Nancy Martin




Nancy Martin


Kay Jones interviews Nancy Martin, a quilter and quilt book writer from New Jersey. Martin discusses her personal connections to quilting, including how she began quilt, how quilting has impacted her family life, and her quilt business and books she has written. She talks about her formal education in elementary education and how it has influenced her quilting abilities and ability to teach quilting classes. She also talks about broader aspects of quilting, including what makes a great quilter as well as a great quilt and museum quilt. She talks about the cultural impact of quilting on her community, particularly her involvement in quilt shows, quilting guilds, and sharing quilting knowledge with future generations. She discusses the importance of quilting on education, American culture, and American women in particular.




Textile artists
Decorative arts
Crafts & decorating
Sewing machines
College majors
Quilting as art
Fabric arts


Nancy Martin


Kay Jones

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Leslie Tucker Jenison


International Quilt Festival
Houston, Texas


Kay Jones (KJ): This is Kay Jones. Today's date is November 2nd, 2002. It is 4:08 in the afternoon. Today's date is November 2nd, and I'm conducting an interview with Nancy J. Martin for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories in Houston Texas. Nancy, you've brought a beautiful log cabin quilt. Would you tell us about it, please?

Nancy Martin (NM): Well, this quilt was made in 2002. It is very typical of the types of quilts I make. Usually the quilts I make are scrappy in design. That doesn't mean that they're made strictly from scraps in my scrap basket but it means that I use a large variety of fabric and I love to make them look reminiscent of the old quilts. There is so much that is textural and tactile in the quilts, and this is a look I like to do. Log cabin is one of my favorite blocks. This log cabin was a little unusual, because two sides of the log cabin block are done in muslin and the other two are in colors. So, when I used a red print center square which is pretty traditional for a log cabin and then set them in the barn-raising design we got a very, very unique overall design. When I made those log cabin blocks one of the things that I did was to repeat the color of the center block, in each log cabin block. So as I stitched those logs around the center, the first row of print blocks used a print reminiscent of an old shirting. You used to see those shirtings a lot in the log cabin quilts. And then the next row repeated the same red print in the center block. As you went on to the last two rows, that's where the scrappy part of the log cabin tends to be, and I simply mixed and matched the fabrics as I went along. Now I would say that probably the unique part of this quilt is the way it's set together in the barn-raising design. You really don't think of it as a log cabin because there is so much white muslin around it. The other thing that I have enjoyed was using the leftover strips in the border. It's not easy to think of a border for a log cabin. Of course when I do my log cabins, rather than cut individual templates, I cut strips and work around the center block, and so I have all sort of little odds and ends of pieces left over. And those I was able to make into, I think, a very unique border for this quilt. Now I am a quilt author and this actually was done for a book that I was doing on borders, and one of the things I wanted to do was to have some of the borders utilize the leftover strips so this one worked out very well. It was machine pieced and I do machine piece all of my quilts. I've been a machine piecer ever since I started quilting. I've lost track of how many quilts I've made, but [laughs.] they've all been pieced on the machine, from the very first one I did. And then my quilts are all hand quilted. Now this quilt was quilted by a very dear friend of mine and a wonderful quilter who lives in Salina, Kansas. Her name is Alvina Nelson. You can see that the quilting is excellent. She always uses a quilt light batting. The quilt isn't very heavy in weight but she really prefers to use that batting. Then she's marked the quilting design very, very lightly, and then did her really lovely quilting stitches on it. I always send her my very favorite quilts to quilt.

KJ: The colors are rusty red and brown. Is that right?

NM: Right. A red that sometimes I call turkey red, but it's a print, and it's got that nice rich black in it. And these are all reproduction fabrics. And then I use that with all the brown prints. They refer to them as madder-type prints now. [she spells.] M-A-D-D-E-R. I really like that combination in contrast to the very plain white muslin.

KJ: It is a beautiful combination and--and does look old.

NM: It does. That was what I was trying to achieve with this quilt.

KJ: I'm interested in the corner, Nancy, now what kind of treatment is it that you did there?

NM: Well, when I did my borders for this quilt, I mentioned I used scraps. I simply machine pieced a piece of muslin to each strip and I off-set them, so there was like an inch and a half between them. When I had done a long row of those I trimmed along both edges to make them even, because they were all zigzagged and then worked the other border into it so it formed a miter at the corner. And it formed a nice square treatment at the corner. So, it actually looks more intricate than it was.

