Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto




Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto


DeSoto talks about the quilt she brought to the interview, its inspiration, and the materials and techniques she used. She talks about the quilting groups she belongs to as well as how quilting first interested her. DeSoto talks about the quilting classes she took, some of the quilters whose work she particularly is drawn to, and how her family reacts to her quilting. She talks about her creative process, what inspires her, and comments on quilting as an art or a craft. DeSoto talks about her involvement in the Healing Quilts In Medicine project, artist statements, and the great connection quilters have with one another. DeSoto talks about how quilting can reflect her community and why quilting is so important to her. DeSoto wraps up the interview by discussing how positive women coming together to make quilts is, and the positive impact it has had on women throughout history.




Quiltmakers--United States
Textile fabrics
Art quilts
Arts and crafts


Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Lisa Ellis


Fairfax, Virginia

Interview indexer

JT Eissenberg


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto. Donna is in Fairfax, Virginia and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is May 13, 2009. It is now 12:21 in the afternoon. Donna, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.

Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto (DMD): I'm honored to be a part of this project Karen. Thank you for calling me.

KM: You are very welcome. Please tell me about the quilt that you selected for the interview.

DMD: The quilt that I selected is called by the name of the plant that it depicts. It is called "Cyclea Peltata" and the way this quilt came about, I happened to be lucky enough to belong to a group called Fiber Artists @ Loose Ends here in Fairfax and Lisa Ellis is a part of that group and between Lisa and her father our group is involved in a huge project where we are making quilts for the University of Michigan. To help us select our quilts, we got access to a whole list of various plants and animals that are involved in possible cancer treatments, so basically to figure what I wanted to do for this project I went to the whole list of plants first of all and I searched every plant on Google and Google image searched the plants as well and to tell you the truth I just went through one by one until I found one that really grabbed me. When I came across this plant called Cyclea Peltata I was really drawn to it for a couple of reasons, I loved the colors, I loved the shapes and in particular the photograph just really pulled me in. My next move was to contact the person who had taken that picture of the plant and try to get his or her permission to render it as a quilt. I was so excited. I was very nervous about doing that because it was the first time that I had ever contacted somebody who had an image of something on the Internet, so I wrote a letter and very briefly I said that I was looking to use that image on a quilt. I heard back within a day from a doctor who is located in Kerala, India and he is involved in Ayurvedic medicine [a system of traditional medicine native to India and practiced as alternative elsewhere in the world.]. He and his wife run a small clinic, but on the side he is also a photographer. When he heard from me, judging from the sound of his email, he was just so thrilled that I had first of all found the image and second of all that I liked it enough to want to do something further with it. We developed this nice little email relationship. With his permission to use this picture, I went down to my stash. I'm going through a phase right now where I'm trying to use fabric that I already have and maybe that was partly why I was drawn to this picture. I knew I had pretty much all of the colors that are used in this quilt. It just sort of came together. It wasn't just me, I think there were other powers at work here, but it all came together and when I was done with the quilt I sent Dr. [Eby.] Abraham a picture and he was just thrilled. From what I understand he had this picture enlarged and he has it hanging in his clinic and he also said that I'm welcome to use any of his other images on any further quilts I would like to do.

KM: Tell me about the techniques you used to make this quilt.

DMD: I took a class with Lisa Ellis. Lisa has this great technique that she calls "A Lazy Landscape" technique which involves making a background out of fused pieces of fabric and then on top of that background adding little squiggly pieces of similar fabric until you get the look you want. That is the first technique that I used. Besides that it is raw edged appliquéd, free motion quilted, and I also sewed on pieces of yarn. I couched yarn for the vines of the plant.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your style?

DMD: Oh Karen, you know I'm still kind of new at this, so I don't really think I have a style yet. I go in lots of different directions depending on who I happened to have spent a little time with or what class I've taken. Right now I don't have a style that I call mine, so I can't really say if it is typical or not.

KM: Where does your quilt hang?

