Suzanne Marshall




Suzanne Marshall


Marshall discusses how she began quilting and her growth as a professional quilter. She discusses the various inspirations for quilts based off of her travels and books that she has read. Intermixed with her answering questions, she provides anecdotes about the creation, inspiration, and thought-process behind several individual quilts that she has produced over the years.




Marshall, Suzanne


Suzanne Marshall


Mary Laskowski

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Janneken Smucker


Houston, TX


Heather Gibson


Mary Laskowski (ML): This is an interview with Suzanne Marshall. I welcome you Suzanne. This is for the quilt oral history project in Houston, Texas. This is October 22, 1999. My name is Mary Laskowski and it is 9:00. This will take about 45 minutes. Where are you from Suzanne?

Suzanne Marshall (SM): I'm from Clayton, Missouri.

ML: Clayton, Missouri?

SM: Yes.

ML: And how many years have you been coming to the quilt show?

SM: I think it's been close to ten years now.

ML: Close to ten years. Well, I see you've brought this quilt for us. Why did you choose this quilt?

SM: Well I have a lot to say about this quilt for one thing. This quilt was so much fun to make. Would you like to hear about this particular quilt?

ML: Oh, I do. I do very much so.

SM: I think it really started in visiting Piazza Armerina in Sicily, which is full of mosaics. And in that area there were some mosaics that were wreaths. And in the center of each wreath were animal heads. Those really appealed to me and gave me the idea of making wreaths and putting something in the middle. And then probably almost a year later my husband was invited to be a visiting professor in Florence, Italy. And I knew that going along with him I would need some projects to work on because I'd be kind of at loose ends a lot of the time that he was busy. My husband's name is Garland and he's very supportive with all of this quilting business. So I designed a wreath. It's not really looking like the wreaths at the Piazza Armerina. These wreaths, if you look at them, they have no overlapping pieces in them. And I felt like I could get everything basted on in the wreath since there aren't any overlapping pieces and then just take them with me and do all the appliqués while I was gone. So this was kind of my travel project for quite some time. I had no idea at that time what I was going to put in the centers. I just worked on the wreaths. Then, when it came time to try to figure out what to put in the center, I thought back to a trip that we had to New Guinea, where we went to collect moths with an entomologist on an Earthwatch program. We became very fascinated with the beetles and the bugs there, and brought back a bug identification guide because we were just so fascinated with them. So I just thought, "Bugs are so pretty. I'll just put bugs in the middle!" So I ended up putting bugs in the middle of the wreaths, and actually started with just the bugs. Then they looked like such a square design in the middle of the round wreath that I ended up rounding them out with little flowers or other designs between the bugs. They make kind of kaleidoscope designs inside the wreath. My husband thought of the name "Bed Bugs."

ML: Are these bugs typical of the bugs that you actually found?

SM: They're adapted from a lot of the bugs that we saw in New Guinea. But then I've got some ladybugs on here, too, and I didn't see any ladybugs in New Guinea.

ML: How many different squares do you have in this quilt?

SM: I have sixteen squares in the quilt.

ML: Sixteen squares.

SM: And then I also have bugs crawling around the border.

ML: And here they're a larger design.

SM: Yes, they're larger, but they are taken from the same images from the bugs that are in the middle except they're in different colors. So for every bug you see in the middle of the quilt, you can see that same bug twice in the border in different colors. So with a child you could play a game to look for the different bugs.

ML: Now did you design all your wreaths the same?

SM: Yes I did.

ML: And these are little cherries? [pointing to berries on quilt.]

SM: Berries of some kind.

ML: There are red berries around. And how many different squares do you have in this?

SM: I have sixteen squares in this quilt. The wreaths are all the same but the bugs are all different inside the wreaths.

ML: And the size of this square is approximately 16 inches?

SM: I think it's probably 18 inches.

ML: Eighteen inches.

SM: It's a pretty big quilt. It wasn't easy to bring it with me because I had to put it in my carry-on luggage.

ML: What got you started in quilting?

