Tonya Littmann




Tonya Littmann




Tonya Littmann


Erin Nesmit

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Houston, Texas


Katie Demery


Erin Nesmit (EN): Tonya, will you tell me about the quilt you brought today?

Tonya Littmann (TL): This was the first pictorial quilt that I ever did. "Berek at the Koi Pond." The concept was taught to me by Cindy Walters, it's called 'snippets'. You take little hunks of fabric and fuse them onto a background and then thread paint all the edges down. I had wanted to do pictures instead of pieced things for a long time because I'm a graphic designer and I had done fine art, watercolor and acrylic in the past. I kind of know about shading and stuff but I wasn't quite sure how to adapt that into fabric. Cindy taught me this method of fusing the hunks of fabric like little paint globs and that's how it all began. This was the first one that I did. It was also my first blue ribbon. That was kind of a nice surprise.

EN: Does this quilt have any special meaning to you?

TL: It is my son when he was a little boy. That is our pond and the front of our house. Our fish are not nearly that big but it made a better quilt so I took some artistic license. This was when I was first learning how to free motion machine quilt and I hid some insects and a dragonfly in the foliage. I did a lot of shading with the hair and trying to make the body be curved instead of flat. It was a breakthrough piece for me.

EN: I can see your background in graphics because you've got shading, you've got depth, and your perspective is wonderful with this. I just love how on his hair right here, the sun is shining a little bit more. Why did you choose this quilt?

TL: Well, my most famous quilts are here at the show in the "Lone Stars III" exhibit and I couldn't use them so I had to find something else that was important to me and this would be the next one.

EN: What are the ultimate plans for this quilt?

TL: It hangs at my front door. It's the first thing you see when you walk in my house.

EN: How did you get started in quilts?

TL: My great grandmother quilted during The Great Depression for 10 cents a spool. I have lots of her quilts in my family. My grandmother made a few utilitarian ones. I was doing ceramics with a girlfriend at a community college and she was dying fabric – mostly for garments – and invited me to come with her. I had all of these gorgeous colored things and I had just gotten married. I wanted to make a quilt for our bed. I batiked some Japanese crests on white fabric. I waxed the crests and dyed them. I wanted to make a comforter for our bed. I called my grandma and said 'How do I do this?' and she kind of told me over the phone from Indiana. It didn't quite work. I realized I needed a class. I still have it, it's an okay quilt. I made the big mistake that every beginner does, I used big puffy batting. Then I took some classes and made lots of pieced quilts. I started doing a kind of create-your-own-quilt, not from a pattern. I took a class where you had to come up with a whole bunch of different sizes of the same quilt block. I picked stars. I did lots of sizes of different stars in the same color pallet. Then you had to work out how they were all pieced together and that got me designing my own quilts. That was probably the last time that I used a pattern.

EN: Do you think that the picture quilts are you niche or is there another aspect of it?

TL: I do abstracts once in a while, but I really like picture quilts.

EN: What is your first quilt memory?

TL: My grandmother's quilt on Mom's bed and Mom telling about the different fabrics. 'This fabric was the dress that I made in 4H and this is your dad's Wonder Bread delivery shirt.' It was a four patch, kind of a crazy four patch, with darks and lights that had no rhyme or reason.

EN: How many hours a week do you quilt?

TL: That really varies. I have a graphic design business. I sit in my studio at my computer and if I don't have approval on a job, or I'm waiting for changes or copy approval I can go sew. It varies a lot. Anywhere from none to the whole week.

EN: When you start on a quilt, do you do it specifically for show or do you have an idea you are wanting to explore?

TL: Some of them will be for a show and then sometimes it's a technique that I want to learn about so I want to do something small and just practice. People are always asking for donations for auctions and I use those little test things to donate.

EN: Are you a part of any quilting or sewing groups or guilds?

TL: Yes, lots. [laughing.] I'm on the show committee for the Quilters' Guild of Dallas. My home guild is the Denton Quilt Guild. I'm also in the Twisted Stitchers Art Group and an art quilt group in Denton called "Not Your Grandmother's Bee." And lots of traditional bees where we sit and sew.
I work alone in my business. I'm a graphic designer with my own little building in my backyard so I have no colleagues. Quilting is my social outlet.

EN: As a rule, how do you find quilters? I mean, what do you think of them?

TL: What do I think of them?

EN: Yes.

TL: They're so sweet and fun and interesting. They're the greatest people in the world.

EN: Is there a specific size that you typically work with, or does it just vary depending on what you're doing?

