ID Number: TQ.2015.034
Name of interviewee: Sara Cook
Name of interviewer: Liz Betts
Name of transcriber: Michele Webster
Location: Sara’s House
Address: Brighton, East Sussex
Date: 10 July 2015
Length of interview: 1:09:10
Teacher and textile artist, Sara introduces about her traditional pinwheel quilt made using mostly vintage fabrics from her mother’s sewing boxes and white fabric. She talks about her family’s sewing history as dressmakers and tailors, as well as her professional involvement in costume-making and dressmaking, before becoming a teacher in adult education and setting up her own City and Guilds approved centre. Sara discusses her design influences and professional development, her difficulties finding time for her own work and her current professional development, undertaking the Quilters’ Guild quilt judging course.
Liz Betts [LB]: OK so we’re recording. ID number TQ.2015.034. Name of interviewee is Sara Cook. Name of interviewer is Elizabeth Betts. Location is Sara’s house in Brighton, East Sussex and the date today is the 10th July 2015. Hello Sara!
Sara Cook [SC]: Hi Liz [Sara laughs]
LB So I think we’ll start off talking about your quilt. Can you tell me more about your quilt? Shall we start with what your, how your, what your quilt looks like?
SC: Okay, so it’s a quilt that’s made using triangles, all made from triangles and it’s made from lots of different patterns of fabrics that I pulled out of my mum’s sewing baskets when we, soon after she died and we located all her fabrics in the loft. And I cut fabrics from that and also added in some from contemporary fabrics now.
LB: And what size is your quilt?
SC: Ooh, that’s a good question isn’t it. Ah, let me think. So. So it’s about 45 by about 60 [LB: Lovely] inches, yeah.
LB: And I notice your printed fabrics are interspersed with white fabric. Why did you do that?
SC: The patterned fabrics on their own were all lovely individually but not necessarily all pushed together and because I wanted to use them all I decided to put a neutral in between and that way they’re all showcased within their own little sort of white area. So it’s a patterned triangle with a plain triangle making a pinwheel design and I felt they looked better like that.
LB: And how did you quilt it?
SC: So I’m, this is the first quilt that I quilted on my mid-arm quilting machine that I’d recently purchased and I just used a vermicelli, meandering quilting line to go across it, not too close together so that it didn’t become too hard and stiff.
LB: And how do you use this quilt?
SC: Well [laughs] a lot of my quilts are used as class samples for students for teaching so it’s not on a bed, it comes in and out for workshops and classes.
LB: And do you have plans to use it in the future or is it just purely a teaching sample?
SC: It’s purely a teaching sample at the moment but it would make a good lap sized quilt, you know to put over somebody’s knee, so whoever inherits it, or if I should retire [laughs] it might get used then!
LB: And you mentioned it’s a traditional pinwheel design. Could you elaborate a little on that?
SC: Yes, it’s a traditional pinwheel but it’s done with the sort of speed piecing method of putting two squares together, diagonal line through the middle and then machining either side and then chain piecing them together so although there are a lot of triangles in it they came together very quickly.
LB: And did you plan this quilt in advance?
SC: Did I plan it? Well it was laid out on the floor so I designed it as I went along and made sure that the fabrics all looked balanced and harmonious and you didn’t get too many too close together of the same fabric.
LB: And when did you make this quilt?
SC Ah, let’s think, I made it about two years ago now, so where are we? 2015 so 2013.
LB: And shall we talk a bit more now about the printed fabrics within so we’ve discussed the white fabric which is the predominant one [SC: yes] but can we talk about some of the individual fabrics, maybe if we just go along the top row or two?
SC: Well a lot of the fabrics range from old dressmaking projects that mum had and I have made I suppose in the past so the fabrics come from the 50s. The backing fabric for instance was a large piece of dress fabric that has evidently not been used to make a dress but had been bought for the intention and that’s got big blue, well I don’t know whether you’d say they were roses or peony’s, that sort of big abstract type flower I suppose. So that’s in one piece and then the pieces of fabric on the front are by and large scraps left over from, ranging from the 1950s through 1960s, we’ve got an orange sort of psychodelicky-type fabric here, that’s a 50s one with the sort of, what would you say, purples and reds. And then we’ve got into the 1970s with the browns, brown fabrics and the small sort of prints on a one colour printed on a white background say. And the fabric that probably caught, sort of started it all off was as we cleared out the shed we found that some of the tools in the shed had been wrapped up in an old duvet cover from the 1980s and it’s in a sort of a range of blues and turquoise colours in that big sort of bold pattern that vintage quilters get very excited about now [laughs] but was obviously considered to be very old fashioned and shoved in the shed! [Laughs] So when it came out I was thrilled and recognised its value immediately and it became one of the fabrics that I used in the quilt.
LB: And do you use older fabrics in your quilts or do you tend to buy fabric? Is this a one-off?
SC: This really has been a one-off. I haven’t really been a scrap quilt maker but because of the circumstances it seemed appropriate really and was quite a sort of cathartic project to work on and sort of preserving all those fabrics from the past and playing with them to see if I could make it all work into a design was really enjoyable.
LB: As you’ve got an emotional connection with these fabrics and a long connection with these fabrics, do you feel differently to this quilt compared to some of your other quilts you may have made at the same time?
SC: Yes. Absolutely. I would never let this one go, not that I’ve let many quilts go [laughs] no this one obviously has got this connection with the family and the fabrics being used for clothes through the generations.
LB: And have you got more of the fabrics left?
SC: I have, yes. Yes. And there’s that at the back of my mind, that I would make more. Yes, they are treasured pieces of fabrics because they have that emotional connection with the family.
LB: So if we go on to looking at the binding of the quilt, it’s quite unusual in that, well can you describe what the binding looks like?
