Pepper Cory




Pepper Cory


Pepper Cory is a professional quilter. She relates how she started quilting, and how she makes her living within the quilting world. She describes her work space in her studio, as well as her process for selecting fabrics and creating the quilts. She talks about the importance of the International Quilt Festival and other cultural and business moments for that world.




Quilting shops
Machine quilting
Quilting--United States--Patterns
Quilting--Vocational guidance


Pepper Cory


Jo Frances Greenlaw

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Houston, Texas


Jo Frances Greenlaw (JG): This is Friday morning, November 2, 2001 at the Houston International Quilt Show. This is a nine o'clock interview of Miss Pepper Cory from Beaufort, North Carolina. Miss Cory, would you spell your name for us?

Pepper Cory (PC): C-o-r-y.

JG: C-o-r-y. Pepper Cory. The interviewer is Jo Francis Greenlaw. The scribe is Georgeanne Wrinkle. It is about 9:07 a.m. You have brought a beautiful hand quilted piece today for us to look at. Why don't we start by having you explain to us exactly what this quilt is, how it's made and what it's made of, and if you would describe it for someone who could not see it.

PC: It's a sampler quilt of different star patterns. It actually came about because Oxmoor House Publications used to issue a calendar with a quilt on it; a different block each month. In 1994 or 1995, they photographed someone's quilt and it was very pretty but they did this really artsy photography, and cut off the points of the stars. It was draped over a fence. I wrote them a blistering letter, saying, 'You ruined a perfectly good quilt.' They wrote back and said, 'Can you do better?' And I said, 'Yes.' So I sent them a little graph paper drawing of this quilt. And they said, 'Alright.' And this became the 1997 Quilt Engagement Calendar for Oxmoor House Press. It sold the most of any of their giveaway calendars, over 150,000 copies. It was sold in book stores and gift shops, museums shops, things like that. It's also been a working quilt for me. When Oxmoor House challenged me, I proposed to a local quilt store that I teach a class in star patterns that would stretch over six months. We only met once a month and I gave the students four or five star patterns at a time. The first patterns were ones cut without templates. They were easy to piece patterns. Then there were patterns that you needed templates for--because they were not easy to cut shapes such as Mexican Star. This shape right here. [pointing to quilt pattern.] Then there were patterns done with foundation piecing like odd angles that need to be sewn very carefully in sections. This is called Sarah's Star [pointing to quilt.] that's a foundation piece pattern. Other star patterns incorporated curves, such as Star of the West. A pattern that uses a lot of traditional templates and really sharpened your skills is Star of the Magi. You have to be very careful there are eight diamonds in the center coming together. So the class took place over a six month period and there were more than twenty people in the class. And they produced great quilts. It was amazing how many quilts came out of the class. I did make more blocks than this. I brought two wall hangings that are descendants of this quilt, from the extra blocks. This has become a working quilt to me. It's often on my bed. It's shown in class a lot. It was hand quilted for me by my dear friend Gale Hill, who has gone to that great quilt frame in the sky. She was a young woman. She passed away two years ago. It's very special, because it has memories of her in it too. This block here is called Bride's Brilliant. You know in a life before quiltmaking, I used to work retail in the jewelry industry. This is a facsimile of what the top of a brilliant cut diamond looks like when you're looking at it straight on through a microscope; all of these facets. This is what the top of the stone actually looks like. So I drafted a whole series of patterns based on gem cuts. I don't haul them out for everybody because most people are a little intimidated by all the angles. This is a revival of a pattern which came out in newspapers in the 1930's, called Tangled Star. I redrafted it to be a foundation piece pattern and it's easy to piece when done over a backing.

JG: So there are twelve blocks.

PC: Twelve blocks, twelve different stars. This one is called Meteor Shower, a Drunkard's Path variation. I don't consider myself an original quiltmaker, but rather a designer that takes elements of things and puts them together. This little eight point star has been known forever but is usual to combine it with the Drunkard's Path unit to make a meteor trail.

JG: And you have developed a whole kind of process using the Drunkard's Path haven't you?

