Sarah Abright Dickson




Sarah Abright Dickson


Interviewed at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas, in 2011, Sarah Abright Dickson shares her touchstone quilt, which she made when her mother was dying of cancer in 1978. Dickson makes the most of a small studio in her apartment, valuing the time she is able to spend quiltmaking while working a full time job. She embraces the changes to quiltmaking, and urges fellow quilters to let their hearts and minds guide the process.




Sarah Abright Dickson


Hollis Chatelaine

Interview Date



Houston, Texas

Interview indexer

Emily Bianchi


Alana Zakowski


Hollis Chatelaine (HC): This is Hollis Chatelaine. Today's date is November 3rd, 2011 and it is 3:12 PM and I am conducting an interview with Sarah Dickson for the Quilters' S.O.S. which is Save Our Stories a project of The Alliance for the American Quilts. Sarah and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Sarah, will you tell me about the quilt that you brought today?

Sarah Dickson (SD): Yes, actually Hollis this quilt was made in 1978. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and spent a lot of time obviously in the hospital. During those long hours, a lot of time she slept and I brought a shoebox full of these pieces of fabric and all of these were from either dresses or play clothes that I had made for my children or things that I had made for her over the years, I mean each piece has a significance of some kind. I pieced it by hand during this time that she was in the hospital, and eventually put the quilt together and then when the top was pieced, she had passed away, and I just could not bring myself to quilting it. Then about three years later, a very good friend of mine called me one morning before eight o'clock and said, "All right Sarah, this is the day, come have coffee, we're doing to layer and baste that quilt," and that's exactly what we did. I just very simply quilted in the ditch around the triangles and I put different shell patterns in the muslin squares of the muslin part of each block.

HC: I know you've made many quilts, why did you choose to bring this quilt to the interview?

SD: Probably because for me personally, it has more significance than a lot of the other quilts that I have done. There are others that I have made for specific reasons and they are meaningful but this to me is very poignant. My mother never could understand why I quilted. She always said, "Oh Sarah that takes up so much time" and little does she know, of course, how this has evolved. I don't know, it was just that she was a great part of my life, a great leader, a great mentor, and it just has a lot of personal significance for me basically.

HC: How do you use this quilt? Do you use it in your home?

SD: Oh absolutely, yes. It's a bed quilt that I use quite frequently and there are stains on the back of it and you know, like that, but I try to preserve it as well as I can, but it is used almost all the time.

HC: What do you think that people viewing the quilt might conclude about you?

SD: [laughs.] I don't know, that's sort of a funny question. It's so traditional, and it's not that I object to doing traditional quilts, because I do, I like them for my family, but that's not, there's another side of me you know, that does something more contemporary but, I don't know, I don't know what they would think. I've never really given that much thought actually.

HC: At what age did you start quilting?

SD: I was forty years old. We lived in Lubbock, Texas and if any of you have ever been to Lubbock [Texas.], there's not a whole lot to do there. I mean you create your own fun. My Mother had just been diagnosed with this disease and we were at a school dinner, and I was saying that Mom had sent money for Christmas that year because she could not get out and shop and that I really wanted to do something special with it. A lady ahead of me, by the name of Jackie Reis, from Lubbock [Texas.] was a quilt teacher and she said, "Oh Sarah, I have one spot left in my quilting class, would you like to participate?" and the only thing I knew about quilting at that time was an appliqué quilt that my paternal Grandmother had made for me when I was little and it was pretty much shredded by the time I got ahold of it. I took this class, we began in right after the first of the year in January, it was snowing, cold, there were eight of us in this class, and I went home that evening and you could not pull me from the ceiling, I was so excited. Quilting to me meant it was a women's art primarily, there was a lot of history involved, it had to deal with fabric and I've always loved to sew and it was just a combination of a lot of things that has just exploded.

HC: How many hours do you think you quilt a week now?

SD: I do a little something each and every day. It may be two hours, it may be two minutes, but it's sort of a pattern that I have made myself, or enjoy doing, and I always do a little something. Whether it's actual quilting, whether it's doing something on the machine, whatever, I always do a little something each and every day.

HC: When did you, you first started quilting at the age of forty, did you ever quilt before that?

SD: No, absolutely not, no.

HC: What is your first quilt memory?