SM: Back when our children were small, we have four children; they needed covers on their beds. And I had made a lot of my own clothes in the past, and I had a lot of leftover scraps. So I just thought, 'Well, I'll just try to make a quilt. They need covers' So I went to the public library and checked out a book, and started making quilts. I've never had a class yet.

ML: You're self-taught.

SM: I'm self-taught.

ML: And you didn't come from a quilting background?

SM: No I didn't.

ML: What was the first quilt that you made?

SM: The first quilt I made was just a patchwork quilt from a pattern that was in a McCall's Book of Quilting. You know what, I don't even remember the name of it. And it was pretty small. It was about the same size as our daughter. She was five. [laughter.] And then as the kids got bigger, the quilts got bigger. And as the kids left home, the quilts got more complicated.

ML: Do you tend to make quilts that appeal just to you, or did the children request their quilt colors. How did you evolve?

SM: Oh, you know that's variable. I have a son that actually designed a "King's Crown" quilt on graph paper one time because he was sick and trying to entertain himself. So I said, 'Look at this pattern. I'd like to make a 'King's Crown' quilt. Why don't we play with this?' He colored out on graph paper what he wanted. So I made that for him. But most of the time I just made things out of scraps. I made scrap quilts for about eight or nine years, and then my husband gave me a gift certificate for fabric for my birthday and said, 'You need to go out and buy fabric for a quilt.' And I said, 'You have to be kidding! I'm going to go out and buy brand new fabric.' Because I had not done that before. I had bought remnants before on the scrap tables, but I had never planned a quilt and bought fabric. Well that really backfired on him because I've been buying fabric for quilts ever since.

ML: So what part of quilting do you like the best? Is it the designing of the quilt or the making of it?

SM: No, that's such a hard question because I get satisfaction out of all parts of it and then all parts also make me frustrated at all times. I think the designing is hardest for me. I've not had an art background and I haven't had the classes. But I'll see something that appeals to me and I'll try somehow to adapt it into a quilt and make it my own somehow.

Bernie Herman (BH): Could you go through the steps of design? The steps you go through to design a quilt.

SM: The steps I go through? Well, for this one you've kind of heard because I was attracted to that wreath at Piazza Armerina. Well, if I think about another quilt--I saw in a library book a picture of an embroidered bed-cover that was made in 1717 by a 19 year-old girl named Mary Breed. And there was a drawing of one of the embroidered motifs on this particular bedcover. And I looked at that and thought, 'Well, I haven't tried a medallion quilt before. That would be fun.' So I blew that up and did that much appliqué. And I thought, 'Well, this isn't big enough for a quilt.' So I just started designing borders out from it. And it has three designed borders. I mean, I didn't know what it was going to look like. After the first border I designed the second border. I tried things that didn't work and finally I'd try something that did. So it just grew. And several of my quilts just grew like that.

ML: Just what's pleasing to you?

SM: What's pleasing to me. And I can't picture it all in my head ahead of time. I have to do something and that sort of tells me what to do next. It's like these wreaths. I knew I wanted to do these wreaths with something in the middle, but I didn't know what. And actually when I started the wreath I didn't have the berries on it. But the berries just needed to be there. But I didn't know that until I had put some of the leaves on. So they sort of evolve. And really one of the most fun things about making quilts to me is to see how they turn out, because I don't ever know what it's going to be when I start out.

ML: Do you tend to do mostly appliqué? Is that your main interest?

SM: Well I still make patchwork quilts for the bed. And I also like to come by and appliqué with patchwork a lot of times. I'll make part of the quilt appliqué, then add some patchwork, then add some more appliqué.

ML: You mentioned the challenge that you hadn't done that before. And you were talking about design. Is that what leads you to make the next quilt, something you haven't done?

SM: Sometimes the challenge will draw me in. I made an Art Nouveau quilt one time called "Dragonflowers" that is mostly purple- purple flowers with jade-colored green leaves. And I made that quilt because I'd never worked with purple before, and I really wanted to work with purple and try it out. I'm sure I'm not as inventive as many, but you know it is fun to try new things.

ML: Now how many years have you been quilting?