KJ: Why did you choose this particular quilt to bring to the interview?

NM: I guess it's one of my favorites right now. [laughs.] But my favorite quilt always changes. This seemed to be something a little more unique than I had done recently, especially with the border and the corner treatment. I hadn't seen anything like that before so I wanted to document something that was a little more unique.

KJ: Do you have plans for this quilt? Did you say it was in a book?

NM: It was in a book. Just at the recent Quilt Market last week my latest book came out called ‘Beyond the Blocks'. And it dealt with helping quilters choose an appropriate border for their quilt. It dealt with things like color, scale, repetition and so this quilt came along to the Quilt Market to be on exhibit. It was one of the more fun projects in that book about borders. So, yes, it has been published and photographed.

KJ: After it's retired from the photograph, where will it go?

NM: Well, all my quilts live with me in my house. I do use a lot of them, not only on beds, but hanging on the wall, to decorate with. And you will notice there is a sleeve on the back of the quilt. I always put sleeves on the back of all my quilts in a matching fabric, because I so hang them quite a bit in my house. I have them on beds too. I have them pretty well all over my house [laughs.]. A few of them are stored in the closets, but most of them I live with day to day.

KJ: How did you get interested in quilting?

NM: Back in 1976, and I lived in a little town in New Jersey called Oakland. It was the year of our country's Bi-centennial. A group of ladies were making a commemorative quilt, appliqué, of the different buildings in town. And since I was a teacher but not a quilter but I knew how to sew, I volunteered to be part of that project. They got me hooked on quilting. [laughs.] And so it was back in 1976 that, after working on that quilt, I went on to make my first quilt. And it was a log cabin quilt, so I guess I've always had a soft spot for the log cabin because I think my first two quilts after that were log cabin quilts.

KJ: Did you have quilts in your childhood? Do you have quilt memories?

NM: Oh, I discovered this only after I had quilted for a couple years. I don't remember quilts in my childhood, but when my grandmother discovered that I was quilting, she related that she had made a quilt once. She brought it out and it was a Dresden Plate. Unfortunately, it was not in the best of condition; it had been caught in a flood. Part of the decorative stitches on it like the feather stitches around the edges of the plate, had bled. So there was a little bit of running on it, but I treasured it. So the only family quilt that there was, was passed on to me.

KJ: Do you still have it?

NM: Oh, I definitely have it. [laughs.]

KJ: And how do you use it? Or do you

NM: I have had it over the foot of the bed. I don't sleep under it, but I have had it folded in a cloth at the food of the bed on the top of another quilt that we sleep under so that's been very special to me to have that quilt. My Mother does not stitch. I think she doesn't sew because her mother always sewed so she always had someone to do for her. Whereas I never did. [chuckle.] So I started stitching right after high school. I needed a wardrobe for college and I went out and bought a Vogue pattern. I didn't start easy. [laughs.] Plaid material for a vest and wool for a stitched down pleated skirt. It came out wonderfully, so I think sewing was always in my blood. The moment I did it, I felt very satisfied with it and knew this was something that I wanted to continue with. I did embroider as a child, all those little squares and pillowcases. I also did some hand stitching, but it wasn't until right after high school that I really started doing clothing. And then it was after college that I made my first quilt.

KJ: SO you didn't major in clothing and textiles in college?

NM: I wish I had. I majored in elementary education. [laughs.] And actually I think my teaching background has served me well with being a quilt teacher and also with writing books and giving people instructions on how to do things. And many times I wished that I had had a background in textiles but I think my background in education has served me well here.

KJ: I think it has too. [both laugh.] What kind of impact does quilting have on your family?

