Carole Nicholas




Carole Nicholas


Carole Nicholas talks about her "Under Sea Gardens Quilt," why she quilted it, the techniques she used, and where it is now. She talks about her unique quilting origins and her membership in quilting groups. Nicholas talks about her home studio and what her family thinks about her quilting. She discusses the difference between artists and quiltmakers, as well as some advice for quilters starting out. Nicholas talks about her favorite quiltmakers and her favorite quilting techniques. She talks about why quiltmaking is important to her and what makes quilts artistically powerful. She talks about what she wants her legacy to be, as well as how her travels around the world have influenced her quilting. Nicholas wraps up her interview by talking about her lectures and the theme quilts she is making with her quilting group, Fiber Artists @ Loose Ends




Quilts--United States
Quilting--United States
Quiltmakers--United States
Decorative arts
Quilting shops
Textile crafts.


Carole Nicholas


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Oakton, Virginia

Interview indexer

JT Eissenberg


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Carole Nicholas. Carole lives in Oakton, Virginia and she is visiting her daughter in Hollywood, Florida, and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is May 18, 2009. It is now 12:03 in the afternoon. Carole, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me.

Carole Nicholas (CN): Thank you for having me.

KM: You are more than welcome. Please tell me about your quilt "Under Sea Gardens."

CN: I made this quilt as part of the "Healing Quilts in Medicine" exhibit. I knew Judy House and she was the one that instigated this project and I knew a lot of the other quilt artists who participated. I joined at the tail end of this project. I looked at the quilts that had already been started and looked at the plants and animals that had been chosen and I realized that not many people had chosen the animals that were being studied in hopes that they would provide some cure for cancer. I was influenced by a trip to New Zealand that I took prior to making the quilt, and we had gone under water, to a research station where scientists were actually growing plants and animals [ten meters below sea level.]. We could go down in sort of a huge capsule and view these plants and animals. They were being grown on trays that could be moved up and down to regulate the sunlight if the scientists thought they needed more sun. It was just a wonderful new world. They had a lot of information on these plants and animals, how they grew and behaved in their natural surroundings. That is what inspired me. It was in Fiordland, under Milford Sound and they had this underwater laboratory that you could go and visit. We were very fortunate to have decided to do that.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your style?

CN: I would say yes. I don't know if I have one particular style, but I like the freedom of this particular style when I'm doing a landscape or something like this rather than the piecing of geometric shapes. I also do that type of quilt as well, but this technique frees my style to create anything I want. It is a very quick method. It is raw edge appliqué and I tend to like bright colors. I grew up in Jamaica in the Caribbean so I think I'm always drawn to these colors. The colors of the ocean, the colors of the tropical flowers.

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

CN: I used layered appliqué. I used raw edge appliqué. I cut out some of the leaves from some wonderful Kaffe Fassett fabric. I actually used mollusk shells, real mollusk shells in this, and basted them on [utilizing holes that were already in the shells when I collected them.]. I used a lot of thread work. A lot of metallic and fancy threads. I used tulle to give the effect of the sunlight filtering from the surface of the water and free motion quilting as well.

KM: Where is this quilt?

CN: This quilt now is at Walter Reed Hospital with all the rest of the quilts that were made for this exhibit. They hang on the walls of Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland and they are where Judy House had envisioned that they would decorate the walls and provide some joy and comfort for patients who came to the hospital for treatment.

KM: Tell me a little bit more about Judy House.

CN: Judy was an absolutely wonderful person. I met her when we worked together at a quilt shop in Fairfax, Virginia, The Quilt Patch, and I got to know her there. She had a huge group of friends and she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer which spread. She had a long and brave battle with cancer. Everybody who knew her was so fond of her and while she was undergoing treatment at Walter Reed she envisioned this project and got a lot of her friends to participate. [she was a very talented quiltmaker who inspired us all.]