SC: Well essentially it’s a scrappy binding which is made up of leftover fabrics that have been used in the main body of the quilt separated by a plain white boarder. But instead of being a traditional sort of half inch or quarter inch type finish the binding is two inches wide so it’s a binding but it’s also a border. The binding extends round to the back so it is the same width on the front as the back but it just added a bit more strength, more sort of, it connected the edge of the quilt to the central design. Yeah, and was a bit different.
LB: And do you plan to make more quilts to this design?
SC: No, I tend to make one design, enjoy it, move on! [Laughs] I want to play with another design and find out what I can do with the fabrics differently. I’d like to see what would happen if I try doing a log cabin with them that, another sort of traditional pattern with the fabrics.
LB: And you mention that you sometimes take this to your courses, have students made versions of this quilt?
SC: Yes. I mean this pattern is not an original by any mark is it? The pinwheel has been around with us forever but yeah so it’s interesting to see their, they generally really like the impact of the pattern with the plain and will emulate that, often using charm packs and plain fabrics.
LB: You mention that some of the fabrics in the quilt are fabrics that you used for dressmaking, sort of ten, twenty years ago. When did you start making quilts?
SC: Well, actually the fabrics in this quilt were made for, were used for dressmaking projects that my mum worked on rather than me. I would have used scraps of these for sewing when I was a child. So I started sewing obviously at home with mum. Mum had been a dressmaker by trade and so there was always fabric in the house, so teddies and Barbie’s were always having clothes made out of fabrics out of the scrap bag. And then I suppose because it was something I enjoyed doing I then, as you had the chance then to take needlework at school as a subject, and turned out to be one of my best [laughs] subjects! And I continued that on then through to sort of O-level and A-level and then had to choose what I was going to do with this skill and there seemed to be two options presented; either I went into the theatre or I went into fashion. So I chose the theatre route then and trained to be a costume maker. And I worked in the theatre then for about seven years and finally working for different repertory companies I ended up working for an opera company which unknown to me really was very famous, in fact it was Glyndebourne Opera! [Laughs] But I didn’t know anything about opera when I turned up. But I soon did and soon realised how much I loved it and loved working on their costumes and working with all the really good quality fabrics. So a lot of what we did was construction of boned bodices and corsets and petticoats so I developed a love of sort of creating three dimensional work at that stage as well and I’ve always really engaged with doing 3-D work. And then after that I set up independently making wedding dresses and did that for a number of years as a small business. Stopped to have the family, re-assessed the future and what I’m going to do and just before I’d had the family I’d trained as a teacher, took a teaching qualification, cos I realised when I was working that I really liked showing other people how to do things and so took my leave from that and trained. So then after, when the children began to get a bit bigger I went into adult education and started teaching that way. And then fell into teaching patchwork and quilting because the tutor retired and I was considered to be the dressmaking tutor so therefore I ought to know how to make patchwork! [Laughs] Which was fortunate that I’d re-visited this passion on my own, and had been busily learning how to make quilts using Lynne Edwards excellent instructions in her Sampler Quilt book and I’d started working on a quilt and making my own sampler quilt. And that led to a Community Association project for the Millennium as a lot of quilted projects were made and we made three very large patchwork quilts for the community so that each square in the quilt represented either a building or an organisation within the community so I learned a lot from that project! [Laughs] And then when that was finished I finished my sampler quilt [laughs] and I felt I’d kind of learned enough about patchwork and it was shortly after that that they asked me to take on the beginner’s patchwork class.
LB: That was about 2001 you started?
LB: Can you talk a little bit about your first quilt you made, and if you can remember what year or approximately what year it was made?
SC: Yes, so as a child my sister had moved up to Cambridgeshire and we’d pop in and out of Cambridge for shopping with the family when we visited her and we went to two places, one was Heffers book shop so that meant a new reading book which was great and then also Laura Ashley’s which we all liked to hang around in [laughs] and ogle the clothes. But Laura Ashley sold squares of fabric and I would covet these squares and buy them and then I was, I then made those into a hexagon quilt and that was, let me see, I’m just going to have a cough.
LB: I’m just going to pause the tape. [Pause and microphone noise] Talking quilts, part 2 of interview with Sara Cook, ID number TQ.2015.034 and the interviewer is Elizabeth Betts. The date is the 10th July 2015 and we’re at Sara’s home in Brighton, East Sussex. So Sara we were talking about your first quilt and when you started quilting.
SC: That’s right, yes. It was, so I think it was about 1978 when I started making this quilt and it was hexagons, quite big hexagons actually and piecing over papers. I don’t think my mum showed me how to do it and I don’t remember it being particularly something I noticed in one of my big sewing books that I had. Now whether it was something I picked out of the Things to Do and Make book which we had on the shelf, Penguin I think it was published by, a pink cover, something that you looked at a lot on a Sunday afternoon, there was nothing else to do. But I think it might have been my sister who was a big sort of toy maker who might have got me started so maybe she knew about patchwork. Anyway so I got started on these and one of the things I remember going, remember happening was that as I began to put the fabrics together I ran out of colours that I wanted to use so the packs were I suppose like pre charm packs now you know you get a certain amount of colours in it, and there weren’t really enough so I got a bit disheartened but I remember I did finish it when I was at college training to be a costume maker and I had a boyfriend then who’d given me the Readers Digest book, the big sort of I called it my Big Book of Sewing, but I think it’s called Complete Guide to Needlework and there were chapters in there about appliqué, patchwork and quilting and I must have gleaned some information out of that that as to how to finish it. But I remember cutting up a corduroy skirt that I’d made during an O-level class. I remember it had beautiful bound seams but the finished result when I put it on was, well I didn’t like it! [Laughs] I didn’t like it so I never wore it so this, it just sat there so I thought ‘right, I’ll cut this up and I’ll use that for my patchwork quilt’ and I suppose what I did was I applied it to the corduroy and then turned it through, treated it like a pillow case and it wasn’t properly quilted, it had polyester wadding in but it was just turned through so there was no actual quilting.