DMD: Right now the quilt is hanging at the University of Michigan in the Cancer Center.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

DMD: Let me think of where to start. My grandmother quilted and she was self-taught. She loved colors, she loved lots of bright colors and she made probably hundreds of quilts, all Eight Pointed Stars and her beds were just stacked with quilts. That is where it started, when I was a victim lying under one of those piles of blankets. My mom wasn't really a quilter so I just had it in the back of my mind for quite a number of years that one day when life sort of settled down a little bit that was a hobby I wanted to pursue. I started, let's see, in 1981. I made my very first quilt. It was the first time that I was living away from my family. I was newly married and living in the middle of New York City with a husband who was a law student so he didn't have much time for me. New York City pretty much scared the pants off of me [laughs.], so I was looking for something to do in between working full time. I was looking for a hobby and quilting just turned out to be the perfect thing. I pretty much made the first quilt the old-fashioned way; tracing cardboard templates with sandpaper on the back and I did have an old sewing machine so that part of it wasn't as old-fashioned as my grandmother would have done. That was the first quilt that I made and then years later I took an art quilt class with Judy House. Through a group that I belonged to that supported mothers who were raising their kids, I met a woman named Eileen Doughty and we were great friends and I found out that she had this hobby that she called "Art Quilting." One day she walked in and she opened up the most magnificent thing that I had ever seen. It wasn't any kind of quilt that I had seen before. She called it "Art Quilting" and it was a gorgeous landscape quilt and she had me totally hooked from that point on. I just had to learn more about that. I eventually took a series of art quilt classes with Judy House and now I'm just way over my head. It has taken over my life.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

DMD: I actually quilt about 12 hours a week. I get together with a number of quilting groups and I do a lot of talking about quilting, so even though there are probably about 12 hours of actual sewing time, many more hours a week are spent planning quilts and talking about quilts and also learning still how to make them.

KM: Tell me about the different groups that you belong to.

DMD: One of them is Fiber Artists @ Loose Ends, as I mentioned before. Another group that I belong to is our local guild, the Fairfax Chapter of Quilters Unlimited. One more group that I sort of head up is called Playing Outside the Block, or Play Group for short, and that is a group of almost 40 women. We meet every single week on Monday mornings. I remember in the old days when I used to just get that sick feeling of dread on a Sunday night that the whole monotonous work week was about to begin. Since Play Group started several years ago, myself and probably quite a few other women can't wait for Monday morning to come. It is a great time to just be together and bring handwork and talk about what we are working on or what we are doing. That is a very active group; it is a big part of my life right now. I joke to people that some people collect quilts and I seem to have this knack of collecting quilters. There is something about the camaraderie of likeminded women that I just get a whole lot out of.

KM: You mentioned taking classes. Whose works are you drawn to and why?

DMD: I'm drawn to work by a number of the names that we all have heard, but I have to tell you that the people's work who I'm most drawn to at the moment happen to be people who the world hasn't heard of yet. People who meet with me every Monday morning, like Elly Dyson, Mary Lois Davis, Norma Colman, MaryAnn Shepherd, women whose work, for whatever reason, is not out there but it is just as breathtaking as the big names that we've all heard.

KM: What is it about their work that draws you in?

DMD: It is so different. It is just unlike anything that I've ever seen. It is precious when you know about people and where their heads were at a time when they were making a particular quilt and you see the amazing work that is produced from life experiences. [To see their artwork progress from the early beginnings to the completed projects is amazing.]

KM: Describe your studio.

DMD: [laughs.] My studio is my home. It depends on the mood that I'm in and it depends on where I'm working, but my studio right now happens to be split between my dining room much to my family's dismay. We only eat in our dining room once a year on Thanksgiving, and other than that it is pretty much filled up with my play stuff, and I've also got a nice studio in the basement, but the basement isn't nearly as much fun as it is here on the first floor where more life happens than down in the dungeon.

KM: What does it look like? What does your dining room look like when you are working in it?

DMD: When I've got something in progress it is a total and complete mess. Again, my family would tell you that it is a total and complete mess all the time, but I see some order to it. There are piles, oh there are piles of fabric and yarn and threads and books and magazines everywhere I look. It is great, it is heaven. [laughs.]

KM: You mentioned your family, so what does your family think of your quilt making?

DMD: They are interested. I think they are excited about it. My family seems to get more impressed with my quilting the more my quilting gets out there. I've got a quilt that is in the current issue of Cloth, Paper, Scissors and I think that sort of validated my quilting to my family in a way, if that makes sense. They are proud of me. They are encouraging. They come up with lots of ideas of quilts I should make. They are pretty good at critiquing whether I ask for the critiquing or not. [laughs.] It is great to have their input. I'm really grateful for that most of the time.

