Today’s Q.S.O.S. Spotlight features Denyse Schmidt, an iconic quiltmaker, teacher and entrepreneur whose quilts reinterpret traditional patterns with a modern sensibility. Quilt Alliance president Meg Cox interviewed Denyse at the Quilters Take Manhattan event in September of 2012. Denyse shared with the audience at the Fashion Institute of Technology a bit about how she became interested in quilting:
“[W]hen I was at Rhode Island School of Design, I started looking at historical quilts more and then after I graduated and had moved to Connecticut and I was… I didn’t have a network of friends there yet and I was working as a graphic designer and it was kind of a very mass-market mind-numbing job [laughter.] I became an expert in Barbie Pink and I was making a quilt for a friend and it was simple nine-patch. I got really interested in the whole, all the stories of quiltmakers and how–whether and how accurate it is or not–those stories of women coming together in a community and the whole barn-raising idea. I was longing for my own community and all my friends were kind of far away and I think I kind of latched onto that idea of quiltmaking, plus, at the time I got really interested in old-timey music, like, Appalachian string-band music and to me it kind of had the same resonance of people coming together, rolling it up, and you didn’t have to be great at it. And I think the quilts I kind of fell in love with, they weren’t about matching corners and being precise. There was a beautiful kind of happenstance and accidental quality in some cases to them. And so making–so I kind of fell in love with all of that and then I was making a quilt as a gift for a friend. I think having a tangible record of the amount of time I spent hand-quilting––you know, “here’s 3 hours” as opposed to my graphic design work, which is in many cases, very ephemeral: it’s printed matter, I’m spending hours kerning space between letters, no one ever notices. It’s on a piece of paper that gets crumpled up and thrown away, versus this very tangible record of time that I had spent and then that it was also a lasting object that was useful and beautiful. So it had this graphic quality and a tactile and textural quality plus, you know, the bits of fabric my mother––I’m youngest of four kids and both my parents had careers but they were very handy makers of things and my mother sewed all her clothes and I grew up in central Massachusetts and we used to go to all the mill stores and stuff, so to me the whole collecting fabric thing was very connected to my mom and being with her. And so to make a quilt that sort of combined all of these things, to me it seemed really magical.”
Denyse has been called “the godmother of modern quilting”. She described how she saw her role in the origins of the modern quilting movement:
“It’s funny, these days it happens so fast that we’re kind of finding the origins of things,which is kind of odd. I think, while it’s flattering, I try not to take it too seriously because I think, I think I was in a place and a time and I was always presenting my work. It’s great–on one hand I think, I kind of got my message out there. It look a long time but people noticed and that’s really gratifying. And on the other hand, nothing is ever one person. It’s a kind of confluence of events and things that happen. When I started out, I used the word ‘modern’ because I was talking to an audience that didn’t have any other reference point and in some ways, was that the right word? I’m not really sure. I’ve never been very good at absolutes. I kind of recoil from them because to me, nothing is all one thing or another. However it gets defined, I’ll leave that to someone else, to do the defining.”
Denyse also shared a story about re-discovering the simple pleasure of hand-quilting a small doll quilt for her book Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration:
“I don’t have that much free time and it’s like anybody who does a particular thing–like how the carpenter has all the unfinished construction jobs at home. I think the last thing I want to do is get behind a sewing machine when I have free time. One of the last projects that I made start-to-finish was one of the quilts in my book [Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration.] and of course making a book is very labor-intensive… In this book–and all the quilts that are on display here are from the book–and it was my chance to pay homage to all those historical quilts that inspired me in the first place. But one of the quilts in a book is a little doll quilt and I hand-pieced it and hand-quilted it. I got to watch movies while I did it and I enjoyed every second of it. It was really nice. And I knit, occasionally. But lately I’m just trying to do less. I’m trying to do less. It’s really easy, in today’s world, everybody’s on devices and communicating all the time. I’m finding it exhausting these days. So I’m just trying to learn how to get back to something that feels simpler.”
You can read the rest of Denyse’s interview with Meg Cox here. Some of Denyse’s quilts are on display at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky through January of 2013.
You can also read more stories about quilts about quilts and their makers at the Quilters’ S.O.S.- Save Our Stories page on the Quilt Alliance’s site.