Eileen Doughty




Eileen Doughty


Eileen Doughty says the quilt she brought to the interview is named "Niggle's Leaf" and was inspired by a story that she read as a teenager, called "Leaf by Niggle" by J.R.R Tolkien. Doughty shares that she has been quilting since 1986 and that her mother got her into it. After she graduated college, her mother mentioned that she was taking a quilting class, and it inspired Doughty to take one as well. Doughty says that she walked into a quilt store and after speaking with a customer, happened to start doing quilt commissions. She talks about becoming a regional representative for Studio Art Quilting Association (SAQA). Doughty also belongs to a metropolitan quilt group that she helped found in 2001 called Quilt Art (Q&A). She talks about her family's support of her quilting. She talks about her inspiration, including other artists and art history classes. Doughty describes her studio. She describes her preparation and process for quilting. Doughty gives advice for beginner quilters.




Quiltmaking process


Eileen Doughty


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Vienna, Virginia

Interview indexer

Interview indexed by Ta'mya Ross with the support of the Virginia Quilt Museum


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Eileen Doughty. Eileen is in Vienna, Virginia and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so this interview is being conducted over the telephone. Today's date is September 2, 2008. It is 12:12 in the afternoon. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt that you selected for the interview.

Eileen Doughty (ED): The quilt I selected for the interview, as was suggested, has personal meaning. "Niggle's Leaf" is something that I made in the last year. It is inspired by a story that I read when I was a teenager, which was I don't know how long ago--was that, thirty, forty years, oh my gosh, but it stuck with me. It is a story by J.R.R. Tolkien, who is better known for his "Lord of the Rings" books. This was a short story called "Leaf by Niggle" and it had no hobbits in it, no dragons. It was about a painter in the English countryside, probably around World War II. He tries to work on his art in his garage in his spare time. His neighbor has no interest in art and [the neighbor] is interrupting him and he can never get anything done. He has a vision in his head of what he wants to have done -- a beautiful tree, which is a very specific meaning to me too because I love trees also. He works hard on especially one leaf on this tree and just wants to make it perfect. Unfortunately, due to helping out his neighbors, to make a long, short story shorter, the painter dies and he does get his just reward in heaven, but his painting is not respected by anyone. The mayor of the little town comes and uses it to patch somebody's roof. One fragment is found and that is the leaf that [the painter.] worked so hard on. It is put in a museum in the town and the story ends when the museum burns down and the leaf is lost. [laughs.] It is just a really poignant story for me, about the search to be able to express yourself in your art, and always strive for that perfection, and thinking about what of yourself is going to be left when you are gone, and if it matters if it is something material or not. In the center of my piece, which I called "Niggle's Leaf," is a print of an elm leaf which is from a tree that I grew from a seed. I printed that leaf on some watercolor paper. The quilt is designed so it looks like the leaf in the center is not physically attached to the rest of the quilt. The [fabric.] leaves that I made are sort of striving, arching toward that [center leaf.]. The quilt surface drops away from the painted cotton fabric; it is cut away to expose the batting which I painted on, and then the batting gives way to nothing and there is the leaf. That is what that quilt means to me.

KM: Is this typical of your work?

ED: Probably not. The leaves and the tree theme are very typical, but usually I do things that are much more representative, and usually I do not put that much of myself in my work. I do a lot of commission work so there is usually some sort of theme or design that I have to do for a certain space that the artwork is going to end up in. This one was done purely for myself which was sort of a luxury, because I usually don't have that much time to make something purely for myself either. Working at home, raising my family; I still have two kids at home and I do a lot of volunteer work for Studio Art Quilt Associates also. All the school work and school organizations and things that are important parts of my life interrupt things that I would like to do, so I take my time when I can get it.

KM: How do you use this quilt?

ED: How do I what?

KM: Use it.

ED: How do I use it? [KM hums agreement.] It is hanging in a hallway in the upstairs of my house. I've only displayed it one place, which was a place I could go to myself, because I'm a little worried about it being fragile.

KM: Forty three by sixty four. [ED hums agreement.] It is pretty large.

