Sandra Leichner




Sandra Leichner


Jo Frances Greenlaw interviews Sandra Leichner, an award-winning quilter. Leichner discusses her quilt "Pharaoh" in great detail, which won best in show for the quilt festival where the interview takes place. Leichner talks about how she began quilting and her creative and technical processes in her quilting, including her favorite aspects of quilting, her ability to hand quilt as well as machine quilt, and her personal quilting style and influences. She talks about the quilters in her family.




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Sandra Leichner


Jo Frances Greenlaw

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Leslie Tucker Jenison


Houston, Texas


Megan Dwyre


[tape begins with discussing how to best photograph the quilt.]

Jo Francis Greenlaw (JFG): We are down on the floor of the quilt festival on Saturday, November 2, with hundreds of thousands of people who are all here to see Sandra Leichner's award winning quilt. She won the Maywood Studio Master award for innovative artistry in the amateur quilter's division. Is that right?

Sandra Leichner (SL): No, they don't distinguish between amateur and professional.

JFG: Are you professional or amateur?

SL: Professional.

JFG: Professional. We are interviewing today, Sandra Leichner, Saturday November 2, 2002. The interviewer is Jo Francis Greenlaw. The scribe is Georgann Wrinkle. The time that we are beginning this interview is 11:30 a.m. Sandra is number 160. We've gotten that out of the way. Now give us a good overview of the quilt that we're talking about today. [gives instructions on how best to speak into tape recorder.]

SL: This quilt was basically taking the parts of various tomb paintings that I liked so much, and putting my own take on them. I studied a crash course on Egyptology for about two months before I put the design together and picked the different images and then drew them myself, so if you look at this quilt and went to a tomb you'd never be able to find the exact same images together in the tombs. It's kind of my interpretation.

JFG: Thanks. The materials that you were working with?

SL: I use lots of different fabrics, lots of different fibers. The fabrics, I used are hemp, and a silk metallic blended fiber. I also used a fabric that's coming around again, it was made on the looms left behind by the French in Vietnam and the Vietnamese are now currently reusing those looms to create that fabric again and that's the fabric you see in the pieced background. That fabric actually pulls all the cottons together. In the pieced background, it really gives it that papyrus look, and then I used that fabric again in the goddess on the left for her dress.

JFG: And your batting is?

SL: My batting I used the Dream Poly by the Quilter's Dream Company simply because for show quilts, it doesn't hold a wrinkle. I can fold it any way I want and when you unfold it there is not a wrinkle in the quilt.

JFG: And the backing is also cotton?

SL: The backing is cotton.

JFG: Well, this is an obvious question. Tell us about the embroidery that's on the quilt.

SL: The embroidery was done with various kinds of silk threads. I found silk pearl that's just been coming out. I use size 100 silk thread, I use sewing silk threads, various weights, and the now commercially available silk threads put out by the Caron Company.

JFG: And the other embellishments, tell us about that.

SL: This was my first attempt at beading. It was pushed on my by my mom, she felt that the quilt needed beads and I was a little tentative about that because I'm still trying to expand those traditional boundaries and I thought 'Well, I don't know. I haven't seen a lot of quilts with beads', but she convinced me and after the first bead, I had a hard time stopping myself. [laughter.]

JFG: And the hair.

SL: The hair is where I used the silk pearl and what I did was a twisted chain stitch which looked much like a braid when you put it down and then I went to a needlepoint shop that carries various kind-of funky threads and found a polyester with a twinkle to it and then just wrapped the twisted chains with that so it would have a sheen and a sparkle when the light hit it.

JFG: Tell us about the color palette on this quilt.

SL: It was really important to me that I get the actual, accurate colors of ancient Egypt. I had to find a lot of obscure materials because there's not much color remaining in the tombs, so what information is available you get a color here, a color there, and when I figured out pretty much the main palette, then I was ready to choose the fabrics. So those are the colors you would see in the tombs of Egypt.

JFG: And you used commercially available materials on this?