TL: This size (30 x 35") just tends to be where I go. I try and force myself to get bigger because when you're here at a show and you walk around the corner and you see something like this next to something giant, it's gets kind of dwarfed. It's like every time I come to the show, I always say I need to work bigger. I try to make myself work bigger, but I do have a pretty small studio and my design wall space is probably queen-sized. There's inspiration tacked all around the fringes of it so if I need to design big I have to move a bunch of stuff.

EN: What's the rest of your sewing area like?

TL: It's an L-shaped building and my graphic design computer and stuff is in the front. The small part of the L looks onto an old antique drafting table that just happens to fit perfectly with one of those big cutting mats. The design wall is beyond that. The sewing machine is in the corner and then a wrap-around countertop that holds a light table/drafting table because early on in graphic design we needed light tables. Now there's a big ironing board on top of it. The light table is still there if I ever need it.

EN: Alright, talk about your stash.

TL: My stash is in the open; it's breaking the rules. It's sitting on wrap-around shelves in the open. You can see it when you walk in the door and it's color rainbow coordinated. It starts from yellow and goes all the way around to black.

EN: When you buy fabric because I'm assuming you might buy fabric every now and then-

TL: Not much actually.

EN: Really?

TL: I dye about 65 yards every summer.

EN: Okay. What are you starting with when you dye?

TL: White cotton. It's called prepared-for-dyeing or PFD. I use both muslin and sateen.

EN: What kind of dyeing do you do?

TL: Low emersion, shibori, and just experimenting. There's a group of us that have been dyeing together for years. The lady that taught me how to dye started in 1973. I got involved in 1986 and every summer we spend a week making a big mess. We pull out all our dyes and dye fabric. That pretty much gets me through the year. Traditionally, I'll come here (to Houston) and shop for a graduation of flesh tones or something that is harder to do. If I can't get it done in the summer and I decide that I need it, sometimes I will go buy fabric, but not very often. I don't use a whole lot of prints anymore, either.

EN: When you are quilting, do you start with a very specific idea in mind or do you start with a concept and see where it takes you or how faithful are you to your original idea as you go through the process?

TL: I pretty much have the image when I start. It changes sometimes but not often.

EN: What aspect of quilt making do you really enjoy and what frustrates you and you want to get better at?

TL: I like the quilting. I like the free motion quilting. I use a home sewing machine-

EN: Just a short arm?

TL: Yeah.

EN: On a whole tiny little desk?

TL: Yes, that's another reason why it's sometimes hard to make big quilts. This (30 x 35") is the perfect size for home sewing machines. I want to get better at sewing in parts and then joining them later, like quilting in pieces and joining them in hunks later because it would make it easier to quilt then.

EN: Are there specific products or are you loyal to your machine?

TL: I am happy with the machine I have now. Want me to tell you what it is?

EN: Yeah, I'm very curious.

TL: Okay. It's a Brother Quilt Club, I don't remember the number but it's probably five years old. Wonder under is my fusible of choice because live in a small town and I can get it locally without driving into Dallas or Fort Worth.

EN: With the snippets method that you used in this quilt, do you put all of the little pieces on at the ironing board and then go 'shhhh' [makes noise of ironing]?

TL: This one has lots of tiny pieces, and I don't do much of that anymore. Now I'm doing bigger hunks of stuff. I have to work flat because of the wonder under. This one (the example) was done with a Steam-a-Seam 2 where you could stick it on the wall but now I work flat because I build chunks of the design on a Teflon sheet, peel it off, and then stick the bigger chunks together on the wall.

EN: So you're creating your puzzle?

TL: Mhm. I've also started to cut the background from behind a big chunk so that it removes a layer of fabric because the quilt would end up being lots of really thick layers. This fusible, Steam-a-Seam 2 (in the example) is thicker and it was done with lots of fabrics that I built on a background. Now I kind of cut away behind the images – like the body or whatever.

EN: Yeah, the big pieces so you're not having that extra layer to quilt through. So you do your own quilting?

TL: Yes.

EN: You're not weaving your cloth, but you're dyeing it. It sounds like you've developed your own techniques for putting it together. It's your images and you're quilting and binding it. You're like the whole package.

TL: I try to be [laughing.]

EN: What does quilt making do for you?

TL: It is a creative process I can do for myself without having to please my clients. I sometimes have a great concept for my clients and they'll wreck it. They'll say 'No, there's some white space right there that we need to fill with words. Or, I don't want to pay for empty space.' Then I'll lose interest in my original design. With my quilting, I have total control.

