Paula Nadelstern




Paula Nadelstern


Nadelstern considers herself a professional quilter, and she is known for her kaleidoscope quilts and the technique she invented to create them. She talks about how quilting started as a hobby that grew into a career. At multiple points, she talks about her obsession with fabric, and why it's so important to her. She also talks about fabric art and its need to be recognized as a legitimate art form.




Kaleidoscope quilts
Sewing machines
Quilting--Vocational guidance
Quilting shops
Machine quilting


Paula Nadelstern


Lorraine Jackson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Marie Bostwick


Houston, Texas


Elaine Johnson


Lorraine Jackson (LJ): Hello, my name is Lorraine Jackson and we're just delighted to have you here to participate in our quilt oral history project at the festival in Houston. This is October 22, 1999.

Paula Nadelstern (PN): Thank you.

LJ: Would you like to put out your quilt up here on the table now, so that we can see it?

PN: All right.

LJ: And the name of your quilt is?

PN: "Kaleidoscopic XX: Elegant After Maths"

LJ: And this was made in?

PN: 1999, it is the latest quilt in my kaleidoscope series.

LJ: And how long did it take you to do this quilt?

PN: Well, sometimes I like to say it took me my whole life, because it took me that long to get to this point, where I could make a quilt like this. But, from start to finish this quilt probably took about four months, I've been traveling a lot lately.

LJ: Is this all hand quilted?

PN: Machine pieced and hand quilted.

LJ: And the interesting remark that you made that it took you all your life to get to this. What did you start in with quilting?

PN: Oh, I made my first quilt in my college dorm, my freshman year, when I ripped up my clothes, and that was oh, 20-30 years ago [laughs.] and then I just dabbled in quilt making for a few years. I've been working in the kaleidoscope technique now for about ten years.

LJ: Then you first started when you were in college. Were there classes or was this just something you were attracted to or--

PN: Well, I guess I was really just attracted, during the hippie movement, when everybody was making their own clothes and patchwork. I think I came to it because the frugality of it, the idea of making do and putting things used back into use again. I knew nothing of quilting. I took ripped ten-inch squares and sewed them together again and made a cover, really a comforter cover and thought it was a quilt.

LJ: So, there was any one in your family background who was--

PN: No, no one at all.

LJ: No?

PN: No, I'm the first quilter.

LJ: You're the first quilter in your family?

PN: Yes, I'm pretty much a first-generation American quilter.

LJ: In your quilting growth, has it become more of a hobby or is it a pastime or--

PN: I consider myself a professional quilt maker. I write books. I design lines of fabric for Benatex. I travel most of the year teaching this technique and lecturing.

LJ: And how long did it take you to get into this? You were in college, and you started with a patchwork and then you--

PN: And then I had a career as an occupational therapist and then I stayed home as a mom, and it was when I was home--I'm from New York City. I live in the Bronx; I live on the same block actually where I grew up. Moms in New York hang out in the playgrounds, you know, we're apartment dwellers, and I said to the other moms when our kids were in nursery school, 'for a fund raiser let's make a quilt' and that's really how my serious quiltmaking started at that point. And then while I was home, I kept working with people who were making group quilts and wrote a book about group quilts called "Quilting Together" in 1986. And then moved from making pictorial group quilts to the kaleidoscope, which I didn't realize would become a passion and I didn't realize would become a mission, when I first made my very first one. It was just some fabric that inspired me to do make that first kaleidoscope quilt. And as I said I just finished my twenty-first, this is the twentieth and so I've been making kaleidoscope quilts really ever, ever since.

LJ: Do you have a family?

PN: Yes, I have. I live in my two-bedroom apartment in New York City with my husband and my daughter. She's a college student and she's twenty-one and beginning to move out and I'm still working on my kitchen table. I've never had a studio, though I'll probably be able to start working in her room a little bit.

LJ: Has this interfered with your family life, are they very supportive or--

PN: Oh, yes, they're very supportive. They don't mind stepping on pins in the living room. At this point, they are used to the kitchen table being my studio instead of the place where they, you know, have dinner, that sort of thing. They're very supportive.