SM: It's probably been twenty-two or twenty-three years now. About twenty-three, but you can almost not count those first nine years. They were pretty bad. [laughter.]

ML: Did you have other quilting friends once you started making quilts? Were there other quilters around?

SM: When I started making quilts I didn't know anyone who made quilts. I made them very quietly up in my house. You know, just because I liked doing it.

ML: You liked sewing.

SM: I liked making quilts. Yeah, once I got started it just kind of drew me in.

ML: When you go to the quilt festival and things like that do you go for the inspiration? Or are you going because you enjoy the quilts? What are you looking for when you come to something like this quilt show for example?

SM: I mean, frankly, I always like to see my quilts in the quilt show if they get in. That's exciting. And since "Toujours Nouveau" was part of the "Twentieth Century's Hundred Best American Quilts," I really wanted to see that hanging in the exhibit. And then I did have a quilt in the competition, too, that won a second prize. So I wanted to see it hanging there. I wanted to see what got first prize above it. But I enjoy going even when I don't have a quilt in the exhibit just because, as you say, the inspiration is wonderful. I must admit that a show like this intimidates me because I think the things hanging here are so incredible. How do the people think of all these ideas? It's just amazing to me.

ML: Do you go home renewed and have a bunch of other ideas that you want to do?

SM: From the things I've seen? No, not really because I think my inspirations come from a trip that I've taken or from something I've seen kind of on my own. I mean I don't go to a quilt show and see I quilt I want to make.

ML: It's to do the things yourself.

SM: Right.

ML: Are most of your quilts from nature?

SM: A lot of them are. I'm making another bug quilt right now. And this one has different leaves in each wreath, and on the leaves are different bugs. And this is fun. I'm using metallic threads on that one, which is kind of fun.

ML: Do you mainly quilt by hand?

SM: Yes, I always quilt by hand. Oh, I take that back! This summer I tried machine quilting because I was between some glasses that I couldn't see out of. I kept on getting three wrong prescriptions and I couldn't really see to do the close-work. So I thought, "Well, I'll just try some machine-quilting." And I made little wall hangings with machine quilting on them. It was fun! I had a good time, but my real love is hand quilting.

ML: And what about when you put the quilt together? Do you put that together by machine?

SM: Oh yes. I do all the appliqué by hand and all the quilting by hand. But for these lattice-strips between the squares, I do that on the machine.

ML: Well I know why you chose this quilt. How do you use this quilt? SM: This quilt has traveled around quite a bit. It actually got a first in "Professional Appliqué" here at the IQA [International Quilt Association.] show. It was a viewer's choice tied with another quilt, but the other lady got the ribbon for it. So I never got the ribbon for my viewer's choice! [laughter.] Oh well. It's traveled around to some other exhibits and won some other prizes. And then, I teach some now which is kind of amazing since I've not had a class myself. I'm not quite sure what I'm supposed to be doing. But I do teach some. And I have a class sewing bugs.

ML: That's what you teach? You teach how to appliqué bugs?

SM: Yes, and I also have another quilt called "Don't Bug Me." It's designed a little differently. They design their own bug wreaths.

ML: What year did you make this quilt in?

SM: Oh dear. This says 1992 on it.

ML: 1992. And what year was it in the show here?

SM: It was probably the next year.

ML: 1993.

SM: I think so.

ML: And that was the same year it won the Viewer's Choice as well? It is a beautiful, beautiful quilt.

SM: Well thanks.

BH: You must have had a number of quilts to choose from.

SM: I did.

BH: And you chose this one.

SM: Yes. You want to know why?

BH: Yes.

SM: I think partly because I had something to say about it because I often like to have quilts-in-progress while I'm traveling with my husband. He's a scientist. And now that the kids are grown up and away from home I can go away with him. And I can't just sit on an airplane and not do anything. It drives me nuts. So I like to have some appliqué to work on or some quilting to work on. So I wanted to be able to talk about the fact that I work on quilts when I'm away from home. That's one reason appliqué is so nice, because I can baste the pieces on the background and then take it and not have much with me. And then the idea that it came from something that I saw on the trip.

