiences teaching in different countries. Very true.

EC: Rio was delightful, I just can't tell you what a thrill that was. I was very, very surprised. Where we live in Dodge City, nearly half the population is Hispanic, Mexican. They speak Spanish, they don't speak much English. In Rio, I expected to see people with all black hair, brown eyes, brown skin. When I got there, the women that I was teaching were all of European descent— they looked like me. I was surprised to learn that Rio de Janeiro and that area of Brazil was settled about the same time as the US was and also with Europeans. The architecture looked so much like Europe, and the food was absolutely fabulous. I had not anticipated it being so very European in nature. The breads and the meats and everything were just as if I had been transported to Europe. I had not anticipated that. Another thing that fascinated me were the favelas, the shanty towns. Masses and masses of people, millions of people in Rio live on the sides of the mountains in shacks that are basically just boxes. It amazed me how creative people can be and how they live with so few things. The needs of human beings actually are a whole lot less than we think we need to survive.

KM: What are quilts like there? What do their quilts look like?

EC: Some of their quilts were simply copies of American style quilts. There was a barn quilt that was made exactly from an American pattern with American-looking barns. It was difficult for me to see these people with their own culture and their own heritage trying to imitate our country's folk art style.

However, there were some unique quilts. One quilt that fascinated me was explained to me by one of the makers of the quilt. She spoke limited English but she wanted to tell me the whole story depicted on this quilt. It was made by a group of women and each block was different. The quilt depicted scenes unique to their province or state of Brazil. About the only thing I could really remember or understand was a story about a particular little brown bird peculiar to their region. The story is this: the little brown bird makes a little mud hut for his mate. This bird mates for life. The little mud hut had a very small door in it so his mate can go in and out of her mud hut. She lays her eggs and they both tend the babies. However, if the male thinks his mate has been cheating on him or seeing another male bird, he will shove her in the little mud hut and close the door off with mud and she will die in there. [KM laughs.] The quilter wanted me to know the story of that little brown bird and that they mate for life.

There was another quilt that fascinated me. It had a very large image of a white snake on it. Kind of an electric white ghost snake, they called it. The gist of the story behind this quilt is that there was an old woman who got lost in the Amazon Rain Forest. She died and turned into this boa constrictor, this gigantic snake. She became the guardian of the forest. The story was much longer and involved, but I just remember that it was reported to be the guardian of the forest. It was beautiful, but haunting image.

Another amazing story for me was of a lovely Lone Star quilt. This quilt was beautifully with made, machine quilted, machine everything, little machine embroidered butterflies all over it. I ate breakfast with the woman who made it. She is a very plain and simple lady, no make up, clothes not so nice. She didn't speak much English, but I understood enough of the conversation to understand that she lives in the Amazon Rain Forest. She loves birds, parrots especially. She told me all about the birds. Then I asked her about her quilt. She told me that she has no running water and no electricity. I asked her, 'How did you make your quilt with no electricity?' This is a machine quilted quilt that could compete in Paducah or in any world-class competition. I understood that she has a gasoline generator in her back yard and when she wants to sew, she fires up her generator so that she would have electricity to sew. She said that is the only time she ever uses electricity.

KM: Wow.

EC: Yeah, if we want to, there is a way. 'Where there is will, there is a way,' that old saying. There were some very unique quilts. The colors seemed to be brighter to me. They exhibited a great sense of color - pure color. There weren't any of the gray, toned down colors you sometimes see in competition quilts here, unless the quilts were ones imitating US style. Fascinating to see.

KM: Do you think that your quilts reflect your community or region?

EC: Dodge City is a cow town. I've made a few rodeo quilts, but that really is not me. I do them because they are ones that people like to see around here. I think we have some regional differences in the U.S. still. I lived in the northeast for a while. Their quilts are certainly different from ones made in California, I think.

I haven't even thought about that. I grew up in a General Conference Mennonite Church (most liberal branch of the Mennnite Church) and I'm totally drawn to the Amish quilts, the black and bright colors you know. Black just makes colors glow and I'm draw to solids. I love to work in the solids because I found out early on my competition life that the thing judges liked best about my quilts were my quilting stitches. For quilting stitches to show, you need to work in solid colors. I think all but one of my award winning quilts are made out of solids or hand dyes that read like solids. I use very few prints in my competition quilts.