LJ: You said you travel a lot. Does this present any problems with your daughter or your husband?

PN: Not really. I think that in our day and age many family members, I mean the wife or the--either spouse can be the one who has to travel and so everybody just has to look at it as the way we live, my husband does his job and I do mine and my job involves that I travel a lot.

LJ: Does your daughter ever come with you?

PN: My daughter, oh no actually I find it difficult to travel with my family. I really find that when I'm traveling, I have the opportunity to be with the quilt makers and that is really the expectation, and I don't think it works well to be pulled in two different directions. So, I believe that. Traveling is difficult and in order to do it well and to do a good job, you need to be focused on the task.

LJ: What does this quilt mean to you?

PN: Well, each quilt that I've done has led to the next idea, and the next idea. So, working in a series, creating a body of work in one series, has really stretched me as an artist. I mean, there are ideas in here that are rather simple that I didn't think about in my first quilt, or my fourth quilt, or my tenth quilt. I love the idea that what might look very simple to somebody looking at this quilt, were very new ideas to me that I came to because I really stretched the one idea. So, there's that sense of it. I started working with a lot of silks in my quilts, starting at about my fourteenth or fifteenth quilt, so there's a lot of silk in this quilt. The "elegant aftermath," the aftermath really relates to the fact that, this is really the result of understanding the sense of the kaleidoscope and the geometry that is involved in the kaleidoscope, that I know now how to make an image seem as if it's fleeting and is spontaneous, and really give the sense of a kaleidoscope, using the methods and materials of quiltmaking. The fabric part of quiltmaking is very, very important.

LJ: Now, what will you do with this quilt?

PN: Well, it's part of my body of work and I'm not selling my work at this point, I typically exhibit. The first time it ever showed was in my one woman show at the Museum of American Quilting Society in Paducah, this past spring. I usually bring my quilts with me, four or five or so each time I teach. But this one has an old vintage piece of silk in it. I thought I was being so clever using both the front of the silk and the back of the silk, but the back isn't wearing that well, and although I like the effect, it's getting a little hairy, a little fuzzy, I think that it's not going to be a good traveling quilt. It doesn't travel well. I think because there is so much silk in the background that the folds are getting permanent, so I believe that we'll exhibit it in our home.

LJ: Where are your other quilts?

PN: Often they are traveling, they're traveling with me, they travel in exhibits, but when they're not traveling, they're in my apartment.

LJ: Are they laid there on beds or are they on walls, or--

PN: Up until now, they've been pretty much folded up and just stored wherever, because I don't have the room, but I just bought some quilt hangers and I'm hoping to start hanging them.

LJ: Going back to this silk fabric, that is so precious, is that something in the family that you had?

PN: No, but it does relate to my teaching. Because one of the benefits of doing so much teaching around the United States is I get to visit about every fabric store which is a delight. This was a trip to the Los Angeles guild. Somebody took me into the garment district in Los Angeles and I found this wonderful piece of vintage silk that the shop had purchased from a collection of French silks. It was a little narrow. I just loved it, and I bought it not knowing what I'd use it for. It turned out to be the perfect fabric for this quilt. I mean, that is one of the things I just love about my quiltmaking, I can look and know that I bought this silk from Diane Smith, who's a remarkable silk dyer, from Seattle, Washington. She offered this piece to me knowing I'd love these bronze colors. I remember that I bought this, this on a trip to Hawaii. And each of the fabrics really means something to me and are my souvenirs of my trips.

LJ: So, as I hear what you're saying, each quilt has a lot of sentimental value to it?

PN: Very much so. The quilt I just finished, which is in my booth, it's just a quilt top so far, it is the twenty-first in the series the six-sided image which sort of reflects a Jewish star, but it doesn't look like a Jewish star. My father passed away two years ago. It began as a memory quilt for him. But then, my daughter was in a very serious car accident this past July--she's fine--when I was working on the quilt, although I really wasn't--I was really helping to take care of her. Now the quilt is called the "Thank Your Lucky Star Memorial Quilt" because I'm so glad she's okay.

LJ: How beautiful, yes. How much time do you find when you're at home to be quilting, you travel a lot then when you're at home and you're writing a book, how do you budget your time?