SL: Probably about 75% of the quilt is commercially available fabrics, I did have to hand dye a few colors to get my palette. In particular the Egyptian red because I searched the internet, I searched my whole state and could not find but one red that matched that Egyptian red, so I had to hand dye some various values to get a palette of reds, and the aqua is also hand dyed on the grape leaves, the wing chorus on the top, and the Nile River on the bottom, and some of the greens. The lotus flowers are also hand dyed.

JFG: What are the plans for this quilt?

SL: [speaking to someone else: I don't know, they're just Egyptian Red.] The plans for this quilt, as of right now, I did it as a gift to my mom. I don't keep any of my quilts. I give them away. I don't sell them. It was given to her under the strict instructions that it has to be handed down through the family. It cannot leave the family.

JFG: Why did you choose this particular quilt?

SL: I love ancient art and actually I have quite a few quilts in my head about other quilts, but this one has always been my favorite. Actually I learned, when you first look at Egyptian art it seems very simple and easy to draw, but when you sit down and actually work with it, it was very difficult to get the images. I really did have to work hard on the two dimensionality but yet they're almost three dimensional at the same time.

JFG: Well the obvious question is, when did you make this and how long was your time involved in it?

SL: It was seven months from start to finish off and on during the day. I have three small children so I have to work around them and actually, I give them credit because without them I never would have discovered appliqué because I was a painter and my children would not allow me to paint, this was impossible because I did watercolor so obviously it dries. So I came to Houston three years ago, I had only been quilting one year at that time, and looked around at all of the quilts, contemporary, traditional, and was just overwhelmed and at that moment, my mind was made up, I came home with fabric and went to town.

JFG: Have you given up painting totally for this medium?

SL: I keep hoping that I'll go back to a little bit of it, but this I'm going to stick with probably until the day I'm gone.

JFG: Have you won other quilting awards?

SL: Yes. With this particular quilt I won first place traditional in Williamsburg, Best of Show at Quilter's Heritage Celebration in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and it was Best of Show at the Association of Pacific Northwest Quilters' which is a regional show with entries from Canada, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

JFG: Have you entered other quilts in other quilt shows?

SL: My first quilt I entered last year because I wanted to find out what judges are looking for and it won Honorable Mention here at Houston, it won Honorable Mention at the Quilter's Hall of Fame, and it won Honorable Mention at Williamsburg.

JFG: She starts at the top. [laughter.] Well how did you become interested in quilting, what was the influence?

SL: When everybody asks me that question, I've really been thinking about that a lot and I'd have to say really it started when I was 12 years old. My great-grandmother was an incredible artist and needle worker and when she had passed away and she had left me her basket, which to most people would seem like 'Oh, thanks,' but to me it was a treasure box, it could have been lined in gold as far as I was concerned, and I taught myself how to embroider at the age of 12 with her basket that she had left me with all her threads and everything, just as she had left it, and a love affair with the needle, fiber, and fabric started then. Then you have to make a living as a single worker, needlework just isn't going to pay the way. I combined later, after I had children, my love of art and my training in art with fabric and I could do everything I loved in one medium.

JFG: Tell us about your studio.

SL: My studio [laughs.] When we bought our house, it was being built and I told my husband it had to have four bedrooms. The children could have their own rooms, but I had to have a room for sewing and so originally he told me to take the second largest bedroom, which was wonderful, but then we had a 'whoopsy baby' [laughs.] and so I had to give up that room, and so I'm in the smallest room, but since that time I have taken over the dining room, the living room, my daughter's bedroom, my bedroom, so you could say the house is my studio. [laughter.]

JFG: That's wonderful. How often are you quilting, how much time do you spend?

SL: I would say at least two to three hours a day, at the most eight.

JFG: And how is this impacting those children and your husband?

SL: They love it. Quilt's just natural to them. They think everybody does it and my daughter, she sits in there with me. I won an extra machine so it's set up and she knows how to sew and she has her little fabric stash so she gets to sew with mom, fondle all my threads and it's just second nature to them. My husband's wonderful, he comes home from work, fixes dinner for the children so I can go and do my thing, and without that it would have taken me a lot longer to do that quilt.