BH: So memory is very important.

SM: Memory is very important for some of my quilts. I have my book with me with pictures of my quilts in it. That could get me started talking about some other ones. I have one that's adapted from a 15th-century Northern Italian manuscript called "The Tacuinum Sanitatis." We got a Natural History magazine back in 1963 that had pictures in it of this old medieval manuscript and I just love those pictures. I'd never been to Italy. I'd never even thought about making a quilt when we got that magazine. But I saved it all through the years because I was so attracted to those pictures. And then twenty-five years later, I had been to Italy. I had started making quilts. And I ran across the magazine and I decided to adapt those medieval drawings to a quilt which was really, really fun. And then even to add to that story, after I finished the quilt, we had a trip to New York City. I wanted to see the original manuscript. It's owned by the Spencer Collection in the New York City Public Library. But if you get to see this manuscript you have to make an appointment with somebody to have an interview. You have to have references. You have to list publications, which of course I didn't have. And I wrote a letter to the curator with a picture of the quilt, and they did let me see it. Oh my goodness, it was so exciting. And the librarian, she brought it out, said the curator rarely lets it out of its protection because it's so valuable. They built a platform covered in velvet for it to rest on. It was just a thrill to see that after I had made that quilt adapted from some of those drawings. It's fun to kind of follow up on some thing like that. I had another quilt called "Journey Through Time" that was adapted from just a tiny little four-inch by four-inch black and white picture of 17th-century embroidery. And I couldn't even tell everything that was on there. So I started with adding my own ladybug here or frog here or grasshopper here. And under the fish that were swimming--It's like a big Tree of Life. Underneath that Tree of Life there's a river with fish and then under that there's some other little things and I couldn't tell what they were because there was a braid on the frame that came over and shadowed that. So I just added my own little things. That won a prize in The Hague in Holland, which is really exciting. Well we had another trip to New York City, and that particular embroidery is owned by the Metropolitan Art Museum. So I made an appointment with the curator of European Textiles to see the original embroidery. And she was so nice! She took us down underneath the museum, you know, behind lock and key in the storage room and got that old embroidery out for us to see. Oh, it was just a thrill because I'd finished my quilt and I didn't know what the original colors were in the embroidery. I didn't know what those little things were under the water. And it was totally different from the way I had imagined it. It was sort of just dull golds and greens. But she said you couldn't really tell what the original colors were unless you took it out of the frame and turned it over because the fading had occurred. But underneath the water there was a grasshopper under the same fish where I had appliquéd a grasshopper. And my husband said, 'Well I know where you were five lifetimes ago!' [laughter.] It's just so wonderful how these quilts have taken me places--

ML: Well you've done a lot of follow-up of the quilts you've made from your inspirations.

SM: Well another story is that I was meeting a friend at the St. Louis Art Museum one day. And she was late so I was wandering around in front of the museum trying to entertain myself, and came face to face with my next quilt design because there are some lampposts out in front of the museum that have wonderful designs on them. They're in brass. I saw this design and thought, 'Well there's my next quilt right there.' So we took a picture of it, and then I blew the slide up on the wall. I moved the projector back and forth until I got the right size. And I wanted a size that I could quilt a feather pattern around because at that time I hadn't quilted any feather patterns. So I wanted it the size to fit inside this quilted feather. I blew that up and then thought, 'Well I've got to put something else on here.' So I started building borders out from it until it became a quilt. Then I wanted to know more about these lampposts so I called the library at the art museum and asked if they knew who designed the lampposts. And the librarian said no, she didn't know, but she would look into it. And a week later she called back and she said the lampposts were designed by Cass Gilbert who was the architect of the art museum. And they were installed in 1915. And so she asked me why I wanted to know and I told her I had made a quilt adapted from the lampposts. And she said, "Please bring it to the library to show us!" Well I thought, okay, this is kind of embarrassing. You know, taking a show-and-tell into the art museum. But I did. I really was kind of embarrassed, you know, like a little kid taking something to kindergarten for show-and-tell. So I went in and she starts calling all these people to come and look at it. Pretty soon people came from other offices to look at it. One woman was standing there who had come in from another office and she let out this scream and she ran from the room. And I thought, "What is going on here?" And she came back in with a little slide that had the design on it from the lamppost. Not the whole lamppost, just the design. She said she had been trying to identify that slide for years from something in the collection of the art museum and she had never found it in the art museum. And then she could identify it from my quilt and knew it was outside the art museum! [laughter.] It really tickled me.

