Margaret Rolfe




Margaret Rolfe




Margaret Rolfe


Kay Jones

Interview Date



Houston, Texas


Lori Miller


Kay Jones (KJ): This is Kay Jones. Today's date is November 4, 2000. It is 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and I am conducting an interview with Margaret Rolfe for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, in Houston, Texas. Did I pronounce your name correctly?

Margaret Rolfe (MR): Yes, you certainly did.

KJ: Could you tell us about the quilt that you brought, Margaret?

MR: This is the "Koala Quilt" from my newest book, it's on the cover of the book, and that's why I thought this was an appropriate one for me to show. Not only is it on the cover of the book, but it's an Australian quilt and I'm an Australian quilter.

KJ: It suits the occasion.

MR: Yes.

KJ: The name of that new book is?

MR: "Quilt A Koala." It's actually a second edition, because I first did the book back in 1986, but now I've updated the book with new quilts and changed the technique to foundation piecing.

KJ: Tell us a little bit about the quilt in terms of the fabrics that you used, and how you chose the pattern, and that sort of thing.

MR: The pattern is the koala design, and this is one of my original pieced designs for animals. This is what I'm known for in the quilting world, my pieced designs of animals. The koala was one of my very earliest pieced animal designs. I started off doing Australian animals, as I said, with "Quilt A Koala" in 1986. Then I did farm animals and zoo animals and "Patchwork Quilts to Make for Children." Then I did North American animals in "Go Wild with Quilts" and then I did more of those in "Go Wild with Quilts - Again!" Then I did little animals in "A Quilter's Ark." And this is kind of coming back to the beginning again.

KJ: I think I know you from "Go Wild with Quilts."

MR: Right.

KJ: I love that book.

MR: Yes, well now you've fitted me in. That is not so extraordinary for an Australian to have done because from 1966 to 1971 we lived in Canada. So we very nearly stayed there. For five years of our lives North American animals were the animals that I saw and appreciated.

KJ: And if I remember correctly, Margaret, all of your animals are straight line piecing.

MR: Yes. I did straight line piecing so you can sew them together and always sew in straight lines. That technique also transfers to foundation piecing, which people find easy. I'm transferring them to foundation piecing.

KJ: How did you come up with that?

MR: I don't know. It started off, actually, with Australian wild flowers, which was my very first published book, which was "Australian Patchwork." I wanted to capture the Australian wild flowers, and they're all funny shapes. And I didn't want to be restricted to squares and right-angle triangles. I realized that you can sew anything together as long as, or easily, I mean you can sew anything together, really. But it's easy to sew things together if you keep to straight lines. It's like doing a Log Cabin. You sew one piece, then you add another, but you can do all sorts of odd and interesting shapes. That's how I did straight line piecing to begin with, and it started off with the wild flowers. Then, having done the wild flowers, I started off in the animals then the animals just kept going.

KJ: And they're all charming. What do you want [inaudible.] innovators, or the innovator of the straight line piecing for animals?

MR: Yes, oh yes. I invented how to do that, and did all these designs. So people come up to me and say, 'We really like your Canada goose,' or, 'Love your bears,' or something like that, yes.

KJ: Your bears are great. Do you plan to use this quilt in any special way?

MR: The special way, of course, is being on the cover of the book. So that's special, very special, for this quilt.

KJ: To backtrack a little bit on this quilt, how did you get interested in quilting?

MR: I was always interested in quilting, even when I was a child. I don't come from a family of quilters. They did needlework. They did embroidery, and crochet. They did knitting. They didn't do patchwork, I think influenced by the 1930's when people looked down on patchwork, and certainly of that time in Australia patchwork was associated with make-do and mend and that sort of thing. So Mother wasn't interested in patchwork and quilting. But I tried to make a quilt when I was about eleven. Terrible failure, I had all these diamonds that sort of lived in a box and I could never figure out how to put together. In the 1970's I tried to make a Cathedral Window quilt. Have you ever tried a Cathedral Window?

KJ: No.

MR: It's quite complicated, you take a big square and you fold it and fold it and you turn it and you fold. It was going to be a queen sized quilt and ended up what you would call a pillow. [laughs.] Didn't work. 1975, well actually in 1968, no 1967, we saw quilts at the World's Fair in Montreal. I was very inspired by those, but I didn't think it was anything I could actually make. But in 1975 we were living in Los Angeles for several months. My friend, my American friend there, was doing a patchworking quilting course. And I looked over her shoulder and saw her sewing two pieces of fabric together. I thought, 'I can do this.' And it really all started from there.