NM: Oh, let's see. Well, my husband and I started our business together back in 1976, just a year after that first quilt. We had always had a dream of having some kind of business together. Actually my husband does have a textile background. He sold fibers for DuPont. Now granted they were mostly synthetic fibers and I wouldn't use any in my quilt; things like Quiana or Tyvek or polyester. But anyway, Dan was very good at fiber identification, et cetera. Once I got hooked on quilting, he said, well do you think that there might be a venue here that we could build a business around? And unfortunately I knew that as far as making quilts and selling quilts people don't really value the times that are spent on a quilt, women's time. There would not be an effective way there. I had though of a quilt shop and I did own a quilt shop at one time, but I wanted to utilize my teaching background. And because of that, I thought, well, maybe we could start doing some publications for teaching people how to quilt. I had taught quilting in an adult school, while I was a regular school teacher. Once I had learned to quilt I was just one step ahead of my students. [laughs.] We did quilting classes in adult school in the evening. With the projects I brought in, I noticed that my students seemed to have trouble locating fabric. Now remember this is in 1977 and there was not much 100% cotton fabric around. So they asked me to make up kits for them, and so I did. When Dan and I thought about starting a business I was using all this information presented to me; my teaching skills and my students who wanted my kits. So we formed this little company called ‘That Patchwork Place' that did patterns and kits for little patchwork items. There weren't quilts yet, but they were patterns for ties and vests. After about 3 years of doing this we actually did offer patterns for quilts. We published quilt books. So when you ask, how it impacted my family, it's been part of my life way back since 1976. I have one son, Mike who is 35 now, but he'll tell you that for the first brochures our company ever did he and his friends had to collate the pages and stuff them together. And of course he earned spending money through high school, packing patterns in our warehouse. Not surprising, he got an ‘A' in Home Ec. [both laugh.] He had real precision at the sewing machine and when the Home Ec teacher had them make a little quilted potholder, for their cooking class, of course he just whipped right through that. He had no problem with it. I have only one son, I never had a daughter, so I never got to pass on sewing skills to a girl. I have a wonderful daughter-in-law. I gave her my old Bernina not too long ago. And she's taking a beginning quilting class. She's enjoying it. She's just a neophyte, but she is enjoying it. My granddaughter actually has been involved and she's only seven. We've done some group projects for me to try and pass down the love of quilting. We'll let Megan pick out the fabric and Terry will cut it, and I'll stitch it and we'll all work on it together. So we've done a number of quilts for my daughter-in-law's classes. She's a sixth grade teacher. So there is a Harry Potter quilt that the kids get to go read under, if they get their work done on time. In fact, I'm slated to go in there in January and make a quilt with her sixth-graders. So, again my teaching skills come into play. They are ways I share my quilting with my family.

KJ: You started this business in--

NM: 1976.

KJ: In New Jersey?

NM: Yes.

KJ: And how did you get to Washington?

NM: Well, remember I said my husband Dan worked for DuPont? [chuckle.] Well, DuPont transferred him to Seattle. When we moved to Seattle in 1977 it was just right after the business was started, I decided not to teach school. I decided that what I wanted to do was really to concentrate on quilting and having a business that involved quilting. You know, you asked me a few questions ago, how it impacted my family. There is one more story I should tell you. My parents live in rural Pennsylvania and often times I will send them copies of my latest books. There are a few of them around their house so I asked my mom, ‘You know I'm not seeing many of my books around here. What have you done with them?' And she said, ‘Oh, your father takes them.' I said, ‘He does? What for?' She says, ‘Well, Mrs. Oglemeyer down the road is a quilter and her land is posted. So when your father wants to hunt, he'll just go down and give her one of your latest books and asks if he can hunt.' [KJ laughs.] So I guess it has impacted the generations before and generations afterwards. [both laugh.]

KJ: Funny. What is the best part of quilting for you, Nancy, what do you enjoy the most?

NM: I really enjoy working with the fabric. That's my favorite part, designing the quilt. You can see how I'm touching my quilt as we're talking. Quilts to me are so textural and it's hard for me to go into a fabric store without, you know, fondling all the fabric. So I really like the design aspect of it the best.

KJ: Haven't you designed some fabric also?

NM: I did, I designed a line of fabric for FASCO Cloth Works, is the name of the company. That was a very enlightening and enjoyable process. I did about two lines of fabric for them. But it was not something that I wanted to do on an on-going basis. I admire the people who do it, but I enjoy making quilts and writing books more than fabric design. It's very time consuming and I needed to make a decision on how I wanted to spend my time. It took away too much of my stitching time. [laughs.]

KJ: You very obviously enjoy quilting.

NM: Oh, yes.

