Susan Derkacz




Susan Derkacz


Sandy Mehall interviews Susan Derkacz, a quiltmaker, for the Quilters' S.O.S. Oral History Project. Derkacz discusses many aspects of quilting, including technical aspects such as machine vs. hand quilting, the importance of craftsmanship in quilting, and the techniques she used in creating the quilt she brought to discuss in the interview. She also talks about the cultural aspects of quilting, including stories behind quilts, the importance of quilts in American women's history, and how quilts should be conserved for the future in museums and cultural exhibits. Derkacz talks about her personal experiences with quilting, like discussing the first quilt she created and how quilting has impacted and influenced her family life.




Textile artists
Decorative arts
Crafts & decorating
Women’s voices
American women, 1600-1900
Southwestern States.


Susan Derkacz


Sandy Mehall

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Pam Neil


Houston, Texas


Rachel Grove


Sandy Mehall (SM): [tape begins mid sentence.] ...November second. It is 4:45 p.m., and I am conducting an interview with Susan Derkacz for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project at the quilt convention quilt show [International Quilt Festival.] at the George Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. Thank you for coming today Susan. We just love these bright colors in the quilt you brought today. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Susan Derkacz (SD): "Audrey II" is an original design, adaptation, configuration. It's got a Hobbs wool batting in it. Bright colors.

SM: And it has a center medallion?

SD: Yes, it does.

SM: Medallion and a border that goes around it. Kind of an inner and an outer border and these wonderful sunflower type shapes in the corners.

SD: And the happy flowers.

SM: And the happy flowers.

SD: And these are Japanese good luck symbols in the corner.

SM: They're beautiful.

SD: And they're appliqué.

SM: Oh, I'm learning something. I didn't know that, and this is an interesting variation of a simple block. I like it.

SD: Yes, this quilt was in an AQS [American Quilters Society.] publication on borders, and they liked the three-dimensional color border.

SM: And these are actually more borders although make with the binding--look like a triple border, right?

SD: Right. What happens is--okay, this is actually the fabric that the quilt stops, and then this is a piping that is put on, and this one happens to be wide, and I've whipped it down, and then the binding goes on.

SM: Oh, that's great.

SD: And what is does is it adds stabilization. You actually square up the quilt and then bind it, and this is the stability that keeps the edges from wibble wobbling.

SM: So if you come out a little off here or here, you're saying this outer one allows you to make that correction?

SD: Well, you can make it any size you want to.

SM: No, correction as far as squareness.

SD: Well, actually you square it up first, and this keeps it square. This actually is a two step process.

SM: I got you.

SD: It's like adding a grosgrain ribbon.

SM: I see. So how old or new is this?

SD: This quilt was made in 1995, and it's obviously named after the plant in Little Shop of Horrors.

SM: Because your husband--

SD: My husband was in the play, Little Shop of Horrors.

SM: Is it new material?

SD: Yes, all new fabric, 100% cotton.

SM: And the special meaning of this quilt, is it related to your husband being in that play or--

SD: Actually it is taken from a postcard of an antique quilt that I got, and I looked at it for a really long time and then I made this quilt after that postcard.

SM: And where did you get the postcard?

SD: I got the postcard at the AQS Show. Dorinda Moody Slade made it and I remember she had thirteen children, and she made her quilt in Utah in the desert.

SM: [laughs.] [3 second pause.] So do you use this quilt?

SD: No, it stays on a bed underneath all the rest of the quilts?

SM: And why did you choose to bring this over the one you won the prize with?

SD: Because it sort of launched my whole competition quilting endeavor.

SM: And before we were recording you told me something about you're trying to build a body of work.

SD: I am trying to build a body of work, and it's interesting to see how you grow as a quilter, what the different fabrics change to. I'd like to have a bunch of quilts by the time I'm older.

SM: And then you'd like to have a one man, a one person show.

SD: My husband would really like to see that, a one person show. It takes me so long to do a quilt that may not happen.

SM: Would it be for art's sake or for sale?

SD: [4 second pause.] Depends on how the economy keeps going. I've recently had to sell some quilts. It's just economic.

SM: Yes. But do you have any other plans for this quilt.

SD: Not right now.

SM: Not right now, and so tell me how you got interested in quilting.

SD: I got interested in quilting as an art form. I'd always known how to sew. I made my own clothes in junior high and high school, and then I graduated from college with an art degree.

SM: And so how old were you when you started quilting?

SD: [5 second pause.] Twenty something, twenty-four, when I graduated from college.

SM: And the first quilting project was what?

