QUILTER PROFILE: Nancy Kirk

For most quilters, quilting is a hobby, which might, under the right set of circumstances, become a business. Nancy Kirk came to it the other way around, through the family business, The Kirk Collection. "People assume I was a quilter first and then got in this business, but the truth is the opposite. We started dealing in antique quilts when we decided to adopt children and one of us needed to stay home. My husband voted to stay home while I continued working the first two years after we adopted Ben.

"He bought quilts that needed repair, so I started doing restoration as a matter of necessity. I had sewed all my life, especially hand sewing, so mending felt comfortable. I learned about quilting as an archaeological process -- taking quilts apart and putting them back together.

"Our background was in the arts -- my husband was a theatre director and I was in arts management when we started. We were looking for a part-time job for him that he could do from the house after we adopted a child. We wanted to deal in antiques and we wanted to sell something that was small, lightweight, one of a kind and where aesthetics were the primary part of the value. Quilts fit the bill.

"Two years later Bill came home from an auction with two trunkloads of antique fabrics and we found ourselves in the fabric business. First we sold to costumers for film and television -- it was another year before we went to our first quilt show when NQA came to Lincoln, NE, and learned that quilters buy a lot of fabric too, they just buy it in little itty bitty pieces.

"About two years after that we did a quilt show in Kansas City, and editors from both Quilters Newsletter Magazine and Ladies Circle Patchwork 'discovered' us, wrote articles and helped turn The Kirk Collection into an international mail order business. We had just opened a storefront after working out of the house before that and ever since we've sent antique fabrics around the world. We're still better known in L.A. than we are in Omaha.

"About six years ago we started carrying reproduction fabrics along with the antiques to serve the quilters who want the look but like working with new fabric. We're known for carrying only those we feel are accurate for both surface design and color.

"We adopted our second child about the same time we opened the shop. It was a busy period. Jessica is 10 now and we home school her."

From these business and personal considerations, an interest in quilting emerged in Nancy. It was focussed, naturally, on a vintage style: "The only type of quilting I do personally is crazy quilting, which I love because it is improvisational. I was never good at coloring between the lines and patchwork is a great challenge for me. I also like applique using the old traditional needleturn method. I follow the lead of the 19th century quilters and let my stitches show -- why go to all that trouble and then not let anyone see your work?

"I design patchwork quilts both for our shop and on commission, but I don't physically make them -- I have enough stress in my life without trying to make the perfect 1/4" seam!

"Plus it's the design process I really like. Because we sell antique fabric, many people bring in sets of blocks made by a mother or grandmother and wanting to finish them, so I get to do my favorite part -- designing the quilt and picking fabrics with them. I also teach workshops designing new quilts from old blocks and tops -- we do a new quilt every ten minutes!"

Asked what restoration advice she would give to those with old quilts, Nancy says: "The greatest danger to old quilts is physical handling -- which makes for a great dilemma, because one of the reasons we all love quilts is their high touch quality. The other major dangers are light -- especially fluorescent lights and sunlight, and water, including improper washing. Dirt is a much lesser problem. And of course there are always the dogs who eat holes in your favorite quilt.

"When someone asks how to restore a quilt, how to wash a quilt, how to conserve a quilt -- the answer is always the same -- 'It depends.' Each quilt must be dealt with individually. First we ask what is the quilt's past, then -- what is its future? Once we have those two answers we can come up with a plan. A quilt which is a priceless family heirloom may need a different approach than a garage sale find. And sometimes, the historic value of the quilt so outweighs the damage that it is best to do nothing at all."

Nancy's interest in crazy quilting and quilt restoration has further expanded into an active role in promoting pubic education and appreciation for these antique arts. The Kirk Collection, through its non-profit affiliate, sponsors major conferences each year:

"We hold an annual Quilt Restoration Conference -- August, 2000 will be the sixth. Our goal is to teach amateurs and professionals the skills and knowledge they need to restore quilts responsibly. While we offer a beginning restoration workshop, most of the conference is devoted to quilt history, textile history and identification, studying quilting styles and the like. We emphasize the knowledge of antique quilts so restorers can help their clients make good decisions about when to restore, when to conserve and when to leave the quilt alone. On line registration is available at www.quiltrestoration.com (about April 1.)