And that seemed to look ok and it lasted a number of years, I think the cat ended up sleeping on it as well [laughs] and again I did rescue it when I cleared mum’s house so I’ve still got that monument to my first efforts in patchwork! [Laughs] But the book also contained ideas for appliqué, something which I’d covered during my O-level embroidery O-level because that also contained elements of quilting, I remember we had to do trapunto quilting in that and appliqué. So I picked out a wall hanging design from this book which I was going to make for my nephew for Christmas and I realised it was all, the instructions were all for reverse appliqué and I had a lot of homework to do as a student and the idea of sitting there doing this mysterious reverse appliqué was too much so I overrode those decisions and used bondaweb, and bonded on the shapes, satin stitched round them and hey presto the project was finished! [Laughs] Ready for Christmas. So that was, and I’ve always really liked appliqué and so that was interesting to start with, that was, though I didn’t realise that was anything to do with quilting I suppose at that stage.
LB: So what would you say now are your preferred styles of quilt making?
SC: Well I suppose anything that’s on the machine and is fast, speed piecing, quick cutting, rotary cutting methods. Strip piecing I find is very creative so I like to dye my own fabrics and strip piece fabrics together that way. So you know using the sewing machine and rotary cutter means you can create, be creative and it happens quickly. And I think when you’re teaching and you haven’t got a lot of time and there’s a family going oh there’s not a lot of time for sitting around doing reverse appliqué [laughs].
LB: And has your preferred style changed since say the 1980s to current? Have you gone through phases with your quilting?
SC: Well I suppose you know I suppose I started with the hexagons because that’s all I knew about really. But I suppose because I started with the sampler quilt and in the process of making that you try all sorts of techniques. I’ve always. Because I’ve always sewn, I’ve always loved sewing, I’ve always wanted to know more about it so making the sampler was excellent because I learned loads of techniques so I was introduced to a lot of things right from the word go. And then I suppose what’s changed more is the use, is the fabrics that have changed so going from sort of Laura Ashley and then really getting into patchwork in the 90s where fabrics were all little patterns, tone on tones, quite sort of subdued with lots of browns. And then coming into teaching, working with the students I think is when the fabric started to change, when the youngsters started coming into the class. Started getting a lot more young girls working and wanting to be creative and them bringing in much more contemporary fabrics with big patterns meant that the making of the samplers had to change as well because the fabrics in the 90s worked out very well, you had your dark, your medium and your light and you could create your three dimensional shapes. But when the all-over multi-coloured patterns came in that meant that we had to adopt a new approach really to get the patterns to work. So that brought in plain fabrics and changed the way the samplers looked and I engaged with that as well and ended up making my own contemporary sampler to, you know, to inspire the students. So I suppose in a way my styles have often been student-led, keeping up with current trends really which has kept me going and [laughs] changed what I do.
LB: What do you enjoy about quiltmaking? You talk about your students but what do you enjoy? Why do you quilt?
SC: I love working with colour. So I’m always excited to be working with a new colour scheme, seeing how it’s all going to work out. I had a project where I was making a quilt for a summer school and I really wanted to work with lots of oranges and hot pinks and I soon found that there were as many different oranges as you could shake a stick at so that led me to look much more closely at colour and the colour wheel and to use one of these colour tools to help me sort out exactly what sort of orange and exactly what sort of pink really works together so that they ‘pop’. I’d bought a lot of fabrics back from America after a trip so I had that as a sort of palette to start with but I then had to search around to get exactly the right type of pink to work so that was a really interesting experiment if you like and a journey of learning about colour, so that, yeah that’s what gets me excited is working with colour.
LB: And you mentioned fabrics in America so could you tell me a little bit about your trip or trips to America and fabric and quiltmaking there?
SC: Yeah. So the first trip we went to the East Coast and we went to Pennsylvania so I had that opportunity to go and visit the Amish and look at the way they made quilts. Although you know the type of Amish quilts that perhaps we love because of their strong sort of graphic qualities are not the type of quilts that they’re making now so if you go to an Amish quilt shop it will be full of frilly quilts and flowery rather sort of well perhaps we wouldn’t find them very fashionable over here, certainly wouldn’t be popular with the youngsters. So that was a bit disappointing. But I did go and see the museum in Lancaster which had all the older quilts and that was really exciting and I was quite inspired. I really love those sort of big blocks of colour and then focussing in on the quilting design. So that was the first trip, so that was really stimulating and interesting.
And then the last trip I made was to Denver and we travelled all over but I was lucky enough to, while I was in Denver, to meet up with Carol Ann Waugh and discuss with her and see her quilt studio and look at the type of work that she produces. And to learn about her attitude to quilt-making as well. And I realised she came from quite a different place. She made quilts to sell, they were a commercial endeavour and she intended to make her living. They are still Art quilts but she’s not just making them for herself, she’s making them with a commercial, you know, outlook, in mind, keeping that in mind. So she has a gallery which she promotes her work at, which is the same place as her workshop. She invites other quilters in and they display their work together. And they have a lot of opportunities to sell their work because there’s a, she was explaining that I think a lot of the new buildings have a certain amount of their budget has to be assigned over to art so buying art for buildings and so that gives them a lot of opportunities to sell their work so they’ve got work displayed in hospitals and doctors surgery’s, children’s centres and places like that. So there’s the opportunity to sell which I don’t think our Art quilters here are so lucky to have really. And they refer to themselves as Fibre Artists which is quite different. And maybe taking the word quilt out of it gives it a bit more seriousness, I don’t know, makes the art world take it more seriously perhaps. [Pause] So that was an interesting contrast to the Amish [laughs].
LB: Which leads us in quite nicely to making a living from being a quilter. So if, for example, you’re filling in a form which says ‘occupation’ do you describe yourself as a quilter?