SD: The first quilting project never got off the ground. I got a Mountain Mist quilt batt that had the pattern on the wrapper, and it was going to be a pieced Bowtie quilt. One inch squares, and I got out my scraps that happened to be corduroy, and I thought that would be so cool, and it was a disaster. [laughs.] One-inch corduroy squares not! [laughs.]

SM: And so from whom did you learn? Just self-taught or--

SD: My grandmother gave me a book. It was a Mountain Mist book on basic how to make quilt, and so I just plunged in. I mean I knew how to sew, and when I first did I was taking half-inch. You know five eight seams. That's what you took, and then I got a job in a quilt store, and she had the NQA [National Quilting Association, Inc.]certified teachers come and teach, so I got to audit the class. So I was able to learn how you did it the correct way and just went from there.

SM: So what's your first memory of a quilt?

SD: [4 second pause.] This is tough. Well, both my grandmothers had antique quilts on their beds, and one of the memories is my maternal grandmother had a red and white Delectable Mountains on the canopy bed, and we were never supposed to get close to it. It was her pride and joy, and I now have that quilt.

SM: Do you display it or--

SD: No, it's in a cupboard, because it's fragile, and I've got two cats, so you can't really have textiles out. They love to sleep on them.

SM: Right. And tell me like how often you quilt or how much a week or something?

SD: Oh, I quilt at least some everyday, whether it's on my quilting or piecing or appliqué, and if I'm trying to finish a project, I may have to quilt five or six hours a day to keep on schedule. I try not to do that. I try to work at a steady pace.

SM: Why would one want not to do that?

SD: Oh, it's stressful. It's horribly stressful, and then you get into some things like carpal tunnel syndrome if you keep doing repetitive motion, and I've been there, and it's not fun.

SM: Are there other quilters like in your family or are your quilters' associates just friends?

SD: Nobody in my family quilts. My two grandmothers had an appreciation of it. My one grandmother did take up quilting when she was about seventy-five and my mom took a continuing education class.

SM: And how do you think that quilting impacted your family?

SD: Oh, they think it's interesting. At first they just thought it was kind of, 'Oh, yeah. Ho hum. She makes quilts.' And my brother goes, 'Well, what are you going to do when you really grow up,' you know. [laughs.] And then I won, and it was like, 'Oh, wow, it's okay.'

SM: Gave it validity.

SD: It did give it validity.

SM: So that's pretty cool that you gained their respect of your craft.

SD: Although, you know, they always, infer--Art people they're kind of strange, ditzy. They don't really take me seriously. [laughs.]

SM: So using quilting to get through a difficult time, has that happened to you?

SD: Yes, it has. As a matter of fact when I was working on Seymour's Dream my dad had a heart attack, and the operation didn't go well, and I ended up going home for a month, so I was able to take Seymour with me. I had it packaged up, and I was able to work on it while he was in the hospital and while he was recuperating. [3 second pause.] And it was interesting at the hospital. It was a giant hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. In the heart unit there are just a gazillion people and it was so impersonal, and the nurses would come in, and they'd actually take an interest, because they would see what you were doing. [3 second pause.] It sort of broke the ice.

SM: Yes, it did. It would I think. And do you think that that colored your memory of that quilt from that experience with it?

SD: Well, that's a good question. At the show I did an interview with Wisconsin Public TV, and it aired, and I mentioned that, and my dad saw the interview on TV, and he just broke down.

SM: Wow.

SD: It was pretty emotional for him.

SM: Yes, that's amazing that he would see it I think.

SD: Well, it was on PBS.

SM: Oh, okay.

SD: So shoot I had people calling me. My aunt from Massachusetts--'Gladys says she saw you on the television.' [changes her voice to imitate aunt.] So she caught it when they rebroadcast it.

SM: Amazing. Small world we live in.

SD: Yes, it is.

SM: So what is your most pleasing part of quilting for you? What part of the process?

SD: The part of the process I like the best is designing the quilt. Actually putting it on paper, working out the mechanics then next comes picking the fabric, and cutting it out, and getting it up on the wall. There's a lot of visual energy, and it's so stimulating.

SM: And you have your own design wall?

SD: I have my own design wall. It's a flannel drapery interfacing that's up on the wall, and I can stick things up to it and then step back and get a good perspective of what the things look like.

SM: I would think from your interior design background that you're probably pretty comfortable picking the color, that that's an easy thing for you.

SD: It's very easy for me. The problem now it's better, there are wonderful commercial fabrics on the market. When I first started doing bright quilts there was no fabric on the market that would work.

SM: So all your quilts are bright?

SD: Pretty much.

