Lenna DeMarco (LD): This is Lenna DeMarco. I’m here with Nancy Landon. We’re recording her on Monday, March the 19th, 2012 in Tucson, Arizona, in her shop, the Cactus Quilt Shop. Nancy, tell me about the quilt you brought today.
Nancy Landon (NL): My quilt today is called “Palo Verde Spring” and I chose that name because I wanted to make a quilt that reminded me of the Palo Verde trees when they are in bloom and it’s a cloud of yellow. So, I designed it so that there was a lot of yellow and green.
LD: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?
NL: Well it just reminds me so much of the beautiful desert in the spring which is the most beautiful season in the desert.
LD: Now you’re a designer and a teacher and a shop owner. Why did you choose this particular quilt?
NL: Because it’s my favorite right now, my current favorite. And it’s an original design so I felt it would best represent me as a quilter.
LD: And how do you mean, what is it about it that represents you?
NL: My, that’s a hard one. Well, I love color and this is a very colorful quilt and I’ve been described as a very colorful character [both laugh.] So I thought a very colorful quilt would be good to represent me.
LD: Now you are a quilt teacher. What are your plans for this quilt? Are you going to teach it?
NL: Oh, I’ve taught it. It’s been a class here at the shop for about three years and I always teach. It’s a pattern that I’ve published as well and I teach my quilts at the class before I write the pattern so that I can try out the directions on a guinea pig group of quilters before I go and publish it.
LD: And you find that you’re changing and tweaking the pattern and stuff as you’re doing this each time?
NL: Each time I teach the class. Yes. And then I figure out how I need to best organize the words so that someone who’s never made a quilt like this before can sit down and accomplish it.
LD: It’s a beautiful quilt. Now, it’s pieced and appliqued. Is this a method that you like to use a lot?
NL: Oh yeah, most of my patterns are a combination of the two. Piecing and applique.
LD: Well now how did you first get interested in quiltmaking? When did you start?
NL: Oh golly. I had my first quilting class when I lived in Germany in the mid 80’s. I married my high school sweetheart who joined the Air Force and took me off on a big adventure. And we happened to be living at Ramstein Air Force Base and all of the wives of the men that were in his office at the time would get together and have a coffee evening. And we decided that instead of just getting together and talking, we would share hobbies. And I was knitting at that time and I was to teach knitting. And someone else did cake decorating, hand calligraphy, et cetera, et cetera, but the very first class we chose to share was quilting. And it was the Georgia Bonesteel method of “Quilt as You Go” and within weeks of finishing my first quilt and dragging it everywhere with me, every meeting I went to, every ball game I attended, I had my quilting with me and people would say, “Oh, can you show me how to do that?” and I was happy to share, so–
LD: So, was it a woman within the group who taught you to quilt?
NL: Yes. Yes, it was one of the other gals.
LD: Okay, great.
LD: And about how many hours a week do you quilt? Do you get a chance to do that?
NL: I quilt at least an hour a day.
LD: Even with running the shop.
NL: Even with running a shop. That’s why I watch TV in the evening. I do a lot of applique and so I can sit in front of the TV with my work in my lap and listen to the TV.
LD: Well now you learned to quilt as an adult, but what is your first quilt memory?
NL: Well there were no quilts in my life as a child. My mother was a young woman of the 50’s and quilts were old-fashioned and she had no part of it. And so the family quilts had been folded up and put in a cedar chest. And I didn’t even know they were there until I was in my early 30’s. And then Mom and Dad were getting ready to retire out to Green Valley, Arizona and she was cleaning out and decided, ‘Okay, I don’t want these.’ David and I were coming back from Europe to move to Idaho, so I was in Wisconsin. My sister was in Wisconsin. Mom sat us down and said, ‘Okay girls. If you want these, fine. If you don’t, I’m giving them to the Goodwill.’ And she came up with 3 quilts. And of course Jane and I both wanted the same one, which was a Trip Around the World. And so we had to draw straws.
LD: And she won.
NL: And Jane won. She got the appropriate length straw. And so Mom said to me, ‘Well because you didn’t win the quilt you wanted, you can have the other two.’
LD: Oh how nice.
NL: Yeah. So I’m happy to lose a competition like that anytime. So I got the other two quilts. One was a many Trips Around the World that my dad’s grandmother had made. And the other quilt was a green Powderpuff or Yo-Yo quilt that my mom’s grandmother had made. So I became the recipient of a quilt from each side of my family.
LD: So now do you still have these quilts?