However, I dearly love to make scrap quilts with thousands of different fabrics in them. Those are the ones that I just have fun making and those are the ones that are on the beds and those are the ones that I give away, those are the ones that are in my trunk shows. My best trunk show I think, is my scrap quilts talk: Innovations and Renovations: Scrap Quilts. I guess I'm kind of a jack of all trades. But if you go to a show and see one of my quilts, they are probably going to be solid colors with radial symmetry. Like a Lone Star, that sort of thing. Ones I make for pleasure aren't necessarily those I would show. I don't know if I have a regional flavor or style. I just like to make quilts.

KM: Describe your studio.

EC: It [quilting.] kind of oozes over into the rest of the house. Right now, I have a large bedroom on the second floor. I live in an old, very large house. In my studio, I have four gigantic windows that stretch basically from the ceiling to the floor so I have lots and lots of natural light. The windows overlook the whole neighborhood so it is kind of fun to look out and see everything. I turned one wall into a design wall. I took quilt batting, a very dense cotton batting, and glued and nailed it to some wooden slats. Then I nailed the slats to the wall and put trim around it.

I have an old library table that I bought for ten bucks at a high school auction. It has a lot of 'nice' graffiti carved into the top of it. [laughs.] It is very portable. The legs can be removed by simply taking out a few bolts and it is very sturdy. It is solid oak. I cover the ugly top with a bunch of cutting mats so I don't have to look at the graffiti that is carved into the top. [laughs.] I have a large ironing board with storage units underneath. There's also a lot of open shelving. I like open shelving. I know it is probably not the healthiest for my fabric, but I seem to thrive on visual stimulation. I want to see what I've got. I also have a large walk-in closet that I have lined with shelves. I do a lot of hand dyeing and I've got all my hand dyes starched and ready to cut hanging on clothes hangers in that walk-in closet, What I really like is that I have my own bathroom, a private full bath just off the sewing room. The only time that bathroom gets used by other people is when we have guests in the house. My daughter-in-law particularly likes having her own bathroom when she visits, so she uses the one off my sewing room. It is Hilary's bathroom when she stays here.

I own more than a few Bernina sewing machines. One is usually in my sewing table, and one I put up on the cutting table for embroidery. I've also got several old Berninas: an 830, 532, and other models that are stored in my closet. Sometimes, I get them out for guests if we are sewing together. We can set the older machines up on the tables downstairs and work all over the house.

My yardage fits in the walk-in closet and my fat quarters are all on the open shelving in the sewing room. My books are all spread out. I've got one whole wall in my bedroom lined with library books, another half wall in my office, and now I've started to fill up shelves in my family room, so I kind of collect things like that. I have a whole cabinet full of unfinished quilt tops and pieces and ideas. In my office, I have another walk-in closet that I've lined with shelves. That is where I put all my class supplies and teaching samples. My guest bedroom has another closet that is full of inventory that I sell online and books and such. That is where I store all my finished quilts for my trunk shows. And then there's the basement storage room where I've got two pallets of books. When my Winning Stitches book went out of print, I bought them all. Is that enough of a description?

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

EC: Quiltmakers in general? I hadn't thought about it in general. For me, it has been narrowing my quiltmaking down to something and, instead of being a jack of all trades, trying to do a few things very well. I haven't quite figured out what it is that I do the best or what I really want to best at. I mean, I want to do it all. Sometimes I get a lot of scatter in what I'm doing, and I think maybe I need to be able to organize and narrow what I'm doing to just a few things. I don't know.

Sometimes, I wonder if we are getting too many large shows all over because some of the shows are having a struggle now filling classes. Quilters seem to be able to travel and go to all of these shows, but in this particular area, we seem to have trouble keeping quilt shops open. Finally we have a new quilt shop that opened up about twenty miles from Dodge City, but this is the only quilt shop for probably a hundred mile radius. I have to drive one hundred and fifty miles to a quilt shop of any significant size.

KM: Why do you think that is?

EC: I think it is because the population here is half Hispanic and it would appear that we have a large population base, which we do, but the people that are moving in here are young. They have ten and twelve kids and they are busy trying to feed those mouths and keep a roof over their heads. They have no interest in needle arts or needle crafts and if they did, they don't have the time or the money to invest in it. It is an investment.

KM: And not a small one.