ED: Yes. I think sometimes it helps to make a bigger impact visually if you see something that is really large. Of course some concepts probably work as well small or large, but I wanted the piece to have a bigger visual impact so I enjoyed making it large.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

ED: I've been quilting I think since about 1986, and my mom got me into it. My mom [Tess Duprey Flanagan Roberts.] was always very good on the sewing machine. I have three sisters, and she made a lot of our clothes when we were growing up. Unfortunately, I did not take the chances of learning from her when I was living at home when I was a kid, because I wasn't interested in it then. After I had graduated from college and moved away, she mentioned that she was taking a quilting class, and she said how much fun it was, so I thought 'well, I will see if I can get a class out here.' So I took an adult education class which was entirely--well this was '86, so this was just before rotary cutters. So we did everything by hand. We made templates from cardboard, and it took me a year to make a kind of a twin size quilt. I enjoyed the process but at that point I knew that for me, "hand" is a four letter word. I love looking at other people's handwork, but I don't like much handwork myself, I love my sewing machine. Another thing I learned from that class after doing all of these geometric kind of squares and rectangular Patchwork blocks out of a pattern book, on the last class the teacher brought in some magazines including Quilter's Newsletter Magazine so we could see what kinds of things we could subscribe to, and the issue she brought in happened to have an article by Joen Wolfrom (I hope I'm pronouncing that right), Joen who makes strip pieced landscapes. I think she since has changed her style a bit, but she was very well known for that style of quilt. It was an epiphany for me to see that you could make quilts that were pictures, you could make quilts about anything you wanted, you didn't need a pattern, so I knew then that was something I would be very interested in. At the time, I did not have children yet, I was working full time as cartographer. I have since come to realize I do so many quilts about places, about landscapes, and it is tied up with my love of cartography--that I just love places. I didn't really make that connection at the time, though it seems so obvious looking back, but I really do love places and Joen Wolform's quilts were an inspiration for me. A few years after that, I happened to walk into a quilt store in my town of Vienna and at that time I was not employed as a cartographer anymore; I was an at home mother and I had a very small business. I was making hand drawn quilt labels that I was selling through advertisements I put in magazines; that was my first attempt at a home business. I walked into this quilt store and struck up a conversation with the owner and happened to mention that I like making quilts out of my own patterns. She just happened to have a customer at that time who was looking for a custom-made quilt from some drawings that he had. That was my start into doing quilt commissions. Pretty soon after that I just let the label thing slide because it was a lot more fun to make big quilts than little labels. This quilt store also got me started on doing a series of historic quilts of things in our little town of Vienna that go back to before the Civil War, some of the old buildings. Also, because I live near Washington, D.C., it is only about twenty miles from where I am in Virginia, she asked me to do a series of the monuments done as small postcards. That kind of got me further and further into doing commissions, which I still really enjoy, and doing landscapes.

KM: Do you generally work in a series?

ED: I don't really see my [personal.] work as being anything that I would consider a series. The commercial things like the postcard patterns are obviously a series. There was another quilt store owner I got to know further away in Maryland, sort of toward Baltimore. I saw an advertisement she put in Quilter's Newsletter Magazine asking for somebody who could do lighthouse patterns. I ended up doing, I think, at least a dozen lighthouses, I don't even want to think how many lighthouses because I got so sick of lighthouses. So she had me do the patterns and a model or a sample for the store. She sold them through her store, and found some places--especially in the Outer Banks of North Carolina--that would sell them, and a few places in the Chesapeake Bay area, museum stores or lighthouse gift shops sold them. When she went out of business she offered them back to me, so now this is like my pin money, you could say. I don't have to do the sewing of them anymore, but I sell these patterns and that is sort of my steady income in-between the big commissions. It is fun. I eventually got to see some of these lighthouses myself, especially around Cape Hatteras, and it was really fun to walk into the shop and see my patterns hanging there. I sell them in the Cape Hatteras area and Key West.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

ED: It varies really widely, depending on what my workload is. If I'm between commissions maybe I sew ten hours a week, I would say. I wish it could be more, but the time just seems to get eaten up by other stuff, especially with all the website things I do for SAQA [Studio Art Quilt Associates.].

KM: How did you get involved with SAQA?