KJ: Do you have a first memory of a quilt?

MR: Well I guess that would be being inspired by the 1967 World's Fair, which was in Montreal, and seeing those quilts. The American Pavilion, this was the American Pavilion where I saw them, was a geodesic dome. A wonderful geodesic dome, you know this was the space age. And part of that dome had all the space stuff, whatever it was they were into at that time, rockets and stuff. But then they had this wonderful exhibit with these beautiful quilts, and they were hanging high up in the air. I went around, a crook in my neck, admiring these beautiful things. I think that was really important in terms of inspiration.

KJ: Do you have other quilt related activities? I know you teach and write. Do you belong to a quilter's group?

MR: Yes. When I returned home to Australia, in 1975, I started quilting. I had to teach myself, largely. I did have Jean Ray Laury's book, and tried to get other books. I got the "Perfect Patchwork Primer." But pretty much I had to teach myself what to do, from books. What was the question? Oh, do I belong to a guild? That was all prefaces to that. So I sort of taught myself, but I had a friend who was also interested in quilting. She had just come back from a posting, an army posting in Washington, D.C. We thought it'd be a nice idea if we got together and formed a group. So I put a little advertisement in our paper at home and said, 'Patchworking Quilting. Anyone interested, please phone.' And there was my phone number. That was 1976. That was the beginning of Canberra Quilters, which is the group I still belong to now. Of course, you know, two of us started it and we now have about 500 members.

KJ: I see the Australian quilt magazine. Are you affiliated with that in any way? You write for it?

MR: Occasionally I write for it. I think the October issue has a quilt of mine on it's cover. And I've written instructions for it and so on. I've written articles for both, because there's two Australian magazines, Australian Patchwork and Quiltng" and Down Under Quilts. I've contributed to both.

KJ: What do you find pleasing about quilting? Is there something you like better than the rest of it?

MR: That's really hard. I love making my quilts; it's a real passion for me. And I particularly love the design, the creating of the patterns. I really get excited about that. Lately, I've moved into scrap quilts. I've just done a book with Judy Hooworth, that's one of the reasons that I'm here. We're teaching scrap quilts. I'm going to do another scrap quilt book, as well. The two hats I wear in quilting and the two loves I have for quilting. One is designing my own quilts, particularly related to the animals. And the other hat I wear is quilt history, because I researched the history of quiltmaking in Australia and have written two books about that as well.

KJ: Is there a history in a nutshell that you could tell us what you found out?

MR: You needed to come to my lecture this morning. [laughs.]

KJ: [laughs.] Yes I did.

MR: In the 19th century particularly, quiltmaking in Australia was influenced by British traditions. So we did patchwork a lot, but we basically didn't do a lot of quilting. When I say quilting, I mean putting the three layers together. That is less obvious in Australia. We do the patchwork; perhaps we put a backing on it. Sometimes we'd quilt two layers. Or quilt a back and a top together, but there wouldn't be any padding. It's really interesting, because that whole British quiltmaking tradition which is so strong, the quilting tradition like the Durham quilts, doesn't seem to have come to Australia. But the patchwork did. We did pieced-over-papers quilts, medallion quilts, Log Cabin quilts, Crazy quilts. Not so much the block quilts that were made here in American. That seems to be a special America tradition.

KJ: But there was a long tradition?

MR: Yes.

KJ: And you said earlier, something about that in the 30's and later that it was a make-do, homey kind of atmosphere. But now, there's an art tradition in Australia, isn't there?

MR: Absolutely. Quilting has really spread world wide in the 1970's and beyond. And people like me were a part of it, people that came to America and were inspired by what was happening here. It's just gone on to grow from there, so that the American quilt making traditions and techniques have spread throughout the world from the 1970's on. A little bit of American quilt making came to Australia in the 1930's too, with some of Ruby Short McKim's patterns that were syndicated through the newspapers in the 1930's.

KJ: Is there something about quilting that you don't enjoy?

MR: Well, my least favorite, I wouldn't say I don't enjoy, but my least favorite thing is marking a quilt if you've finished and you're going to mark it. And my second least favorite is when you have to layer it, you pin all the layers together. Once I get through that then I'm fine.

KJ: I noticed that this quilt is machine quilted. Do you have a feeling about machine and hand quilting and the place of each?

MR: I have no prejudice against either. Hand quilting's lovely, and I used to do it. I used to hand quilt. But time pressures mean that mostly one machine quilts these days. And I think nowadays, particularly with this free machine quilting, where I've filled the background in here, it's just opened up a lot of possibilities for people to do wonderful things with the machine.