PC: Yes, I wrote a book on Drunkard's Path. I got very excited about Drunkard's Path when I finally learned how to properly piece a curve, and it's just stuck with me. The Bride's Brilliant incorporates the Drunkard's Path too, but in a much more slender form. This is just an important quilt to me. One is because it was a challenge from a publishing company, 'Well, can you do better?' And I said, 'Yeah, a lot better. But the photography has got to be straight on. Don't cut off the points. Don't put it over a fence in some cow pasture. Don't photograph it sideways. Quilters want to see workmanship.' They agreed. I also designed the sashing so that when a block is photographed, it could be framed by an equal amount of sashing every time it was shown. I guess this is the first quilt, also that I really consciously had done and put it out there in that public sense. And it's become real important to me.

JG: The name of this quilt?

PC: "Starry Night."

JG: "Starry Night."

PC: And the sashing is called "Northern Lights."

JG: It's a beautiful traditional type.

PC: It is a traditional type quilt. It just is a hard working quilt.

JG: What was the date that this was made?

PC: It was made in 1995 and became the 1997 calendar for Oxmoor House Press.

JG: Do you have quilts on display here today?

PC: No. This has been on display. It was either last year or the year before but not this time.

JG: What brought you into quilting?

PC: I was nineteen years old. I was in college and I developed an ulcer. I was majoring in Classical Studies which is Latin and Greek and obscure stuff. The doctor said, 'You need a hobby.' I had no idea what a hobby was. I was just too immersed in what I was doing. She wanted me to go play volleyball. She suggested volleyball but I'm not very physically adept. Instead, I happened to go to a garage sale with my mother-in-law and I saw a quilt on sale for a dollar. This is 1970 or 1971. And I bought it. As I was coming home from the garage sale I laid it on my lap. I had not been a seamstress. I do have quilters in my family, but they're two or three generations back, and only after becoming a quilter did I learn about ancestors who were quilters. It was something about looking at the work and realizing that it had all been done by hand, and I didn't own a sewing machine at the time. It was good that the first quilt I saw was all done by hand because then it meant that somebody was capable of doing this huge--I thought it was huge piece of art by hand. It was a great experience.

JG: If you weren't quilting today, what do you think you would be doing?

PC: Well I used to be an alcoholism and drug abuse therapist. So I might be stuck in some bureaucracy in some rehab center, going crazy myself. Well, that's honest. If I'd stayed in retail, I'd probably own my own jewelry store by now because I love gems. I love the cuts. I love the history of them. And it's a happy business to be in. People walk in for their engagement rings, things like that so it's a nice business to be in.

JG: So you are a professional quilter? This is a livelihood for you.

PC: Yes, but like most professional quilters, it's the rare bird who can actually make quilts and sell them and live on the proceeds of those sales. What I do is I make quilts. I write books. I write magazine articles. I design fabric plus design quilting stencils and painting stencils. See quilters don't even know that part of my life but I have several hundred painting stencils that are out there being used at Michael's craft stores. When people are stenciling their bathrooms and stuff like that. [laughs.] I design stencils for foundation piecing. Charm quilt templates that are sold though Wright's. From all of that I can make a living but it's pennies on the dollar kind of living. The last quilt that I sold was probably twelve years ago. I did a sample and put way too much into it. Way too much time, way too much effort. And when I sent them the bill for $600 they just about booked. That's the last quilt I've ever sold because obviously there's a big disconnect between what people will pay for a quilt, and what we know as quiltmakers quilts are worth. I would sooner give away a quilt than sell a quilt.

JG: You give away your quilts?

PC: Yes.

JG: And to whom?

PC: Members of my family who have been thoroughly indoctrinated. They know I will check on the state of the quilt. There have been times I've given quickly done baby quilts and I don't care what happens to them. As one of my nieces or nephews, I have twelve of them, as they get older and graduate from college or get married or enter the service, something like that, everybody will get a quilt. There have only been two that are that old right now. They don't get a quilt until they are semi-adults and are able to take care of it. They don't get a quilt to go to college with, because I've seen what happens to quilts that go to college. You have to kind of have your own home, a bit of responsibility and pride in your surroundings.

JG: What did your first quilts look like?

