Marsha McCloskey




Marsha McCloskey




Marsha McCloskey


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Eugene, OR

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Marsha McCloskey. Marsha is in Eugene, Oregon and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is March 13, 2008, and it is 11:10 in the morning. We're doing a special Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project because it is based on the exhibit "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." So Marsha I want to thank you for doing this interview with me. Tell me about your quilt "A Day with Beebe" that is part of the exhibit.

Marsha McCloskey (MM): This quilt was made after a request from Ami Simms, mastermind and curator of Alzheimer's quilt project. Her mother, Beebe Moss, has Alzheimer's. Ami and I have been friends since the early nineties through our quilting and traveling. I've known Ami from before the time her mother was diagnosed, and through all the heartbreak that has gone with it. Before Ami's mom, Beebe, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she was a vibrant, funny, quirky woman who grew orchids and traveled all over the world. She painted wonderful silk scarves. She designed this fabric line, I think it was for Marcus, probably two years before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. There is such energy and power in the images in the fabric that it deserves to be recognized.

For a long time as a quilter, I felt that if you worked with somebody else's pattern, for instance copying an antique quilt, you would learn something about that person and what they were thinking by doing the same process that they did. I feel the same way about using somebody else's fabric. The fabric design, especially when it is original, tells something about the creator. So, when Ami asked me to make a quilt for the exhibit, I asked her for any pieces of Beebe's fabric that she might have left from the collection. She sent me a huge box of fabric, and I just worked with it. I let the fabric tell me what it needed to be. I spent a long time thinking about it, but when I finally sat down to make the quilt, I let the fabric and Beebe tell me what to do. I had a great time. I could see the humor and the vibrancy of this person through what she had chosen to put on the fabric.

KM: Let's describe the fabric and what you decided to do with it.

MM: One of my favorite images in her collection is of dandelions. You don't see this lowly flower on printed fabric very often. You will see the iconic roses and peonies and tulips and the more romantic flowers, but Beebe chose dandelions. So that particular image is prominent in this quilt.

KM: Those are the ones that are inside the stars?

MM: Yes. Right, the little squares. There are four of them. Those are the dandelions. Then you have the marching or running giraffes. They go one way and then the other. It was printed that way on the fabric. All the animals are from Africa. Let's see, there are herds of elephants, giraffes, Guinea hens all in a row, and dandelions.

KM: Some of the giraffes are upside down.

MM: Well, that was me. When you are taking the pieces of the fabric from the design wall to the sewing machine and then back again sometimes they get turned. When I realized that the giraffes were upside down, in keeping with the theme "forgetting piece by piece," I thought, 'Well, I messed up on this one and I'm not going to fix it.' The star right next to the upside down giraffes also has a mistake in it. I lost one of the corner squares and couldn't find it anywhere. So, I cut a very plain gray square and put it in that place. Those two things in the quilt represent very real forgetfulness.

KM: There is a CD that accompanies the exhibit and the artists were all required to record their artist statement, because there is an audio component. Tell me about that experience for you.

MM: Something like this. I think it was recorded on a recording machine.

KM: Her answering machine.

MM: Ami's answering machine.

KM: Which is very clever I think.

MM: Right. You just had to figure out what you were going to say and record it. Kind of like taking a digital photograph only by voice. You could listen and decide if that is what you wanted to say or not, and record it again if you didn't like it. It was like recording your greeting on your own answering machine.

KM: In your artist statement you have a quote from "Blade Runner" [a 1982 film.].

MM: Have you seen the movie?

KM: Yes, I have seen it.

MM: And, at the end of the movie when Roy who was--what did they call them? He was a "replicant" scheduled to die after four years. "Blade Runner" was set in the future. They had a whole class of cloned beings that weren't considered human. Programmed to only live for four years, they were workers and soldiers sent to do jobs that were too dangerous for real humans. So, Roy was one of these non-humans, but very human in his biology and outlook. Before he died, he described some of the things that he had seen in his short life that nobody else would ever see. Then came the quote, 'All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.' It brought to mind Alzheimer's patients, their memories, and how fleeting they are.