SC: Now that’s an interesting question isn’t it? I don’t think we know what to call ourselves so sometimes I would just say I’m a teacher and avoid the whole, sort of, certainly avoid saying ‘patchwork and quilting’ ‘cos I feel that for anyone outside of the craft conjures up, oh I don’t know, conjures up ‘hobby’. Sometimes I’ll say, if I’m really brave I’ll say ‘textile artist’ which sounds much more serious and grown up [laughs] yeah so I think, yeah the only way is [indistinct – laughs]
LB: And how has your work changed? So if you started teaching quilting as a specific subject in 2001, over the last fourteen years how has your career changed?
0:26:48 SC: So it started by teaching beginners and teaching sampler quilt courses with me busy making quilts in the background as well. And I think the difference with perhaps I notice now with my younger students is that they come in wanting to make a quilt because they want to do something ‘crafty’, its, there’s a current trend for it seeing more and more youngsters wanting to sew which is lovely but that wasn’t my entry. I started making quilts because I’d already had a career in sewing and was interested to learn more but wanted to do something creative so it was something I could do at home when the children were little, and then became a passion as quilters would recognise [laughs] and then of course once you’ve made so many beginner quilts you want to take it further to the next step. So I started taking courses with people like June Barnes and Leslie Morgan, learned how to dye my own fabrics. And I think the appliqué, the wanting to make pictures meant that I felt I wanted to do something more creative although I prefer more abstract design now rather than figurative or representational designs. So after working with taking those sort of type of creative workshops it naturally led me on to thinking about doing a City and Guilds course which I umd and aahd for ages waiting for the children to grow up [laughs] to be old enough to be able to go off and spend the time, and that opportunity came along so I took a City and Guilds with Janet Twinn which was once a month, two days spread over two years for the Certificate course and two years for the Diploma course and of course that expanded my horizons even more and introduced me into designing my own work and using design sources as inspiration which I love to do, and I’m endlessly inspired but I don’t endlessly have much time to [laughs] put it into action! But that’s changing [laughs].
LB: So talk about time, when and where do you quilt? Are you an early bird, late?
SC: [Laughs] I’m an in-between peeling the potatoes getting ready for dinner quilter! And so I’ve taken over what used to be called the dining room in the house and I now prefer to call my workshop or my office in order to make it clear to the family that it doesn’t have to be tidied up, that it can be left as my creative space. Only gets pressed into being a dining room at Christmas. Then I lose everything when it all gets put away. Yeah so I, I mean obviously teaching takes up a lot of time, preparing for teaching takes up a lot of time, but by taking on more advanced classes so therefore my knowledge has to move on. So I take on workshops and I go to lectures and I found out more and more so the teaching in a way and the students, there’s always the awkward student who asks you about something you don’t know about, so that needs to be sorted out when you get home! [Laughs] Make sure you know about whatever that is she’s talking about! So they, in away the teaching leads you along and as I get more adventurous with the types of classes I want to run so my depth of knowledge I have to do the research. If I teach a class I want to make sure that I have found out as much as I can, that I practise as much as I can so that I can enable the students to achieve the best results so I’ve got enough skills, I don’t need any more techniques [laughs] or skills, I just need to be able to take a step back really from the teaching and start putting those into practice creatively myself.
LB: Talking about quilting 2015. Do you use any technology at all in your quilting? Any computer programs or even social media? Has any of that affected your quiltmaking?
SC: Well, when, I suppose yes, because adult education has gradually sort of died a slow death. We have very little left now, when Brighton had been a thriving place when you could do everything from upholstery, fashion design, patchwork, dressmaking, pattern cutting, you know, crochet classes, knitting, and a lot of that has all been what you call dissipated really to put, gone into sort of informal learning environments as opposed to a formal led adult education centre. So it’s all sort of pottering on but it’s much more difficult for people to find out about it and obviously more costly to take a class so that’s changed the demographic of people that take part in these classes. What’s your question Liz?
LB: [Both laugh] I was asking if you use any sort of technology, program?
SC: Yes! So as a result I wanted to continue offering accredited courses for students as I enjoy teaching formal classes. I think it gives people a discipline and a goal and you know a bit of gentle pressure on a deadline is no bad thing for getting us to finish things so I enjoy teaching like that, but obviously now not being involved in that sort of adult education environment anymore I needed to set up my own way of doing that so I registered with City and Guilds as a micro-centre to offer City and Guilds courses and I set up something called Brighton Fashion and Textile School as an umbrella to head that up really. And I teamed up with another tutor that I’d worked with and she runs the fashion courses for City and Guilds so there’s the two of us offering accredited courses. And of course that requires you to have a website. So I had to learn how to set up a website. I’ve had to learn how to use social media and join my children in using Facebook [laughs] to help people find where the courses are really. Facebook’s been great for sharing images which is what I use it mostly for for students is sharing their work and I think that always gives them a thrill to see their work displayed and people ‘liking’ it so that’s been great. Do I use social media? Do I use technology in my work? I suppose I print photos onto fabric, manipulated images], use it for text, that sort of thing, show students the possibilities that they can use although I’m always quick to say I don’t want to see a picture of a cat on your quilt printed onto fabric [laughs]. I think, you know, yes it’s easy to do but it’s not really art! So I try to discourage that sort of thing and to get them to think about how they can use it more creatively. But personally not really, no.
LB: So you mentioned your daughters helped you set up the internet side of it. How old are they and are they interested in sewing?
SC: Yep, they were Young Quilters when they were too young to argue I suppose! [Laughs] Or when they still think it’s a nice thing to do or are not worried about not being cool. But they are now nineteen and coming up for twenty-two and they don’t, they don’t continue to sew at the moment but if they suddenly need to do some sewing they know how to do it. So they both know how to use a sewing machine. I’ve got one of the daughters doing a sort of scrap book, sketch book from her year that she’s spent in America and she’s come down and asked me for the embroidery threads so that she can stitch across the page. My other daughter has, will just take off and do something on the machine, start stitching through an image she’s printed off so I think the skills are there and I hope that, you know, perhaps when they get to that stage in their life when they need something to creatively express themselves that they will do that.
LB: Do you have any other family members that sew? You did mention your mum.
