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Tomme Fent (TF): This is Tomme Fent. I'm interviewing Margret Zalfen [of Mnster, Germany.] for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. And we are in Kyalami, just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, at the home of Irne and Faan van Tonder, and actually we're in a bedroom in the lovely home of their daughter Heiltje and her husband Iwan's home. So, Margret, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.

Margret Zalfen (MZ): Thank you.

TF: Tell me about this wonderful quilt that you've chosen as your touchstone quilt.

MZ: Yes, thanks. I got the inspiration for this quilt from the painted wintercounts of the Plains Indian People. Every year, the chronicler, who keeps the history of the tribe, painted a symbol for an important thing that happened and was worth remembering. These signs and symbols helped the chronicler keep the tribe's history and re-tell and interpret it. I did something similar for my husband. For every year of his life, you can find a little picture which symbolizes an important happening. Wonderful colored fabrics of spring, summer, fall and winter themes give a perfect background for the personal story of his life.

TF: And I am interviewing you from a photograph of this quilt. We don't actually have the quilt here, and how I wish I could see this quilt in person! Tell me about just some of the years that you chronicled. What are some of the symbols on the quilt?

MZ: Yes. The beginning is at the middle, and there you can see Adam, the first man, who gives his hand to Good Father's hand. This is the beginning of the idea of man, I think. And this picture [indicating.] is in the middle of a star, and the star has colors--the color violet. And violet is the color of my husband, a special color. Between the rays of the star you can see trees which have icy branches because he's born in wintertime, and this winter there was a lot of snow and ice. And when you go around, the whole picture is a spiral, and when you go around you see at one point two little stars and they join each other. One is grey, and this little star is made out of the work coat of his father, and the other little star is made out of a dress of his mother. And then the story goes on and you see a little bit of night sky, and this symbolizes the nine months of when a wife is expecting a baby. Yes.

And then after this time, there comes the first picture. It is, yes, it's a little house. It's a farmhouse because my husband is born in a farmhouse, and the farmhouse of his grandmother. And then the second picture shows a baby stroller with a teddy bear in it, and it goes on and on and on. And between each picture, you can see wooden steps, fabric like wood.

TF: What's this one [indicating.], skiing?

MZ: This one, yes, you can find a picture where he learns skiing and a picture--oh, this is a little bit delicate, this one [indicating the picture next to the skier, of a wine bottle and corkscrew.]. [TF laughs.] You can see a bottle. And this was the year when he got his bachelor, I think you call it, his bachelor, and he was so full of joy that he drank too much and he lost his mind. [laughs.] And just--I tell the whole story--and just dropped into the--is it a gap? Please help me. Beside the street.

TF: Oh, the gutter.

MZ: Yes, he dropped into the gutter. It was the first time and the last time. [laughs.] And then you can see a picture with a sports shirt and a star, you can read 'winner,' because he was a very good sportsman.

TF: Is there a place on here that shows where he met you and you were married?

MZ: Yes, two hearts, these two hearts that shows our -- it's not the wedding it's the, what is it?

TF: Engagement?

MZ: Yes, engagement, before the wedding, yes, a celebration. And here you can see the wedding chapel and two golden rings. And it goes on and on and on, and you can see here our first son, David, that little one, and then the second one, Simon. And every year, you can find a very special picture that shows a special event in his life. He chose this special event by himself, but he didn't know that I would make a quilt for him. He always asked me, 'Why do I write down all these events?' I told him, 'Just do it. I need it.'

TF: Well, it's an amazing quilt. It's just amazing. Tell me about the fabrics you used in the quilt. Where did you get all the fabrics?

MZ: Oh, I collected them for years, and I love to buy novelty fabrics and I just pulled them out and cut, and I get the stories together.

TF: How long did it take you to make this quilt?

MZ: Two years.

TF: Two years.

MZ: And the worst thing was I was very alone when I made this quilt because it should be a surprise for him. I couldn't go and say, 'Just have a look. Do you like this? Do you like this?' It was not possible for me because it should be a gift for him. And therefore, I was very alone.

TF: What's the name of the quilt?

MZ: "Wintercounts," and just as I told you, it came from the wintercounts from the Plains Indian People who painted their events, as well, of the story of the tribe. And this is the story of the life of one man, but I think it's also the story of human being because everyone is born and has a teddy bear and a mother who loves him and a father and so on and so on.

TF: What are some of the techniques you used in this quilt?

MZ: Yes, the technique. It was a little bit tricky to get it round this way. I made, for every piece, I made a pattern and I put it together. And this rainbow color-- [indicating.]

TF: Around the spiral?

MZ: Yes, I sewed it by hand because I could control it this way. And this is all--we call it crazy quilting. It's free-form piecing.

TF: Is that machine pieced?

MZ: Yes, this is machine pieced. You can find five pieces: the middle, I made the middle, this piece, this one, this one, and this one [indicating.], and then I put it together. If you look very close, you can see the seams, but you have to look very close.

TF: So you have both machine piecing and hand piecing?

MZ: Machine piecing, hand piecing, I had hand appliqu, machine appliqu, for blending all these colors together.

TF: And what about the quilting? Is it machine quilted?

MZ: Machine quilted, yes, free-motion quilting, and hand quilting as well.