PC: They were wild. I was a hippie, I was a wild child. My first big quilt, which is still unfinished to this day, is my first start at Drunkard's Path. I was teaching myself, but couldn't find any templates that were accurate in a book. So I took a dinner plate and put it over the edge of a sixteen, fifteen inch square, and I made my own templates. It's screaming yellow calico. And it's orange and purple and green plaid. That's the other part of the Drunkard's Path. [laughs.] I know it's awful. I haul it out at my quilt guild whenever we have a program on "Your First Quilt" and it always gets prize for ugliest first quilt. I have kept it.

JG: The time you designate just for quilting, is there a specific time?

PC: I have a studio outside my home. I live in a small house, only like 950 square feet. And I really can't work comfortably within my home and stay married. I found a little place, a little brick building, kind of like a bunker, in downtown Morehead City, North Carolina. A nice, older lady owns the building. Her husband had been a judge, and the rooms had been legal offices, and she was trying to rent these rooms out. I took one look at this bunker building and thought, 'That's great. My quilts will be safe there.' I now rent three rooms from her. One is for all the quilts because I collect antique quilts too. It's just lined with shelves and the blinds are never opened in that room, they are in the dark. It has a platform in the center of the room, a file some legal documents used to come in and on that I have a big rotary cutting mat so when I need to do rotary cutting I can walk to this island and do it. The next room, I call it the paper craft room. It's full of files and junk and the computer and printer, shelves with books and magazine. It's a mess, a real mess. Then the third room is the fabric room. It has three sewing machines in it, in kind of a "U" of tables. A flannel design wall. That's my favorite room. It's even messier than the paper room but I work outside the home because I find I'm a better worker. When we first moved to Beaufort, North Carolina, we rented a house, and we didn't have the money to try and find a studio. I tried to work in the house and my husband, God bless him, he walked over boxes and piles of junk all through the house. We did this for almost two years. Finally it was just evident that I had to work outside the home again. I go there everyday.

JG: You collect antique quilts.

PC: Yes, I do.

JG: Do you look for things that you see in museums? Is there a quality about a quilt that makes it appropriate for a museum exhibit?

PC: I'm always surprised by the quilts. I'm surprised when I see them. There's something that just takes my breath away. There are also things I know I cannot make. I can imitate perfectly well a Baltimore Album quilt. There's lots of patterns out there, there's always good books by Elly Sinkiewicz on the subject. There's detailed photographs. There are lines of fabric. You could reproduce it. It would take a lot of time. But some of these scrap quilts, some of these off-center folk art things, I could never make them. I'm attracted, in terms of buying quilts, to quilts I could never make. My quilts tend to be, in the collection, scrappier, kind of odd. Sometimes the workmanship is wonderful, sometimes it's awful. I don't want to buy anything I could make, so I don't buy for that reason.

JG: What do you think about the new, cheap quilts that are available at the department stores? Being made in China. Do you think they have a purpose?

PC: They're keeping somebody warm. They have a purpose, that's true. But I'm awfully glad. I heard recently that Jenny Beyer won some sort of copyright suite against one of those Chinese companies. Of course, most of the money went to the copyright attorneys who fought the case. I guess one of the conditions of her winning the suite, the company had to donate the inventory, those quilts they copied from Jenny's designs, to Habitat for Humanity. That's fine with me. I think that's great. I'm not against free enterprise at all, and if those companies design their own quilts or use patterns that were so traditional that it's free enterprise and I'm a capitalist right down to my toes. However, when they get in the way of quilt artists who have done something really significant, like Jenny Beyer, they need to think twice. Not all designs are traditional free and clear out there for anybody to use. It would be no use for me to write books and register a copyright of my designs if anybody could use them all the time, for any purpose. The workmanship of most the imported quilts is far less than that of a domestically made quilt so those quilts are actually going to have a rather short life. This quilt, when you look at it and how well it's hand quilted, and how flat the quilting makes it, how well it's constructed. I haven't sent this through the Maytag with my tennis shoes or anything, but you know what the quality of workmanship will make this quilt live a long, long time. That's not evident in any of the imported quilts. They're decorations, and they're trying to decorate like the paintings on the walls in motels. But let's face it, it ain't art. That's the short version of what I think of that subject, you could go on. [laughs.]