ED: I must have seen an advertisement originally for them and I thought, okay, I will give them a try; I will join for a year. I will join just about anything for a year to see how it works. This is probably around 1989 or 1990, no, no it was more like 1999, maybe eight or nine years ago. I was a member for a while and our region was very, very quiet, nothing was going on. When the regional rep stepped down I thought, well, maybe I should volunteer to be the regional rep because I had been complaining that nothing ever happens here, and it is time to put up or shut up. Luckily a friend of mine named Judy McIrvin was a co-rep with me. It worked out really well because she was really good about knowing where to find exhibition spaces and getting shows organized, and I would help with the paperwork and do the communication [tasks.] with the region. We were reps for about four years and then felt like, well, it has been fun and we enjoyed it but we really shouldn't be reps for life, so we will step down. Luckily we found two more volunteers to take our place. At the end of the period of being a rep, Martha Sielman became the director and the website went through a major overhaul. I've always been very comfortable with websites; it helps to have a husband who is in the computer IT-type business. (I call him the "help desk" and I know I have a help desk handy if I have a question. He can always find an answer for me.) Between my admiration for Martha Sielman for what she was doing for SAQA, making it such a vibrant organization, and the growth that it has been through since she took over, drives my willingness to do the website work; I feel like I'm giving back to the community of quilters. That is where I am now. I am content to stay in this position as a volunteer.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

ED: My husband is supportive of it. He doesn't always understand the things that I make, especially the more abstract ones; he likes the very pictorial ones. I can even ask him questions sometimes, like 'how do you think this color would work for a border?" and things like that. He 'gives me good fresh viewpoints sometimes when I have questions. My younger child, who is now twelve, is interested and he is proud of me that I get in shows and magazines and things like that. My daughter, who is going to be eighteen this year, is a little bit interesting herself because she is going to be an artist herself. However she will not touch fabric, will not touch the sewing machine. I think it is interesting that while I do landscapes, her primary interest is doing figurative work, doing people. She is really good at it, I wish I could do people like she can. We respect each other's work, we do not intrude on each other's work, but if we have questions we are there for each other, like composition questions or just a very simple critique kind of thing, 'What do you think of this? Does this work?' Those kinds of questions. Even though she is young I think she is very successful and I'm really proud of her.

KM: You mentioned SAQA; do you belong to any other art or quilt groups?

ED: I belong to a regional, well sort of a regional, a metropolitan quilt group that I helped found in 2001, it is called Q&A; Quilt Art. We have members in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. The reason I started this group was my traditional guild was not meeting my needs. During show and tell, every time somebody stands up and shows something, [the reaction is.] 'Oh isn't that nice,' and everybody claps, and then the next person shows her thing and [everyone.] says, 'Oh that is so nice,' and everybody claps. I thought this doesn't really mean anything for me, I need to find some people [who will say what.] they really think about what I'm holding up, I need some kind of critique group. So I put out a notice in our guild online e-bulletin, so to speak. Our [traditional.] guild is really huge, [membership covers.] our county, has about a thousand members and I think it would be ten chapters. It has been around probably twenty-five, thirty years, so I had a good networking tool there to find more people who needed the same thing I did. I just put out a notice saying I'm reserving the room at the library on this date, if you are interested in art quilts, if people think what you make is a little weird, if you want critique, why don't you come and we will see if we can get something going. I think I had about twelve people show up that day. Our membership has gone up and down in the years since then, but a number of people who were there that first day are still in the group. I'm really happy that we took that step together. It has really helped a lot of us, helped our work, and it is sometimes kind of a social thing but that makes it fun too.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

ED: Whose works am I drawn to? Are you talking about quilters?

KM: It could be quilters, it could be artists, just whoever, you know.

[interview was paused for a minute so that KM could deal with her son's barking dogs.]

ED: That is a good question. I think I can't name one specific quilter whose work I'm drawn to because different artwork, different quilts will attract me for different reasons. Like I said, I don't do handwork myself, but I appreciate beautiful handwork, beautiful quilting done on other people's quilts. I just appreciate quilts that are done really well and that will tell a story to me. I'm trying now, in this phase of my career, to try to be more familiar with the general art world beyond the quilt world. I took art history classes at a community college a few years ago because that part of my knowledge was so lacking. I would know names like Picasso and Matisse, but really didn't understand where they fit into the history of art making. People like Cezanne fascinated me because he was known as a landscape artist and he was right on the verge of [inventing.] abstract art. I got to see an exhibition of his work at the Smithsonian a couple of years ago and it was just awesome, just being able to stand in front of those paintings. Last year, I went as a chaperone with my daughter's art class from high school to New York City, and went to a couple of museums there. To see a Van Gogh in person, it was amazing to me how small they were. I don't know if all of his paintings were small, maybe they were, but to see "Starry Night" in person and to see the brush strokes. I could see how some people compare his work almost to being like a quilter's because it is so textural; because you want to feel the painting just like you want to feel a quilt. I can't say that there is really any other [inspiring quilter.], other than Joen Wolfrom who was my first epiphany, there isn't any art quilter that I seek out. I'm just looking to educate myself about art in general. Like, going back to "Niggle's Leaf," to attempt to stretch myself and try to become a better artist.