KJ: Very much. Is there anything you don't like about it? Any aspect of it?

NM: I never thought about that. But, I guess the hand -quilting is my least favorite. Since I make so many quilts a year and some years I make as many as twenty or twenty-five tops, I send them off to be quilted. So if I'm working on a book and have a time deadline, my time is spent more on design and the stitching of the blocks together and then writing the directions. And by that time, when all of the directions are written, the quilt is returned to me from the quilter and I am then able to finish it up and bind it and put a sleeve on it. And not only do I have this wonderful woman in Kansas, who quilts for me, Alvina Nelson, but I also have quilting done by an Amish community in Ohio. The person I deal with is Millicent Agnor. Millicent has her quilters all over the Midwest, who stand by. I let them know how many quilts are coming and what the time-frame is, and they have done wonderful work for me. Sometimes I indicate where and how the quilt is to be quilted, when I feel the quilting design is just intrical to what I'm truing to achieve with that quilt. I know the person who marks the quilts. Her name is Mary Raber, so other times I've told her to let Mary use her judgment on how she would like to do this one. I'm really pleased to be able to use her services. You know it's a wonderful source of income for the Amish. Many of them have large property holdings, these Amish families, and even though they don't use a lot of the state services. They are basically a self-sufficient community. The taxes on their properties are so large that they have to pay to the state. There are very, very few jobs, or a way of earning income that are acceptable for the women in these Amish communities to do; but quilting is one of them. So it helps them with their income and it certainly helps me get my quilts ready.

KJ: You said, you make as many as 20--

NM: Yes.

KJ: Quilt tops in a year. What is the source of your inspiration for design for all of those quilts?

NM: Well, if I'm working on a book usually I have a theme. For instance, for "Beyond the Block," I wanted to think of unique borders and unique settings. But not all my quilts are for books. If it's for a person, I'm usually inspired by an interest of theirs or a color scheme, something of that nature. I have five very special quilts to do this year. With our business it's been a tradition that if you are an employee for ten years, you get a ten-year anniversary quilt. I make the quilt, and it is hand-quilted, and they get to choose the pattern and the size. So this coming year, 2003, there are five employees that will get 10-year quilts. Now last year there were three, the year before that there were two, and the year before that there were three. So I've made a number of these, and the requests are varied. I've had a request for a red queen-size feathered-star. [laughs.] And the woman who requested it was a dear woman so I was more than happy to do it for her. But this year, there's a queen-size quilt for January, a wall-size quilt for March, a queen-sized quilt for April, a queen-size in September, and a queen-size in December. So--

KJ: You're going to be busy.

NM: Well, they're designed, they're planned and you know, the recipients sometimes they give me a lot of clues. They say, my bedroom is this color or my bed size is this. Some of them just say, ‘Whatever you'd like to do.' So that's been kind of a fun special thing that we have.

KJ: Very generous of you to do that. We're going to change a bit from you personally and your quilts to the larger quilt scene. What do you think makes a great quilt?

NM: Well, I always say, anything that makes my heart sing. Sometimes when you look at a quilt and you just feel enlightened or inspired, like our winner of this year's ‘"Golden Showers." It's a wonderful quilt. I think this is a wonderful festival here. If you walk through the aisles and look at the women, they are so excited. It's a dreary rainy day today and you can't get a parking place out there but still they are line up to get in.

KJ: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum?

NM: For a museum? Well, you know, there are a number of quilts that I've seen in museums. I really enjoy seeing the old quilts. I think they tell us so much about history and the old fabrics. On the other hand, some of the most glorious quilts I've seen are the contemporary quilts, like in the Viking exhibit, downstairs. I like to see that both ends of the spectrum are covered. I wouldn't like to see museums just deal with old quilts, because I think it's time to start archiving some of the new things that are being done.

KJ: What makes your heart sing?

NM: Yes. [laughs.] Old and new quilts.

KJ: If it's in a museum or just hanging on a wall--

NM: It still can make my heart sing.

KJ: What do you think makes a great quilter?