ML: Do you typically take your inspiration and take a slide? Is that part of your design process?

SM: Sometimes. Sometimes that happens, yes.

ML: Or do you like to sketch? What are your other methods of doing design?

SM: Well sometimes if I see something I'll blow it up on a photocopy machine. Then I'll adapt it somehow. Or I'll adapt it before I've blown it up and then after it's blown up I draw it again and then I change things on it.

Other: What is your process of adapting something? What is it when you go to look at it? What is the process that you go through for that?

SM: I guess first actually drawing it out on a piece of paper and then blowing it up for the size I want on a photo-copy machine and then any elements in it that I can't do in fabric or I want to adapt to something else, adding those elements. Last year I was on a trip to Australia with my husband. And he was busy at the University, and I went to the library in Brisbane just to look for ideas for a new quilt. And I found an old illustration that was made in 1905 of a Russian folktale by Pushkin, I think. The man who made the illustration was Ivan Bilibin. And since it was 1905 I wasn't too worried about copyright. So I made a photocopy of that and brought it home with me to the United States. The reason it appealed to me was because it had a lady lying in the grass and a man standing next to her looking out at the Russian City. But in the grass I could design all my little animals and flowers and things. So I could put in my bugs and my snakes and my chipmunk and frog and all those things in the grass. So I spent a good month designing the grass that she was lying in as they were looking out at the Russian City. So it is adapted from Ivan Bilibin's illustration, however, it certainly has a lot of nature in it.

ML: It sounds like you like to put your bugs and nature in your quilts. Do you try to do that in every quilt that you do?

SM: It's what attracts me, I think. I've recently finished one that was adapted from photographs that we took in South Africa and Madagascar. And so it has lemurs and chameleons and antelope and rhinoceros and things that we saw on our trip from our own photographs. It was just so much fun. We fell in love with the lemurs in Madagascar. And to see them on my quilt just makes me happy.

ML: How many quilts do you get done in a year?

SM: One unusually. I might have a travel quilt that I put away just to work on when I'm traveling. But I usually get just one done a year. One big, what I would consider fairly good one.

ML: And are most of your quilts for walls or for beds? How do you use them?

SM: Well they're certainly big enough for beds. This one's 92 inches by 92 inches. I think that's pretty big. The one that's in the show here now, though, it's just a wall hanging.

ML: So does it depend on the design you use in the quilt?

SM: It does depend on the design.

ML: And do your children have your quilts?

SM: They all have my quilts. They don't have the ones that have been traveling around on exhibit, but they have bed quilts.

ML: So then what is your plan for this quilt?

SM: I guess someday one of our kids will get it.

ML: [indecipherable.]

SM: No, I'm so grateful. The children really do like my quilts and they really do want them. And we have eight grandchildren now, so I have to keep making them so everybody will have one. [laughter.]

BH: I have to ask, how has quilting affected your life, particularly as your quilts get more and more recognition?

SM: Well it's been really exciting for me. I was very, very content to be home taking care of our children and my husband- sort of the old-fashioned lifestyle that's not so prevalent today. I was very happy in that role as a mother and a wife. I still consider myself that. You know, I did volunteer work in their schools and I was a volunteer with the Hospice program. But when I had free time I liked to sew. Our youngest son, who gave me a little bit of grief in high school as teenagers sometimes do with their mothers--We live in a neighborhood composed of mostly professional people. And most of his friends' mothers were lawyers or doctors or, you know, something important. And he said to me, 'Mom, you just don't do anything.' That made me feel so bad. I thought I was doing something. Oh my goodness, I was doing his laundry, cooking his meals and driving him to football practice and making quilts besides. It wasn't too long after that that I entered my first quilt show and won a blue ribbon and five hundred dollars, which really shocked me. [laughter.] But I felt like, 'See, I'm doing something.' He's real proud of me now, which is nice. He grew up.