SD: My first quilt memory is a large bed quilt, Jackie Reis had a show in Lubbock [Texas.] and the quilt that I, the pattern that I used was Hands All Around. This quilt was huge. It was too big for a beginning project; it was made out of scraps and bought fabrics and there was probably [laughs.] two feet of quilting per, I mean there was not enough quilting in that thing at all. I used a quilt batting called Yours Truly, which has just dissolved into nothing so it's like two pieces of muslin together now. I mean but that's the first quilt I ever made, and I still have it.

HC: Good. Are there other quiltmakers in your family or do you have a lot of quilters who are friends?

SD: I have a lot of friends that are quilters, but I am the only quiltmaker in my family. I have three boys and one daughter, and my daughter is not at all interested in quilting. They all just roll their eyes with me when I have to shop for anything like that.

HC: How does your quiltmaking impact them?

SD: When they were smaller, in a very adverse way because I would put them in the car after school and I'd say, "I need to go pick up something really quick," and they knew exactly what I was doing, that I was running by the quilt shop or I was running to get something, or I'd say, "I got to go see Jackie Reis" and they knew exactly what that meant. They sort of laughed at me in a sense, my husband used to call my quilt bee the quilt Nazis. I mean it was in a loving way, but you know they never quite understood, now they do. As adults they are much more, of course interested and tolerable and you know, they admire my accomplishments, little they are, you know but they're very supportive, yes.

HC: Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quiltmaking or teaching, or can you think of any stories that might be amusing?

SD: I know there are some, I know there are, right at this minute I can't think, and I'm sorry I just, maybe as this goes on.

HC: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking? What do you like about it?

SD: I work in a very large architectural office and it's pretty strenuous, my life you know, I have a large family and that's sort of strenuous to me, it's a very calming effect. For instance in the summer when the humidity is high and the heat is hot, I love to dye fabric.That to me is extremely relaxing, because it's a hands-on thing. I enjoy that. I enjoy shutting my brain off to the everyday things and escaping in to an art form.

HC: Are there any aspects of quiltmaking that you don't like?

SD: I don't do the 'A' thing very much, appliqué. I mean I like it, I love the freedom of it, I love the creativity of appliqué but I have big hands and for some reason it just doesn't work with me. Machine appliqué, yes I can do, but no there's not too many aspects of quilting that I dislike.

HC: Are there any aspects of when you make a quilt, any parts of it that you like less?

SD: Layering and basting, yes, I mean that to me is a very arduous, time consuming thing, but that's about the only thing, yeah.

HC: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

SD: I don't anymore, Hollis. I belonged, I was a charter member of the San Antonio [Texas.] Quilt Guild when it was formed, I belonged to the guild in Lubbock [Texas.] for a short time, and I belonged to Fiber Artists in San Antonio [Texas.] for a while, but I've had to go back to work and working fulltime and doing all this other just did not, leave me any time for myself and I just, essentially, have gotten out of everything.

HC: Have the advances in technology influenced your art or your work? And if so, how have they influenced them?

SD: Not really. I wish in a way I had more time, and perhaps were younger, so that I could do more computerized thinking, if you want to call it that. But no, I just sort of still locked-in, and I'll have advanced but I'm not as computer, I mean I'm not as quilting computer savvy as a lot of people are.

HC: What are your favorite techniques or your favorite materials when you quilt?

SD: Techniques, I just like piecing. I really like that a lot. As I've said, I love hand dyeing, if you want to call that a technique, a lot. I don't, beyond that I don't know.

HC: Could you describe your studio or the place that you create for us please?

SD: I'd love to do that. In fact I would like to write a book about that. I now live in an apartment, and my studio is probably one foot by two feet, it's basically my sewing machine and the table that it sets on. My design wall is my bedspread on my bed, which sets right behind me. I have no space. I have absolutely no space at all, and I work very myopically. I often wonder, I used to have a design board, and I probably looked at things a lot differently then, but now that's not the case, so I just work with what I have, you know.

HC: Right. You've mentioned that you work fulltime, well, how do you balance your time?

SD: I give my all to the architectural firm, until 5:30 everyday, and then after, from 5:31 on it's my time. I essentially do what I want to do. I mean I have no one else living with me at this point, and other than family obligations and friends and things like that, I like to go home and lose myself in some form of art, quilting, or piecing, or some of the techniques, I really do like that.