PN: That's really a problem. [chuckles.] To juggle time. I think most women these days are trying to juggle what they love to do and their family, and we're all trying to do both well. I know that I can't do it all well at the same time, so I try to focus on one thing at a time and try not to get too anxious about the things that I have to put aside. But sometimes I get anxious and overwhelmed. And mostly I really just want to make the quilts, but all the rest really comes first, the paperwork to go on trips, the organizing, but I'd really much rather be working on the quilts all the time.

LJ: Where do you get your ideas for your beautifully designed quilts?

PN: I now have become very active in the Kaleidoscope Society, called the Brewster Society. I've been a speaker at their national conventions once or twice. And I bring kaleidoscopes with me to teach; to show people the interiors of kaleidoscopes. And so, I'm always looking inside the kaleidoscopes to learn a lot about color, and movement, and new shapes and mirror systems. But always it's about fabric and quilt making. It's not that I want to make the perfect kaleidoscope; I want to make a fabric kaleidoscope.

LJ: Could you give us a little bit of a description on how this kaleidoscope was put together?

PN: Well, actually it's a traditional quilt, a pyramid quilt. These are really twelve sided kaleidoscopes, meaning there are twelve wedges in each kaleidoscope. There's 360 degrees in a kaleidoscope. Since I'm making one twelfth, each of these at the apex is 30 degrees. When I sew two of these together, I therefore have a 60-degree angle. Then I really have a six-sided image, so that I can put this together in rows. I have 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, 7 rows that go across that are really just 60-degree kaleidoscopes, made up of triangles, a triangle sewn to a triangle, to a triangle just going across. I have 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, 8, 9, 10, 11,12; 60-degree triangles that go across each row. So, I made row 1 and then I made row two and I sewed them together. At that point I saw what this kaleidoscope looks like for the first time. When I sewed the next row together, then I got to see what this kaleidoscope looks like. But this one I only have half of it at this point. So, really when you put it all together, when you look at the structure, it's just a traditional pyramid quilt.

LJ: When you explain it, I guess we can see that, but I don't think I would have ever thought of it as a traditional quilt.

PN: But it's based on the structure of a traditional pyramid quilt. Each of my triangles, instead of being made up of one fabric, are made up of like twenty and they're identical. There are twelve identical triangles sitting in a circle, so that becomes what you see. The kaleidoscope pops out and the background recedes.

LJ: Has this envisioned in your mind like this when you start out or just kind of grows?

PN: It grows; I mean I have a sense of the palette that I'm going to use. I very often find a very beautiful background fabric that helps me to determine my palette. This one is soft and elegant, working more in a neutral ground. And, like a real kaleidoscope, I know that in order to get the sense of a kaleidoscope, I can't be too organized in my palette, I have to have areas of surprise and the unexpected. I really need to bring the unexpected into the image.

LJ: Kaleidoscopes became more popular in, what in about 1989, that far?

PN: Yes, that was the renaissance. The kaleidoscope was invented by a Scottish gentleman named Brewster and that is why the organization of kaleidoscope lovers is called the Brewster Society. That was in 1816. The first kaleidoscopes came here just before the Civil War, as parlor toys. And then once just like quilt making had its renaissance and stretched the traditions, kaleidoscope makers also have stretched the traditions, and become more organized, meeting each other to share ideas. In some ways they are very much like the quilt world. They are a very kind group of people who come together: makers, collectors, shop owners and everybody meets together once a year.

LJ: Now you've written books, how many books have you written?

PN: I've written two books one on group quilts and one on the kaleidoscope method. And a few other little things for Dover. And I'm now starting a book on snowflakes.

LJ: Kind of a kaleidoscope kind of aspect of the snowflake?

PN: Yes, actually a snowflake is really a six-sided image, in some ways it's very much like the quilt we have in front of us. Except that basically I'll use a blue and white palette. Not a very rigid blue and white palette, really stretching that but then also using it in the shape of a snowflake. I will be working in one sixth, designing the snowflake from that one sixth and then duplicating that six times. Photomicrographs of snowflakes were taken in Vermont in the 1920's so we have these small, little images that I've used to identify the specifics of a snowflake. I've made one quilt like that and now I'm doing a book about it.