KM: Very poignant. What do you plan to do with the quilt when it comes back?

MM: I don't know. [laughs.] It is a wall piece, not very large, and it will probably stay with my collection until it finds a home.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

MM: I started making quilts when my daughter was one. A lot of quilters make quilts for a child as their first quilt. My neighbor, Grace, was making utility quilts. She had a cardboard triangular template and let me borrow it. So the first quilt I made was a design called Broken Dishes, and it was just very scrappy. I had never seen anybody but Grace make quilts and she did it all on the machine, so I did too. I used my little Singer sewing machine that I had gotten as a graduation gift from high school. I pieced on the sewing machine, quilted and even put the binding on completely by machine. I only learned later that, at that time in the late sixties, real quilters only make quilts by hand. Machine work was not widely accepted. Once I made the one quilt, I was just smitten. I was so excited about colors and the fabrics and the visual impact of what was happening. My first quilt was a scrap quilt for a baby, but it got me started. I just kept going and that was thirty-nine years ago.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt now?

MM: I'm in kind of an interim right now. We are in the middle of a pretty extensive remodel of the house we moved in to. My husband retired and I'm not quilting much at the moment. But, I know I will get back to it.

KM: Is it difficult not to be quilting because of your renovations?

MM: It is. I got to make a quilt top in January, when the house project was in kind of a lull. It is wonderful to to be able to remember what it is you were doing before you got so completed interrupted.

KM: Someone else quilted Beebe's quilt?

MM: Yes.

KM: Is that typical of you now?

MM: It is. Quilting has been my business and for many years. I travel, and have spent a lot of time teaching. I design fabric. I write books, I have a website. Frankly, I never learned to machine quilt very well. What I do, I want to do well. Other people have taken the time, and have the machines and the skills to do machine quilting very, very well. I simply don't have the skills.

KM: Was this done on a longarm?

MM: Yes, it was.

KM: I remember a time when longarm quilting was really considered another of the taboos.

MM: It was a taboo. But, it is the skill and artistry of the operator that is important, not the machine.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

MM: The advice I would give to someone starting out is to choose a small section of the craft and become very, very good at it. To find your passion within the broad spectrum of quilting. Find what you truly love doing. Hopefully, you can create your own expertise in that particular niche in quilting. Mine has been Feathered Stars. I became fascinated with the design in the early eighties. At that point there were no books on the subject and I ended up writing the book that I wanted to read about the design. The book was called "Feathered Star Quilts" and was published by That Patchwork Place in 1987. Nobody else has taken on the subject to the extent that I have. It has served me very well. With all of the designs and everything that goes on in patchwork and all of the different techniques, I am the person quilters go to for information on piecing and designing Feathered Stars.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

MM: I think choosing what to do. There is just so much out there. You can dabble in all sorts of different techniques and styles and fabrics. I think I need to live a very long time to be able to make all the quilts that I want to make, and use up all this fabric. Again, it is finding the place to concentrate your efforts that will be the most rewarding.

KM: Where do you see quiltmaking going in the future?

MM: I think it will go in cycles the way it always has. The current quilting revival has been going since early in the seventies. Right now the marketing trends are towards simple, easy quilts, in an effort to corral the younger generation, people who perhaps have never even used a sewing machine. Eventually those people, if they stick to it will get hooked on quilting and graduate to more complex patterns and techniques.

KM: Describe your studio.