JG: You have this well thought out, and you're fair to everybody. In quilting, that's so important to all of us, do you find that you have regional influences?

PC: Absolutely.

JG: What sort of things about the South? Have you always been Southern?

PC: Afraid so. However, when I look at the antique quilts I've collected there seem to be pockets that they come from. A lot from North Carolina, a lot from the state I'm in now, my adopted home state. Regions of Pennsylvania, not the classical Lancaster County, but like Chester County. More that hard scrabble, central part of Pennsylvania. People got very scrappy, very folkie there. And Texas, but there's also some really high powered antique quilt dealers here, too. I have more than my share of Texas quilts, probably from this event.

JG: I'm glad you mentioned this event. How do you think this helps our image of quilting, our knowledge of textiles? Is it opening up a world to people who never would have known about it? There are so many people here that aren't quilters. Is it reaching people who know nothing? Do you see that?

PC: Well, I do tend to see the hard-core people, because we speak the same language. But I also see a lot of people that have those ribbons that say, "My First Quilt Festival." I always make an effort to talk to them. They don't know me from Adam's housecat, but that doesn't matter. If you stick out your hand to them, they'll remember your congeniality as much as the event. I've been to every Quilt Market and Quilt Festival, including the first one, which was held in the gymnasium of a school here in Houston. Except for the two years when my father passed away, I didn't come that year, and the year I got married. That year, because I was married in November and thought I couldn't do Quilt Festival and a wedding at the same time. Except for two years, I have been to every one of these.

JG: How did you know about the Quilt Festival in Houston?

PC: There was a little notice in a trade magazine. And I had a quilt store at that time. I had a store from 1976 to 1983. There was just a little notice in one of those sewing magazines about, I don't know if it was called just "Quilt Festival" or whether it was a trade show at that time. And my brother was a student here at Rice. I had enough money for plane fare, but I didn't have the money to stay in a hotel. So I came to him and he put me up in his dorm room at Rice. He hung up a hammock, and I got his bed. He slept in the hammock, and he let me drive his old VW Bus, which wouldn't go into reverse. I had to keep driving around the block looking for parking. [laughs.]

JG: Do you have a favorite part of the quilt process?

PC: Well, I do love the quilting itself and that includes designing the quilting and marking. Getting people involved in that really nose to nose stuff that happens when you stitch. Oh, I don't know, on alternate Thursday's maybe it would be designing. I have notebooks full of graph paper drawings of quilts not made. I do not design on the computer. I find that really bloodless. Icannot do it. I also find on a computer that you're always drawing from other people's ideas. What I prefer to do is look through my library of photographs and pictures of antique quilts and put elements together from there. Sometimes you just lock yourself up with your fabric and see what it says to you.

JG: Not to tie you down to revealing your age, but if you started when you were about nineteen, can you tell us about how many years you have been quilting?

PC: Yes. I'm fifty this year.

JG: Because we see people that have been quilting for about a hundred years. [laughs.]

PC: Not quite. Actually, it's like thirty-one years at this point, and I wonder, 'How did that happen?' I don't have a clue how that happens. After I started quilting, really being involved in the craft and I had opened a little quilt store, my mother, who had been prodding me, said, 'Why don't you use your degree? Why don't you teach?' She wanted me to get a real job. Then she told me that I actually had quilters in my background. I had great grandmothers on both sides who were really good quilters.

JG: Do you have any quilts they made?

PC: I have a really tattered Cherokee Rose quilt that came down through my dad's side of the family. It's in shreds. My great-grandmother--she was part Cherokee in fact, she was born in Indian Territory, was a really good quilter. My dad told me, he has since passed away, he told me that he called her his "Gram," my great-grandmother, and said she could be whiter than white. They'd have people in to help quilt on quilts but if she didn't like their stitches she'd take them out. Probably being half Indian, she felt some pressure to be very proper, to be very Victorian. She wore high necked dresses; hair was always back in a bun. Since she was half-Indian, she had to quilt better than they quilted.