NL: I still have them. And when I do my trunk show of antique quilts, those are the first two quilts I talk about. So that’s what started me on collecting old quilts.
LD: Okay, so you have a fairly extensive collection of old quilts?
NL: Um hmm. Umm hmm.
LD: What is it about old quilts that attracts you? ‘Cause you do make new quilts.
NL: Oh I do make new quilts, yes, but I love the old quilts, I love the stories we don’t know about them, I love the fabric, I love the beautiful handwork that went into them, and I love saving them and enjoying them. And I think that quilters are looking down from heaven and going, ‘Thank God someone who appreciates quilts has this one!’ [both laugh.]
LD: Now you’re a little different from most quiltmakers in that you have a shop. How does this life style impact your family?
NL: Well I didn’t open the shop until my children were all grown. The youngest was in high school, she was still a senior, when I was inspired to open a shop. And then in college she actually worked weekends in the shop with me. And she is a quilter too.
LD: Oh great. So you were making quilts before your shop?
NL: Oh yes, oh yes, I was quilting. When we moved back from overseas I had been sharing the quilting and teaching small groups over there and was a member of a small guild. There were only 27 of us, Americans. There were two German ladies.
NL: Cause we were in Germany. We moved back here to Tucson in ’95. And I wanted to find quilters. So I found the guild. And within a year I was president of the guild. [laughs.]
LD: It’s a great guild here.
NL: It’s a wonderful guild. That’s where I made all my first friends. And I heard that they needed a part time person at one of the other shops which happens to be five minutes from my house. And I was hired to work weekends over at the Quilt Basket and people would come in from the northwest side of town and say, ‘Oh my God, I had to pack a lunch and I’ve got my sleeping bag in the car. It’s so far! When is someone going to open a shop on the northwest side of town?’ So that little seed of an idea was planted. I knew I loved spending time with quilters and I’ve always loved fabric. I sewed my own clothes from the time I was ten.
LD: So now how long have you had the shop– [inaudible.]
NL: I’ve had the shop over 14 years now.
LD: So, what have been the biggest challenges for you as a quiltmaker and quilt shop owner?
NL: Well, finding time to quilt. [laughs.] Because people think, ‘Oh, you’ve got a quilt shop. All you do is sit around and make quilts all day.’ No, that’s not what you’re doing. But I get to spend time with quilters. I meet the most amazing people. I get to pick out fabric. The colors, and the feel of the cloth and everything. That’s part of what drew me to making quilts.
LD: One thing I’ve noticed about looking through your inventory is that you have reproduction fabric as well as very contemporary fabric. Why did you choose to go that way?
NL: Well my very first love were the reproduction fabrics. Those antique quilts always, I love antiques. So still I gravitated to the textiles and the old quilts. And so the reproduction quilts, the reproduction fabrics were my first love. Both the 1800’s and the 1930’s. But not everybody wants reproduction fabrics.
NL: So, with a name like “Cactus Quilt Shop” I knew that I needed to get fabric that was southwest so we actually have more southwest fabric than anybody else in town and that’s what we sell the most of. Then, the batiks are just so yummy. Everybody loves batiks.
LD: Oh right, yes.
NL: So they’ve sort of taken over. We’ve got quite a lot of batiks. And the brighter tones and the brighter colors are what appeals here. Through the years I’ve watched what sold and I could figure out what my customer base was looking for and so that’s what I try to supply.
LD: The quilts are very bright [inaudible.] hung around and lots of color and lots–
NL: They’re very happy.
LD: Yes they are. Well, speaking of happy and sad, have you ever used quilts or quilting to get you through a difficult time?
NL: Oh sure.
LD: Tell me about it.
NL: Let’s see. When I was a brand new quilter and my husband was a fighter pilot and it was the late 80’s and he was doing that flying to Libya thing? Where we went to drop bombs on Libya. And I didn’t know what was going on. And so he’s gone off doing something he says, ‘I can’t tell you what’s going on, this is a special exercise,’ and so I’m quilting my brains out. Quilt, quilt, quilt. That’s what got me through that. And I have found that any time he had to go off to war. And since that episode he’s been to every war that we’ve done: the Bosnia thing, and the Gulf War the first time and the Gulf War the second time. He went three times that time. And when he went to the 2nd Gulf war, the one we’re just now trying to extricate ourselves from, I actually designed a happy quilt, “Arizona Wildflowers.” It’s a light colored background with lots of green, yellow and orange.
LD: Have you been involved in any of the projects for the veterans or wounded warriors, the quilts of valor?
NL: It’s not to make them, groups work here, I donate fabric.