KJ: So a place for both.

MR: I think so.

KJ: What do you think makes a great quilt?

MR: I think the great quilts come from the heart. There's something about some quilts that really, really speaks to me. It's hard to define what that is, but they really have a voice that speaks.

KJ: Do you think there's a particular aspect to a quilt, or more than one aspect, that makes it appropriate for a museum?

MR: More than one. I think for museums, importantly there's the quilts that have real social significance. You can think of important quilts that are associated with important events. I think they are, rightly placed. In Australia for instance, convict women coming to Australia made quilts because Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer in England, provided them each with a little bundle of fabrics and some haberdashery, so they could be busy on the boat and they could sell the quilts and have a bit of money. Now, we've found one of these quilts not in Australia, but back in Scotland. It had been sent from Australia back to Scotland, which is probably why it survived. We've never found an Australian one in Australia, although a lot of them must have been made. That's a unique quilt that's really important that our National Gallery has acquired, because it's part of the Australian story. The other quilts I believe that should be collected, the really beautiful, wonderful quilts that quilt artists make from both the 19th century and the 20th century. I think it's really important that the museums collect quilts. This is the voice of women. Not only women, there are some man made quilts. But quilts, by and large, are a real voice of women in the collection.

KJ: You told us about how you learned to quilt. Do you think that the quilters whose quilts end up in museums learn differently, or the same way, or to a different degree? How do they go about learning their craft?

MR: I don't know. I think it's probably as many as there are quilts in some ways. Because today a quilter has a wealth of books, the teachers, places like this, where they can come, Quilt Surface Design Symposium, whatever it is. Some quilters are artists who come into quilting. Some people become quilters and then become artists. There's just a myriad of ways that people can come to quilting, I think.

KJ: Very individual then.

MR: Yes. I think there's just wonderful opportunities for people to become quilters today.

KJ: Obviously quilting is important to you, Margaret. Would you share with us the ways in which it's important, how it is a part of your life?

MR: It's the number one thing that I do. It's gone from being something that I did, first of all starting as a hobbyist, and within a few years became absolutely central as a pursuit, in two ways. As I've said, I've got the two hats. One was doing the research for the history of quilts in Australia, which was something that I did very seriously and traveled a lot and read and researched a lot, particularly through the 1980's. But of course the second one is developing my own designs, my own quilts, which have led to the publication of so many of my books.

KJ: Where is your family in all of this?

MR: My family? Just right in there. My husband supports everything that I do. I remember in 1983 I said to him, 'I've got this fabulous idea for a quilt but I don't have time to make it.' And he said, 'Nonsense, we'll make time.' So, support with that sort of an attitude. My children are really important too. My second son has illustrated, with very beautiful animal drawings, my book "Go Wild." They're done by my son Phil, who's an artist now. He was studying art at that time and has become an artist. And they are very supportive of what I do. They help and comment. My first son is an engineer and he helps me with the computer side of things. Really important. And my daughter, although she's not a quilter, is really interested in design and fabrics and textiles.

KJ: And what part do quilters play in your life? Other quilters?

MR: Other quilters. Well of course most of my friends are quilters. Quite a surprise! And through quilting I've made friends with quilters all over the world, which has been a wonderful and unique thing about quilting. I've come to American Quilt Study Group symposiums. I came to a number of those in the 1980's, and made friends there. And of course publishing in America, meeting people. So I've got friends, that now I can email, through quilting.

KJ: Has quilting ever helped you through a hard time in your life, a difficult time?

MR: I think I've been a very lucky person, in that a lot of the awful things that happen to a lot people haven't happened to me. I remember when my husband was ill, in 1993. He was very seriously ill. I was working on a quilt. It was really important to me just to keep working on it. It gave me something to do, something to be busy at, something where I could kind of escape through the quilt. Just having to stitch on it, seemed to help. But he's fine, a happy ending to that.

KJ: You've traveled extensively.

MR: Yes, I had to laugh when you asked that question, 'Have you traveled out of your hometown?' And I've put a couple of exclamation marks next to that. Yes, I have traveled, across the other side of the world.

KJ: What differences have you noticed, characteristics perhaps would be a better way to ask it, in different areas in terms of quilting?

MR: I'd have to think about that question, because I suppose what struck me primarily, was the opposite. How quilting now is shared throughout the world. And yet I suppose that I would say, that I've just looked at wonderful quilts made by European quilters here. I know Australia makes wonderful vibrant, colorful quilts. But the world is a global village today. It truly is, with telecommunication and email and so on. I think we're all brought together and spread apart.