JG: Do you find that the quilt show and, as time goes on, that you are growing in your quilting?

PC: Absolutely.

JG: Is there a limit, do you think?

PC: Not so far. If there is a wall, I haven't hit it. I have been through periods, but they have more personally to do with maybe what's going on in my life, that I have felt low. But what happens there is that sometimes you have to retreat, and you have to give yourself some time away from the hubbub of stuff, and rest. A vacation. Then you come back, and you're excited all over again about something different. When I wrote my first book on quilting patterns, "Quilting Designs from Amish Quilts," that was the first one, it was after my father's death. There's a crisis in your life and everything stops, you have to tend to that. Well, I couldn't say enthused and positive for a while especially since it was a sudden death. So sometimes you have to stop. I think I have a little bit of that attention deficit syndrome, so I wrote two books on quilting patterns, one on making quilts that have more than one pattern in them, multi-block designs. Because my idea of purgatory would be making two color quilts with identical blocks. I cannot stand that! Designing quilts that have the alternate block is why I wrote a book called "Crosspatch" and it was the first book on the market that gave people guidelines for choosing alternate blocks that would combine with other things. It's been great. I've had other quilting teachers come back to me, and say, 'That was the first book I read on the subject.' I design a lot of multi-block quilts. This is another one of those gemstone patterns. There is a Lisbon Cut diamond and this pattern is called "Light of Lisbon." If you look at a Lisbon Cut diamond and you turned it upside down underneath a microscope and you look at it from the point of the diamond down that would be the way the cut looks.

JG: Your fabric selection. How do you go about choosing your fabrics?

PC: This blue fabric selection was very conscious, and I can't say that my fabric choice is always that calculated. But I knew in making a quilt that might be published in a calendar, that it had to appeal to a majority of people, and at the same time, in order to have the energy to complete the quilt, it had to be interesting enough that I enjoyed working with it. I tend to work with multiple fabrics, rather than with a limited selection of fabrics. Lots of people say that everything I do is a scrap quilt. But I'm not sure that's real accurate. I think this is a descendant of this quilt. You can obviously see. But it's also a descendant of this quilt. The sashing here is the same. I didn't like the way this fabric looked on the front, so it got turned on the back.

JG: [laughs.] Muted.

PC: Yes, it makes it softer. I do this a lot. I'll make the quilt, and then they'll be three or four pieces that follow that are related.

JG: Your quilt you brought today, and the meticulous hand quilting, and you say that the quilter is no longer here. What will you do? Do you have other quilters?

PC: Yes, there are other people who quilt. I'm a good quilter, but I'm not this fine a quilter. When I knew that this one was going to be published, I hired Gail to quilt it because her stitches made my work look good. Her name is on that label. I always tell people that she was the quilter. People need to be very honest about what part of the effort is theirs.

JG: It's so even. She had [inaudible.] quilt then?

PC: No, it was a running stitch. I designed the quilting patterns drew them on. They became quilting stencils about two years after this quilt was done but they were first designed for this quilt.

JG: Will these two small quilts eventually be quilted as well?

PC: They will be. They're not as important work. I haven't decided at this point if I will hand or machine quilt them. I tend to hand quilt my large quilts and machine quilt my wall hanging size quilts.

JG: When you're hand quilting, are you doing lap quilting, or do you put it on a large frame?

PC: I stretch the layers of the quilt on tables. I have a key to the parish hall of the church I belong to, because I use the parish hall so much. I put tables together to make a large surface, take the backing of the quilt and iron it very smooth, and with masking tape, I tape it down to the tables, with some tension. It's very flat. Spread the batting out, spread the top out. Then I take long straight pins, push those through, and little by little I loosen the tape, slide my hand underneath it, and hand baste with a long doll makers needle, using white basting thread. It's an inexpensive thread. And I just baste it all over, and then let the tape loose. It may take four or five hours to baste a big quilt, but then it's nice and soft. And I quilt in a hoop, a little at a time. I don't have room for a frame though I actually learned to hand quilt on a frame from some ladies at the German Lutheran Church in Lansing, Michigan so I do know how to put up a frame and I have on many occasions.