HC: Since your studio space is so small, could you tell me, how do you go about designing your quilts?

SD: It's probably pretty spontaneous; I have an idea in my head. Once in a while, very rarely, will I try to draw something out, but generally I work from the gut and I work moment by moment. I do make some alternate changes as I go along, but generally when I start out with a thought it's what I carry through.

HC: What do you think makes a wonderful quilt? What makes a great quilt for you?

SD: What makes a great quilt, and the other side of the coin, what makes a great, great quilt for others or a great quilt in general, I think are the designs, the design, the combinations, the colors, the fabrics that are used. I have no training, whatsoever, in art, none. I wish I had. If I had my life to go back and do over again I would love to do that. My maternal Grandmother was, attended the Chicago [Illinois.] Art Institute and has quite an extensive art background, I've had nothing. No formal training at all. There are a lot of fallacies that I see in my work, a lot of things that I wish I could change, and a lot of things I wish I really, really knew, but it's too late now I think, you know, so I just do what I do and that's it. I deeply admire, in particular the art quilts that are coming out now, I just, I just almost want to cry they're so beautiful; I just love them very, very much.

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

SD: I think it's the design, design has a big factor in it, and also the fabrics, the colors that are chosen, I mean I just think it's a compilation of a lot of things, you know. The way, whether it's how it's presented but, and I think the way we perceive them, I mean everyone perceives a quilt differently and sees it a little bit differently. I see things a lot differently than a lot of people, and maybe what I see is not right, but it's the way I look at it, and I either like it or I don't like it you know, I guess that's all I can go by.

HC: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection in your opinion?

SD: That's a, you know that, that's hard. I mean it depends who's the curator, what is the purpose of the exhibit, it's all subjective. I mean, I don't think there's any real guidelines for something like that, I think the person that is putting the exhibit together, I mean she may have some guidelines or some things that she or he is looking for, but I don't think there's any set rule
is on something like that, that I know of.

HC: What do you think, what do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

SD: Someone who has a lot of time, a lot of energy, someone who loves fabric and loves art and likes the combination of the two. To me using fabric in a quilt is like putting paints, watercolors or acrylics on a canvas, same type of thing but it's just in how you, how you do it.

HC: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

SD: In the quilting world you mean?

HC: In the quilting world or outside of the quilting world.

SD: It, that goes a long way. There are a lot of, and that changes a lot. I don't think there's any one particular person that I'm really drawn to, and the changes now in quilting are so rapid and they're just so exciting to me because, for instance even this show, the first couple of years that like, quilt art quilt, or contemporary quilt was shown, everybody was like, "Oh, oh, this and that," and now it's exploded, they're all over the place, they're being received well. There's large exhibits of them, and that to me is very exciting because it is such a contemporary art form, and I don't think we need to be locked into the past. I mean I think there's a space for that, and I'm all for it, but I think we, as artists, or quilt artists, need to move on.

HC: Are there any artists outside of the quilting world that have influenced you?

SD: No, not really, not really.

HC: How do you feel about machine quilting versus handquilting?

SD: I'm all for machine quilting, that does not bother me at all. I do not have the space, really, for machine quilting. I do smaller pieces occasionally that way. On the other hand, it's an outlet for me to be able to handquilt because it gives me downtime and it sort of, you know, relaxes me a lot. But I have no objection, there are a lot of people who think they are purests, and think, "Oh my God, if you quilt you handquilt," I don't believe in that. I think there's wonderful machine quilting that's going on, very exciting.

HC: How about the longarm quilting?

SD: I could never see myself doing that, I have seen some work, particularly lately, that is very lovely. But in another sense, Hollis, to be very honest with you, to me it's almost too sterile. I like a little more creativity and a little more fluidness and a little more originality, but that's okay, that's just my opinion you know.

HC: Why is the quiltmaking important to your life? You've mentioned that it was because it relaxes you. Are there other reasons?

SD: Primarily because it's about the only outlet, if you want to call it, in the arts that I have. I am not a good painter. My sketches are abominable, to say the least, but I have found some satisfaction, a lot of satisfaction in what I do in the quilt world and I just am sort of focused in on that.

HC: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or your region?

