Meg Cox (MC): This is the Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview with Victoria Findlay Wolfe. We are at her loft apartment in New York City. Tell me about the quilt you’ve brought today to talk about.
Victoria Findlay Wolfe (VFW): The quilt that I’d like to talk about is the one hanging over here behind us called “Everything but the Kitchen Sink.” I started it about 15 years ago. I was an occasional quilter, and then I became a mother. There was at a point where I was making a lot of quilts and children’s clothes for my daughter Beatrice. I wanted to make her quilts when she was a baby. But I would never make the perfect quilt for her. I ended up making her about 20 quilts. None of the quilts were ever good enough for my daughter, so I cut them all up and accumulated many orphan blocks along the way from doing so. I was looking at quilts but not really knowing much about making a quilt. The only quilts I had in my house were the crazy quilts my grandmother made. And so that’s how this quilt started, I was trying to mimic what my grandmother did. Mimicking what her process was. Because it was the only thing I knew, from watching her quilt as a child.
MC: So you brought this because it speaks to how you became involved with quilting?
VFW: It was definitely the start of the obsession with quilting. I had started, if you look at the bottom of that quilt, there is a 14″ strip across the bottom, where I was looking at my grandmother’s work and I was trying to duplicate what she did by using the sewing machine instead of by hand. I got so bored and frustrated trying to do it. It wasn’t my way, so I needed to figure out how to do what she did, but in my own way, so I couldn’t I get frustrated. I couldn’t at the time, and so I put it away in a box for about 12 years. In 2009 I pulled it out and that’s when I had accumulated so many more orphan blocks and then just started playing with it, adding them all into one quilt.
MC: What do you think that this quilt says about you? If someone came upon this quilt, what do you think it says about you as a quilter?
VFW: That’s kind of hard. I hope they see the learning curve and passion. When I look at that quilt, I see everything that I have learned for about 15 years. I learned techniques that I have never done before. There’s probably about a hundred Y seams in that quilt. Difficult seams. That’s the only way to do it, just go for it. Applique is something that I had not done since junior high school. It’s my learning process, in that quilt, trying to do letters, applique, using up antique blocks I’ve collected. Everything I had went into it, along with my everyday life. Maybe it says, I’m open to the life throws at me? I’m a painter by trade previously so I was trying to figure out the color balance and make it all work. It’s been a complete learning experience so it kind of sums up a wide portion of my life including getting married, having a family, moving to New York, it accumulates everything.
MC: How do you use this quilt?
VFW: It sits on my bed. It’s the one quilt that I am so attached to, I’d garb it from a burning building. It’s not going anywhere, it’s staying here, it wont’ be sold. It gets used and loved.
MC: So your interest in quilting was originally sparked by your grandmother?
VFW: Yes, definitely, and by the basic needs of growing up on a farm. My father had an upholstery business in Minnesota and I grew up on a farm in MN. My mother was a seamstress for Fingerhut for a while. I don’t know if anyone knows Fingerhut out here. But that’s why my grandma had all theses quilts made out of polyester double-knit. My grandmother was a crazy-quilter. In MN you had about five of these quilts on your bed, because it’s cold and we did not have heat in our house. We heated our house with wood stoves. So we would have about five of these quilts on our bed and they stayed there all night long. The weight of them is unforgettable and comforting.
MC: Was she the only family member who quilted?
VFW: No, My mother would make quilts periodically, only after a relative got married, but then she was more of a seamstress. When I started sewing, I had one of those Barbie sewing machines that had a glue cartridge that you would put in and it would put glue dots on the fabric. That really worked well (laughter). Then I moved up from there gradually and would steal my father’s scraps and upholstery sample books. I’d sew them together on my mother’s Singer. I remember him teaching me how to do a blind stitch and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world because you couldn’t tell there was a seam on the outside finishing it up. I thought it was pretty cool cause it looked like my Dad’s work then.