LJ: You are a professional quilter now and prior to that you were an Occupational Therapist you said, did quilting ever come into a part of working with people, as something to help them regain some of their--

PN: Not so much, although I think my occupational therapy always comes into my quilt making, you know, my working as a teacher and working with people; groups of people. But at the point I was an occupational therapist I worked primarily with very handicapped children.

LJ: And so, something like this would have been more than they could handle?

PN: No, I'm sure with the knowledge I have now of quiltmaking I could work with them. Most definitely.

LJ: So now you are a retired occupational therapist and a full time--

PN: I consider myself a full-time artist.

LJ: Is your daughter interested in doing anything like this?

PN: She admires it tremendously and she understands and respects what I do. She takes it very seriously and she is very proud of me. I just gave her, her first Featherweight [brand of sewing machine.] about a week or two weeks ago, and she is very excited.

LJ: So, you think that there's perhaps sparked an interest for her?

PN: Most definitely. When she had this terrible experience this accident, one of the first things she said afterwards was that she wanted to make a quilt about this experience. I knew it would never happen, but I thought it was a wonderful thing -- amazing that she saw quilt making as a way that she could express the feelings that she had from that accident. She knew that was a viable option, having seen so much of quilt making. I should mention my quilts are made only with a Featherweight. That when I was in that college dorm, 30 years ago, as a freshman. I brought my Featherweight that I bought for $25.00 to my room. And that is the same featherweight I've been sewing with ever since.

LJ: That's fantastic.

PN: Yes, I'm afraid to sit down to anything else. I can only sew forward and back. I don't consider myself much of a technician or a seamstress. I don't actually really care whether my quilts are technically perfect. I've really realized that the less my points meet the more spontaneous and kaleidoscopic the piece works. And so, I'm actually striving now to get more of a primitive effect. In this particular one called "Elegant After Maths"; I was really trying to get the grace and elegance and really trying to have the patterns meet each other very much. But very often now I try for a different kind of effect, one that gives the flash of a kaleidoscope because the points do not meet quite so well.

LJ: And that's a new aspect that I think a lot of girls would like so they wouldn't have to work to make everything meet so perfectly.

PN: Yes, they love it when I say that we all laugh. And we discuss whether that is a rationalization or truly what I think. But at this point that is truly what I think. But I don't know what will happen when I start to put those quilts into judged quilt shows. They'll probably tell me that my quilting techniques need improvement.

LJ: What does quilting mean to you as a person?

PN: Um, I guess I've come into my adulthood as quilt making has also. And so, it's so tied up in who I am, and it's taken me so much farther as an artist. I mean, I often say to find something you love to do is really incredible, but to receive recognition for that is a miracle. And so, that's what quiltmaking means to me personally. I wasn't an artist before, I was really a craftsman, really a dabbler, I always crocheted, I always did something. I gave up the opportunity to go to Art School when I was in high school in New York City. But now I truly do believe I'm an artist and I owe that to quilt making, along with the friendships. When I travel, I meet such amazing American women that I know I would never have met and hear their stories I'm just so enamored of the American woman and of what she's doing in her life. And I have that experience due to quilt making.

LJ: Where do you think quilt making will go in the next millennium?

PN: The excitement is that we don't know, I mean we'll all be part of it. When I travel, I see that there are many young women coming into quilt making. I don't know whether I see more young women than others do, because they like art quilts. I think that is quite wonderful. I think we're here to stay. Let's hope that someday we have quilts--art quilts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That would be quite an experience. That's really the next area that I think we have to face is the fact that fiber art is still not taken seriously. Next January there will be an important conference at the Women's Museum in Washington D.C., and it is very important. It will be a wonderful conference that they've set up. They are having a article in the Women's Museum magazine about this, but they will not let us have an exhibit at the Museum. Actually, the Art Quilt Network, which is a group that meets yearly, it has met for about fifteen years in New York, people from the East Coast pretty much, we will have an exhibit in the area at a gallery, but we still are not having exhibits in major art museums. Let's hope that's the next thing.