SM: And the part that you least enjoy then?

SD: Well, it's the stick to it quilting, the execution, the day after day. 'I've got four hundred more blocks to do and [laughs.] I'm on three ninety one.'

SM: [laughs.] Yes. So what do you think really makes a great quilt?

SD: Oh, what makes a great quilt? For me it could be a toss between visual stimulation or great workmanship. I think you can appreciate both of them.

SM: But if a quilt had good workmanship would it necessarily be artistically powerful?

SD: No, so for me it would be design. That would grab me, design and color. And then you get to look at the mechanics.

SM: So what makes a quilt appropriate to be selected or considered museum quality do you think or that a curator would want it?

SD: Oh, gee. [8 second pause.] There are so many different museums.

SM: Yes.

SD: Modern art. [3 second pause.] Oh, gee. Textile museum--I don't know a quilt that--I mean workmanship would have to be in there first of all. [5 second pause.] I don't know--design.

SM: So--

SD: So if I were a curator what would I pick? [5 second pause.]

SM: Thinking it would depend on the parameters in other words?

SD: I would. Depending on what they needed to fill out their museum.

SM: So who do you think are some great quilters?

SD: Oh, gee. I mean the list is endless. [6 second pause.] I really have to [inaudible.]?

SM: Well, just give me one or two that you think--

SD: Or three. [5 second pause.]

SM: Would your name be on that list?

SD: No, I haven't been doing it long enough. [8 second pause.]

SM: Alright, one. [laughs.]

SD: One--

SM: Yes.

SD: Great quilter. I'd say Kathleen McCrady from Austin.

SM: And why would you say that about her?

SD: Why would I say that about her? Because--well, she's been quilting for a long while, and she's done more to educate the general population, in our part of Texas, about quilts.

SM: So what makes her great? The education? That she's an educator? Is that what you're saying, or do you think she's very good in other ways such and color or--

SD: Design, color, education, and workmanship.

SM: Teaching people?

SD: Workmanship, teaching people. She gives conservation workshops. She's very generous with her time and resources to promote the art of quilting.

SM: But to get to that point of greatness, what do you think are the key ingredients?

SD: Patience.

SM: Patience.

SD: Stick-to-it-ness. I mean she's been at it for a long time.

SM: And you're sure she's failed a few times?

SD: Oh, sure.

SM: Yes. It happens, huh?

SD: Yes.

SM: [refers back to "Audrey II."] Now this is all hand appliquéd, hand pieced, hand stitched, hand quilted so how do feel about--We know you like hand quilting.

SD: Well, this is machine pieced. I do that.

SM: But how do feel about the machine quilting versus the hand quilting?

SD: My personal prejudice is I really find it difficult if they're in the same category, but there's a whole lot of skill that's involved in machine quilting, and so I do appreciate that, so you know if it's a well-executed piece, I guess the point is moot.

SM: Are they all within the same category? I mean--

SD: Pretty much. Most of the shows--unless you get a provincial show like our guild, and they separate them out--can't have machine quilted pieces with hand quilted pieces.

SM: Do you think longarm is okay too or--

SD: There's definite skill involved there.

SM: So it's acceptable to you?

SD: It's--You know, it's acceptable. It's a sign of the times. It's the way it is. I mean I look at Carol Bryer Fallert's quilting, and I just--It's amazing. She has a great gift.

SM: Do you think those things have evolved, because people desired to produce a lot, or because they want to have to have more creative outlet. What do you think is the reason that that's kind of overtaken hand quilting in a lot of instances?

SD: Well, in two ways. I would say it's a whole lot faster than hand quilting. That would factor in, but second of all some people can just work on machine better than others. So they're more comfortable with it. I have a friend who's lost the use of her hands and can't hand quilt anymore, but she can run the sewing machine, so--

SM: That's a blessing for her.

SD: Yes. I mean when I get to be eighty-four I may be there too.

SM: Right. So tell me about why quilting is so--What makes it so important in your life?

SD: What makes it important in my life? Probably the visual, the stimulation--I mean it's just--It's electric, the energy that can come from looking at a piece and working on a piece and then going to a quilt show and seeing stuff, but--

SM: So do you think with your art background it's your creative outlet?

SD: It is. It's my creative outlet. That's what it is for me. You know at this point it's not as utilitarian for me as it is for some people who quilt.

SM: Tell me again about the first quilt.

SD: Oh, the dog quilt.

SM: Yes.

SD: The one that became the dog quilt. Well, that was sewing scraps too, and that was a Bowtie, and I was going to make this quilt, and I put cotton batting in it, and I didn't quilt it very closely and a sheet from Pier 1, one of those Indian things that you had over your door in the dorm.