BH: So that moment was the one that sort of led you to bring your quilts out to a public audience or a larger audience?

SM: I don't think it was that moment alone. I think that did maybe have something to do with it. Working alone and not really working with other people on quilts, and not having lessons and not being sure whether I was doing things right or wrong, I really--First of all I became curious. I looked at the magazines and I think, 'I wonder if my quilt would be publishable. I would like to have one quilt published before I die,' I told myself, 'Just one.' And then the other thing was that I wanted judge's critiques. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong. And so I thought, "Well I wonder if I could get juried in. It was a curiosity thing. And so I applied to Quilter's Heritage Celebration in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I sent my slide off and I got juried in. Oh, I was so excited. And then to win the blue ribbon and five hundred dollars I was really shocked. But I did learn from the judge's critiques. I had marked my quilting lines with a faint, faint pencil. And they were still slightly visible. So I really got a reprimand in that judge's critique about those pencil marks. And so when the quilt came home I threw it in the washing machine, terrified that the red berries on it would bleed, and not being sure that the pencil lines would come out. But they did come out and I entered it somewhere else and it won best of show. So that was my beginning.

ML: What year was that that you actually entered it?

SM: That was 1989, so that was ten years ago.

ML: And what is your primary interest in quilting today? Is it to enter into shows?

SM: No, that's really not--That's just the bonus. To me the interest is I'm just caught by the process. I love adapting things that I see into my quilts, and I'm just caught up in it. And then, if it turns out that something can enter a competition and, my goodness, it wins something, that's just a bonus. I have one quilt--I thought after all these more-or-less traditional-looking quilts, even though they're not Grandmother's Flower Garden or Double Wedding Ring, that kind of traditional-looking quilt. But they do have more of an appearance of traditional quilts adapted from other things, I thought, "Well, I want to get in Quilt National. I'm just going to make a non-traditional quilt. I've never done that before." [laughter.] I made one just crazy looking quilt called "The Mastectomy." And it's all in puzzle form. It has these really strange images. She's walking along and then she gets a mammogram; she gets the diagnosis; she gets the surgery; there's the trash can- throw 'em out. And then she's there with her stitches, and then part of the puzzle is she goes back to the surgeon who asks if she'd like to have more surgery for implants and she says "no". And then the last of it is she's walking along happy and the message being a changed body isn't important. It's life that's important, and living life joyfully that's important. Well that quilt did not get in Quilt National. See I've made very few quilts for competitions, but the two that I have entered have not gotten into those competitions. It didn't get in, but it got in something called "Healing Legacies," which opened in the lobby of the House of Representatives in Washington. And it was in the New England Quilt Museum and in the Library in San Francisco and the public library in Los Angeles for an exhibit and a hospital in Canada. So it's gone out there.

BH: That's an enormously difficult topic.

SM: Well it is, but I had something to say. And I really wanted to try a non-traditional quilt. So it was fun. I had a good time. I really got caught up in it just like the rest of my quilts.

ML: When you do your teaching do you focus on an area that is a particular interest to you? Or what leads you to teach the classes that you do teach?

SM: Well, people have asked me of course mostly to teach appliqué. And I kind of came up with a way of putting a multi-pattern piece on a quilt without having to mark the background or without using transparent overlays. And I called it "takeaway appliqué." [loudspeaker announcement.] Well I was going to explain my method I named "takeaway appliqué," which was to use lined notebook paper. And as you cut you put the multi-pieced tracing of a pattern on the spot where you want it, on the background. And then you decide what you want to appliqué first and you cut just that piece off of the notebook paper. And then you put the notebook paper complete pattern back on and you use that little piece you cut off as the template and draw around that on your fabric. And then you can slip the fabric in the spot where the paper was taken away, and it fits perfectly because that's the gap. That's the hole. That's where it goes. And then as you cut the next one off it lines up either with the fabric that's on there or the paper that's left. And it just fits in the spot. So I teach this takeaway appliqué method quite a bit when I'm going around.