SC: Yeah, so mum, mum and her brother both at the age of fourteen as they did then, they left school and no idea of being a teenager that didn’t come in ‘til the 50s did it [laughs] they weren’t allowed to be teenagers. Straight out to work. She went to work for a costume, a fashion house I suppose, that’s it. Not a famous one but she, so her first job was just cleaning the pins, I think that went on for several months, she had to pick up the pins and clean them. And then I think she was taught to tack [laughs] and then just before she stopped work, because once you had a family you stopped work she’d just got up to learning how to make patterns [laughs] And she was twenty-one [laughs]. And my uncle was taken on as a tailor and his apprenticeship was seven years and my grandparents had to pay something like a shilling a week for him to be a tailor so he earned nothing until he was twenty-one and they had to sort of pay out each week for his training. So he went on to be a very wealthy man [laughs] ended up making jackets, cos he was a jacket maker, that’s the top of the tree with tailoring. You either make trousers or waistcoats or jackets and each tailor has their own specialism and he went on to do the jacket side of things for Prince Charles amongst other people so yes he earned fabulous money. It’s interesting isn’t it a male trade fabulous money, female trade, not much [laughs]. Once again. Anyway. My sister also sews and she’s taken lots of City and Guilds courses in embroidery, hand embroidery and machine embroidery and she now works, well, yeah, she exhibits as a textile artist exhibiting her work and if you had to describe it you’d say it was abstract and she loves blue [laughs] She would say that herself! It’s always blue! [Laughs] That’s her favourite.
LB: When you look at other quilts what kind of things do you notice? Are you into design, craftsmanship?
SC: I like. Well on a personal level I like strong graphic images. I’m personally not excited by pictorial or faces in quilts. I prefer if people can express themselves with fabric, to express an emotion, to conjure up, not to try and capture it like a photograph, because you might ask yourself ‘well why not just take a photo or paint a painting?’ So I think fabric has a texture and draws you in. It’s engaging and it doesn’t need to be representational to create a beautiful image.
LB: And in terms of looking at craftsmanship and being a tutor and being able to appraise and give feedback on students’ quilts, how would you say you’ve developed those skills and are you still taking any kind of professional development in those skills of, you know sort of appraising craftsmanship and design.
SC: I think it’s very important to, when you get to this stage in quilting and design not to, not necessarily to go to quilt shows for inspiration really. You might go to quilt shows to appreciate the work, but I prefer to go to exhibitions outside of textiles. I really enjoy looking at ceramics. I’ve recently been up to look at the Sonya Delaunay Exhibition at the Tate Modern although it would be so easy to translate that all into fabric! [Laughs] But, and the work of people like Paul Klee and things. But I’m interested in looking at artists such as Richard Long for instance and how he approaches you know designing in the landscape. Landscape is something that ‘oh look, isn’t there a lovely view’ is what the children would say I say whenever we go out for a walk ‘look at the lovely view mummy!’ [Laughs] and I suppose I am endlessly fascinated about the changing colours in the landscape and in the sky and would love to spend time sort of trying to get that down onto fabric really, to be inspired by that. So yes, I prefer to look at other artists; Anthony Gormley, Richard Long, can’t think of the others at the time! [Laughs] of course now you’ve asked me [laughs]. Yeah, art in the landscape I particularly find exciting.
LB And talking about quilt shows. Obviously quilts in shows are judged and it would be interesting to hear you know sort of your thoughts on [SC: yeah] judging.
SB: So for a number of years I’ve been going to the Textile Study group which is the Embroiderer’s Guild summer school that I go to because it’s outside of quiltmaking so, and I’ve learned a lot more about design, I hope anyway. And a long time ago when I first saw the quilt judging course advertised I thought that might try and work towards doing and now seems the right time so I’ve just started the two-year course of study. It consists of six modules I believe [laughs] I’m trying not to think about that and I’ve just started that on the second module. The first module was really interesting, we had to take a material such as wood or paper or glass or something and look at how an artist uses that material and what constraints on them the material perhaps places. And I chose paper which was very fascinating and I do love research so that was, spent far too long on the research really. And now the next module is all about design and looking at, drilling down into what we mean by all these different design principles and how artists from different backgrounds use them and learning to evaluate their work and apply, thinking about the principle designs and thinking about how they’ve used them within their paintings or their sculpture so that’s why I’d been up to look at Sonya Delaunay’s work to try and see if I could pick out how she’d used those elements of design. So I think the course is really good at sharpening my own design skills and hopefully will equip me to make a fair judgement about people’s work.
LB: And did you do the course for personal development, professional development or both?
SC: Bit of both really. It’s, I love to learn and as a tutor now who’s been sort of knocking around for some years it gets more and more difficult to go to courses without bumping into students [laughs] which is ok but I think they think if you’re there you therefore don’t know what you’re doing instead of actually what you’re doing is trying to find out about, you know, a new technique that’s out there ‘cos I think it’s really important to keep, you know to keep professionally updating my skills to make sure that I know what all these things are even if I don’t necessarily want to use them in my own work. So the quilt judging course is about that and I believe that at the end of it we will have the opportunity to continually professionally update as well as quilters and I think I do, I do understand how a lot of techniques are used and I think it’s important to have that broad base in order to be able to critically evaluate someone else’s work. To be able to understand how they’ve produced their work and to give it a fair assessment. I think if you don’t know how something’s made you don’t necessarily appreciate how the work, what the process the work has gone through. So…
LB: You talk a little bit about your students. Do you find that people come to make a quilt, then move onto the next hobby or do people truly get hooked on quilting?