LD: Well, can you tell us about an amusing incident with a quilt?
NL: An amusing incident. Oh golly. An amusing incident.
LD: Or with your teaching.
NL: Oh there’s so many different things that could be considered amusing. [laughs.] Can’t think of anything right now. [both laugh.]
LD: Let me ask you this. What do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?
NL: Most pleasing. Oh golly. Well I love to applique. That’s my favorite thing now. And–
LD: Are you self-taught?
NL: Self-taught applique. Yes. Yes. And when I took my first class, I was shown one method of applique and I hated it. Freezer paper on the back, press the edge, I couldn’t get a smooth curve to save my soul. And I was never going to applique. So when we arrived here and I made my new friends in Tucson I was just piecing and they were appliqueing. They were members of a group that went up to the Quilted Apple in Phoenix with Laurene Sinema, who became one of my favorites and a great inspiration.
LD: Everybody in Arizona.
NL: Yes. Yes. But I told those gals I was never going to applique. Never ever, ever. And I discovered interfaced applique where you draw the design on a light interfacing and sew on the line all the way around, cut it out, slit it and turn it so all the edges are pre-done. And that light bulb went off and oh my God a whole new world was–
LD: And is that the method you use–
NL: And that is my preferred method, but now I teach, um, we call it “Applique for Dummies” [LM laughs.] which is the interface method and fusible with blanket stitch. And then I also do traditional needleturn so, but now it doesn’t matter. So I’ll applique anything.
LD: Anything that’s not moving, right?
NL: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
LD: Is there any aspect of quilt making that you don’t enjoy?
NL: I don’t think so. I love the rotary cutting. I do templates. I don’t have the time, because of the shop, to machine quilt and practice to get to be as good at that as I would like. So I quilt by check. I give it to a longarm quilter and I pick it up quilted.
LD: Oh okay, alright.
NL: And if it’s a small enough project I will hand quilt it myself.
LD: Now do you, as someone who does own a shop I’m sure you’re constantly getting new products, that sort of stuff. Do you like to use all the new technology and the new methods that come out? Do you try to use those?
NL: I try it at least once, to make sure I understand the product. Unless it involves a computer. [LD laughs.] I’m pretty much computer free, in my life. I’d rather quilt. So I find. My husband does all the computer work for me. So if it involves a program on the computer I’m hopeless. But if it’s a hands-on quilting product I generally try it. So that I know if it’s a good enough product to have in the shop.
LD: Now, do you hand quilt?
NL: I hand quilt.
LD: Hand quilt. Wonderful. I know that you’re so busy with the shop, but are you part of any kind of a guilds or art groups or like that?
NL: Oh yes. I’m a member of the Tucson Quilters Guild. I’ve been president twice in the 17 years since we’ve been here. I love the guild. And I’m a member of a bee. Once a month I go to my bee. We have all kinds of groups that meet here. My favorite is the Baltimore Ladies of Tucson where we sit and applique and do actual Baltimore style applique. We have another group that I’m just trying to get started here in the shop as well called AAA, Almost Always Applique [both laugh.] And then I’m very active with the shop owners group. So in southern Arizona all of the quilt shop owners get together and we plan a shop hop every 18 months and share ideas and talk and–
LD: Because of this exposure to so many influences, has your style evolved over the years you’ve been here?
NL: Oh yeah.
LD: How has that happened?
NL: Oh, I think that I have developed more technique. My quilting is definitely better. And so I try more intricate ideas. My very earliest patterns don’t look anything like my later patterns.
LD: In what way have they changed?
NL: Well they’re, I think they’re becoming a little more sophisticated. I still love folk art. That’s my basis and I always call my designs “Folk Art Southwest” but they’re definitely a little more sophisticated than they were when I started this thing.
LD: Now one of the questions we like to ask is tell us about your quilt studio. I’m sitting right here in your shop so I’m assuming this is your quilt studio.
NL: Well, nine times out of ten I start right here in the shop. So I don’t wash my fabric before I make a quilt.
LD: Oh okay. Why is that?
NL: Well because I’m cutting it off the bolt. [both laugh.] And I discovered Shout color catchers so when you are ready to wash your quilt you can throw in a color catcher and any dye that’s going to come out goes to that. So that’s a–thank God for those. But at home I have one of the bedrooms and I have a long table in front of the big window with two baskets for my cats and my Bernina sewing machine. I love my Bernina. And I’m surrounded by fabric. Took the doors off the closet so I can see it. It’s on shelves in the closet. And then behind my table is a large cutting area with an ironing board on the first side.