KM: Do you work on one project at a time or do you work on multiple projects?

DMD: No, no, I've got several things going.

KM: Tell me about your creative process.

DMD: My creative process. A good deal of my inspiration comes from the people that I'm with, the other quilters that I'm with and it also comes from anything from looking out the window to reading a passage in a book and being really struck by a phrase or by a group of words in a book. My problem right now is that I've got too many ideas. There are too many things that I feel like I need to do and that I want to do and I'm never lacking in ideas. The creativity is just everywhere I look. I'm happy to say that I think that my daughter [Aimee.] may have inherited a bit of that. She is eighteen and we were driving home the other night and she looked at the sky and she said, 'Mom look! It's just like batik!' [both laugh.] I was so excited. I was like, 'Yes, we have another one!' [laughs.]

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

DMD: I am really drawn to shiny things lately. I love glitter and there is a particular line of fabrics called Fairy Frost that Lisa Ellis introduced me to. I'm so in love with Fairy Frost, but I love all different kinds of textures, different kinds of yarns and beads and embellishing is really an exciting thing for me right now. I keep hearing about folks who are so creative and so wonderful because they are dyeing their own fabrics, but I tell you, there is so much commercial stuff out there that I don't have time to do everything I want to. It is going to be a long time before I start creating my own fabric. The possibilities are just without limits, they are just amazing.

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

DMD: I don't think I really make the distinction. In our guild I was thinking about this the other day because so many people stood up at Show and Tell time and they almost start with an apology. 'I'm not really an art quilter but…' And to me every single quilt I've seen was created by an artist. I think all quilters are artists.

KM: Let's go back and talk a little bit more about Healing Quilts in Medicine.

DMD: Sure.

KM: How did you get involved?

DMD: I got involved by taking that art quilt class, the first art quilt class with Judy House. I knew she was sick when I was starting her class. I knew that she was having a recurrence of cancer and at the same time that I took that class my sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer. What I learned from Judy was not only about quilting, it was about so many more things, because she was a couple of years ahead of where my sister-in-law was. The more that I got to know Judy the more I just felt drawn to her. When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer you feel so helpless. There is, I don't know, I just felt like there was never enough that I could do either for Judy or for my sister-in-law. I've got a sister who is involved with a project called Climb for Hope. She climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise funds for breast cancer research. I've got another sister who does the Avon Walk, but I really felt like I wanted to do something not just to help Judy and my sister-in-law but after I thought about it I really wanted to do something, for something bigger out there. I had heard about the Healing Quilts Project. Another thing that happens when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer is you spend time in hospitals and there is a lot of waiting involved and a lot of looking at very ugly boring walls. I remember specifically hearing about the Healing Quilts Project, looking at the walls in that hospital room and just thinking, why isn't there something pleasing, or interesting, or distracting for my sister-in-law or for me to look at, or for the doctors to look at. I had been thinking that would be a really nice way to sort of give back and give people a little bit of peace at a time that was really without peace. I guess it was my coping mechanism. When I started doing quilts for the Healing Quilts Project, I felt like I was doing something useful at a time when I felt totally useless. Another thing that happens with cancer, there are lots and lots of sleepless nights so I would find myself at first not knowing what was going on with my sister-in-law, not knowing how to help her, not knowing what the outcome would be, just pacing around at all kinds of crazy hours. And then I remembered that I could sew in the middle of the night if I had really good light. Sewing again was a great coping mechanism for me.

KM: Have you heard much response about your quilt?

DMD: I have through Lisa. We hear that people really are enjoying the exhibit a lot. Through Dr. Abraham, the man whose image I used, he emails me quite often to tell me how many comments and how many nice things people are saying about the quilt.

KM: What a nice thing.