KJ: Do you think quilts have a special meaning for, this question is great for American women, but for Australian women, having special meaning in terms of your country, your particular area?

MR: All quilts, I think, have a personal meaning. People put their lives into their quilts. In some quilts, this is a little more apparent than in others. I was talking in my lecture about a wonderful quilt that we've got in Australia that was made by some sisters around 1900 to 1903. They stitched their lives into this quilt. Their loyalty to the British Empire, little morals, little humorous sayings, their cows, horses, the dog, the rooster. I think that's why we get so excited about quilts because there's this big space that we can fill with things. And quilts have this, they're uniquely expressive I think. It's terribly hard for two people to make the same quilt, unless they buy an identical kit. But apart from that, if you sit down to make a quilt, and even if you use the same fabrics as I would, which is pretty unlikely, we'd both make different quilts. I think that's one of the things that people love about quilts. Its uniqueness, it's the way that women have a voice through their quilts. Women feel really comfortable about expressing themselves in this particular medium. Is that the question you're really asking me there? Or did I just sort of get into that? [laughs.]

KJ: You gave me a wonderful answer, whatever question I asked. [laughs.] No, you did answer the question. About the preservation of quilts, do you have any special feeling about that?

MR: Of course I feel very strongly about that, very, very strongly. This is a quilt historian. When I wrote my history book I started off by saying quilts are important because often quilts remain and are the few tangible legacies of what women leave. The needlework that women have done, often after the women are gone, is some of the key physical things that they have left, that are left of them. I think it's really, really important to preserve quilts and look after them.

KJ: Take us into your studio, or your workroom.

MR: I'd rather you hadn't asked that question. [laughs.] I'm not especially tidy you see, so my studio just overflows with fabric. It's a really important room for me, because that's where I do a lot of work. It's now split up for various reasons. I've got a room where there's a lot of fabric stored, and my board, but because it was getting a bit crowded, and the computer was in there, I've actually moved to another room where I actually sew. So between writing and sewing, the two main things that I do, where I've got the computer looks out onto the deck and the deck has a birdfeeder. That's really important to me, because I get all of these wonderful Australian parrots coming to visit my birdfeeder.

KJ: And when you create, do you do that in spurts, or do you have one long day or evening or week? How does the creative process work for you?

MR: The creative process definitely works in spurts, but the spurts tend to come in several months when I'm intensely working, say on a book, and I really don't like to go teaching or travel or anything like that. I like to be really focused on my work and other than that the normal domestic life, my husband is still there, my dog is always right by my side. We go for a walk every afternoon. Those normal things. But I like to be really focused on what I'm doing. But the creative process, it's really hard to describe. You just get an idea for a quilt, and there's sort of nothing there and then there's an idea, and then you start to work on that idea. Gradually it becomes a quilt. There's something wonderful about that process, but it's really hard to sort of describe because first of all there's this blank space and then there's the idea. Where does that idea come from? But it just does. It's creativity.

KJ: Obviously animals are very important to you. Was that true from an early age?

MR: I think so. Not that we had anything exotic at home, we just had a cat and a little dog briefly. As a child, I always wanted a dog. But we've always had animals, since we've been settled in Australia. We've had a dog and a cat. They have always been very much a part of the family. I enjoy my birdfeeder. I always like looking at birds, wherever I go.

KJ: And your dog.

MR: My dog who's missing me, I'm told.

KJ: What's the best part about teaching?

MR: I like to share. Quilting has been wonderful for me, and it's fun to be able to share that with other people. And I've been able to do that in America, in Canada, in England and Japan. It's special.

KJ: Well, we've talked about a number of things, Margaret. Is there something that we haven't touched upon that you would like to share?

MR: As an Australian, as I said in the beginning of my lecture this morning, I'm very grateful to the generosity of American quilters who have shared quilting. And who have allowed someone like me to make books and be published in America. I appreciate that.

KJ: And how do you see quilting in 20 or 50 years?

MR: 50 years, not my problem. [laughs.] I'm not going to be here. I honestly don't know. I can't believe how it's grown and increased and just gotten wonderful. So, I'm afraid I don't have a crystal ball. The journey looking backwards has been wonderful.

KJ: It has been wonderful. I'd like to thank Margaret Rolfe for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 2000 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 3:30 p.m., November 4, 2000.


“Margaret Rolfe,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 22, 2024,