JFG: Are there other quilters in your family?

SL: My mom, who's probably most responsible for introducing me to quilts.

JFG: Did you grow up with quilts on the bed?

SL: Yes, and well I'm regretting- my mother had inherited her quilts from her grandmother and as kids we didn't quite respect them as we should have, we used them for tents in the backyard and now after they're worn out, tore up, I cringe. So I have taught my children since the time they could understand, that quilts are to be respected, and they do.

JFG: What do you find the most pleasing when you're quilting? What's the best thing about quilting?

SL: Color. The color. It's just endless and it fascinates me and I'm constantly learning. Even though I've had art training since I was around six years old, color never ceases to be amazing. Fabric you find that you think would not go into a quilt, you look out the corner of your eye at the pile that's been accumulating and you find just the right color, and something you never would have imagined, and I'm just constantly discovering color and playing with it, I love it.

JFG: Well when you look at all the other quilts that are hanging here and at other places that you've been, what has the largest impact on you?

SL: The design. The design. In my opinion you can have the best workmanship, 32 stitches to the inch, 12 stitches to the inch, but if the design is not working, the quilt is not working, and I think it has to be a balanced combination of color, design, and workmanship.

JFG: What is your design process?

SL: I usually start with what I think my focal point would be and then build around that as I go, so in this example, the pharaoh, I knew I wanted the chariot and the pharaoh in the center, I knew that much. So I do a rough thumbnail sketch of the pharaoh, and then I just would continually throughout making the quilt, do rough drafts around him until it worked, and lot of times what I think will work on paper, does not work during the construction process, so I'll go back to the drawing table until I get it right. The rule of thumb is that your eye should go to one spot, and then travel around, and if your eye doesn't move, you've got a big problem in your design.

JFG: Do you use the computer at all with your designing?

SL: I use it with it piecework because to be honest with you, I'm not a piecer and it's very difficult for me to- I see things as a whole in my mind and a piece quilt is very difficult to see completed in my head, so when I do a piece quilt I will go to the computer and figure out the graphics on that before I ever cut fabric and stray too much.

JFG: This quilt is machine quilted. Tell us how you did that.

SL: Well I knew I wanted to machine quilt it because there's half inch pieces pieced together for the background and the central medallion and too many seams. It would be impossible to hand quilt with any degree of accuracy and to look nice when it was finished. I also did not want the quilting to be the focal point. I wanted to create a texture and so the thread needed to sink into the fabric and place second, and so machine quilting was just--you can draw, you can put in the details with that. The next step was to find a thread that did not compete with the surface of the quilt and so Diane Gaudynski had mentioned that she used the hundred weight of silk thread, so I played with it and it was just a dream. It sank in. It didn't compete with the design, but added that texture I needed.

JFG: So all of the machine quilting is done in that same color?

SL: The bottom on the Nile River where you see the blue that was done with the rayon thread.

JFG: Oh, Okay, and the rest of it is done with--

[everyone speaks at once.]

Georgann Wrinkle (GW): The same kind.

SL: Silk thread.

JFG: Sinking in.

SL: Right.

JFG: So you did all the machine quilting yourself?

SL: Yes, I did it on my home machine.

JFG: How do you feel about the difference between machine quilting and hand quilting?

SL: You know I learned a long time ago, well not a long time ago, when I first started quilting, the lesson was never say never and keep your mind open and so I'm constantly looking at the contemporary quilts for ideas to put in a traditional quilt because it [inaudible.] borders and if you say no, you shut off a whole world of creativity and I'm thankful to the art quilters out there that are continually pushing the boundaries and finding new techniques because it doesn't matter whether you work in a contemporary and traditional style, any technique that you can use to get the design you want should be open for you.

JFG: Well we have to consider you a great quilter. You certainly have proven yourself. What do you think makes a great quilter?