MM: Oh, my studio. [laughs.] It is a brand new room and it is over the two-car garage so it has that same footprint. It has natural light on three sides and it is the second story and I can see a lot of trees that are just beginning to bud. I have a design wall that is eight feet wide and eight feet tall. I have about four different projects on it at the moment, just ideas that are not quite ready to be done. Right now I have a lot of stuff stored in this room that isn't going to be here eventually because of the remodel. This will clear out. Right now it is kind of junky looking, but I have everything I need. My sewing machine and a cutting table. My fabric is in clear plastic boxes that will eventually go on extensive shelving that isn't in place yet. I'm sure if anybody looked at my studio right now they would wonder how I can get anything done in such a mess. But, I do have great plans for furniture and shelving. Right now, I just need to make sure my work space doesn't get covered up with all this stuff!

KM: Are you a neat creator or a messy creator?

MM: There is something in me that tells me that I have to have everything neat before I start. I like to clear the boards, get the visual clutter out of the way, and make sure the room is clean. Then, I can concentrate. Once I start working, all bets are off. [laughs.]

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

MM: In the quilting world?

KM: It can be any world.

MM: I really like Judy Matheison's work. Like me, she is known for variations of one design. She has just taken Mariner's Compasses further than anybody else. Gwen Marston's work has a depth of knowledge and humor, that if you know quilting is always--I enjoy looking at what she does. I like my friend Judy Martin's work. She does intense piecing, some amazingly creative variations within the confines of traditional-looking designs. For the last few years, I have worked with the very talented, Sharon Yenter, on what we are calling Blended Quilts. For inspiration, we go back to the quilts of the 1790's to 1840's. Probably the largest, the most important influence on my work is the work of quilters who came before us, (in the 1790's to the 1920's) the designs they used and how they put the pieces together, There is just amazing variety in the color and design of quilts from earlier times.

KM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

MM: Just because it is a quilt doesn't make it good, that is one thing. A great quilt holds your attention, it has enough going on in it that you want to look at it for a long time, and you find something new every time you look.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

MM: I think they take it for granted. I mean they think it is a pretty neat thing that I've been doing for all these years. It is not new. I've been doing it my kids' whole lives. My husband loves to come in my room and just sit and look at all the stuff and activity. They don't participate, but I think they pay attention.

KM: What are your plans for your quilts?

MM: My quilts? Like the quilts that I have?

KM: Yes, the ones that you have.

MM: The ones that I have. Well, that is an issue. I have not sold my quilts, I give some away, I have some that I use as samples for teaching. I have a core group of quilts that I really don't want to let go because every once in a while I'm asked to do an exhibit of my work: maybe fifteen to twenty quilts that are really good examples of what I have done over the years. What to do with them? Well, first, when we finish the remodel, I'm going to get them out of the boxes and lay them all flat on my bed and hopefully get them stored properly. There are some pieces that I would like to move to new homes, sell. There are some that should be in museum collections. I have one quilt at the MAQS [Museum of the American Quilter's Society in Paducah, Kentucky.] museum that they bought as a one of a group of ten quilts for their tenth anniversary. I would like to see more of my work in that situation. But, it is always a question: What happens to the quilts?

KM: Do you think of yourself as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make the distinction?

MM: I really don't. I have moments that are very artistic, and moments when I just enjoy doing the craft as well as I can. I really like precise piecing and all the technical elements that go into it. I'm also a business person. Many of my quilts are designed not for me, but for other people to make, which is a different than making "knock-your-socks-off" quilts that nobody else could make.

KM: Do you like the writing?

MM: Yes. I enjoy it. Most of it is technical writing where the goal is to write instructions that other people can follow. There is a certain art to making instructions perfectly clear. I have an advantage because I teach so much. Students teach you how to tell them what they need to know. Just by all the times you have to repeat, you find the right words. The teaching is then translated into the writing.

KM: Do you belong to any quilt groups?

MM: I do. I belong to the local quilt guild in Eugene, but I'm out of town so much I very rarely get to go. I get the newsletter,and pay my dues, and do those things that one needs to do when you belong to a guild. I haven't been here long enough or had the time to get into a small group. I'm still nominally a member of my small quilt group in Seattle, where I used to live, called The Monday Night Bowling League. I miss them a lot.

KM: The Monday Night Bowling League?