LJ: And that's the next thing, and you're very active in that organization?

PN: In the Studio Art Quilt Association and the Art Quilt Network. I travel a lot and I'm really very, very grateful for the women who are working hard for those of us who can't do the work now. Sometimes each of us is a little busier than at other times to do that kind of thing. I would really love that to happen.

Unidentified person [UP]: Do you get to see them before, when they're done? I remember a story that you said you don't get to see them hanging until they were with the photographer.

PN: That's a great question for this particular quilt. I finished this quilt on an airplane to teach in Oregon. When I got off that plane I finished the binding, I said to my new friend--the woman who just picked me up, a woman who I didn't know--we had to go to Fed Ex. I had not seen this quilt finished and we went to ship it straight to the American Quilting Society. This was in March, and they got it the next day, on Thursday. They hung the show on Friday. I got to see it a month later. I walked in and said, 'That's what it looks like' and I was very pleased. But, in my mind in that month, I really had completely forgotten what it looked like. And when you take this official photograph of a quilt, it is officially finished. I have not even had this quilt back in my possession to get my own photographer to take a photograph of it. And yes, you're right, I don't usually get to see the quilt, because of the small space I'm working in, I don't work on the wall. And partly the kaleidoscope idea did come originally from my limited space because, instead of working on the whole, I can work on the one triangle, which is small enough to maneuver on the kitchen table. And then know that by duplicating that I can get a kaleidoscopic image. So yes, I do not usually see the whole piece. Just now, when I brought my quilt to hang in my booth, the twenty-first in the series, I finished it the night before I flew here. When we hung it in the booth, once again I had that experience of seeing it first time I'm thrilled because I'm finding out what the whole really looks like, and I like it a lot.

LJ: Do you make quilts to give to your friends or other members of your family?

PN: No, I don't, I don't have time to do that. I'm sorry, I really feel bad about that. I wish I could--I'd love to just do a baby quilt or something, but I really don't have the time to do that. I've made two quilts this year and the small piece took eight months really.

LJ: And the quilts that you have made--how are they preserved?

PN: You mean part of the series?

LJ: Yes, how do you store them at home, how do you keep them, how do you preserve them?

PN: Well, sadly I'm not a purist. I don't have a good system. It's something I need to work on. I don't have the room to do this well. I tried to make some tubes wrapped with acid-free paper to roll them. I don't find it easy to roll the quilt neatly so I'm not sure I'll continue. I wish I just had better space to store them.

LJ: But they are being taken care of?

PN: Well, they are in my possession. [laughs.]

LJ: Have you ever had a problem with losing a quilt anywhere in your travels or have they been well taken care of?

PN: No, but I--I've been very lucky. No, I haven't.

[someone in the background is saying something or asking a question but the words are indistinguishable.]

PN: I have sold a few of the quilts in the series early on and now I sort of regret that.

LJ: What are your first memories of quilts--back when you were a youngster?

PN: Sleeping under big down, goose quilts, warm and comfy that the family actually brought from Eastern Europe. Although they did not bring much to America, that's what they brought.

LJ: And those were made by someone in the family?

PN: They weren't patchwork quilts; they were down comforters. We still have the down and made new covers.

LJ: What do you think makes a quilt special to be included in a museum collection? I think you said you hoped we would get quilts in the art museums. What would make a quilt special to be accepted?

PN: Well, a viable quilt has to be seen from two levels, I mean first it has to give an impression from far away, so you get the whole sense of it, just as any piece of art. It has to be so exciting, so interesting, that it draws the viewer to the surface of the quilt and at that point they really want to admire the stitches and look for the seams and that's what a quilt is really, that it has those two levels, because it is made up three layers of fabric and is quilted. The quilting is part of it. The quilting is important. But with me sometimes that's difficult to do I have so many seams in my pieces. I have to look at my quilting stitch in terms of holding the layers together, but also to not impose a messy effect with the quilting, because there are so many layers. I mean this quilt is quilted with a line down the middle of each wedge. Because there are just so many seams in there, I would not have been able to do a very good job of it otherwise and it's enough to hold it together. That is what makes a truly viable quilt, a quilt that really draws the audience in. It has to give an effect such that it draws you into it. If you only want to see it from far away or you only want to see it up close, then it doesn't quite have that perfect, [LJ says "aura."], right, that aura that it needs to be noticed in that way. It may be a soft, cuddly, wonderful quilt that makes you feel the function of what the maker intended it to be. But, in answer to your question of what would have to hang in a museum, it has to be both intriguing in the making and also in the viewing.