SC: There was only ever one student who I asked at the end of the course, she’d made her sampler and I said to the whole group but she answered, you know a sort of what do you think about, what are you going to do next? What would you like to do next? And what courses do you think you might take? [Laughs] And that one student said ‘well I’ve made a quilt, I don’t need to make another one’ [laughs] which I was speechless really! I didn’t know what to say about that. But on the whole, she was the exception [laughs]. Most, I think most people who’ve made their first quilt want to go on because it’s creative and want to play with the next, even if it’s just the next charm pack, you know, they want to have a go at the next one. Generally speaking people do get hooked. Most students will probably plateaux so they’ll make a few beginner quilts, move onto a sampler and then will continue to take summer schools with me where we make a new design each year, but I’d say that it’s only that sort of 10% really that want to go on and learn more and perhaps start picking up on designing their own work. Yeah, so and then of course they’re the students that lead through into doing the City and Guilds so, that’s exciting.
LB: How do you balance it as a, so if we just talk about you as a maker, how do you balance wanting to make quilts as a domestic used item and then quilts that come from a design idea that are more towards what people would say is art?
SC: How do I balance that out? Well I, do you mean from a personal point of view or when I am teaching?
LB: Personal, if we talk about personal and then maybe we’ll look at teaching separately.
SC: I think because I’ve been, I got busy teaching and got asked to do more and more classes in more and more centres to the point where I was teaching every day of the week and on a Saturday I had no time to think about making [laughs] well I would have fleeting moments in the car inspired by wonderful sky. By the time I got home I was marking sketchbooks or planning the next day’s course, so that was the end of that! But in recent years I’ve reigned in the amount of classes that I teach now so that I am gradually drilling that down now to just wanting to teach the Level 3 City and Guilds which is me trying to carve out time for me to do my own work now. So I have to go away in order to create now, so the Textile Study Group week is always exciting ‘cos that’s time away and I can just sew every day for a week and not have to think about anything else [laughs] so I suppose I don’t, at the moment I don’t, I’m just standing on that cusp of now wanting to do, have that time, now having the time I should say to start creating my own work, I have no excuses now.
LB: So would you say now you’re making less quilts for the home and more they’re coming from a sketchbook, an idea?
SC: If you looked around my house you wouldn’t see any quilts on beds. The only quilts that are in the house are in the sitting room because they are used as, for keeping warm! But we have duvets, don’t we, so we don’t need quilts to keep warm [laughs] and anyway no-one’s going to use them because they’ve got to be used for class samples! I’ve made several quilts for our own double bed which have quickly been squirreled away because they’ve become a class sample and they can’t be seen to be faded or worn or messed up with tea stains or something so it’s interesting. Yeah, I’m not a quiltmaker from a domestic quiltmaking point of view. I have made quilts for members of the family about twice [laughs] Special, like a wedding present, that sort of thing, but I’m not really making for the family, I’m just making those samples for teaching. There was another part to your question wasn’t there which I’ve now forgotten.
LB: And then just asking about students. ‘Cos obviously you talk about your charm pack quilts which are very much used for beds [SC: Yes, yeah] and then talk about your City and Guilds work.
SC: Yes, which very much aren’t used for beds [laughs]. Well, often. No I haven’t had any student make a quilt for a bed yet. So yes so at that point students are encouraged to design and then make their own work using a design source which is often a new experience for them unless in the past I’ve been teaching Level 1, Level 2 and what’s known as NCFE, doesn’t stand for anything but that’s a long story but it’s an accredited, an awarding body, a structured course of learning and they, to a certain extent they had to look at design in a small way but once they get to City and Guilds they have to, you know, really embrace the whole idea of using a design source to inspire a finished piece of work. So and not, none of them have chosen to make work for a bed, they’ve all chosen it to be wall-hangings to put on the wall as art, perhaps that’s me, I don’t know, my influence, I don’t know [laughs].
LB: It’s interesting that you said earlier that you, you chose to do theatre when you were choosing which way to go with needlework. Would you say there’s parallels between theatre and quiltmaking in that they’re creative, they’re about an idea?
SC: Yes, I think that’s right, I mean I think my decision when I made that decision was a ridiculous one, I can remember thinking ‘well fashion, oh it’s so shallow!’ [Laughs] Wow! I mean you get into theatre, you soon find out what shallow is! [Laughs] So that was a silly way but anyway, that’s the way the pendulum swung. But, ah, would you say theatre was more creative? I think not but it’s no less creative than the fashion world. But the element that you get in working in the theatre is the historical element so it was that time that I joined the Costume Society and when I was working at Glyndebourne you know everything had to be historically correct. There were no zips up the back of things when there should have been eyelets and hooks and bars and things and so everything was done that way so I spent a lot of time in museums looking at archives. So at Worthing Museum for instance which has a huge costume archive. And I worked with a brilliant pattern cutter called Jean Honeysett at Glyndebourne and I eventually worked as her deputy cutter if you like. She was the chief cutter and I was the deputy cutter and we would spend a lot of time looking at costumes and going to art galleries and not necessarily looking at the paintings for their sake but looking to see where the seam lines were. The National Portrait Gallery, a great resource! [Laughs] So if you got a good artist who paints in seam lines you can find out how bodices were constructed and how sleeves went in so that sort of research I really got into and she wrote a couple of books and I helped her out with modelling stuff and making things for the book and stuff to be photographed. And that, I mean now that I belong to the British Quilt Study Group I really enjoy that. You know, looking at an old object and interrogating it to see what you can find out about how it was made. I must say finding out how a quilt’s made is a lot simpler than finding out how a boned bodice or a corset was constructed! [Laughs] Like a cinch really! [Laughs] So I really enjoy that historical aspect. Yeah and the creative. Theatre it was creative, you had to try and you know create these amazing costumes to often designers’ rather poor designs and the designer.
LB: What groups are you a member of?
SC: I don’t belong to the Costume Society any more but yes, I do belong to the British Quilt Study Group, obviously The Quilters’ Guild and the Contemporary Quilt Group. And for a while I joined the Modern Quilt Group as well ‘cos that was all quite exciting when that kicked off. But I’m an honorary member of Sussex Quilters which was very nice of them to make me an honorary member. And I’ve, over the years I’ve sent, well it’s mostly made up of my ex-students, so it’s funny isn’t it, they all wanted to go on to, those that didn’t want to go onto more courses or do any more accreditation, you know, need somewhere to go to share their enthusiasm and that’s our local quilt group which they have gravitated towards.