MC: Did you ever make a quilt for the Barbie?
VFW: I’m sure I did but I don’t remember.
MC: So your first quilt memory was probably the polyester quilts on the bed?
VFW: Yes and they were heavy.
MC: So how much time do you spent quilting now? How big a part of your life is it?
VFW: All day all night. My husband’s up in Canada right now, so I would stay up all night if I could. No, really, I sew all day. All day long. I sew when my daughter goes to school, I sew, when she comes home, I quilt when she goes to bed. It’s an obsession, I know and accept that. it is all related to my need to create.
MC: Would you talk a little bit about the modern quilt movement and how you seemed to be involved with that?
VFW: That’s kind of interesting. I was a little bit clueless to it. It had been around for about six months. Hadn’t heard anything about it. And a friend of mine Amy Drucker, said how come we don’t have this in New York. We need a guild. Let’s do this. Want to do this? Okay and 20 minutes later our site was up and within an hour we had like 20 members. That was 1-1/2 years ago. So within 20 minutes we got all these people on the site and it has grown very rapidly. We have been meeting here in the apt. We have over 150 members on line. We are working on a new web site, The challenge has not been getting more people, new people come each meeting, and community is a big part of it.
MC: How do you define, for you, what is it about?
VFW: For me personally it’s keeping all the rules open. I consider myself a very traditional quilter. I’ve done it since I was very young. I know patchwork and how to sew by hand but at the same time, as an artist, I want to try different things and I think maybe the modern movement is incorporating that more for everybody, that it’s okay to do your own thing. I think it is all-inclusive, it includes the art quilter, the beginner quilter, the traditional quilter who wants to try something new. The fabric designers are a big part of it, the more color I can get, the happier I am.
MC: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process. Were you conscious of that for a long time?
VFW: Yeah. We had a talk the other day about how or about why the process was more important to you or the finished object was more important. To me as an artist it is definitely the process. It’s all about starting the quilt, and discovering where it’s going. I rarely have a plan when I start something. I start with one little piece and I let it grow organically. I don’t ever now where I’m going with it, the adventure of it is what excited me. It’s like when I’m working on a painting I’ll start small in the center, and then it gets big as I fill in the canvas…
MC: So with a quilt do you start with the color, do you start with the pattern. What is your impulse?
VFW: It could be anything. Sometimes it’s a memory of somebody, a memory of my grandmother. This quilt, “Grandmother’s Rocking Chair”, This quilt actually started out as a traditional style quilt with squares, and the orange blocks. I couldn’t make it just be that traditional quilt, I had to see what would happen if I… then played out all the options that made me think of my grandmother. It was just too normal, so I started playing and the next thing I knew I had something completely different. About my grandmother, from watching her sew, sitting in her rocking chair. That would be the inspiration. Or like I said, looking at my grandmother’s quilt for inspiration, a color combination or Anytime I’d say I would never do a purple and gold quilt, those are my high school colors, I hated those colors, as soon as I said that, I made five quilts with those colors. So that is a great inspiration or a starting off point to a great challenge.
MC: So you challenge yourself?
VFW: Always challenge. I love a challenge. That’s one of the things I love to do most. Sometimes if I’m doing a commissioned quilt, I ask people to give me a word and that will send me off on a tangent.
MC: That’s a great segue. How did you get involved in the commission business and do you have your own personal style or how does it work?
VFW: It’s been mostly word of mouth. A lot of my painting commissions have spilled over into quilts because they want to know what I am doing with quilts. They are confused at first until they see them and then they want one. I don’t always get a lot of information. I had one person wanted a red quilt. That was the inspiration. So I cleaned all my stash of every red I had. When I do a commission, there’s no deposit required. If after I make the quilt, if they want to purchase it after it’s made, great! It’s okay with me! but I’m just as happy to keep it if they don’t. It’s a win/win either way.