LJ: I guess maybe you've answered this in many ways already but what do you find pleasing about quilt making?

PN: Fabric. I want it all. I want it now. I want it in the same piece. I just love the fabric. I love to find the relationship between the found objects. I don't have any space in my apartment to dye fabrics. And I'm a good shopper. I have the garment district in New York, in my backyard that I get to explore. And I just love putting together unusual fabrics and really reveling in the fabric.

LJ: And are there other things you would like to tell us about quilting experience or this quilt or anything else that we haven't explored through some of questions we haven't asked during this interview?

PN: I'm sure I'll think of something as soon as I walk away. I do have some of my own fabrics in this quilt that were from my line called "Serendipity" and my fabric looks very good up against the "Liberty of London" fabric. That is an absolute thrill and honor that they make good friendships, good marriages between those fabrics. So, there is a lot of "Liberty" in here, but I have a very, very eclectic sense of fabric and I usually want to put every single piece into everything. I get known for working with "Liberty" but, that's not accurate...that's only where I started. At this point, in fact, that's what I think is so fascinating about having a body of work that goes over ten, fifteen years. It's not only my history but it's the history of fabric really, the history of the manufacture of commercially made fabric, in the United States. Because you can just see how the fabric has shifted. What has been available to me as a quilt maker has changed so much from the little calicoes that I first was working with, to much more eclectic and diverse, wonderful fabrics.

LJ: You said that some of your own fabric was in here. Does that mean that you designed the fabric?

PN: Yes, I've designed fabric and I continue to do that for Benatex. When I made this quilt, it was partly based on an attempt to-- really wanting to explore this fabric that I had designed and really use it and I feel I've done that very well. So, yes this is my fabric, with silks, with all sorts of things, but this is my own. You can't really identify the fabrics so much, because I'm not looking at the whole fabric, I'm really looking at the motifs within each fabric and seeing how I can use it in a repetitive, symmetrical way.

LJ: Would you be willing to explain to us, a little bit the process of your designing fabrics?

PN: Sure, I work with. I'll speak specifically then. There is a wonderful woman at Benatex named Esther Zielinsky who is really a treasure. She has been in the garment district for forty years doing this and she knows about techniques, which I don't, and she is very willing to help. I create something and she goes 'oh that's very weird, I love it, let's do it.' I don't paint; I don't know how to mix colors, so I pretty much design fabrics the way I make quilts. I'm bringing together found colors from fabrics, from paint swatches, to suggest the color palette for each of the color ways. As I travel, I find ideas. I talk to a painter. I explain what I'd like. We paint small amounts; we use a color Xerox machine to flip it, because I want motifs mirror imaged and that symmetrical. And we work back and forth between that process.

LJ: How long have you been doing this?

PN: This is the second company I've worked with. I've been doing this about five, oh five or six years. When I go back to New York City now, my next thing is to go and color the rest of the line; we have six wonderful patterns in it. And it will be called "Symmetry."

LJ: Does your name go on the fabric?

PN: Yes, my name does go on each fabric, which is a thrill.

LJ: Yes, that's exciting.

PN: My fabrics are on the back here, also. And that is part of my line. And also, here's something, you asked me if there was anything else about the quilts. I sign my quilts with an ultra-suede hand that I cut out, that has my name "Paula Nadelstern". I'm a left-handed person, and I'm very happy to be left-handed, so I cut the handout of the ultra-suede as a left hand. And each time I come up with some other little design. Ultra-suede is so wonderful because you can just cut it with tiny scissors. I cut little designs and cut my name out. And then I put a very colorful background fabric behind that, so that it pops through the ultra-suede. This is very reminiscent of the group quilts I used to do. And when I first started out doing appliqué and fairy tale work this was what it looked like, lots of embroidery and you can see I use lots of color, the same way I want to have lots of fabric in my quilts, I want to have lots of color in my embroidery. So, I embroider it and bead it, so each quilt does have a hand on the back.