ML: How many years have you been teaching?

SM: Oh, locally I've been teaching maybe four or five years but around the country maybe two. Not a whole lot. [laughter.] But I'm pretty busy for next year.

ML: So where are you from?

SM: I'm originally from Texas. Yes, I graduated from high school in Huntsville.

ML: And where are you living now?

SM: We're living in Clayton, Missouri, which is right next to St. Louis. My husband is at Washington University Medical School.

ML: Did you have exposure to quilts when you were young?

SM: My mother got one for a wedding present that she had on her bed occasionally and I loved it. But no, I didn't.

ML: And at that time there were no quilt shows or anything that would lead you. It wasn't until you needed bed covers that you tried to actually make a quilt?

SM: Yes, and I had all those scraps. And I've always been kind of a penny-pincher. I don't like throwing things out. So it seemed like a good way to use them up.

ML: Well, you had a good idea. Oh, I wanted to ask you what makes a good quilt in your estimation. When you look at quilts, what attracts you to one quilt versus another? What makes a great quilt for you?

SM: That's a really good question. I think for me the design aspect obviously draws me in first. If it's graphically strong or if it's a design that's unique or if the colors are pleasing-- all of that works together to make something that is just pleasing to look at. But then I have to say it has to be workmanship, too. I think the two have to go together. You know, because it could be a fabulous design, but if there's not good workmanship on it, it looses it for me.

ML: And so what do you look for in the workmanship? What are you looking at?

SM: Well, I look for I guess points that are pointy or patchwork where things meet, where the blocks line up correctly. Or I look at the stitches, the quilting stitches.

ML: The whole package.

SM: The whole thing.

ML: I think you've talked about how quilting is important to you. Why do you think that it's important in your life when you keep it in your life?

SM: Well, it has been so much a part of my life. And I've grown into actually teaching around the country and trying to challenge myself to make new and more complicated things. It's just a challenge for me. My husband has always traveled a lot, and I really can't go with him every time. And I've sometimes wondered, Did I become a quilter because he has traveled so much? Because I have been alone a lot. And I'm never bored, ever. You know, my time is always busy. And now, you see, I'm just craving to get back to whatever it is I'm making.

ML: What are you making right now?

SM: Right now I'm making another bug quilt. But my travel quilt at the moment is again kind of designed in a way like this "Bed Bugs" quilt. I made fancy borders, and I knew something would go inside those borders. But the fancy borders were all different in the nine big squares. So when I go on a trip, I just baste these fancy borders on of all different kinds and I take them with me and do the appliqué. And I have now figured out what's going in the middle. So I've got that on there. And now I'm doing the borders, but they're also very complicated. So they're folded up and waiting for the next trip.

ML: How did you find what was going in them?

SM: I just looked through books and books and books and books.

ML: Is it going to be the same in each one of them?

SM: No, it'll be a different design but the same idea. It's going to be called "Mother's Day." They're silhouettes of mothers with children.

ML: Do you tend to work on one or two projects at a time?

SM: Yes.

ML: Rather than several?

SM: I tend to work on one or two at a time. What I really like to do is to have a very complicated appliqué to be doing. And then sometimes I get kind of tired and I just like to zip off some patchwork which would be for the bed or something little. You know, just a good basic scrap quilt. I still like those. [laughter.] Hmm--I lost my train of thought.

ML: You were talking about when you get tired of the appliqué.

SM: Oh that's right. And if I'm quilting something, my finger gets sore. So I might kind of want my finger to heal up a little bit and do some appliqué for a while. The needle hits my finger in a different spot.

BH: How much do you quilt? Do you quilt every day?

SM: If I can get to it. But of course I can't because my life doesn't allow me to quilt every single day. But I sure try to. I have the gardening to do and the cooking to do and all the other things to do, too. So I can't just spend all day sewing. But it's what calls me. Sometimes I'll give it to myself as a reward. If I get the house cleaned and the vacuum sweeper run and all the dishes done, then I can go quilt. And boy I can zip through that stuff in a hurry just to get to it. Or I am going to fill one garbage pail full of garden weeds and all that stuff. And when that garbage pail is full of the weeds and all that stuff from the yard, then I can go quilt. It's a reward.