LD: And do you have a design wall in there, too?
NL: Yes, yes, there’s definitely a design wall.
LD: Do you think that actually enhances your creative process, to use a design wall?
NL: I pretty much see a quilt in my head before I start designing it. I have an idea and then as I do elements of it I’ll pin it up. There’s multiple layers on my design wall. I’ve had to take things down and rearrange when there’s a new idea. Right now, I’ve got four different projects pinned in various spots.
LD: The sign of a creative person.
NL: Yes, yes.
LD: Let’s talk a little bit about craftsmanship and aesthetics and that sort of stuff. What do you think makes a great quilt? What do you think makes a really excellent quilt?
NL: Attention to detail from the very beginning. Learning to cut accurately, sew accurately, so that all the points come together.
LD: So you’re the quilt police. [both laugh.]
NL: Ah, I guess I’m the quilt police. And but I learned a long time ago as a quilt teacher and my favorite is teaching beginners–
LD: Why is that?
NL: Well, I love to see that light come on. They, everybody wants to make a quilt and they think, ‘Oh, this is gonna be a snap. I can do that.’ And they realize that they have to really pay attention to what they’re doing and about week three that light comes on and they go, ‘Oh my God! I think I can get this.’ So I love seeing that revelation in their faces. I love to help people pick out fabric and take the mystery out of choosing fabrics for their quilts.
LD: I think that’s–to me that’s the hardest part.
NL: Yeah. For a lot of people it is. But I also learned that I can’t make everybody hold the same standards that I have. Quilting is–you have to love it. And I want people to love it. So, if their points are crooked, well then that’s fine. The finished product. As long as they have enjoyed the process and learned something and want to continue and go on and make more quilts then I’ve done my job. For my own quilts, what makes a fine quilt is making sure that my workmanship is as good as I can make it.
LD: But in terms of aesthetics or artistic elements, what do you think makes a powerful quilt? What things do you look for?
LD: Contrast? How? Explain that.
NL: I want to see, I know that there are people who like blended quilts but for me to see the pieces and to be able to recognize what is going on in a quilt requires a little bit of contrast. And so that is what draws me to specific quilts.
LD: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for say a museum collection? How would you define that?
NL: Oh, again, that perfection. That you just don’t see everyday. There are quilts that we want to sleep under and love and wash and let the cat lay on it and the kids pee on it and– [laughs.]
LD: [laughs.] It’s okay, you can say that.
NL: –and then there are quilts that we don’t abuse everyday. And those are the ones that end up in museums. There’s also a place in museums for a quilt that’s loved to death.
LD: Are there any particular quilt artists or just artists period that have influenced you in your work?
NL: Folk art. I love the folk art. I can see that influence in most of my work. But as for an artist, oh maybe [pause.] Van Gogh.
LD: And why that?
NL: Well, he, he had a way with color. And I love that; that color. And so of all the artists he was probably my favorite. And I look at his work and it’s more folk art than some of the other artists from his, and Picasso. His work would make great quilts, [laughs.] great quilts.
LD: Is there any particular quilt artist or designer that has influenced you?
NL: Well, Laurene Sinema, definitely. Any other quilt artist. Helen Frost.
LD: Helen Frost. How are those people–I mean they’re both Arizona artists. I mean, how have they influenced you?
NL: Well, Laurene opened my eyes to the possibilities of applique. I learned a lot from her. So that was, that was amazing for me. Helen, as a piecer, she has so many good tips on piecing accurately and quickly and so I have learned a lot from talking with Helen as well. Other quilt artists, oh I love Piececake, the [pause, inaudible,both laugh.]
LD: We can fill it in.
NL: Okay. Sorry.
LD: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the function and meaning of quilts in American life. How do you, in what ways do you feel like your quilts maybe reflect your community and the reason you’re in it now. Do they on a general basis or periodically or–
NL: Well, my quilts are made specifically to remind me of Arizona. When I opened the shop I couldn’t order or purchase patterns for the store that were, that reminded me of Arizona, of our community, of our landscape, and so I started making them myself. And my very first one was called The Old Pueblo. I was actually trying to recreate Jean Wells’ quilt called My Town. It was on the cover of her book Willow Wood. And I realized I didn’t want it to look like hers. I wanted it to look southwest so I changed it. So she’s another one who’s been a bit of an influence for me. Again we’ve got that folk art deal.
LD: Right, right.
NL: And then my second pattern that I published is called “Dove of the Desert” and it’s a Mission. Mission San Xavier. So I tried to recreate in a simplified way, our environment. This one back here is called “Pretty Rita, Prickly Pear” and the block is a traditional block called Prickly Pear and then I just played with it.