KM: That is a good thing. Describe your studio.

ED: My studio is one of the empty or unneeded bedrooms. We have a five bedroom house, which I feel really blessed to have, this beautiful house in this beautiful neighborhood. It has two windows looking north. It has most of my stuff in there, shelves for books and fabric. I don't have a whole lot of fabric because I'm starting to paint my own fabric, so I don't really buy that much. I've been buying more paint than fabric at this point. It has my little, what I call 'bottom of the line' Bernina sewing machine. I do not want a fancy sewing machine. I don't need an embroidery machine or anything worth thousands of dollars. I need something that I can drop the feed dogs down and that is about all I want in a good sewing machine. It's got my computer in the room, which is efficient in some ways and not efficient in other ways, because it is a distraction for me. My husband teases me that I check my email every fifteen minutes, and it is probably not an exaggeration, but I probably get a couple of emails every fifteen minutes and there are things that have to be dealt with, so I don't want them to pile up. My stuff is spread out sort of on all of the floors of the house. I store my batting in the basement. If I have a really big quilt that needs to be basted, or something big to be cut out, (because my sewing room lacks a big table surface, which is the one thing I would put on my wish list to somehow figure out how to squeeze a table in there) I either go to the ping pong table in the basement or the dining room table. There is another closet on the main floor in the laundry room which is stuffed full of paint and foils and brushes and things for printing, just all kinds of odds and ends. With another artist in the house, I think all the paint tubes are just going to explode out the windows one of these days.

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

ED: Well, the politically correct thing probably is to say I'm an artist and I just happen to work in textiles or quilts, but I do think of myself as a quiltmaker because I do want to work in fabrics and I do want to layer it and stitch it together, but I do want it to have some type of artistic component to it, that it has to be composed well. Technically it should be a good quilt and artistically it needs things, all the things like [good.] composition to be in there too. I want it to be interesting to people on various levels, visually and emotionally. I like them to have a connection, especially the work that I do for places like hospitals, I always try to put some type of meaning into those projects.

KM: Why quiltmaking? Why is quiltmaking important to you?

ED: I would love to just be a painter but I tried it and it just does nothing for me. I don't know, I cannot put my finger on exactly what it is, but I don't get the same satisfaction [from painting.] that I do when I'm working with fabric. I think it is just the way that, when we make quilts, we are handling things so much, it is in our hands, we get to touch it, and with painting everything is going on with the brush and the surface of the canvas and it is just not the same. I enjoy all the phases of cutting up the fabric, thinking about how I'm going to cut up the fabric, and how I can make those materials into the picture that I have in my head that it needs to look like at the end.

KM: Do you design everything ahead of time? Do you draw it out ahead of time?

ED: I usually, if not always, have to do some type of sketch because I cannot see things very clearly in my head. The sketch may not be more than something that looks kind of scribbled to anybody else, but it would have the elements in it of the things I want to have in there and approximate places where they should be. It might take me weeks to work out the ideas before I start cutting up any fabric or painting on my fabric. It is hard for me to do the planning, it does not come very naturally or very easily, so I need to take my time at working out my designs.

KM: Do you work on more than one thing at a time?

ED: I like to, just for the variety's sake. [I make other fiber art with.] a co-op of fiber artists that sells our work in one of the nice tourist destinations in Alexandria, Virginia. It is an old building called The Torpedo Factory, which at one time was exactly that, and somebody saved it from demolition and a lot of people about thirty years ago spent a lot of time and effort making it into art studios. It is three floors of art studios. My co-op, which is called Potomac Craftsmen [Fiber Gallery.], was one of the original tenants and I think it has been there about thirty years, though I have only been with the group for about three. I joined that group because I was hoping to find a place where I could sell some of my smaller wall hangings. Unfortunately I have not been real successful; I've sold only a couple of wall hangings which makes me sad, but I have figured out how to make smaller things for people for more of an impulse buy. I've made things with thread. Thread has become my new love, which is another reason I don't have a lot of fabric in my studio, but I do have hundreds of spools of thread. I will go to a quilt store and look at their threads before I go and look at their fabrics. Anyway, I've made things like earrings but the bobble at the end is something like a leaf made out of thread or a fish or a flower or something. I enjoy making these little things because you can get them done in just an hour or two. It's fun. The money is nice, but it is fun just to think that people are wearing things that you made. It is mainly weavers who are in the co-op, so there are a lot of beautiful hand woven scarves; there are also a lot of knitters, so in the wintertime the [knit.] hats are taking up a lot of space in there. Sometimes I feel like my wall hangings are just sort of decoration for the rest of the shop which is filled with hats, but so be it. I still feel like I have to pinch myself when I go in this building. When I first moved to Virginia in 1981 it was one of the places I went to as being an interesting tourist destination. I thought, 'Oh, that is just a cool place, look at all the people working in these studios and the beautiful things that they are building, or that they are creating.' Now here I am, one of those people who are in there, and I'm just truly pleased to be part of that group.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