SL: Again I think it's that balanced approached, not focusing too much one way or the other. In other words if you focus on workmanship, thinking that's the key, and then your design leaves a lot to be desired and then on the other end focusing too much on design and color and then your workmanship suffers because for me, I want this quilt to be around hundreds of years after I'm gone and with all my quilts, whatever I do, has to survive a washing machine because we don't know what's going to happen when we're gone. There's always someone down the road that's going to toss it in a washing machine, so when I pick a technique or whatever I do, it has to endure a washing machine. So again, the balanced approach, don't let one suffer for the other.

JFG: I can't imagine beads going through the washing machine. [laughter.]

SL: Oh, those things will go though a cement mixer. [laughter.]

JFG: Well, what has been the influence in your life with your quilting? What doors have been opened?

SL: [sighs.] It's been an incredible year. I have been in magazines. I've been in two newspapers now. I've been contacted by various sponsors. I've been asked to design, I've been asked to teach, I've been teaching. I think every door has been opened, and I'm just determining which direction I want to go.

JFG: Are you teaching here at the quilt festival?

SL: No, I teach near home because it's close, I don't have to travel because I have three small children, it's just kind of tough. To be honest with you I haven't decided whether teaching's really the avenue I want to take.

JFG: Would you sell your designs?

SL: I don't know. Someone asked me if I was going to make a design of pharaoh and I looked at them and I laughed because I said, 'You would not want to make this quilt.' I don't want to make this quilt again. [laughter]. I learned a lot and I learned also what I don't want to do again. No I don't think so. I'm someone who can't repeat. When I'm done with it, I'm done with it, and I move on. It was like this quilt. If you notice, the only thing that's the same is the lotus flower border. I call it non-symmetrical symmetry because it's symmetrical but no image is identical because I just don't have the focus to work on the same thing twice and it took really long to do that lotus flower border because I just hated it. Every day I went into my studio, once I completed one flower it was like 'I have to do how many more?' [laughter.] I had to really force myself to finish that part of it.

JFG: Well how are these quilts going to be preserved? They're so wonderful. Yes they can go in a washing machine, and they'll stay in your family, but-- [laughter.]

SL: Well I kind of came through it backwards. I loved Baltimore Album quilts too, I'd seen some of those, so I had started collecting various patterns from the '20s and '30s and my husband, as a Mother's Day present, bought me "Old Quilts" by William Rush Benton, a mint copy with a cover.

JFG: We're talking about a five hundred dollar book.

SL: More than that now.

JFG: More than that now.

SL: I got that for Mother's Day and I started searching out old books, so I basically have a first edition of all the books from the '20s forward. I'm only missing one. [laughs.]

JFG: Which one is that?

SL: I'm trying to remember which one it was because I've spent so much time on "Pharoah" I haven't gone back to that part, but I have all those preserved in acid-free patterns, Ruby McKin's series, Nancy Page series. I was buying them before it became vogue to go buy those things because I was just heartbroken to see these things out there just being torn up, so that's where it kind of started and that's how come I came in on the traditional end, because I wanted to recreate some of those quilts I had seen, and my first year that's what I was doing was really traditional quilts. I've just preserved all those patterns, they're documented, they're categorized, they're in catalogs, the books are in a dust-free area and my husband knows about it so if anything happens to me he knows who to contact and give those books too, because I will never sell them. When I feel the collection is complete, I will probably donate it to a museum I feel that has the resources to keep them.

JFG: And appreciate them.

SL: Exactly, and appreciate. They're not locked in a basement somewhere, correct.

JFG: What about letting one of your quilts go to a museum, how do you feel about that?

SL: It's probably the only way I would let it go, because I'm really not interested in selling my work. Usually I find someone whom I think the quilt fits and I gift it to them, but if a museum was interested, I do have a piece in the New England Quilt Museum, which doesn't bother me, it's gone. When I'm done with a quilt, it's gone, but I'm real particular about who receives it.

JFG: What about the internet, how are you involved in that?

SL: Ooh, it's either Mr. Rogers or communicate with the world. [laughter.] I'm on the internet, I've made so many friends both on the art side, on the traditional side. We exchange ideas. I think that's how I got on the fast track in competition because I've had several people give me tips that I otherwise would not have known and would have taken me a lot longer to be where I am right now, so I'm very thankful for the internet. Fabrics, threads, some of these threads you can only buy in these obscure spaces, so it's opened a whole new world, a whole new world.

