Nao Nomura


Nomura JPN-001.jpg


Nao Nomura


As a collections manager at the International Quilt Studies Center and Museum, Nomura discusses her own interest in quilting as well as what qualities make good quilts. She offers advice on how to best preserve quilts. Nomura also discusses the international connection with quilting, noting the growing popularity of quilting in Japan, as well as possible Japanese influences on her own quilting.




Quilts--United States--Exhibitions.
Quilts--United States--History--20th century--Exhibitions.
Smucker, Janneken


Nao Nomura


Janneken Smucker

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Leslie Tucker Jenison


Lincoln, Nebraska


Tomme Fent


Note: Nao Nomura lived in Nebraska for six years. This interview was conducted the last month that she lived in Nebraska before returning to Japan.

Janneken Smucker (JS): Hello, my name is Janneken Smucker. It is 5:05 p.m. and today's date is February 28th, 2007. And I'm conducting an interview with Nao Nomura for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Lincoln, Nebraska, at Nao's home. Thank you, Nao, for meeting me.

Nao Nomura (NN): Oh, you're welcome.

JS: We'll start our discussion today talking about your lovely quilt which is here. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

NN: Sure. I really like '30s fabrics, and I've accumulated a lot of '30s reproduction fabrics. I wish I could afford the real stuff but I couldn't, so I just started buying a lot of fat quarters and yardage whenever I went to quilt shops. And I have a lot of those and I really wanted to make a '30s-looking quilt, so I made this one last year.

JS: What do you like about 1930s quilts and the fabrics?

NN: I like animals and '30s fabrics have a lot of cute--I love, I guess I love animals and cute because I'm Japanese and Japanese are good at cute stuff. But what I like about the '30s fabrics is the colors are so like Easter egg colors. It really makes me cheer up when I look at them.

JS: They are very cheery colors. What inspired this particular pattern?

NN: I wanted to make something that was easy, so I used Four Patch and Windmill.
The Windmill pattern, I think I may have chosen it because one of the quilts in the exhibition that I curated had a Pinwheel pattern, a Pinwheel pattern quilt, so I think I had that sort of in mind, although that one was from the nineteenth century in blue and white so it didn't look like my quilt at all, but I always liked that pattern. It's easy but it still gives, for people who don't make quilts, it looks a little bit complicated like [inaudible. train whistle in background.]

JS: Right. I hear a train whistle in the background. Just disregard that. You mentioned an exhibit that you curated. Can you tell me what that exhibit was?

NN: That was my Master's thesis project that I curated as a final project when I was studying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the textile history program. And I was given a theme of Indigo for the exhibit but [inaudible.], so I started researching and I always loved blues, and so that was the exhibit that I did for my, as part of my graduate work.

JS: And now what is your position at the International Quilt Study Center?

NN: I am Collections Manager.

JS: How does working in an environment like that, where you're around quilts all the time, influence your own quiltmaking?

NN: I try to ignore the quilts that I see at work because I always see quilts with twelve stitches to an inch or sometimes even twenty stitches to an inch, and my stitches are six to eight at its best, my best, so I just try not to think about those wonderful antique quilts when I put stitches into my quilts.

JS: So you mentioned that you're from Japan. Is there anything Japanese about the quilt that you brought with you today?

NN: Except for the cuteness of it, I don't think it has much Japanese influence to it. The stuff I make, quilts and patchworked little purses, and people, when Japanese quilters see them, they always tell me that the colors are different because I live in America. And I don't know if that's true or not but that's what they always say. So I don't know, I try to make corners match, even though it shows I'm not always successful, and that might be something to do with the particular Japanese heritage that I have.

JS: Can you tell me about how you first became interested in American quilts?

NN: I always liked old stuff, and especially fabrics. And I think it was one of the 'how to' books that I saw, I checked out from a library when I was in high school, and I think that was maybe one of the first times that I saw quilts, in reading the books. And I went and studied at Earlham College in Indiana, when I was in my senior year in college, and I saw a quilt exhibit at--I think it was at a local library there, and I was really fascinated by the needlework. It was different--now that I think about that exhibit, I think most of the quilts were from the 1920s and '30s. And I was just fascinated by the needlework, and I think that's how I became interested in quilts.

JS: When did you start making patchwork things yourself?

NN: I made one when I was in--I made a few, actually, when I was in high school and when I was in college out of the very first book that I checked out from the library, and it wasn't a quilt; it was a quilted purse, that I'm known for. And I started patching, like, jeans and started making little things. But my first [inaudible.] bed size quilt I made after I moved to America.

JS: Now lots of people make quilts today in Japan; is that true?