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

CN: I had a very unusual beginning. I was born and grew up in Jamaica. I really did not grow up with quilts. We had no need for quilts. I started quilting actually in West Africa. My husband took a job [with University of California, Los Angeles.] which took us to Ghana. and we lived there for five and a half years. No sooner had I arrived when I was invited to the home of the British High Commissioner. His wife [Maureen Stanley.] was a quilter but she did English Paper Piecing and it was more a social thing. We gathered at her house every week for companionship but she did teach us how to do English Paper Piecing. She worked mostly in silks and brocade and she made wonderful vests for her husband, the British High Commissioner, but Mrs. Stanley didn't know anything about American quilting. There were not many Americans in that group. Since I grew up in Jamaica I was part of the British Commonwealth so I was invited to join. It took me five years to piece [laughs.] a mosaic top using the English Paper Piecing method but she didn't know anything about putting it together and hand quilting. Luckily we moved back to California and at the time California was really a hot bed of the quilting revival. It was 1976 and I used to get American magazines in the embassy mail pouch. I was drawn to the articles about quilting and in fact after those five years in the seventies I brought back two articles; one was by Jonathan Holstein and Gail Vanderhoof and I was really drawn to these quilts. There was an exhibit of these [Amish.] quilts in New York City, of course everybody knows about that, and the second article I had ripped out of a Good Housekeeping magazine was about the Great American Quilt Contest where Jinny Beyer had won for her "Ray of Light" quilt, so I brought these two articles back to California thinking I want(ed) to learn more about quilting. I lived in Pacific Palisades and they had a wonderful quilt shop there which since has closed unfortunately, but I had the most incredible quilt teachers to begin with. Judy Mathieson was one of my first quilt teachers, so that is how I got started with quilting and have been hooked every since. I got to meet a lot of California quilters, the early ones there and when I moved to Virginia I quickly met a lot more quilters there. The First Continental Quilting Congress was taking place and I attended that and met just dozens and dozens of quilters in the area. [in 1990.] I was introduced to Jinny Beyer and she invited me to join her teaching staff at her annual quilting seminar in Hilton Head, [South Carolina.] I did join her staff and after a few years she asked me to be coordinator of (the) seminar. I did that until this year. We had our final conference this year. Over the years it grew [from 3 1/2 days to 7 days duration, the staff expanded, and our guest teacher roster increased from one to five.]. I've done probably eighteen years with her seminar and met some wonderful quilters. [interview interrupted due to disconnect.]

KM: Okay go ahead.

CN: I did that for eighteen years and we just had our final seminar. Over the years I've met some of the most, of course, the top quilters in the world and it's just been a wonderful journey.

KM: Do you belong to any quilt groups?

CN: I belong to the local Northern Virginia quilt guild and it is a very large guild, over a thousand members. I also belong to a small group of about twelve quilters called Fiber Artists @ Loose Ends and you've probably met a lot of these quilters. Lisa Ellis and Sandy Goldman and several others that you've probably interviewed [Judy Busby, Christine Adams, Bunnie Jordan, Paula Golden, Cyndi, Barbara Hollinger, Donna DeSoto, Annabel Ebersole.]. [laughs.] I mean to join a few others now. The job as seminar coordinator has really kept me busy. It became a full time job in between my travels. [interview interrupted due to disconnect.]

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

CN: Pardon me.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

CN: How many hours a week do I quilt, it varies depending on my schedule. I like to quilt a little each day even if it is just an hour. Sometimes I have longer stretches, sometimes I have a whole morning, sometimes I have a whole afternoon which is good. As I said, the job as seminar coordinator kept me very busy. It was practically full time but I still would try to quilt each day.

KM: Do you think you will miss the job as being the coordinator?

CN: In many ways I will miss it just because it was very stimulating, it was very creative working with Jinny and the rest of the staff, but hopefully now I will have more time for quilting, for my quilting.

KM: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

CN: Do I not enjoy?

KM: Is there any?

CN: I don't think so. I really love all the aspects of quiltmaking. I love thinking up a concept. I love the designing. I love to work with colors. Design is a welcome challenge for me, I don't always have a set idea of exactly how a quilt is going to be when it is finished. Most of the times it just flows and I may add things or change things as I go along. I work both by hand and machine. I love the quilting, whether it be by hand or machine or both and I love when the quilt is finished.

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

CN: Sometimes I do. Yes, sometimes I do. I don't know if now I will do that because working at the studio I was helping out with a lot of creative things that were going on at the [Jinny Beyer.] studio. I worked very closely with Jinny with marketing and designing aspects and samples for the studio. Sometimes it was necessary that I worked on more than one project at a time. Also when I take trips I always have hand projects that I work with. Sometimes I've almost done an entire quilt top just because I spent so many hours in airports or on airplanes.