DMD: It is just great. There is this network. There is a wonderful network among quilters. I will tell you another story about how I got involved in the guild I'm in. A friend of mine's father died and I went to his funeral and I noticed at the funeral there were a lot of older people there but they were all women. You could just, I know this sounds corny, at that funeral mass you could just feel this unbelievable love like I've never really felt anywhere else and I said to my friend, 'Who are all these women? Where did they come from? Who are they?' And my friend said, 'Those are the quilters. They are my mom's friends.' I remember thinking I don't know who they are or where they are, but I want in on this. I want to feel this. Ever since then, it was soon after that I joined the Quilters Unlimited Fairfax Branch and you won't meet any nicer people than quilters. The way that ties in with this doctor is that had I not taken the art quilt class with Judy House and had I not gotten involved in the Healing Quilts Project I would have really missed out because I wouldn't have had the opportunity to have this great dialogue with somebody all the way in India who is just thrilled to be getting the word out about the type of medicine he is working so hard on.

KM: You had to write an Artist Statement.

DMD: Yes.

KM: Tell me about writing the Artist Statement.

DMD: Because I was a writer before I was a quilter, I really love any time I get to write an Artist Statement. I really believe that a quilt ought to stand alone. When you look at a quilt, more important than the Artist Statement is the way that you are feeling when you look at that quilt, but it is like a nice aside to be able to read what inspired that person or what motivated them to make that quilt.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

DMD: I would say to find a group, find likeminded people who share a love for all things fiber and who are kind. Let's see. I know groups that tend to be more of--I'm trying to think of how to describe it. They are more about critiquing. I know of groups that are put together for the purpose of critiquing. I would say if somebody is starting out in quilting, find the right group, find a group that is warm and welcoming and supportive and a group that is more than happy to say, 'Come sit right here and I will show you how to do this,' because you don't need the critiquing for a long, long time. I think it is more important to get some basic skills and let your confidence come as you develop the skills.

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

DMD: I think the biggest challenge is finding the time to quilt. Just like everything else. I was thinking earlier today that never in my life have I said, 'Gosh I wish I had more time to clean my bathrooms.' I always wish I had more time. When you find something that you are really passionate about there is really never enough time. So I think it is such a busy crazy world right now, trying to carve out a nice niche of time to do something that you really love. I think that is the best, but it is also the hardest thing to do.

KM: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

DMD: Right now I don't enjoy so much inspiration. I don't enjoy how every time I look out my window I find three more things that I feel like I need to make a quilt into. It is really hard for me to focus right now so I think the part I don't enjoy is that I'm just drawn in so many directions.

KM: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

DMD: I think that the most artistic quilts to me are quilts that draw you in. Quilts that when you look at them there is something about that piece of fabric, the way it is put together, that makes you just want to pause and stare, maybe even think, something that just touches your soul.

KM: How have advances in technology influenced your work? You mentioned going on the internet.

DMD: That probably is the biggest thing for me. I don't have a lot of fancy gadgets. My sewing machine is a pretty basic sewing machine. I don't have a sewing machine that does all the sewing for you, so I would say out of all the things technology-related, probably the computer and my digital camera are my best friends right now. Just so many possibilities with carrying a digital camera everywhere I go, capturing little, little bits and pieces of things that I want to remember and hold on to and bring home and manipulate them and play with them and maybe if I'm lucky do something with that out of fabric. Also the computer is great in terms of sharing knowledge or getting advice on pieces that I'm working on. I've got a website and I get great feedback, people who have found my quilts online and its just wonderful, another network.

KM: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community? You mentioned being influenced by whatever teacher you had at the time.

DMD: Let's see, how do they reflect my community? Lately I think the way that my quilts reflect my community is that they tend to be bright happy quilts. I love making quilts that make people smile and I'm in a really good place right now in terms of my community. I've got this great bunch of women and they just make my heart sing and I think that just can't help but come out in the art that I'm producing.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

DMD: It is a great means of self-expression. There is a little bit of history in it because of how my grandmother was a quiltmaker and that part of it is important to me, but since the time I started to quilt, and now I've got a sister and my mother have also become quiltmakers, so I think quiltmaking is important because of the community, because of the friendships that I've made and the people that I wouldn't have met otherwise. This is a wonderful bond that we share. I don't know how else I would have that kind of sisterhood right now. It is a great antidote to loneliness, it is a great way to share the gifts that I've been given.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

DMD: I'll tell you how I don't want to be remembered. [laughs.] I don't want to be remembered as a person who died with the most fabric, and I also don't want to be remembered as the person who died with the most unfinished projects. I would like to be remembered as somebody who added a little bit of sunshine and if I'm really lucky I might be able to do that through my friends that are involved in my quilt groups and also through people who happened to see my quilts. If I can make somebody smile, if I can touch somebody's heart, that would be the best.