SM: That was the back?

SD: That was the back. And it lasted for a little while. That was after we first got married, and it was king sized, because we had a king size bed.

SM: So you needed a cover?

SD: Yes, I needed a cover.

SM: And it went to pieces after being washed?

SD: It went to dog heaven. [laughs.]

SM: So how do you think your quilting reflects the Southwest region where you live or Texas where you live?

SD: The colors are probably a good representation of this part of the Southwest. They're bright, happy. [3 second pause.] But by the same token most of the quilts have a white background. If you hand quilt, you sure want it to show.

SM: And you think it shows best on white or off-white or plain?

SD: Off-white.

SM: On the purple here it shows so well.

SD: Yes, but not from a distance.

SM: I see now, because here you're getting--

SD: Right.

SM: The whole fabric.

SD: I made the mistake of--One of my quilts I used a Elly Siekiewicz stripe. It was muted, and the quilting didn't show up, and it had way more quilting than this one.

SM: Oh.

SD: And that was very disappointing.

SM: So you think that the plain, off-white really compliments the quilting a lot?

SD: They really--yes. [inaudible.]

SM: I didn't really know that. So what do you think the importance of quilts today is in American life or even the past?

SD: Oh, in the past I would say it was very important--Oh, a lot of tradition is passed along with quilts. Your great-grandmother made it, so you are now the keeper of the quilt.

SM: [6 second pause.] But today?

SD: Well, today it's still--I mean how many people get married and somebody wants to make them a quilt? How many babies get born, and they want to have the first quilt?

SM: Yes.

SD: It sort of holds true.

SM: So do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and gains in America?

SD: I do. I'm a firm believer in that.

SM: Could you expound on that a little more?

SD: Well, I would say it's probably helped a lot of women pass the time or fill a need, fill a void that they had. They're utilitarian, and it's a way for the anonymous women of the world to make their own statement. It really does. I mean these women--you don't remember a lot of the quilts are unsigned. You don't remember who made them, but it was somebody's work.

SM: That's true. And do you think--How do you think quilts should be used?

SD: Well, I really think they should be used and not abused, and when you give a quilt you need to have a care label. Tell the people that are getting it how to use it, but you really have no control. It's education.

SM: Once you've given it you have to let go.

SD: Once you've given it you let go.

SM: Yes, and that goes to my next thought, which is how can we preserve these quilts for the future? And I guess it is education.

SD: I would say education. Case in point one of my husband's clients brought in four quilts. She wanted to know--they had been handed down to her, and she brought them in dry cleaning plastic bags, and oh gosh, they smelled terrible, but I did the research on them and told her when and where, and then I wrote her how to take care of them. She couldn't wash them, but to please take them out of the plastic bag--how to take care of them, and she didn't have a clue, so the more we can do to educate the public.

SM: So you saved four more that might not have been saved?

SD: Well, they were in pretty bad shape, a couple of them, but they were interesting textile statements.

SM: And have you shared your quilts with family and friends or do you keep them all or how's that?

SD: No, my mom has quite a few of the quilts that I've made, but she uses them, and she uses them and washes them and enjoys them, and I've made them for babies that have come along, and they use them, but they're not exactly heirloom quality either.

SM: So which pleases you more: to have the validation that they're liking them and using them or to have the awards that you get from the ones you don't use?

SD: Well, I think yes and yes. [laughs.]

SM: It's apples and oranges.

SD: It is apples and oranges, because yes, I mean I'm grateful for them to use them, but all the same it's nice to win awards.

SM: Yes. So we're getting toward the end of this interview. What wrap up thing would you like to tell me or talk about?

SD: Well, I'm grateful they're doing Save Our Stories, because there are a lot of anonymous quiltmakers out there that they're finding out about and before they pass on getting information. I know the quilts that I've gotten from family--My grandmothers all died before I knew where they got them.

SM: So you think they stories shouldn't just be from name people, but from the small, unknown people as well?

SD: Right. I really do. I mean there are a lot of people in our guild that should be--I mean it's interesting. It sort of relates an era in time.

SM: Well, I'd like to thank Susan Derkacz for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 2001 Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories project. Our interview was concluded at 5:15 on November second. Thank you very much, Susan.

Interview Keyword

Quilting techniques
Hand quilting
Machine quilting
Cultural history
Craft history
Women and quilting
Cultural aspects of quilting
Catharsis in crafting
Quilt stories
Quilting in American culture
Proper care of quilts


“Susan Derkacz,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024,