NN: They do. It's a huge. I think actually Japan has the second largest quilting population. I read that somewhere and I tried to find that magazine that I saw it and I couldn't ever find it, but I've read it somewhere that Japan has the second largest quilting population.

JS: Now I know you can't speak for all Japanese people or Japanese quiltmakers, but why do you think that Japanese women, primarily, are attracted to this art form?

NN: That's really a good question and I don't think I have a right answer for it, but I hear a lot of people say that it's soothing and once you start, it becomes part of your life, and that's what I hear from a lot of Japanese quilters. But I don't know why they're fascinated with it.

JS: Now I'm going to ask you a couple of questions about the aesthetics and designs and craftsmanship of quiltmaking. You're someone who's seen hundreds if not thousands of quilts due to your work at the [International.] Quilt [Study.] Center. What do you think makes a great quilt?

NN: For antique quilts, which I study about, quilts mean two things to me. I like to make them and I like to study them, and when I study them, if it has a strong provenance, a known provenance, I think it adds more value to the quilt for a scholar because you are able to find more about the quiltmaker and probably the sort of environment that the quiltmaker was living, with such information. So I think information, or if antique quilts come with a lot of information, I think that makes it a great, a good quilt.

But for art quilts, which I am still learning about, I think it's about originality and craftsmanship and a strong message that the quilt delivers that makes a good quilt.

JS: What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

NN: If you like it, as long as you're not forced to do it, I think anyone can be a good quilter.

JS: Okay. Now I'm going to ask a couple of questions about the function and meaning of quilts in both American life and, to some extent, in Japanese life. I know you study American quilts primarily for your own research, but you have an interesting perspective because you're Japanese yourself. What do you think quilts can teach us about history?

NN: I think they can teach about many things. The theme of the Indigo exhibit that we just talked about earlier, that exhibit focused on the history of science on how Indigo dye, the techniques for Indigo dye, developed in Europe and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And I think when you look at fabrics, you don't really think about the science but with my research, I was really fascinated by the history of science. There are a lot of scientists and I think that's why I was so fascinated by it because I could, even though I'm not a scientist, I can still study about the history of it. And I think the fabrics in quilts can teach things that you don't instantly see when you see the quilt, but some things more, much deeper than just the visual aesthetics of it. And women's history, as a lot of people say, because women didn't go to war in the nineteenth century but they were there and they were part of the history, so I think textiles that women worked with at home can tell a lot about their history as well that we can read into it.

JS: Since you work in a facility that actively preserves quilts, have you developed your own philosophy about why quilts should be preserved?

NN: The quilts that I make, I don't handle them as I would at work. And a lot of people have personal attachments to the quilts they make and I understand that, but when I'm at work and people just call, hoping to have their family heirlooms at a museum, it's not always possible, and I understand that from my professional perspective. So I hope--and museums cannot always be repositories for family heirlooms, so I hope that a lot of people learn how to preserve them within their family by documenting them so that the information won't be lost when they are passed down. And I think that's what I learned from working at a museum and I hope that a lot of people would understand that museums cannot take all the quilts to their facilities.

JS: Since you have seen so many great quilts, I would like to hear about a couple of your favorites, favorites from the International Quilt Study Center collection that you've been particularly drawn to over the years of looking at the collection.

NN: The one that brought me to Lincoln is a crazy quilt from the [International.] Quilt Study Center's collection called "My Crazy Dream." Eighty-eight quilts from the Center went to Tokyo in 1998, and I went to see that exhibition and that's how I found out about the collection here in Nebraska. And two years later, when I was looking for a graduate program where I can study about history and textile history, I just remembered that name "Nebraska," and I Googled and I found the program at the university. So "My Crazy Dream" is definitely my favorite, one of my favorite quilts in the collection. But after seeing so many crazy quilts, I'm sort of graduating from my crazy quilt era.

And another one, I've been interested in Amish quilts. We studied Amish quilts. I've researched Amish quilts [inaudible.], and I just like them, the colors, and I just like them. Old Amish quilts--well, most of the Amish quilts in the collection, I like them. And wonderful quilts just keep coming into the collection, so it's hard to choose, but there are - we just acquired a Dutch quilt so that's my recent favorite quilt in the collection.

JS: Amish quilts are a really interesting case, I think, because they're so distinct. What is it about them, in addition to the color--you mentioned color, what else are you attracted to?