KM: Describe your studio.

CN: Describe my studio? [KM hums agreement.] My studio is my family room. I love the light in my family room. It has huge windows on three sides and a huge Palladian window so I have taken over one part of the family room. It is quite large, and has my sewing machine and cutting table and work area. All my fabric is stored down in the basement where there is no light. It is not a walk out basement so I don't really like working down there. I've never worked down there. It is where I keep my fabric stash. I enjoy working in the family room. Then I'm in touch with what is going on in the house. My four children have moved out now but before that, I could keep in touch with homework or dinner or whatever, and I could hear if anyone came to the front door. My studio is the family room.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking?

CN: I think the family is very proud of my quiltmaking. I have two girls and two boys, the girls aren't very interested in doing that sort of thing but I think they are proud and pleased of my accomplishments. My youngest, my son just happened to be in Hilton Head when one of the seminars was going on and he was quite impressed. I don't think he was really aware that it was on such a big scale and so many women came from all over and he was really quite blown away with the whole operation. I have four children as I said and six grandchildren now so I have to make quilts for them. They have been to some of the exhibitions that my quilts have been in and they are quite pleased.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

CN: What advice would I have, I would say follow your heart and do what pleases you and makes you happy. To me quilts and the quiltmaking process are so uplifting. Whether they depict something sad or the darker sides of life, but I think they are always uplifting.

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

CN: What is the biggest challenge? [pause.] That is a difficult question. I think it is different for many people. For me I think, I think I need to get more up to scratch to what is going on with computers and the whole digital thing. I need to get more into the computer age. I think that, for me that is probably the biggest thing because everything is geared toward the computer now. Entering shows, digital cameras, sending things on the internet. That is my challenge. I think also the big thing; the big question is machine versus handwork. I think there is a place for both because I think it takes real skill and artistry to do exquisite hand quilting, as well as exquisite machine quilting. I know the hand quilters tend to look down on the machine quilts but I think it is such an art to be able to do beautiful quilting on the machine so I think there is a place for both and I think that is a challenge for some people to accept. They either go with one or the other and I think there has to be a place for both.

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

CN: I don't think I make a distinction with that at all. I'm a quiltmaker but I think I'm an artist as well. I have a degree in the sciences and at first I didn't think of myself as an artist because I think there was that distinction between science and art [I was schooled under the British system, where students are "streamed" very early into Science, or Arts or Home Economics.], but definitely now I think of myself as an artist. I remember in college I always tried to take some art classes although all my science labs took so much time. When I got to graduate school, [Columbia University in New York City.] I realized that all of these people who were with me in Biology and Chemistry who were sitting over microscopes or over Petri dishes or whatever, they all liked the same things that I did. We all went to the theater. We all went to museums. We were all artists as well, although we were scientists. It was a good combination and we certainly did not see a distinction.

KM: You mentioned that you have been in contact with lots of different quiltmakers. Whose works are you drawn to and why?

CN: Whose quilts am I drawn to? Hum.

KM: And why.

CN: Okay... the very first quilt I think I fell in love with was Nancy Halpern's "Archipelago." There was something about that quilt and it was so many years ago before so called "art quilts" were in vogue. I fell in love with that quilt maybe because I thought it was more "contemporary" but there was so much tradition in that quilt as well. I loved the colors, I loved the movement, I just liked the dreamy character of that quilt. As I said before, I loved that article on the Amish quilts of Jonathan Holstein and Gail Vanderhoof and I think the vibrant colors and just the simple graphic design drew me to them. Now whose quilts do I like? I love--I have always liked Yvonne Porcella's. I like Joan Colvin's quilts. I like Ruth McDowell's work. Caryl Bryer Fallert. [also Paula Nadelstern, Katie Pasquini Masopust, Jan Myers-Newbury and of course, Jinny Beyer, whose quilts, color theory and design ideas have inspired and influenced me for the last two decades.] I don't know if I can say that I have a favorite but I love the design and movement and color [in all of these artists' quilts.].

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

CN: What are my favorite techniques? Hum. I do like the raw edge appliqué because it gives such freedom of design, and you can layer and use multi-fabrics, and include many colors and patterns and textures so I like that for the appliqué. Lately I've been doing a lot of strip or string piecing; I think I have so many ideas in my head now that I want to get these ideas into fabric with string technique but very contemporary looking.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

CN: Quiltmaking important to me, hum, I think because it is [interview interrupted due to disconnect.]