LB: And have you exhibited any quilts?
SC: I have. I do have quite a long list but you ask me now. I mean it started I suppose with the Millennium quilt which was as I say these two huge panels, three huge panels. And bizarrely that, I sent an article about the making of this quilt up to Popular Patchwork and that was printed and I think it must have been, I don’t know, noticed by somebody in Japan but then we were invited to send it to the Tokyo Quilt Show. I’d love to have gone with it [laughs] and I think back now there were, I didn’t have a computer and all the communicating was done either by letter or I had an ancient fax machine in the hallway which would spit out the [laughs] messages about where to send this quilt. So yes, that was quite exciting, that was the Millennium quilt, not you know, not my own personal work I suppose. I, yes, I’ve taken part in things like the National Needlework Record when they’ve had challenges, quilts at Hever, Hever Castle, Sandown Quilt Show, I exhibited my City and Guilds final quilt there, quilts at the Festival of Quilts of course as well and at the East Grinstead Art Centre gallery there when I’d finished a course with June Barnes, we had an exhibition and I exhibited a piece of work. I remember it was all about bluebells, a walk in the woods, no bluebell was depicted in the making of this quilt! [Laughs]
LB: And what quilt shows? We talked about inspiration with museums and galleries but do you go to any specific quilt shows?
SC: Yes I go to the Festival of Quilts if I can every year and try to spend as long as possible there absorbing all the amazing work that’s displayed in the galleries by quilters from all round the world. I find that the most interesting to look at, the most inspiring. I see it as a duty to keep myself up-to-date as a tutor. I mean to not go would be madness. And then I dip in so this year I’m going to be demonstrating at the Hever Castle, Region 2 Quilters’ Guild exhibition which is nice so I will see the quilts there. And Ardingly is a quilt show that is close to me so I’ll, yeah, I’ll pop up and see that. But I like to try and see, I always go to the Open Houses in Brighton and my sister who exhibits in Buckinghamshire has Buckingham Open Studios so it’s nice to go up and see what’s happening up there as well. She exhibits with a textile artist who works with paper, string and she knits it into amazing structures, yeah 3-D [laughs].
LB: And do you spend money on supplies at quilt shows?
SC: [Laughs] To say no would be a blatant lie! [laughs] Yes, and it takes some getting it home and squirreling it away afterwards [laughs]. I’m better than I used to be, in fact I suppose I buy less fabric now because apart from, I mean now that I’m not having to endlessly make class samples I don’t need an endless supply of patterned fabric. My stash, yes, is of the last fifteen years really and you can see the fabrics that I started out buying and the fabrics that I buy now. I’m still excited by patterned fabric, I don’t say I’m going to stop buying fabric but what I think I’m buying more now is products that I can paint onto fabric and thinking about how to create textures and I’m more interested in the sort of velvets and the silks and that sort of thing and colouring my own fabrics. Not entirely without pattern ‘cos I do love my black and whites so they’ll always feature and I’ll be buying wire and that sort of thing. And I don’t know, products to manipulate fabric [laughs] I think is what gets me excited now.
LB: And can we talk a little bit about sewing machines?
SC: Oh yes [laughs]. Well for years I’ve taught ‘Getting to Know Your Sewing Machine’. I think it started at O-Level dressmaking classes at school and the teacher, there’d be an open evening when the parents could come look at the school and we had to man the sewing room and be there sewing for the parents to come round and look round. And I think the teacher caught me there telling this dad all about a sewing machine [laughs] so the writing was on the wall at that point and of course at school we had the Bernina sewing machines, the 800 series. And when I went off to college. I mean I think back now I was obviously quite a wealthy student I suppose because I had a car, I had a part-ownership of a car with my mum. I’d worked and saved up enough for half and she bought the other half and then we shared it. Anyway when I went off to college I didn’t need my half of the car so mum bought me out and I bought a sewing machine from the proceeds of my Ford Escort as it was then! [Laughs] And that was the Bernina 801 Sport. I wanted one like I’d had at school. So I’ve become a sort of Bernina driver ever since. And I’ve still got that machine and it still works perfectly, despite being thrown on the floor and smashed up occasionally. Been repaired, put back together so. I’ve also got a 1008 now which I bought for students to use in workshops so I provide that when I’m going to places where people can’t always be able to bring their sewing machines. Most of my students I will let them buy Janome’s if you like because Bernina’s now so expensive that you can’t say to a beginner student ‘oh you must buy a Bernina’ but yeah so Janome’s produce good mid-price machines which students love and they do, and they serve them well. But eventually they come to the conclusion that they need something more flexible and yeah so, but it’s the flexibility of the machines and the durability of them and you can get so many different attachments to make them do things. Yeah so I love my Bernina, I’ll never part with it.
LB: Do you mind me asking how many years you’ve had your…?
SC: Well I had it when, so when I went off to, I suppose I was nineteen when I bought that, yeah and I’m a bit older than that now [laughs].
LB: Twenty years?
SC: Oh yes! [Both laugh] And some! [Both laugh] Yes, I’ve still got it, still going strong.
LB: And did you use that Bernina to make your pinwheel quilt?
SC: I did, yes I did.
LB: And you mentioned a mid-arm that you use to quilt it
SC: Yes I’ve got a, like most quilters of my, been quilting a long time, you’ve got a lot of machines I suppose although I’m allowed to because I’m a teacher so therefore I have to have the equipment of course you can justify it. But yes, I needed something that I could quilt quilts with faster and I was interested in long-arming, I love the freedom that it gives you to glide across a quilt which you never get when you’re trying to struggle with it through the smaller area on a domestic sewing machine. So I’ve got a Pfaff Grand Quilter which is just a straight stitch machine and it has sort of excellent things like being able to, you know scissor cutter so you can just cut your threads off, stuff like that. So yes but I either use that for straight piecing although recently I’ve been just sitting there with my Bernina piecing but I use that on the, I have a mid-arm, it’s not a professional long-arm quilting set up. And it has to be something that’s flexible so I can put it away in the garage when I’m not using it.