EC: Not a small one and it is not part of their culture either. Whereas I grew up German Mennonite and it is a part of my culture.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

EC: Read books, buy all the books, the how-to books, the pattern books. Start off slowly, go to the quilt shops if there is one in your area, talk with the owners and take classes, take all the classes you can possibly afford and have time for. Buy the best. You pay for what you get. There is no sense in buying a hundred-dollar sewing machine at the 'W' store and being frustrated. You will give up immediately because the machine is so frustrating to use. Buy the best sewing machine you can possibly afford because you will be using that for years and years and years. It becomes your best friend. The same thing with fabric. Buy the best fabric you can afford and generally you pay for what you get. If you buy two-dollar-a-yard fabric at the discount shops, it may very well be that this fabric is going to fall apart in a year or two or three, or it is so flimsy that it will fray and your seams won't hold up or it will be difficult to work with because it doesn't have high enough thread count. It is important to use the best materials because you are going to be spending hours and hours making something beautiful. There is no sense in wasting a few pennies on materials and tools.

KM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

EC: I know when I'm judging a large show, the quilt must first grab your attention. It has to be stunning first. It has to be a design with contrast and beauty. Colors are important, but I think value is even more important than color. There has to be value differences and there has to be an idea behind it. Something that at first glance is going to grab the viewer and draw them in. It has to have visual impact. If you don't have visual impact, no judge is going to bother looking at the workmanship, no matter how meticulous it is. The visual impact is all important. You must have an idea, you must carry it through with value and color, repetition, whatever it needs to be, then you will be drawn in. Besides visual impact, it is important that your workmanship be meticulous if you are going into competition. I think a lot of people are their own best critics but they don't know it. You know what went well with your quilt, what you did best, what you need help with and what you struggled with.

If you struggle with appliqué, start taking appliqué classes. Start buying books about appliqué. Start practicing appliqué until you are satisfied that what you are doing is good. Same thing with piecing, and whatever. Quilting, the finishing process is also of equal importance. The last quilt show I judged had some gorgeous quilts with fantastic, meticulous workmanship, yet they failed to bind it well. The bindings were askew and fat and skinny in places. The bindings weren't filled to the edge with batting. If you have spent hours and hours and hours piecing and appliquéing a beautiful quilt and then spent more hours meticulously quilting it, don't ruin it by doing a shoddy job on the edge finish. The edge is just as important. Every step along the way has to be as well done as all the other parts. It is very important that every step of the process be well done, and the only way to get better is to study it out, take classes, and do the very best work on every piece you do.

KM: Are there any aspects of quiltmaking that you don't enjoy?

EC: I'm trying to think if there is a part that is my least favorite.

KM: Obviously you don't have one. [laughs.]

EC: I'm struggling with that one because every stage is… It is sort of like falling in love. If I have a good design, the quilt almost makes itself because I can't put it down. I can't think of anything I don't like

KM: That is quite alright.

EC: I really, really enjoy every part of it. I'm trying to think. Oh, I do know one that I made that I had--I didn't have problems with it, but I didn't particularly enjoy making three-dimensional flowers. [laughs.] [KM laughs.]

It was a commission work and my client wanted 3-D flowers on it. I wasn't going to do it quite the way she wanted it done, but I did it my way. I ended up using Joan Shay's "Petal Play" techniques where you use Heat and Bond Ultra, and then you curl the petals around pencils to shape them. The flowers turned out beautifully and my client was just thrilled to pieces with it. She's even exhibited it in a couple of private art shows. I can't remember everything she said about it, but she is always making sure that I know how much she appreciated it. But I didn't particularly enjoy making it. [laughs.]

KM: We have been talking for forty-five minutes believe it or not. I always give people an opportunity to share anything that they would like that we haven't covered, so this is your chance.

EC: I'm not sure what else to say. I enjoy talking about my work. Traveling and teaching is a wonderful experience. However, I have come to the point where I love to teach people all the things that I know, but I do not enjoy the travel part. That has been a little tough. If anybody ever decides they want to travel and teach quilting, they really need to know that they will need physical stamina. Believe it or not, it takes a lot of physical strength to haul those big heavy bags and all that equipment around. Airports are not fun anymore. It is a real struggle. I understand the need for security and all that, but you never think about those things as being part of the quilting world. When you go into this as a profession, there is a lot of stuff that goes into this that you didn't bargain for. You have to think about that. It is not all about making quilts. It is also about bookkeeping and making your arrangements for hotels and airline tickets and getting all your stuff there and seeing that you have everything you need in a suitcase. I think it is all worth it, though, because I get to meet different quilters from all over. I've never met a quilter I didn't like to twist a quote from Will Rogers. I think quilters are probably the best of the best. Quilters worldwide are just eager, happy, busy, industrious people. I love them.

KM: I think that is a great way to close. Thank you so much for taking your time to do this interview with me, and we are going to end and it is 2:48.

Interview Keyword

Alzheimer's Disease
Ami Simms
Dodge City, Kansas


“Elsie Campbell,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2375.