KM: Go ahead.

CN: Okay, I think because it's my self-expression and I feel that over the years I have felt that however busy life gets, no matter how many times we've moved or with four children (and) with so many things going on, it is something that is truly a part of me. I can create something with texture and color and something that I truly love at the end. It is something that I can touch and feel. I guess that is the whole thing about quiltmaking, it gives me such pleasure and comfort and is at the same time both stimulating and soothing.

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

CN: Hum, artistically powerful. I suppose it's maybe in the mind of the viewer what you see in that quilt. It also has to do with the person who made it, maybe what they wanted to convey and how that message is conveyed. Color has a lot to do with it, along with the design.

KM: How do you feel about Artist Statements? What has been your experience writing them?

CN: That is a very personal thing. I think the artist should be able to say whatever they please about why they made the quilt or what the quilt is meant to say or how they felt while they were making the quilt. I think that is a very personal thing.

KM: How do you feel about writing Artist Statements? Do you find them easy?

CN: How do I find writing Artist Statements? Hum. I've never had a problem with that. I suppose what would be the true test of what I'm saying is that if I wrote an Artist Statement I should ask everybody who reads the statement, what did you feel, how did you feel about that [and did the statement clarify or explain anything about me, or the quilt.].

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

CN: How do I want to be remembered? I would like to be remembered as somebody who was a kind, caring person and tried to do something for mankind. I don't know if I necessarily want to be remembered as a quilter or an artist, that would be nice as well, but I think I would like to be remembered as somebody who tried to help others. Right now, well for the past ten years I've been going on Habitat for Humanity trips to build houses all over the world and I think that has given me such satisfaction, giving people in need a home. I continue to do that.

I think right now that probably gives me the most satisfaction. I do about two trips a year. They are called Global Village trips. I go all over the world [including Mongolia, Armenia, Romania, Portugal, Argentina.]. I've had the most incredible experiences and it gives me inspiration for a lot of my quilts. I've also become involved with another building (program), what should I say, community service through my church. In Jamaica there is a priest, his name is Father Gregory, who has founded orphanages [called Mustard Seed Communities.] in four countries of the world. In Zimbabwe, in Nicaragua, in the Dominican Republic and in Jamaica and he takes care of orphans with HIV/AIDS or severely mentally and physically handicapped and he does incredible work in all of these countries. He takes care of thousands of orphans and I've started to go down to Jamaica now, my home, to build cottages for some of these orphans and a lot of my Habitat for Humanity friends are coming down also to share in this community project to build homes for [Mustard Seed.]. Quilting is very important to me but I don't know if that is the foremost thing that I want to be remembered for.

KM: Tell me how these experiences have influenced your quilts.

CN: I think when I'm asked to do a quilt--for instance like the "Under Sea Gardens," I was asked to do a quilt for the Healing Quilts in Medicine and I thought, 'What will my quilt be about? What will it say?' I just returned from New Zealand and I thought, 'Oh, there's my design idea.' Here it was, we were under the water and they were growing these animals in the hope of doing some good for humanity and so that fit in perfectly. I've had inspiration for several other quilts from my travels. For instance, we went to Thailand to build after the tsunami and in the evening we would walk down to the water to watch the sun go down and have dinner. It sounds wonderful but here we were in the middle of this little fishing village, building homes for fishermen who had lost everything in the tsunami and we watched the most beautiful sunsets and it inspired a quilt. Then on the way home to the U.S. we went to Bangkok and we took the long tail boats and went to feed these giant catfish on one of the canals. It was a great idea for another quilt. When we were in Patagonia after a build in Chile, we went on an incredible boat trip on a river and it inspired another quilt. My travels have really been a wonderful inspiration for my work.

KM: What are you working on now?

CN: What am I working on now? I'm actually working on a quilt for my newest grandson, Jack. He was born in January and are you still there?

KM: I'm still here.

CN: I dropped the phone. I am working on the quilt for him. His mother, my daughter spent months in Hawaii last year and she brought back some Hawaiian fabrics and she asked me to make a quilt for him, so that is what I'm working on now. [my next project will be a wall quilt for the University of Michigan Brehm Center, which is due in September. The design will be my interpretation of an actual photograph of villi in the human small intestine. Our Fiber Artists @ Loose Ends group is working on a series of these bio-artography quilts.]