LB: Do you do hand quilting or hand piecing as well as machine?
SC: I love to hand piece, I love to hand quilt but it’s the time that I don’t have. I have hand piecing projects on the go so I’ll have a lot of cotton bags with different projects in so if I’m going away on holiday I always imagine I’m going to have time to sit down and relax on holiday but rarely does that happen [laughs]. I always take some piecing over papers with me, I’ve got an All Bright Star project on the go which is piecing over papers and again it’s using these patterned fabrics, some that I’ve been using in this pinwheel quilt with a white, so I do like to put pattern with a…
LB: What’s an All Bright Star?
SC: It’s, let me see, it’s a really big hexagon, that’s one of the shapes and then you’ve got the diamonds that come together with a little mini hexagon in the middle. So each one of them is a colour with a plain white diamond put together with big white diamonds in between so it will make quite a lot of impact.
LB: And this is using the same technique you used for your first quilt?
SC: Yes, piecing over papers, that’s right, yes. Well it’s very enjoyable isn’t it [laughs].
LB: Do you name your quilts?
SC: Not often. I named a, before charm packs really sort of became popular I bought a charm pack. I seem to remember it might have been at Sandown, and it was William Morris squares and they weren’t five inch they were four and a half something like that, smaller than charm packs are now and I made that into a quilt and I hand quilted that while my children were doing swimming lessons so I used to have to go and sit in the balcony area cheering them on, watching them and smiling and cheering them on. Week after week it gets a bit wearing and I hate sitting not doing anything so I had this quilt on the go, so I did name that quilt ‘Level 7 Swimming Classes’ which is a bit mystifying for anyone looking at it [laughs] ‘cos it tells the story of me sitting there waving ‘lovely dear!’, ‘great!’ you know [laughs] while they were learning to swim. I name my art quilts but I don’t name my pinwheel quilts and summer school quilts or things really.
LB: So if we talk a little bit about how quilting makes you feel. What do you enjoy about quiltmaking?
SC: I enjoy putting patterns together, fabrics together, I enjoy playing with the colour. Yes, when you’re doing the sampler quilts you’re always exciting to see, to create that three dimensional effect, and changing them around and seeing how you, you know if you put your fabrics in a different order you get a different impression. Yeah, it’s colour really for me that I really want to play with.
LB: And would you say do it to relax as well?
SC: Yeah. If I can get the time and I spend a whole day sewing, like going on my summer school once a year, yes, I get a total buzz out of it really. It’s really. And when I was doing a lot of sewing and piecing and making quilts alongside the students if I had a day when I didn’t sew I felt a bit like a drug addict really, I sort of scratching the table waiting till I could get back to [laughs] sewing again! But I do more admin and pushing things around these days so I’ve lost that addicted feeling that. Wouldn’t be bad if it came back!
LB: And coming from a family that sews do you find sewing something that sometimes gives you really a connection with the past?
SC: Yes. My sister and I will talk for hours on the phone and the family will think that perhaps there’s been some crisis but no, we’ve just been discussing some textile issue that we’ve been trying to solve [laughs] So yes I’ve had a. Yes, my sister and I will go to exhibitions together and discuss things.
LB: Anything that you don’t enjoy about quiltmaking?
SC: Oo, gosh that’s a hard question, isn’t it. I suppose a few years ago I would have said that I didn’t like all the admin that went with it but now that I’m out of that so much, I don’t, that’s not quite so much that’s not so much of a pressure, so no, I don’t think I don’t like anything.
LB: And what would you say, big questions here, what would you say is the biggest challenge that you feel like you face in your quilting career at the moment?
SC: The challenge to find time and space to create my own work. That is the biggest challenge. To shut, I mean shutting out everything else is difficult. When you’re a parent you’re constantly on call for your children and so it’s hard not to be involved or thinking about them. And then when you’re a teacher it’s hard not to be thinking about the students as well, they almost become sort of children in a way [laughs] as you do have to remember all of their goings on in their lives when you teach them, so yes the challenge is time.
LB: And if you didn’t teach, so I mentioned your quilting career but if you weren’t teaching quilting would you still be a quilter?
SC: Oh yes. I’d be a bigger quilter [laughs] I’d make more quilts. But hopefully by slimming my teaching down to just focussing on the more advanced students, which of course is stimulating, then hopefully I’m going to have more time to
LB So ‘cos I asked about challenges to your quilting career but really it’s career and personal are lumped in together, would you say?
SC: Yes it’s a balancing act, I’m sure it is for everybody. But yes, I think that’s right, is that the children are older now so in theory they shouldn’t need you so much, but of course we all know that’s not true [laughs].
LB: And would you say it’s changed your life? Making that first quilt in 1978?
SC: The first quilt in ’78 didn’t change my life because I was already sewing and making, and crafting, you know knitting, crocheting, trying everything really and isn’t that wonderful to have had that opportunity. I’m not sure that they, children all get that opportunity now. We sewed at school, you know, all started with the Binca so I’ve always had that opportunity to hold a needle and stitch. I think, I suppose the career change, the stopping working in the theatre, stopping working wedding dresses, so in a way you could say the family gave me that time to pause, think about what I was going to do next. And then that opportunity to take on the beginners quilting classes in Adult Education. I think it was about another five or six years after that that I dropped teaching all the dressmaking classes and just focussed on the patchwork. And so yeah, I guess it’s become a, it’s become my life [laughs] yes it has become my life.
LB: Lovely, I think that’s all the questions I’ve got this morning, anything else that you’d like to?
SC: Oh no, I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough from me!
LB: It’s been absolutely wonderful, thank you.
SC: Thank you Liz.