MC: And I know as well that you started a community project for quilts. You really are living and breathing quilting. Could you talk a little bit about that? How that got started and where that is now?
VFW: That was kind of funny. The blog world is a very interesting place. Those of us who quilt have more quilts than we need. I had some extra quilts lying here and I had a friend who worked with a program called Basics, in the Bronx, who worked with getting homeless families back into transitional housing here in the city. I asked him one day: Do you need any quilts? Thinking I could give him two or three that I had lying around. And he turned around and said: Do you have 700? That was not what I expected him to say, not in my wildest dreams. . So I said, hmmm, I don’t know, let me see what I can do. So I designed a house block and asked people on my blog to make them and send them to me and I would make a couple quilts for them. well a couple blocks turned into, 500 quilt blocks and that turned into 60 quilts, which we then auctioned off and raised over $30,000 for them.
MC: You auctioned them of for the organization?
VFW: Yes, basically by auctioning off the quilts for them at an organization fundraiser. Then, that had been so successful, that we turned it into an ongoing quilt drive. And so now, we opened it up where you could send in completed quilts. We’ve received over 350 quilts. And we’ve had event days where we go up to the Bronx to each of the different housing units and we hand the quilts to the families in the program. It’s an extremely emotional and fabulous day. We have another round of that coming up, to collect more quilts. And it turns into something bigger than I had set out to do. One needs to always think bigger.
MC: Would you talk about, what is the most pleasing aspect of quilting to you?
VFW: It’s the process and giving back. It’s just so fun watching all these little pieces come together. I can’t throw anything away. So I save all my little pieces and they grow from nothing into something. That’s what I love. It’s not even so much the finished product. I think by the time I put it on my lap and fix the binding I’m done and I’m onto the next project. From the beginning to the end. And giving them away is even better, good for the soul.
MC: Have advances in technology affected your work? What about the tools that you use?
VFW: Not much other than my rotary cutter and my scissors. I’ve dabbled a bit on Spoonflower, working with fabric design and that’s always interesting. I’m happy to participate and try a new tool. I feel kind of traditional with my quilts so I have to push myself further into other areas yet. Just when I say I will never do something, I need that boost to try something new, new technology can help me do that.
MC: What about fabrics? Where are you looking for fabric?
VFW: Anywhere. Clothes. Fabric shops. All the stores. All my friends.
MC: What are you favorite techniques?
VFW: I used to think that I would never pick up applique ever ever again in my life, but I actually love it. So I’ve been tending to do even more of that, but scrap piecing, my heart belongs to scrap piecing…
MC: We are in this big loft in your living area that we’ve taken over and so people cannot really tell that behind this wall and behind this quilt is your studio space where you work. So since we can’t see it, would you describe it for us?
VFW: It’s a mess. That sums it up. It’s a couple tables set up in the space, set up for working with all these quilts. I have my tall cutting table and lots of windows all around and lots of fabrics. And one Juki sewing machine.
MC: Now you were talking earlier about this building being in the garment district and what it was like when you got here. Would you share some of that?
VFW: When we moved into this building the neighboring building that we looked into was still a sweat shop. The history of this area is that is all it was, it was all the sweat shops, as we are part of the garment center. Our building once was also. It just seems kind of funny now that I sit here sewing all day, I joke, that I get so much done because of the spirits of past garment workers. So when people come here and see all the quilts, it’s not me, it’s all the sewing energy of the workers, it’s kind of interesting.
MC: Would you tell me if you’ve ever used quilts or quilting to get through a difficult time in your life?
VFW: Not specifically…It’s mostly joyous times. Anytime there is a baby in the family there is a quilt being made. Anytime I can share and give something away. I do obsess over a particular quilt I’d like to make. I haven’t made this yet, but I do want to make a quilt for when I die. Is that terrible?
MC: Why is that?