ED: In quilting? [KM hums agreement.] I would say, take some workshops but not too many. Read a lot. Belong to some organizations, just to get into a community, because networking is so very important, getting the network together of people that you can ask questions of and get some type of mentoring if you need it. That is another reason that I volunteer with SAQA. The networking is wonderful. And I would say to the person starting out, I would say, make what you feel like making, don't worry about if it looks like somebody else's or not; if you take a workshop your finished piece really should not look like the instructor's, because you want to make your own thing. I think the most important thing I would tell somebody, especially with art quilts, is just keep making stuff, you've just got to keep doing it and doing it. Not everything is going to look great, you will have things that bomb, but that is fine because the saying is true: you learn by your mistakes sometimes more than you learn from things that work out too easily.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

ED: Oh, boy that is almost a sad question. [laughs.] I think I would like to be remembered as somebody who helped other people and that could happen in a few different ways. It could be with my work with SAQA on the website especially, helping people get their work seen and helping other people like the regional reps or the board with getting things on the website or just general advice about my perspective as a member. Also, my commissions, I would love to be remembered as somebody who has work in public places where people come into the building (like a hospital) and this has happened to me. I took part in an exhibition in the cancer wing of Massachusetts General Hospital; the work wasn't for sale, it was just a nice opportunity to exhibit; and people emailed me that were there at the hospital, they emailed me and said how much they appreciated seeing some of my pieces there, some of my landscapes, just how much they enjoyed it and how it made them feel more peaceful. To me that is how I would like to be perceived.

KM: I think you are wonderfully easy to work with and very accommodating, just from my perspective with SAQA. [ED laughs.] I want to say that it is wonderful. Is there anything else that I haven't asked you that you would like to share?

ED: I guess where I am in my career now with my art, I am trying to get more into public art and it is a really tough field to crack. I've had some successes. I think fiber art is hopefully on the verge of getting more accepted. [Public art is so often.] durable materials, that is kind of hard to get a quilt accepted. I'm working on changing people's minds about how durable textiles can be. And I'm also almost starting to tend away from making quilts. I've gotten a grant from Potomac Craftsmen Guild to make thread sculptures, which are objects made entirely of threads- 3-D, self-supporting sculptures, because I just love thread so much. Another thing that I've made for the gallery, besides those earrings and things like that are little oval-shaped objects made out of thread in the shape of various bowls. That was inspired by a book that came out a couple of years ago about making fabric bowls, every phase of making one; I love that book because it showed me how to make a three dimensional shape. I evolved it away from fabric into just thread, and into making shapes that I figured out myself, like leaves. Leaves have sold quite well for the gallery; they are just like hand-sized things. I call them bowls, I guess you could put things in them, but they are just kind of a shallow cup. And I want to go further into exploring that. This grant it is just to figure out how big I can make things, if the different types of threads make a difference in shapes, how wild can I get on the shapes that I make. I've made a couple of enclosed ball-shaped things; I've made one that is a globe with the polar caps melting inward which is a statement on global warming. The last one I made is a tree shape that was not totally successful because I could not get the tree to stay upright. So there, I'm learning by my mistakes too, which is the point of this exploration. I'm going into two bodies of work on that. I would hope to continue getting public commissions for my art work, my art quilts which obviously could help support my family (with my daughter going to college). I would love more money. The things I'm doing for me, I may make a leaf for me; the exploration of thread sculpture is for me. I'm just really interested in doing that, so I don't know how many more quilts I will be making in the future.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to spend.

ED: Thank you for the opportunity, I've really enjoyed it.

KM: Thank you. We are going to conclude and it is now 12:55.

Interview Keyword

Studio Art Quilting Association (SAQA)
Niggle's Leaf (Quilt)
Quilter's Newsletter Magazine
Quilt purpose - Personal income
Quilt Art (Q&A)
Home studio

Sort Priority




“Eileen Doughty,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2648.