SD: I don't think they do at all. This is Texas; I don't particularly do Texas quilts. I don't do like southwest regional type things. I generally do whatever pulls me at the time, you know. I love working, I think my, going back a little bit, when I first started quilting, I read the book An Amish Adventure by Roberta Horton, I was totally pulled and drawn to the fact of the Amish women and their use of black and color and then on the back side that they could do anything, I mean the front side had to be pretty plain, but on the backside they could use any kind of flower print or anything they wanted and I just thought that that was absolutely terrific, I just went crazy over that theory and I still to this day prefer black and color, and most of my quilts are like that, most of my more contemporary ones, and I like to put really splashy backs on them.

HC: Do you think that quilts have; is there an importance of quilts on the American life?

SD: I do, but the other thing that bothers me a little bit, and I have seen that just recently, not only here but like in local quilt shows, there are not enough young people coming up. I think our generation, or the older generation, is very dominant and I don't see anyone coming to replace us. I know things, you know, waft and wane and whatever but I really think there needs to be some emphasis, or some way to draw these younger artists and women or men, into the quilting world.

HC: How do you think the quilts that you have made, or people have made, how do you think they can be preserved for the future?

SD: You mean literally preserved?

HC: Mhm.

SD: Oh Hollis, I just think you know, special care, nothing lasts forever and I know these quilts eventually will shred or you know they'll disintegrate or over time, you know things will happen to them. Most of them are not what I call museum quality pieces, and I think people tend to think everything they do is museum quality and no, I'd rather that they were used than stuck on some shelf or in some cedar chest, definitely.

HC: What has happened to most of the quilts that you have made? Are they with friends or family?

SD: A lot of them have been made as gifts for the family, obviously. I have a son who's a chef and I made a wonderful kind of funny chef-type quilt but the child of grace has not learned to take care of things yet and he will get that quilt when he is matured to that level. I have sold some pieces, I do not generally make pieces just for that, with that in mind, but I don't know whether they'll end up in a garage sale, I don't know. I mean, I have a lot of quilts and I hope the family, you know enjoys them and loves them after I'm gone, but you know that's for them. I do have one thing to tell you all. Last summer here in Texas 2010, it was hot, not like this past one, but it was really, really hot. I stayed inside, I hibernate in the summers, and I thought, "You know, I'm of a certain age, I have four children, only the oldest one is married with children, the other three, one is married with children are coming, but I may not live forever, of course, and I want this next generation of grandchildren, that I may never know, to have quilts," so I started making some really bright, wonderful children's quilts. My daughter, Anne, asked me one day, "Mother, what are you doing?" and I said, "I'm making some quilts Anne, for in case you know, when I go that there'll be some for future children," "Oh, Mother that is so morbid." So I had been making The Morbids, I have made twelve children's quilts, they're happy, gay, fun, colorful, and call them The Morbids. Anyway, a little side note there.

HC: Thank you. What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

SD: Not to get caught up so much in what other people think you should be doing. I think that's, excuse the expression, bull honkey. I think you should go by what your heart dictates you to do. I think there's too many stringent guidelines and things people think you have to do, no ma'am. You do what you want to do, you do what you feel like you should be doing. You know, and to heck with it all, you know, I mean it's your work, it's not their work, you know and I think you should just let your own heart and mind guide you, definitely.

HC: Do you feel like you would like to add, anything more that's a wonderful way, that what you just said, is there anything more you'd like to add?

SD: About what quilters should do nowadays you mean?

HC: Anything you would just like to say about your quiltmaking or?

SD: I wish I had more time, maybe I even wish I could use my time more, you know I work like I say as much as I can, but to me it's such a beautiful outlet. I think another sad factor, and I'm very, very guilty of this, and I've been guilty of it at this show this year, is I have enough fabric to last generations to come, you know, and it's just stacked everywhere, I mean neatly put away, but I'll never use any of it and to me that's really sad because I would love to give it to, put each little piece that I have at home into something, and that's never going to happen, but maybe there will be a family member, maybe they'll have a big garage sale, I don't know what they're going to do, but I would like to see somebody that loves fabric get a hold of all of that, and continue on.

HC: Well I'd like to thank Sarah Dickson for allowing me to interview her today for the Quilters' S.O.S. Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview concluded at 3:37. Did I do okay?

Interview Keyword

International Quilt Festival
Quilt Purpose - Art or personal expression
Quilt Purpose - Mourning


“Sarah Abright Dickson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,