ML: Do you take inspiration from fabric? Or do you look for the fabrics that fill in your design? Like this has lots and lots of fabrics in it. How did you go about that? Did you find fabrics and say, 'Oh I want to use them in a quilt?'

SM: That's a good question, too. Well I often just collect fabrics that appeal to me. And I used to collect quarter-yard pieces, but my husband Garland, who's so supportive, said, 'You are running out of fabric. You've got to buy half-yards.' So I started buying half-yards. You ought to interview him too. He'd be good. But anyway, the quilt that's hanging in the show is adapted from a Norwegian tapestry that was done in 1717. And it's on an orange background. I saw a picture of this particular tapestry in "Hali" magazine. I was really attracted to it because it has a folk art quality to it. I think I'm attracted to folk art. I just love the crookedness of it. There's a bulging hexagon and there's a border that doesn't meet. And lots of little animals, little medieval animals on it. It's just wonderful. I saw it and I was just so attracted to it. Then I was at a fabric shop and I came upon this piece of orange fabric that said "background fabric for that tapestry." I mean it just said it to me. So I just knew I had to do it. In that case, was it the fabric that made me make the quilt? Or was it the magazine picture of that old tapestry? It was both together.

ML: Well, you were searching for something. I assume then you bought more than a quarter-yard?

SM: You're right. [laughter.] I did. I think I bought a quarter-yard or half-yard, went home and looked at the picture again, studied it, thought, went back and measured, blew it up, whatever I did. And then went back and bought enough for the background.

ML: The backgrounds on these are--

SM: Those are all the same. So I did buy enough to have my backgrounds all the same. You know, frankly I didn't know how I was going to put it all together when I had all the wreaths. And I had just a half a yard of this particular green fabric that I used on the border. And I decided from one of these leaves that I wanted to use that. But gee, maybe I didn't use it in here. [looking at quilt.] Anyway, I knew that I wanted it. I must have had it on hand. I knew that I wanted that for my border and of course they didn't have it when I went back. [laughter.] And there ended up being about three different dye-lots of it. So it was hard to track down. I do run into that problem that I'll get so far on a quilt and decide that I want this particular one for the border and then not be able to find it again. That's happened to me a lot. In which point, since I'm using prints, I can just use another print of the same color range even though I might have my heart set on a particular fabric. I might not be able to find it. That happened with my new bug quilt.

ML: And you will search then to find just the perfect fabric.

SM: For my border or something. Right. At the time I won't even know how I'm going to do it. The "Toujours Nouveau" quilt in this twentieth-century exhibit; I did just the four panels before having any idea how I was going to put it together. I actually made that quilt for my husband because he loves Art Nouveau. And so I made this quilt that was the hardest quilt I made in my whole life. It took me fifteen months to make that quilt. And after I finished it I entered it into the AQS [American Quilt Society.] show and it won the Gingher award for best hand-workmanship, which was ten thousand dollars. But that was a purchase prize for the museum. Well, we didn't know what to do. He didn't want to give up his quilt, and I didn't want him to give up his quilt. But that museum is so pretty. You know, we went and visited the museum and it was just so beautiful we both decided it would be okay for the quilt to go live there. And so we go visit it sometimes. Garland said, 'What a deal,' he said, 'the museum got his quilt, I got the ten thousand dollars and he got to pay the taxes.' [laughter.]

BH: Well, I see we're almost out of time here.

ML: I want to thank you, Suzanne, for this interview and our time together. Your stories are delightful and this is truly going to be great for our oral history. And I want to thank you very much. It is 9:45 and it is the end of the interview.

[After the tape shuts off, Suzanne is asked how quilting has affected her family. She replies, "My sons love quilts and would not have if I weren't a quilter. They even go to quilt shows."]

Interview Keyword

Design inspiration


“Suzanne Marshall,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,