EN: It's all you.

TL: It's much more peaceful than working with a client.

EN: Yes, it is.

TL: I've done a couple of quilt commissions for people of their pets. I've done a few where I've printed inkjet onto fabric and then thread-painted the animals heavily. So far, those clients have been very agreeable and easy to work with, where advertising clients are harder.

EN: Yeah.

TL: Sorry guys, if they heard me [laughing.]

EN: It's your idea, your vision. I'm curious about this one with your background in graphic design. What are you pulling from there or what types of techniques and ways of looking at things?

TL: I use Photoshop sometimes to help me see the shading in a photo that may not be there, because I use photography for my image inspiration. Photoshop can help me round out the shading. I use an overhead projector to draw my pattern on the wall and then sometimes I'll combine several photos. This example was a combination of three photos, actually four because I didn't like the background in the real photo so I changed it.

EN: Did you dye the border fabric?

TL: No, that's cotton. I bought it. It's commercial but it was perfect.

EN: It's great.

TL: Cherrywood.

EN: Exactly. It's beautiful. As far as quilts as a whole, when you walk around and look at things, my jaw just drops looking at different quilts all time, what do you think makes a great quilt?

TL: Well, I'm excited by the image first, that's what grabs me. Then I go and look at the technique, the quilting, and the detail. But it's the imagery that grabs me and makes me go in and look at details.

EN: Do you find yourself favoring certain color waves or is it just whatever brings the image to life?

TL: I don't think I'm influenced by color so much as just subject and how it grabs you.

EN: What would you think would make a quilt appropriate for a museum?

TL: Definitely technical quality. I think it needs to be beautiful just as an art form. It needs to be technically well done and use quality materials.

EN: Do you consider quilting to be an art or a craft or both?

TL: I think it is both. There are definitely pieces that look like paintings and then some of these that are pieced or appliquéd are gorgeous and they're art.

EN: Why is quilt making important in your life?

TL: It is a creative outlet and it is my social family. My blood family lives in another state so these women are my adopted family locally.

EN: Where are you from originally?

TL: Indiana. I grew up in South Louisiana and later Shreveport and Houston. Dad was in retail – we bounced all over. The Houston graphic design business is very industrial. I wanted to do retail graphic design, so I came to Dallas and still ended up doing industrial clients. I got married and opened my own company in 1988 and have been just doing freelance graphic design ever since.

EN: Do you think your quilts reflect your area right now or do you consider yourself a Texas quilter? I know you're living in Texas and have been there for a while-

TL: I think that my stuff is universal because it's more about people.

EN: Yes. They have some questions in here that I think are very interesting about women's history and quilting because how so many of these quilts that you'll see in museums or exhibits or books will say 'maker unknown'.

TL: Yes.

EN: You have been quilting for a little while, but have you seen a change in the recognition for quilters?

TL: Since I've been involved with it, everybody has always said 'label your quilts' or 'sign your quilts'. We even went back while my grandmother was still alive, and labeled all of my great grandmother's quilts. At that time, my sisters and I put them all in a pile and we took turns picking one. On my great grandmothers' quilts the labels say 'Made by: Ida Mae Junkin. And then "Given to her daughter, Olive Pogue and to her daughter, Shirley Byers and to her daughter, Tonya Littmann." Each quilt has the whole history up until now and grandma helped us pick a time frame when they were made.

EN: That's wonderful.

TL: I found the quilt block names. I did research and found the names and tried to be true to the Indiana area if I could find out what the quilts were called in Indiana. My grandmother knew some of the names.

EN: How neat. You're already taking steps to preserve your family's legacy of quilting-

TL: Mhm.

EN: And you're doing this with your quilts-

TL: Mhm.

EN: How do you think other people should be doing this? Or what can be done to keep this knowledge?

TL: In addition to labels, I keep a notebook of when I made a quilt, where it was shown, with a picture of the quilt. If it won a prize, I'll Xerox the ribbon. [laughing.]

EN: Neat. It's like your brag book and your portfolio?

TL: But nobody's ever seen it. It's in my studio.

EN: Just for you?

TL: Yeah.

EN: I bet you can really see how you've grown as a quilter.

TL: Yeah. This one from 11 years ago is different from what I do now.

EN: What areas of quilt making are you excited about? What do you want to explore?

TL: I just need more time. I have so many ideas and it's hard for me to decide which one to work on whenever I do get a break.

EN: You've got UFO's and this is just what you're feeling like right then?


“Tonya Littmann,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 22, 2024,