VFW: Growing up in MN I attended a Native American funeral. Their tradition is to sit with the body for a three days and the body is always wrapped in a quilt. And I thought it would be incredibly personal and special if I made that quilt. I’m happy with a pine box and a quilt. That’s it. I don’t know what that quilt would be. I cannot even decide what to quilt for own my bed, but I think about it all the time.
MC: I want to talk a little bit about aesthetics in your work and beyond. What do you think makes a great quilt?
VFW: I think all quilts are great. I think that whatever process anyone takes to make something, that’s their process to be respected. We all make for different reasons, and with different processes. There are no ugly quilts. It depends if you are making it for some particular reason that you think you have to strive to do something. If someone doesn’t like what I’ve done. It’s ok. I like that it can just be what it is. Anytime I see a quilt top in an antique store I know someone poured everything they had into it. They worked so hard to make it. And I usually come home with those quilts. I respect the person and their process for making it.
MC: What are the works you are drawn to? Are there quilt makers that you admire or are there other types of quilts that you might see in a museum that might pull you in?
VFW: I think it’s the ones in the flea markets that I am crazy about. The ones that get passed on out of the family. I love thinking about who that was who sat and put all those pieces together. I find I want to know the story behind the quilt. A quilt needs to be loved.
MC: What artists have influenced you?
VFW: I am doing a Matisse quilt right now. It’s not the first one I’ve done. So he is the biggest inspiration. Monet, the colors. Kandinsky, the bright colors. And a lot of modern art. I like the parallel a lot between some of the modern quilting now and some of the more traditional modern contemporary painters such as Ellsworth Kelly. Big bold patterns. Amish quilts are modern and contemporary no matter when they were made. Simple. Elegant.
MC: How do you start with that? Is it looking at a painting. Are you inspired by that? Is it kind of a cut out?
VFW: The cut outs are the easiest thing. It’s just a challenge. I don’t plan, drawing it all out. I just start cutting fabric. Picking up little pieces and just star sewing bits together to resemble whatever it is I’m looking at. They are always free form, whatever happens with them happens. They are what they are. It’s a work in progress and it is fun to do.
MC: How do you feel about machine quilting? Do you do your own machine quilting? How do you finish quilts?
VFW: Yes I do machine quilt. I struggle a bit with it, But I find it’s building my patience as my skills grow. I don’t have time to hand quilt all my own quilts. I do use long armers. If I have a quilt I really, really love, I have to quilt it myself. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I’m learning slowly to add new designs each time I quilt a quilt. I just have a regular straight stitch home machine. No long arm.
MC: So you’re not one of those dedicated quilters____________?
VFW: They are all straight stitch, My Juki’s are fast, simple, and great work horse machines!
MC: Why is quilt making important to life?
VFW: I like that they (quilts) are going to be around for a lot longer than I am. I like that my daughter is watching me. I know that I am passing it onto her. I enjoy that the quilts will stay in the family. She is 11, which may change later in life!
MC: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community or your region?
VFW: I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. I don’t know.
MC: What do you think is the importance of quilts in American life?
VFW: The utilitarian aspect of them, from what they’ve grown from out of necessity, using what they have been to begin with. It’s all true now again. Whether it’s being green, using up what you have and not being wasteful. Everything that quilts started with is as true then as it is now. We must be resourceful not wasteful.
MC: Where do you see yourself going as a quilter? Do you have goals, do you take it as it comes?
VFW: I take it as it comes. I don’t obsess on making a perfect quilt. I’m not sure I can do that, I’m not sure I want to do that. I prefer to learn from each quilt that I do and move onto the next and see what happens. I have felt recently that my work is sort of changing, or perhaps I’m just growing. But I think it’s just being more open to more possibilities and going back and learning and trying other things that I haven’t done before. Building my tool set of quilter skills. I let it happen and see where it will lead me I am doing a lot more handwork than I ever have done before. I’m curious to see where that goes.