NN: What I first saw are the quilting stitches. I first saw an Amish quilt at work. When I was actually making this quilt, I was in that [research.] project. I was researching the [International Quilt Study Center's.] Barber collection [of Mifflin County, PA Amish quilts.] and I was at the end of the research, trying to just get the paper written. So I was looking at a lot of Amish quilts and with the Barber collection, the quilts in the Barber collection don't have nice quilting stitches, I guess, compared with the Lancaster Amish quilts, but they made me not want to quilt at home after I saw them. [laughs.] So I guess I like the workmanship in Amish quilts. And it's really fascinating, the things that you're researching, like how they became a commodity after dealers found them in 1960s and '70s. I'm interested in that aspect, as well, not just a beautiful work of art, but how it became to have different meaning other than a quilt made for utility purposes.

JS: I understand that you're going home to Japan soon. How do you think you'll be able to continue your interest in quilting once you return to where there are no quilts?

NN: I don't know. I've been thinking about that because it will be--I've been working with quilts for the past almost seven years, looking at quilts almost every day, and it will be really different when I go home and all I see is quilts that I made. [The.] International Quilt Study Center has a website with a searchable database capacity so that - I think online research is one way that I can feel connected with the collections here in the United States, and I'm hoping to return to Nebraska and other museums, hopefully, if I decide to study quilts. So I will keep my contacts safely locked in my treasure box so that I can be in touch with the scholars here that I made a connection with so [inaudible.]

JS: Have some of your own quilts already made it back to Japan?

NN: Most of them are actually back in Japan. I made three little crib quilts for my nephew last fall, and I made one for my sister's dog, and one for my mother. Actually, I gave that one to my boyfriend and I used nineteenth century Civil War era reproduction fabrics that didn't suit his taste at all. So he just had it tucked away, and I said, 'If you're not going to use it, I'm going to give it to my mom.' So I retrieved it from him and gave it to my mom.

JS: Does she use it?

NN: She uses it. [laughs.] So I'm glad that it's not just stored away in his closet. I like to see a quilt on the bed, and I made two quilts for my boyfriend.

JS: In colors he did like? [laughs.]

NN: In colors that he could use in his bedroom, but in colors a little bit too bright for his [inaudible.]

JS: What is it about making quilts--you've made quite a few, and you've listed all of those. What is it about the process that you really enjoy?

NN: It's really soothing, and I hear a lot of people say that and when I hear people say, 'No, it's not soothing. It could be frustrating.' But when I'm actually quilting, even though my stitches aren't as good, I could spend hours just making them, making a quilt and being on my sewing machine and piecing away. It's just [inaudible.] a project, so I try. I've been away from quilting for a few months purposefully. I put my sewing machine away last fall because I knew I had to work on other stuff and if I had fabrics around and the sewing machine, it's much more fun than working on a paper.

JS: So you say you use a sewing machine. Can you tell me what part you use the sewing machine and what part you do by hand?

NN: My first crib quilt was done by all hand because I chose Eight-Pointed Star for my first quilt. I should have known better but that's the pattern I chose, and I had to do it all by hand. But now, I piece quilts by machine and hand quilt. But I made two machine quilting, quilted quilts, crib size quilts, one for my sister's dogs and one for my nephew. And it was actually harder than hand quilting because I couldn't control the stitches; I could only go straight. And it wasn't the very pretty, fancy machine quilting that other people, other machine quilters do.

JS: Do you think you'll continue to make quilts?

NN: I think so, and my sister actually - when my sister showed one of the crib quilts that I made for her son, one of her friends really, really liked it and asked her to ask me to make a similar size quilt for pay. And I said, 'Well, I would prefer to volunteer because if you really want to pay for my hours, she is not going to be able to afford.' But so I have that one on the list that I'm supposed to start making after I get home, so I'll do that for her friend. And I like to make them. I wish I had more time.

JS: Will you have access to the same kinds of fabrics in Japan, or will it be a different sort?

NN: Oh, we do, probably not as wide a variety as you get here. Especially in Lincoln, there are so many wonderful quilt shops that you can get all kinds of fabrics. But we have a lot of craft shops and quilt shops and it's getting bigger, and we get Free Spirit fabrics and other American-made fabrics. So I'm sure I'll be able to find my favorite '30s repro fabrics after I go home.

JS: I hope so, because they're so lovely on your quilts.

NN: And now you can get them online, so you can just place an order to a store in the States and get FedEx.

JS: Are there any subjects that we haven't touched on today that you'd like to talk about?

NN: I don't know, if you have all the answers that you wanted to ask me.

JS: I think we've covered quite a few things today. I thank you so much for your time today, Nao, and for allowing me to interview you as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories Project in Lincoln, Nebraska, here today, in your apartment. Our interview concluded at 5:32 p.m.

NN: My pleasure Janneken.

Interview Keyword

Nao Nomura
International Quilt Studies Center and Museum



“Nao Nomura,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,