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

CN: Hum, I can't think of anything right now. I really would like to probably just say a word about the group I'm with now, the group of contemporary artists called Fiber Artists @ Loose Ends. We are doing some wonderful and very inspirational projects. Among other things, we are making more healing quilts for the University of Michigan including some bio-artography quilts and we are doing theme quilts for exhibits as Group. That's really my focus right now.

KM: What is the appeal of doing a theme quilt? Is it easier or more difficult to be given a theme?

CN: No, it's not. It is a challenge because sometimes you are pushed to come up with something funny or clever or thought-provoking. I think it is a challenge because I want to come up with something very either unique or clever or wonderful. You want to come up with something wonderful, exciting not only for you, but for everyone who will view the quilt. Sometimes it takes a while; for instance, I had a difficult time coming up with an idea for "The Punch Line" theme. One night as I watched Saturday Night Live, it came to me; my line became "I can see Russia from my house." I couldn't wait to get my quilt started!

KM: Now "Under Sea Gardens" is 30 inches by 30 inches. Is that a typical size for you?

CN: No it is definitely not a typical size. I guess the group decided that would be a good size to work with and in a group if the quilts are all the same size I think they show very well [when they are displayed together.].

KM: What size do you typically work in?

CN: [laughs.] I really don't have a typical size at all. I like smaller quilts. I guess 30 [inches.] by 30 [inches.] is good. Sometimes I don't like the square shape so I make a rectangular one. I guess sometimes squares are difficult to work with. It was a challenge so it is good to overcome the challenge.

KM: What are your plans for your quilts?

CN: The plans for my quilts. Most of the quilts that I make for the Healing Quilts I guess are in permanent exhibit or in a traveling exhibit somewhere so I think they will stay in those permanent collections. I do have other quilts that I exhibit or actually sometimes I donate quilts for fundraising auctions or things like that. I also teach, so many of my quilts I take as teaching samples or if I give lectures and trunk shows, the guilds or groups love when you bring a lot of quilts for show. [interruption due to phone disconnecting.]

KM: Tell me about your teaching.

CN: I guess I didn't mention that. When I was little, I always wanted to be a teacher and finally I now have been teaching for many years and it is a childhood dream come true. Here I am teaching something that I really, really love. I think as a teacher the greatest reward is to see your students do wonderful work. I think that's what I love about teaching is to give some of this knowledge that I have to others and see how they take off with that knowledge that you've given to them. I also have done a lot of volunteering for children, to teach children quilting and it is just a joy to see them, how much they love it and how much they love what they have created.

KM: How about lecturing. What do you lecture on?

CN: Sometimes it's on the techniques that I use in my quilts. One of my favorite lectures now is on "Sensational String Quilts" and I'm building up more quilts for that collection. [I always begin by showing an antique string quilt I bought.] They love to see all the different styles and types of quilts that I can create with the string technique and the look that I love to do with strings is to create something very contemporary looking, not the time honored string quilts that we see from years ago. One of the other lectures I do is quilts created from floor designs from all over the world. That has been a popular lecture [and I have donated most of my teaching fees from this lecture to Habitat for Humanity.] I have to thank Jinny Beyer and her Seminar Staff for some of the content of this lecture, as I borrowed her photos of floors in India and Italy, and I show the fabulous quilts the staff created from floor patterns. This was the theme of the 2003 Hilton Head Quilting Seminar. In the past, I have taught many classes on quilted garments, and was a three-peat designer for the Fairfield Fashion Show coordinated by Donna Wilder. I have also presented Trunk Shows of the garments I have made over the years and lectured on various techniques I used to create them including thread embellishment, Bargello, dyeing and painting. What else have I done? I can't think of anything else right now.

KM: That is quite alright. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me.

CN: Thank you for having me Karen.

KM: You are more than welcome.

CN: It was my pleasure.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 12:47.

Interview Keyword

Healing Quilts in Medicine
Quilt shops
Under Sea Gardens quilt
Quilt groups
Home studios
Hand quilting
Machine quilting
Quilting techniques


“Carole Nicholas,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024,