LJ: This is a very unique logo for your work--well, maybe that word logo isn't a very good one.

PN: No, logo is a good word.

UP: I was noticing your pin. What is your pin or your badge, I know the AIDS pin, what's the other?

PN: Quilters Newsletter Magazine. And this is made by a group in Philadelphia that is raising money with these pieced AIDS pins and they're going to make a pattern for it for a foundation--the Breast Cancer Foundation in Philadelphia. We've been selling these in our booth for them and we've noticed the response for this is amazing.

LJ: Do you think that your quilts reflect something specific about the community and the area that you've grown up in?

PN: Well perhaps, the fact that when I first started making quilts, I always wanted to put so much into them. I thought that I would finally settle down one day and make a blue and white quilt. I'd be a real quilter. You know that sort of thing. I thought I was sort of making mistakes by trying to put everything I laid my hands on, in every piece. And now of course, I know that each one of us does that; the beauty of quilt making is that we each come to it with something different. Less and less do I think that we have the rules that people try to impose on to this beautiful medium. More and more each of us comes to it and finds what we love and that's why there are so many of us. Because we do appliqué or we do funky, primitive stuff with the raw edges showing, or we do meticulous fabric quilts out of just two fabrics, whatever it is that we like. And perhaps my wanting to come to this and always use so much has to do with the fact that I am from New York, and we have such a diversity of people and a diversity of clothes, and a diversity of everything. And I just embrace that diversity. I mean, I wasn't that familiar with the garment district, although yes, even as a teenager I would wander through and go to the trimming stores and everything that I always did. And so yes, I think that there's a very New York sense in some ways to what's here.

LJ: Very interesting reply, very nice.

UP: You mentioned Paula that in your design process you started into traditional type patchwork, and then went to kaleidoscopes.

PN: Actually, I really started out with take-offs on traditional patterns. Then I went to the group quilts and did a lot of appliqués.

UP: And what drew you to the kaleidoscopes? Was it your love of kaleidoscopes that you tried to put into quilting or was it the quilting that when you saw the kaleidoscope you went 'ah, ha?'

PN: It actually had nothing to do with the kaleidoscope. What brought me to it was a piece of "Liberty of London" fabric that I had that was a border print, you know a repetitive print. It's a print that they've had in their collection since the late 1800's. I have it for sale in my booth, this particular print. And, I just saw this piece of fabric, 36 inches wide and $16.00 a yard and I just agonized over could I buy a quarter of a yard of this for four dollars--how expensive--this was like in, you know, 1988 or something. And that particular fabric inspired me to make what I thought was a kaleidoscopic image. If I cut that in a single triangle, using the same motif, the same exact piece of that fabric, eight times over and over again, then I would get an interesting effect. And that was purely what started me. And then I added some fabrics on using a technique of stripping on, in order to get the pieces to patch together and get a little more fabric in I thought that was cheating. I thought this was not the right way to do it. And people would ask me how to do it and I didn't want to show anybody anything because I was doing it the "wrong" way. And now I think it is innovative and clever, and I go around the whole country telling everybody how to do this. And reminding them that I made this up and so they shouldn't think that there are rules to this either. That if they can figure out another way to do it, that's fine with me also. But I've done so many of them I have a sense of what might work and what might not. So then, I started making the kaleidoscope blocks, having no idea that it was going to be something I was going to do for the next ten years. First, I had three quilts that were in rather traditional sets. One was just block sets and one was just a big medallion, so they were in very traditional quilt sets. I did a series of square kaleidoscope pillows for "Liberty of London" that sold in their store in Rockefeller Center. Some images of that were in an article in Quilter's Newsletter [Magazine.] in about 1990 I actually don't know the date. And someone called me up from my area, who had seen the article, someone who didn't know me, a stranger and said, 'Do you know anything about kaleidoscopes? Do you know anything about the Brewster Society? Do you know anything about a kaleidoscope store?' I knew none of this, and based on this one conversation, with this lovely woman who just took a chance and looked my number up in the phone book, I went to a kaleidoscope store. It was this eye-opening experience, I spent hours and I just looked. I never thought I'd own a kaleidoscope, or have a collection, or be a speaker, or sell kaleidoscopes or be good friends with the kaleidoscope makers in the United States, I mean, that one phone call was a real turning point. And from that point on, when I started actually looking at kaleidoscopes, which was at least three years after I was making what I thought were kaleidoscope quilts my whole work really changed. The image, the layout just standed out of the traditional sense so I was inspired from a piece of fabric to start this, but now I am truly inspired by the kaleidoscopes, the interiors themselves.