JG: Do you quilt any wearable art? Do you wear any?

PC: I wear some quilted things, but they're made by people who are better at it than I am. I have some beautiful vests, I have a jacket. But they've been things that have either been given to me as gifts, or I've bought them.

JG: Are there things that you see, maybe even at this show, that you find offensive, as far as quilting design a choice, a way of using the quilts, quilting talent?

PC: I think sometimes examples I see sample pieces in booths have been very hastily done. Of course I'm being picky, I'm a quiltmaker. But it can't be a good advertisement for a fabric company if you have a small sample quilt hanging in your booth where the pattern doesn't meet and the quilting is like machine done really hastily all over. I just can't believe that that's the best representation of the craft. That's the disconnect between people who do the craft and people who don't do the craft.

JG: To be well-educated, don't you need to be able to criticize? To be a little critical?

PC: A little bit. I have found that some quilts are kind of tedious to look at. The ones that are obvious replicas of other things but I'm not downgrading the effort that it takes to make a quilt like that. There are people--what's her name, she won a prize last year, I don't know if she won a prize this year but it looks like the Book of Kells. It's this beautiful orange piecing, and the quilting is immaculate. Now that's an obvious representation of a historical document, and that's well done. Very, very well done. There are some other quilts that seem to be made time and time again. I get a little tired of it. You can't remake an Amish quilt with the same spirit. Last year, Julie Silber mounted that display of Amish quilts, the ones that were in private collections, ones you'd seen in books but were not going to be seen again. And when I walked into that display (it was early on in Market), I felt like falling to my knees, it was so beautiful. You could almost feel the energy come off those quilts. The way two colors would hit each other and come out at you. The bright pink next to the bright green. That is so inspiring to see, but then I took some other people in there, a designer from one of the fabric companies. I wanted to her to be real excited about this pallet of colors. It went right over her; she did not pick up on it at all. It's personal choice.

JG: Is there anything we have failed to ask you? [laughs.] Before we wrap this up. Is there something you want to say, going into the archives?

PC: You asked a question a while back about the Market and I told you I'd been to a lot of them. The fact is that being able to come to an event like this has meant a great deal to me. Because of coming to Quilt Market/Festival, I've made contacts with people and have been able to teach all over the world. If somebody from Australia gives you their business card, you go, 'Yeah right. This will never happen.' Well it did. I taught for a month in Australia. But that contact was made here. It started here. So there's a lot of people in this business, I don't know if they understand. How can I say this? I feel silly when I get around Karey [Bresenhan.]. She has no idea--maybe she does but on a personal level what she's done for quilting. It matters a great deal to me.

JG: I think we have to agree with you. I think this is the largest convention we have in Houston each year. And you think about how many large conventions, and this is the largest gathering!

PC: I'm just starting to write this new column for this new magazine called The Quilt Professional. The next column I'm going to do is about this event. It has to do with the statistics, as versus what's reported in USA Today. You'll open up the newspaper and it says the economy is down and the tech sector is in the toilet. Just makes me angry. I throw it down and I want to say, 'Nobody who has been to Houston and seen this event, both a business and a cultural gathering, could think that.' It's not that we wouldn't know that there were trouble, and awful things happening in other parts of the world. [this was right after 9/11.] Yes, we have to be careful. But this event is such a hopeful thing. Immensely hopeful and positive. Probably more than anything else, that's what keeps me in quilting. The craft is basically positive. How can you be involved in the basics of life-food and shelter, comfort, emotion, fellowship and not be positive? Here we are at this quilt happening (discounting the food)--unless you're talking about the chocolate we have to have at the afternoon tea which I had yesterday.

JG: This has been a chocolate interview, if there ever was one. Chocolate is my very favorite. This has been such a very pleasant interview with Pepper Cory. We are finishing up at about 9:45, here at the Houston Quilt show, on the 2nd of November, 2001. Interviewer Jo Francis Greenlaw and scribe Georgeanne Wrinkle. This is the first interview of this year 2001 so we feel like we had an ace interviewee. Thank you.

Interview Keyword

Hand-sewn quilts
Antique quilts
Quilt festivals


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