NM: Someone who obviously enjoys it, who, and also wants to share it with other people. I think that's the important part, sharing the knowledge. And to me we need to start doing more of that to interest younger women in quilting. I feel that there has been almost a whole generation of women that have lost out on sewing skills, because we didn't have Home Ec in our schools. It became family living or home arts and so it was just a smattering of sewing basics, maybe how to thread a needle and sew a button on. To me I think these women missed out on a lot of the joys that come from working with cloth. So anyone who wants to share this with another generation or even a neighbor is a great quilter. One of the things that I think is delightful in my guild meetings is to see how many people become interested in quilting once they retire. Women now feel they have the time to do this. It's a way to be connected, it's a way to be involved and there are so many projects that are for a good cause. My own guild makes baby quilts for the neo-natal unit at the University of Washington Hospital for all the preemie babies. We have several other quilt projects. So it's a good way of connecting with other people.

KJ: You mentioned a guild. What role do you think that guild and bees play in the life of quilting?

NM: A very vital one. I remember when I first joined my guild and our guild is about maybe 22, 23 years old now. It was just so exciting for me to connect with other quilters, and the excitement of the meeting and to just keep track of what everyone was doing. As our guild earned more money, the guild played, I think, a significant role in the education of the quilters. The guild brought teachers in from all over the country, since not may women could travel to seminars. But having the benefit of having these teachers coming in to give lectures and present workshops I think was just wonderful. The large guild meetings had a social aspect too, as well as educational. You know, there were fun pot-luck dinners and retreats. I always participated in all of those, for a real fun time. My particular guild that I belong to in Washington State is called Quilters Anonymous and of course we all have small groups that we meet with, bee, you might call them. Mine is called the Monday Night Bowling League. We don't bowl, we were just being silly when we named ourselves but we have been the Monday Night Bowling League for at least fifteen years now. We are about ready to have our fifteenth anniversary; in fact, the meeting in this coming Monday night when I get back. We always have fun things to share there. Since it's so close to Halloween, everyone is bring a fat quarter of orange fabric and orange fabric does not live at my house so I don't know where mine would come from [laughs.] but that will be part of the trading. Also it's fun just to have contact with other quilters in a smaller group and to watch their progress. I'm always amazed when someone is working on a quilt and they hold it up and ask for advice because we have about fifteen members in our group, you can plan on fifteen different opinions. [both laugh.] And they usually end up doing what they thought would be the best thing in the first place. I really enjoyed the big group, but in later years I've become more connected with my small group. Yes, it's been a very bonding thing for all of us.

KJ: Now you've talked about teaching and the role that your teaching background has played. Do you have some strong ideas about the best way to teach a beginning quilter? To get a quilter started?

NM: Well, you know I've taught some beginning classes but I don't normally teach beginning classes. I always tell my students to analyze what kind of person they are, you know, think about their work style. Some people will really enjoy hand stitching and want projects to carry with them and they'll want to hand stitch. Well, others just like to go a little faster and want to use all the new techniques, so I try to show them both aspects and then ask them to choose. I find that the younger women though tend more toward the rotary cutting, machine piecing, the do it quickly type projects. And that's good to get them started because they only have a limited amount of time. I think one of the things that a teacher wants to do is to see that her students are successful. A successful experience is something that they finish, will make them happy, and make them want to do it again. If they haven't been successful, it was frustrating or the project was beyond them, they're going to be turned off. And they're not going to think about doing it again. I think that's real important.

KJ: You've lived in New Jersey and now Washington is there a difference in regions in terms of color selections, kinds of approaches to quilting? Have you found some regional differences in your living in those different areas?

NM: Not so much living there, but in teaching in different areas, because when I lived in New Jersey the quilting movement had just begun, so there wasn't much of a selection of fabric. We took anything that was labeled 100% cotton [laughs.] and worked with it. But now we have such wonderful, wonderful choices of colors. Actually I felt very fortunate to have relocated to the Northwest, because there were quilters there when I came. There were a few in New Jersey but not in the numbers that were in Washington State. So that was good and more quilters meant more shops, so that meant more resources to choose from. But as I travel and teach, I notice that in the larger metropolitan areas you get to, sometimes the quilts are more sophisticated: brighter colors with sky dyes, etc., lots of embellishments. But when I'm in the Midwest, there still is a color palette that I call country: a very subdued almost tea-dyed look; it's a very nice color though, a very nice country look. It's interesting to take your teaching samples around with you to those different regions, because you see quilters responded to them differently in various areas of the country.