LD: Now where we are in Arizona, we have so many Snow Birds and retirees, people coming from the East Coast and that find our environment very exotic. What’s their response to your patterns and designs and fabric?
NL: They love them. We sell a lot of the patterns to people who are visiting from other parts of the country and who want to take a little bit of Tucson home with them. And none of them are so elaborate that people look at them and say, ‘Oh, I could never try that.’ So they’re generally doable.
LD: What do you think is the importance of quilts in American life?
NL: They’re comfort. They’re comfort. They give us comfort. I think that’s why in our economy today, with the economy being so bad for a lot of people, out of work, et cetera, my shop is still a success. Because people want to quilt. They want that comfort. And they have something to show for that activity at the end. It’s creative and we’ve got something to show for it that can be used.
LD: Very typical of women’s work, I think.
NL: Oh, yes.
LD: In what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning for women’s history in America?
NL: Well, you know one of my favorite sayings is ‘Anonymous, Thy name is woman’ and quilting and needle arts in particular give women who may feel they don’t have a whole lot of power or whatever, an outlet, a creative outlet, and then they’ve got something that they can use. And our history, no matter where we turn with women’s history, needlework and sewing and quilts always seem to be a part of it.
LD: What do you think is, what happens to the quilts that you’ve given to your friends and family? You know, have they been used or what has happened to them?
NL: Well, hopefully they’re being used. I know we made a baby quilt for my sister-in-law and she put it on the wall. The label says, ‘Wrap your baby in love and wrap her in this quilt.’ And it’s on the wall. So I always hope my quilts are being used rather than nailed to the wall, but–.
LD: So, the majority of quilts you make–are they art quilts or are they–
NL: They are to be used. Each quilt is a work of art [laughs.]–
NL: But I want them used.
LD: [laughs.] Absolutely. What do you do about storing and preserving your quilts? What steps do you take to do that?
NL: Well, right now a lot of them are hanging on the walls of the shop, but once they go home, I rotate them on beds. And we’ve got one bed that must have 15 quilts on it right now. Yeah, just stacked up. I have a lot of quilt racks. They’re on the back of everything.
LD: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
NL: Coming up with money to buy fabric. [both laugh.] Other than that, finding time, I think, finding the time in our busy lives to quilt is probably the biggest challenge we all have.
LD: Now, you’re also a quilt historian. We’ve talked about that and how you admire antique quilts and quilt. What do you see in terms of the changing style of quilts and how it reflects women’s lives over the centuries now?
NL: Um hmm.
LD: What do you see quilts today saying about today’s women as opposed to 1850’s?
NL: Okay, I think something that I don’t carry a lot of here are the “potato chip” patterns, the quick, down and dirty, fast quilts because I want people to stretch and learn and try a technique and I love the traditional techniques so we have a very traditional focus here. So I don’t do those fast, quick quilts here. And I find so many quilters want to do that. They just want to turn out those quilts because we’re on high gear. Everybody’s going faster and faster and faster. And so I try to counter that by teaching the traditional skills and encouraging people to try those hard and fast successful quilts that we’ve been making since the 1850’s. Baltimore quilts is a big one that we’re doing here in the shop now. But I think that we go through cycles and the traditional stuff–there’s a whole market for it. And ladies are coming in and they’re wanting to do that. And another shop in town pursues the go cutter and the big pieces, and that’s not what I want to do. And that’s not what I hope quilters will do. But that’s what I see going on right now in quilting.
LD: Now you were just inducted into the Arizona Quilters Hall of Fame for the past 2011 and this is our final question.
NL: Oh my.
LD: Yes, it’s been fast and fun. What would you like to be your legacy for the quilters in Arizona and for quilters in general? How would you like to be remembered?
NL: I would like to be remembered for sharing quilting with anybody and everybody who is interested in it. I think that’s why I like to teach the beginners. I get them hooked. [both laugh.]
But I think that’s what I want to be remembered for, as someone who was, who shared quilting.
LD: Well, thank you Nancy. It’s been a delight–
NL: Oh, thank you!
LD: –and we are so happy to have you in Arizona–
NL: Thank you.
LD: –as a member of the Arizona Quilters Hall of Fame. I’m so thrilled that you’re part of this and thank you so much.
NL: Oh, I can’t get enough of it. [both laugh.]
LD: Thanks a lot.
NL: Oh wow, well that wasn’t bad.
LD: Not at all.