MC: Are you teaching others as well? I have started teaching a little bit, yes. I have a teaching website where I show what I do. I show my process, what I do and a lot of people have enjoyed playing along with that and using that also as a way of building something from nothing and using that to start them and that’s been fun to watch other people get enjoyment from that as well.
MC: Would you like to be a style maker, a taste maker, a leader in the art of quilting?
VFW: I don’t think so, I just want to be a quilter. I just love to do it. I have to “make” being an artist. Whether I’m painting or drawing or making a quilt, or making dinner or learning how to do something else. It’s always about making. I need to do that. It’s all about the process to me. Being a tastemaker or leader in quilting seems less important, I just need to make. If that other stuff comes with what I’m doing, then that tells me I’m in the right place doing what I need to be doing. One of my sites, 15 minutes of play started from that. Being a mom when you have no time for yourself sometimes you only have 15 minutes, just for your sanity as an artist. I needed to do something at least 15 minutes a day for myself. So that is a constant that I keep with me all the time. I do need to make constantly. If I have 15 minutes, I’ll take it.
MC: Constitutional imperative. So is that 15 minutes to play, is that what it’s called?
MC: And that is still active?
VFW: Yes, very much so. We have about 100 players on the site. We are constantly challenging each other and giving each other inspiration and supporting each other. Giving each other feedback. Just playing and seeing what happens. You don’t always have to have a plan where you’re going, it’s fine if you have a plan, but often it’s been when people are trying to find a new way, that they tap into their creative process. If you’re looking at something in a different way, you may find new answers to the What if questions… That’s kind of what we’ve been doing.
MC: That’s interesting because you are about the making but you are also about making of communities. Are the players, have they become your community?
VFW: Definitely. It’s become my community as well as the Modern Guild. It’s all about community. People come together and want to share what they’re doing and get feedback and get praise for all the hard work they’ve put into something. The amount of people that I’ve met through blogs and the amount of friends through the guild, finding like minded people, there is just nothing better than that. Having people around who get what you’re doing and want to do the same thing. You see the same spark in their eye. And you know that they get it. It’s great.
MC: So 15 minutes play is not just quilting?
VFW: Yes, it is just quilting. Well, quilting and community. Sharing, bonding…and different challenges to work in different ways.
MC: Could you share some of those challenges that you think were the most interesting?
VFW: Well we just had a solids, strictly solids challenge. Some people had not done that! We used artwork & paintings as inspiration, and they used only solid fabrics and made quilts from the swapped fabric, that was one of the challenges recently. We also challenged people to come up with a tutorial for a quilt block, and focused on specific color challenges as well. MC: It sounds like fun. How much time do they have to complete the challenge?
VFW: Usually about a month.
MC: What do you think is the biggest challenge that is affecting quilters today?
VFW: I don’t know how to answer that. It’s is such a personal thing for everybody. People are having issues with being labeled a certain type of quilter instead of just being inclusive and appreciating craft. I think that’s what I hear the most of all now, especially in the modern quilt world now. Everyone is trying to find their place. It’s all mixed up, it’s awkward. Can’t we all just be quilters?
MC: Well, I would like to thank Victoria for letting us conduct this interview today. We are concluding this interview at 8:25 pm.
The Modern Quilt Guild QSOS
QSOS ID: NY10018-001
Interviewee: Victoria Findlay Wolfe
Interviewer: Meg Cox
Transcriber: Ellen November
Location: New York City, New York
Time: 7:54 P.M.
Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories (QSOS) creates, through recorded interviews, a broadly accessible body of information concerning quiltmaking, both present-day and in living memory. Our downloadable QSOS Guidebook has everything you need to conduct your own QSOS interviews. Our archive for the original audio recordings and photographs is the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
QSOS volunteers from across the country conduct and transcribe these interviews. We appreciate their generosity of time and dedication to the project. We are always looking for guilds, organizations and individuals to undertake their own QSOS projects and join us. Find out how you can get involved with QSOS.