KJ: And yours, which area do they reflect or are they eclectic now?

NM: Well, I think they're getting more eclectic. I certainly have had to get more eclectic. I really prefer to work with traditional colors, such as this. But you know, when you do a book and your quilts are photographed, you want to appeal to quilters with all color palettes, so you don't just work in subdued colors, you need to have some brights in there. Two-color quilts are among my favorites. I like having a few two-color quilts in there, and pastels, so you need to provide a wide range in, within a certain book.

KJ: In thinking about quilting across the country today, and thinking about quilting long ago, the last century, what part do you think quilting has played or does play in American lives?

NM: Well, I think it's become more a part of American life and think it's become a means to each our children in school. It certainly is a good way to teach history. It certainly is a good way to teach math skills. In fact, I would have paid more attention in my math and geometry classes, if I had known I was going to be a quilter. [laughs.] But I see people value quilts more, and that's important to me. You know quilts are more in the public eye. You see more of them in museums; you see more of them in exhibits. Even if you go to a living history museum that is not meant to showcase quilts, you'll usually see antique quilts featured there. I think it's important that more of these quilts are documented. I'm disappointed with my own museum in Seattle. They have wonderful quilts in their archives, but they are seldom on exhibit. About every two years I pressure the guild to schedule another meeting at the museum so at least they're brought out occasionally and at least the guild members can see them. But in our local museum, quilts seem to be low on the list of priorities.

KJ: They're just now beginning to be recognized as art.

NM: Yes.

KJ: So that plays a part in the. The quilts you've made for family and friends, Nancy, what happens to them, do you keep track of them?

NM: [laughs.] No, I don't keep track. They always have a label on them. So I hope that they're kept track of. I don't put any strings attached to them, so if I go and see them used in a way that wouldn't be a way that I would used them, then I have to accept that.

KJ: Do you journal?

NM: No, I have not. But I understand that it's been a wonderful project that people are participating in here.

KJ: Well, you said you kept track of your quilts.

NM: Well, I mean I keep track by way of an inventory list especially since my quilts go on loan, sometimes without me, to exhibits, and also for insurance purposes. Some of my quilts hang in our corporate offices; some of them reside in my house. So I have to know where they are.

KJ: So you keep track of them in that regard.

NM: Yes, yes.

KJ: Do you have some feelings about quilt preservation, preserving them for the future?

NM: I do. I really think in terms of personal preservation that what you make needs to be labeled and documented. I think if you live with quilts, if you are hanging an antique quilt on the wall you need to take it down frequently, and change it. Make sure it's not hanging in strong sunlight; make sure it's got a good sleeve on it and is well supported. As far as storage, I have several treasures that are rolled on tubes, with a piece of muslin inside. Most of my quilts are folded and kept in a armoire that I have with shelves that are lined with acid-free paper. And I have some acid-free paper in between the quilts. So that's been my personal quilt preservation. Now one thing that I will have to think of doing is to decide who I bequeath those quilts to. What will happen to them in history? Where would I want them to go? What institution? I have not decided on that yet, not yet. I've collected a lot of my quilts in Pennsylvania, and there doesn't seem to be an appropriate repository in Pennsylvania for them. For several reasons, I'd like to see them go back there.

KJ: That's something for the future.

NM: Yes, that's something yet to be decided on.

KJ: We've covered a lot of territory. Is there anything we haven't covered that you would like talk about?

NM: Just that I think that quilting has provided many, many wonderful opportunities for women. Opportunities for self-expression, as you can see in quilts hanging in the show, prize-winning quilts; opportunities for many women to have a career traveling and teaching and opportunities to have a business such as what was present for me. I know quilt makers are not just women, there are men involved in this; but quilting has really opened the door for a good many women who would not have thought about choosing this kind of lifestyle. Otherwise I think that it's very wonderful.

KJ: I'm glad that you brought that one out. I would like to thank Nancy J. Martin for allowing me to interview her today, as part of the 2002 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 4:50.

Interview Keyword

Quilt preservation
Uses for quilts
Antique quilts
Family quilts
Traditional quilts
Contemporary quilts
Quilting books
Quilt stores
Teaching quilting
Quilt sleeves
Hand quilting
Machine piecing



“Nancy Martin,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 16, 2024,