KM: What made you decide to get a website?

DMD: I give a lot of my quilts away. Letting go is really hard for me and I realized that if I took pictures of all of my quilts and have a place to put them that even though I'm giving them away I can still look at them and still remember making them and who I made them for, so it was a way of corralling what I've done before I throw it out there to the world. I think that was the biggest reason I got a website.

KM: When did you decide to use up your stash and finish your projects?

DMD: I'm never going to use up my stash [laughs.] because as hard as I try to use what I have, something always calls me anytime I'm anywhere near a fabric store so I've already given up that hope. I need to use up more of my stash because it is taking up way too much room in my house [both laugh.] I just heard a quote the other day. Let me see if I can find it. Somebody said, 'My biggest worry is that my wife, when I'm dead, will sell my fishing gear for what I've said I paid for it,' and I guess I would translate that [KM laughs.] my biggest worry is that my husband, when I'm dead, will sell my stash for what I said I paid for it. [both laugh.]

KM: That is a great quote. That is a great quote. I have a friend who started writing the grocery store in her check register so that her husband would not find out how much she was spending on fabric, and he never questioned the fact that the food bill had skyrocketed.

DMD: Oh my goodness. My husband [Kurt.] walked down and looked at a stack of fabric I had once and he scratched his head and said, 'My gosh, you must have about $100.00 of fabric down here,' and I just nodded and said, 'Yes, dear'. [both laugh.]

KM: It is not an inexpensive hobby.

DMD: Oh no, but how can you put a price on something like this, it is the best, it really is great.

KM: Who do you give your quilts too?

DMD: I give my quilts to hospitals. I also give my quilts--I'm involved in several other projects like Quilts of Valor that go to soldiers who come back from Iraq. I give my quilts to family. I give them to raffles to support various schools that my kids are in. A lot of them go away.

KM: Do you sleep under a quilt?

DMD: Of course. [laughs.] Probably more than one if I'm to be honest. Yes I do sleep under a quilt.

KM: Tell me about the quilt you sleep under.

DMD: The one I'm sleeping under right now and my friends would just sigh if I admit this, the quilt that I'm sleeping under right now is a $19.99 special that I think I bought from Macy's. [KM laughs.] I just loved the colors and I can wash this quilt to death and when it finally dies I'm not going to be sad because I have absolutely not a stitch invested in it, but I've got quilts that I made that are at the foot of my bed. And I've got several, what do you call those, china cabinets with glass fronts, old ones, that I fold my quilts and put inside so I can see them. My kids have quilts that I've made on their beds, too.

KM: Is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched upon before we conclude?

DMD: I guess I would just love to stress how important it is to spend time, well to me, maybe everybody doesn't feel this way, but I love spending time quilting or talking about quilting or learning about quilting with people who share the same passion that I've got. Again, quilters are just, they are just the best people in the world and I have learned so much from them, not just about quilting but about life and everything else. There is another quote that I've thought of often, it also has to do with fishing. Let's see, Herbert Hoover said, 'Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when many return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers,' and that is how I feel about quilting, it keeps us connected both with people that we know now, friends that we have currently, also with people who have passed away, and relatives from a long time ago. It is a great connection that is very strong and very much alive.

KM: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history?

DMD: Let me think Karen, one minute.

KM: Go ahead.

DMD: I'm trying to think of something clever to say. For women's history, I think an important part of women's history is again the just coming together of women, being able to talk about things that are going on in our lives, bringing us together. This is not [laughs.] I don't know Karen.

KM: That is quite alright.

DMD: Quilting is great therapy and I think that is something that the whole hobby of quilting has done in a really positive way for women. I think being a mom, being a wife can be a really lonely thing. The getting together with women on a regular basis and just spending time is just wonderful.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and talking with me.

DMD: Thank you Karen.

KM: You are more than welcome. We are going to conclude our interview at 12:59.

Interview Keyword

Cyclea peltata
Fairfax (Va.)
Quilting groups
Fairfax Quilters Unlimited
Healing Quilts In Medicine
Women's history


“Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,