"The Crazy Quilt Society grew out of a Kirk Collection group called The Crazy Quilt Support Group. As interest kept growing in crazy quilts, we knew the group needed to go beyond The Kirk Collection, and so we formed The Crazy Quilt Society. Our initial board of advisors included Judith Montano, Penny McMorris and Leslie Levison, who agreed a national conference and newsletter would be a great idea -- so we planned the first conference for 1998. This July 7-9 will be the third annual and promises to be the very-best-ever-in-the-whole-wide-world (that's become our catch phrase and every year it has been true).

"This year the faculty includes Valeri Bennett from England doing silk syeing and painting, Nancy Eha teaching beaded embroidery, Cindy Brick, editor of our newsletter on embroidered motifs, Chris Dabbs, author of Crazy Quilts, teaching her exquisite embroidery techniques. Jan Nicholas from Australia will be teaching stump work; Betty Pillsbury will offer a beginner's workshop and other classes; Sallie Pate from Texas will teach cords, tassels and other doodads; Judith Montano has a variety of classes and Nancy Peters, a Pfaff teacher, will use the machine to teach crazy quilt techniques and embellishments using a sewing machine. Friday night we have "Chocolate and Chat" with the faculty, and Saturday afternoon we have Show and Tell and a Scholarship Auction. Plus there will be two exhibits -- Crazy Quilting Around the World and The Crazy Quilt Society Members Show. All the details can be found at www.crazyquilt.com

"Both the Quilt Restoration Conference and The Crazy Quilt Conference are under the non-profit sponsorship of The Quilt Heritage Foundation, a tax-exempt organization we set up to sponsor the educational activities. The Foundation is also sponsoring a Coverlet Institute and Appraisal Seminar in April and a Dear Jane Midwest 2000 workshop with Brenda Papadakis in June. There are details of all these activities on the Foundation's website at www.quiltheritage.com."

Asked about the role of computers in her quilting life, Nancy says: "I live at the computer -- actually at one of my three computers --office, home and laptop. Trying to keep straight which files are on which can be a challenge. I lot of the time I use my server in Atlanta as a temporary parking place for the files that I'm currently working on so I can use whatever computer is handy. We have cable modems which makes life ever so much easier.

"I use the computer to keep track of all the major projects I'm working on -- 27 at last count, plus for designing quilts and blocks. I do most of the publications we do, so I spend a lot of time in desktop publishing programs and Photoshop, plus I write the code for all our web sites. A very talented web mistress -- actually I think she deserves the term 'web goddess' -- named April Millican of auntie.com, designed our sites. I just write the content code. We also sell a lot on e-Bay, which is my husband's bailiwick.

"I'm also doing the web site and working on marketing for the FabShop Hop with Laurie Harsh of the Fabric Shop Network. The Hop is the consumer program for the Network -- we have 106 shops participating in the Hop, which begins April 1 at fabshophop.com.

"We have some other web sites in the works including quiltsavings.com and fabricsavings.com which will debut this spring. Just as you would expect, they will bring quilters coupons, special deals and other savings and free offers.

"I'm active on the Fab Shop Net and QuiltBiz lists and the Quilt History List. The first two are business owner lists and QHL is about history, restoration, conservation and similar topics. I also subscribe to The Crazy Quilt List at Quiltropolis, which is a great list but very active and I can't always keep up -- but many people who come to the conference are on that list and they get together for a special dinner during the conference.

"The other lists I get are all computer nerd and marketing stuff -- not as interesting but necessary for my job."

If all of these activities make you worn out just listening to them, Nancy has yet other irons in the fire:

"Now we are doing our first line of fabric with Benartex -- a Civil War era collection that will be available in May. We'll also have quilt patterns and clothing patterns to go with it. You'll find them on our site at www.kirkcollection.com and also a special site we're setting up just for that collection called civilwarfabrics.com.

"We also have a two CD collection of redwork designs just coming on the market now from Cactus Punch and planning more embroidery designs for the future.

"We're beginning to use our vast collection of fabrics and reference materials to work with other companies to produce products on a licensing basis. I'm also doing more speaking and teaching as the kids get older."

However she may have come to vintage fabrics, old quilts, and their care, Nancy Kirk has obviously made them her passion. Her vast knowledge and prodigious energy in the interest of our textile heritage are something for us all to be thankful for.