JFG: Is that how you found the Vietnamese--

SL: Yes, exactly, yes, an importer and I had actually got a small piece and then I called back and said, 'I want more.' I have a whole stack of that fabric because I love it. It's just the most beautiful fabric.

JFG: So subtle. It really works.

SL.: So subtle, but it has texture to it, and it has drape, yes it's a nice fabric.

JFG: Did you ever do a traditional Baltimore Album then?

SL: No. You know the funny thing is, I would buy patterns and my mom would just hang her head because I'd buy these patterns. I'd open them up and I'd say, 'Oh, that's not right,' and then I'd totally remake this pattern and it never looked like the original one I purchased, and she said, 'Why are you buying patterns? Why don't you just start making your own?' So it's what catapulted me into doing original work.

JFG: How do you feel about sharing everything you know?

SL: I'm very open. It's a real tough line because I have had issues in the past, I have been infringed upon as far as copyright law goes, but you know I think the average quilter just wants information, and if no one had shared with me I would still be at square one. I think most people are honest, they want to learn, and I don't have a problem telling them how I did something because no one's going to do exactly what you have done. We all are different, it will come out different. We all like different colors, different techniques, there's just really no way of duplicating, so far it's just not an issue with me.

JFG: Do you say that you have a particular style, or design--

SL: I call myself an in-betweener. I don't think I'll ever give up that traditional skeleton frame work, but I do like to do original work, so I feel like I fall in the cracks. I'm not really traditional and I'm not really art, I'm just an in-betweener. [laughs.]

JFG: You really are. [laughter.]

SL: A little bit of everything.

JFG: Since we are almost to 12:00, I thought we might go ahead and wrap this up, this has been amazing with all these people around us, and you are doing so well. Would you like to put some ideas in our heads that we had not thought about asking you? Is there something we haven't covered?

GW: That you would like for us to know.

JFG: To show up on your interview on the online page.

SL: One more thing I think that's real important to me and I think about on a daily basis, and that's my grandfather. He would never let me turn my back on my art no matter how hard I tried, and he pushed me. He pulled me and when I made my first quilt, he just kept making me go forward. I don't want to get teary-eyed, but his quilt is in the show that I made for him in the American Tradition exhibit, and it won an honorable mention here last year and little did I know, he was dying. [very emotional.] He waited until I got home, and then passed away. Excuse me.

JFG: We haven't had enough sleep that's what's wrong. [laughter.]

SL: This quilt pharaoh has a very personal meaning too. It celebrates my grandfather and lets me know he's still here.

JFG: That is wonderful. Will never leave you.

SL: It will tell generations that they're with us and that's what the Egyptians knew, and if we take the time to study the lessons are still there. So when I get down and I think 'Oh Grandpa, I wish you could see this,' I look at this quilt and the symbols at the base of the goddess and what they're holding are the Egyptian symbols for eternal life it's comforting.

JFG: It is a beautiful quilt. We are going to wrap this up. Sandra Leichner has been our interviewee. She has done a wonderful job, she also has created one of the most beautiful quilts here on the floor, and we are concluding this at 12:00 noon on Saturday November 2. We started at about 11:30 and we have been doing this on the floor with hundreds of people around her taking pictures and wanting to ask questions, so I guess we'll free you up a little bit for some of that. [laughter.]

GW: We need to scoot out. [laughter.] We need a coke, and two Motrin. [laughter.]

JFG: You're interviewer has been Jo Francis Greenlaw and the scribe who also asked questions has been Georgann Wrinkle.

Interview Keyword

Show quilts
Art quilts
Quilt designs
Quilt inspirations
Creative processes
Needlework as art
Art education
Quilting studio
Family life
Quilting and families
Proper care of quilts
Quilt colors
Quilt workmanship
Traditional quilts
Baltimore quilts
Machine quilting
Hand quilting
Contemporary quilts


“Sandra Leichner,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,