LJ: You're still working on this?

PN: I'm still working on this. I think I always will, I will know that I am working in this kaleidoscopic technique. Whether or not the pieces will continue to actually look like kaleidoscopes I'm not sure. Although, the next few will, I'm sure.

LJ: Is there a special reason why you brought this quilt with you today, rather than any of your other quilts?

PN: Well, it is the last one that's finished in the series. So, I think that it is quite interesting to see.

LJ: It has evolved more than the others?

PN: It has evolved more than the others. And the last quilt isn't finished, and I didn't know if I was allowed to bring an unfinished piece. And it didn't hang quite so well.

LJ: Do you have anything else to add, we'd like you to talk some more about your quilting experiences or anything you think that we should keep historically?

PN: Oh, I'm so honored to be here. Yes, there is something. In the book about the exhibit, my quilt is not right side up. [LJ and others laugh, and someone says, "Oh, no."] My quilt is sideways, I don't really care; I'm just thrilled to be there. But, on the back there is an ad, a C & T ad, and they've put another image of the quilt there and that is the correct side. So, I thought that it would be interesting because historians in a few years from now can debate which image is correct, and now they know.

LJ: You're so wonderful to accept the fact in that way and understanding.

PN: I've written a book and I know how hard it is to get every single detail right. And the article is a beautifully written article it does mention that I use "Liberty of London" fabric, and actually, no I use African, and I use all fabric. I like to put everything I'm given into my quilts. And that's one of the things that has been so exciting about being here in Houston to find all of these beautifully painted fabrics. I've got in this new piece of fabric by Terry Lawler, Mickey Lawler's daughter. I have fabric from Wendy Richardson who dyes fabric. I have fabric from Deborah Linn and Kasuri Dyeworks. So other people dye the fabric and I'm delighted to be the one to put it all together.

UP: What do you see in the future for your quilts, or what do you hope for?

PN: I hope to have more time to make them. I would love to have space to make them in, other than the kitchen table, although I like the kitchen table, I'd love to have my own studio at some point, I'd just be able to get to work faster, if I didn't have to pack up every time and that sort of thing. I'm still very excited working with and doing kaleidoscopes, but I will be working in snowflakes for a little while, so I'll have to not look at all the gorgeous colorful stuff and really think in a different palette. The snowflake image is a very different image, in order to make it look like a snowflake actually. The first one I ever made is really a blue and white kaleidoscope. And then over a period of time, I really came to identify what makes it look like a snowflake, and usually it means you have to put a tremendous amount of background, which that means you can't use a lot of fabrics. So, I don't know but I'm excited to find out. And I guess one of the things quilting has done for me is that I've learned to have faith in myself which is an amazing statement. I don't say that easily. Making a quilt is not actually an easy process anymore. It used to be a fun and easy, wonderful process and at this point it's become much more of a creation of art that I'm anguishing over as the process evolves. I mean I want to be back there putting together some fun little blocks, but instead I'm anguishing over the decisions, and will this work, and should I do this, and should I use this and--but I still come back to it over and over because I have faith in myself.

LJ: And your final product renews your faith in yourself?

PN: Yes, it does.

LJ: Well, we're looking forward to your snowflake quilts that will be coming out soon. And we thank you very, very much for giving up your time to come talk to us today and to be a beginning in our Save Our Stories project for The Alliance of Quilters.

PN: Thank you. I think they hung the quilts beautifully.

Interview Keyword

Fabric art
Kaleidoscope technique
Patchwork quilts


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