MM: Yes. [laughs.]

KM: How did you come up with that name?

MM: It was a group decision. Some of the ladies went to a sewing circle where they never sewed, all they did was eat, so we decided that we could go to a bowling league and never bowl. It got to be pretty funny because the families got to wondering about what we actually did on Monday nights.

KM: Why was that group important to you?

MM: That group included Sarah Nephew, Nancy Martin (who started That Patchwork Place), Mary Hickey, Joan Hanson, and more whose names I can't remember right now. These were people who were authors and serious quilters. Most of them wrote and designed for That Patchwork Place. Nancy Martin became tremendously influential locally, nationally and internationally. She provided an outlet for the talent that she saw in people around her. In that time and place there was a level of, I guess, expertise and maybe professionalism that you don't find in most quilting groups.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

MM: That is hard to answer because it is just such an integral part of my life. I've been making quilts for forty years and I can't image not making quilts.

KM: I usually allow people to give them an opportunity to share anything else that they would like to share that I haven't asked them, so here is your opportunity. It can be about the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative or it can be anything. [MM long pause.] Or it can be nothing. [laughs.]

MM: I think that I would like to talk about finishing projects.

KM: Cool, okay.

MM: There seems to be among quilters, a huge guilt about unfinished projects. Most quilters have multiple quilts in progress at the same time. There are a few quilters that start a quilt, finish it: start another quilt, finish it and don't have unfinished projects. I think those quilters are in the minority. Most of us have a lot of projects going at the same time. I remember one quilter in California who said that she made a quilt in two days, seventeen years apart. Meaning that it was in her unfinished project pile for seventeen years. I have a quilt that I started and put away, and then come up with a design idea to finish it literally years later. Sometimes you start a project and it is going so well you don't want to wreck it. You don't want to proceed before you have confidence in the design idea to finish it properly. It is important to know when to stop and wait. Sometimes you just don't know enough or have the right skills. Sometimes the right fabric to finish the project won't be produced for a couple of years yet. You have to be able to recognize when a project isn't ready to be finished.

I wrote my Feather Star quilt book in the eighties and in that book was a triple feathered star: that is a feathered star within a feathered star within a feathered star and the smallest pieces in that block design were finishing at one quarter of an inch. I was just enthralled with the thing and I wanted to make it so badly. But I didn't know how to draft it, and I couldn't really make it without drafting it. It sat in my head, that I wanted to make a triple feathered star. Seventeen years later, I figured out how to draft it. I now had the computer. I had computer skills. I knew a lot about how feathered stars fit together and what had to happen to make a viable pattern, and it just clicked. So it took me seventeen years to figure it out. It gives me great hope that all of these designs that are sitting in the creative part of my brain will eventually come out. They can't be forced and they can't be rushed. If I'm working on a project that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, I will put it away and work on something else, but it doesn't mean that the problem goes away. I keep mulling it over and eventually it all falls into place. That is when the project should be finished.

KM: I think this is a great note to end on. I do believe personally that we are much more product driven than process driven. Do you agree with that?

MM: It certainly seems that when the classes that are scheduled in shops or at conferences, the organizers want to know that students are going to come out with a finished or nearly finished quilt or a small project. The classes that are purely process, learning how to make a certain design or do a technique, don't fill as well because stuidents want to know that they are going to have something finished to show for their effort.

KM: Hopefully it will change.

MM: Well, it is not getting better.

KM: No, but I always remain hopeful that it will change.

MM: You have to be sneaky as a teacher and give students the option to do a project while they are learning the technique and l the process. Hopefully you give them much more to chew on and to think about then just one quilt.

KM: Thank you so much for taking your time to talk with me and to share.

MM: Thank you for pursuing this and for the work you are doing: both with your larger Quilters' S.O.S. [Save Our Stories.] project and for helping Ami with "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." That is great.

KM: Thank you so much. We will conclude our interview at 11:52.


“Marsha McCloskey,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,