TF: Did you do the free-motion quilting on your own home sewing machine?

MZ: Yes, on my home machine, yes, and I used all the techniques I know.

TF: Well, it's just stunning. You mentioned that you couldn't run and show him, 'Oh, look at this. Look what I did.'

MZ: Yes.

TF: Do you usually do that when you're making a quilt, as you're making it, you show him?

MZ: Yes, I do that. Yes, I do that, yes.

TF: How has your quilting impacted your life, your family life?

MZ: My family life, oh, because my family has to live with a creative person and has to handle all these threads and fabric and pieces and tools and so on. But now my boys are grownups and I have my own studio, and this is much better, especially for myself. So I can shut the door to find my space and my peace.

TF: Did you take over one of the boys' bedrooms and make that your studio?

MZ: Yes, yes.

TF: So tell me about your studio, your sewing space.

MZ: Yes, oh, that's a story as well. It's the room of my second son, and my second son, when he became older, he always wanted his own entrance. He wanted to be independent, but there was no door. But when I get this room, the first thing I did [laughs.] was to bang a hole in the wall and-- to do a door in the wall so I can get in the garden, in and out, how I feel, because I work--a lot of time, I work in summer in the garden with my machine and all my things. Yes.

TF: You take your machine out to the garden?

MZ: Yes, I do. [laughs.]

TF: With an extension cord?

MZ: Yes, with an extension cord.

TF: Really!

MZ: Yes, I do.

TF: So, you aren't only inspired by nature, you're actually out in nature, sewing.

MZ: Yes, in nature, whenever the weather is fine, I go out and work.

TF: Do you have a fabric stash?

MZ: Yes, I have a fabric stash and I have a lot of drawers, and I have sorted my fabrics for color - red, green, blue, yellow, and so on and for themes - Chrismas, children, trees, and such.

TF: And then you mentioned all kinds of tools and threads, and how do you store all of that stuff?

MZ: Oh, my husband built a very big work table for me and I have drawers, as well, and I can make more room when I draw this table out to a length about 210 centimeters [approx. 82 inches.].

TF: So it has like leaves on the sides?

MZ: Yes. And a lot of storage place for books and so on. Yes.

TF: How did you learn to quilt?

MZ: Oh, I learned to sew at age of four, I think, and I always sewed, all my life. [A lot of my family members are seamstresses. They embroider, knit, paint, and print. They are creative persons like me and I appreciate my heritage very much.] And I'm educated as a teacher for needlework.

TF: Like hand needlework or hand sewing?

MZ: Both, machine and hand. And when I quit school for having time for my children and for my family, I had the time for myself to create things, and so I sewed all my life, all the time in my life. I made clothing for myself and for my boys, and in the year 1996, I traveled to the USA and I had an invitation by the Arapahoe people, the Native American people, and there I saw their beautiful quilts used in the ceremony and I was was gone. [laughs.] And I thought, 'You can sew. You can work with fabrics and with colors, so just give it a try. Give it a try.' And so, I did. And the first quilt I made was a very little Lone Star quilt, the traditional way, by machine. I sewed it by machine, not by hand.

TF: But reminiscent of the ones the Indians had made, that you saw?

MZ: Yes, they had Lone Star quilts, but not only Lone Star quilts. I can't explain because the patterns, I am sure they have special meaning, they wouldn't tell because they belong to the ceremony.

TF: How did you happen to be invited to visit the Arapahoe people?

MZ: Oh, that's a long story because I studied for a long time their cultures, and someday I was able to enter a staff in the museum, in the Museum of Nature [Westflisches Museum fr Naturkunde.] in our town, and they planned to make a very big, very wonderful exhibition about native Indian people, and so it started. And when we closed this exhibition, I thought it is good to go to the Arapahos and to thank for their work, because they did a lot for us, and so it happened and they invited me to their ceremony, to that Sundance. That was the beginning of quilting. [The museum sometimes still hires me if there is something special to do, like pitching a teepee or restoring some of the authentic leather clothing I made for the workshops they have for the school children.]

TF: Do you have any quilters in your family?

MZ: Yes, my sister, but she has another way to work. She is a designer for drawing and a painter. But when she had her two little daughters, she thought she can better do something with fabrics than painting and pencils or the tools you need to paint.

TF: Brushes?

MZ: Brushes, yes. But it isn't really her thing. Really, she belongs to paper and brushes and pencils, and she needs a long time to finish a quilt, but she loves to do it.

TF: When you get ready to make a quilt, what is your process?

MZ: It's very different because sometimes it's a fabric which inspires me, sometimes it's a theme, and then I begin and I start. I make a drawing, yes. Often I make a drawing. But the quilt maybe is similar to the drawing, maybe not. The quilt has its own life.

TF: When you do appliqu, do you make a template?

MZ: Sometimes. Sometimes I make Broderie Perse. I cut something out of the fabric and I sew it on the fabric, on the background. I like to do this.

TF: Do you also add embellishments to your quilts?

MZ: Oh, yes, very often I like to do this, embellishments like buttons and pearls, little beads, yes.

TF: How about embroidery?

MZ: Embroidery, yes, by hand, by machine, yes. All techniques which I can manage.

TF: Do you teach quilting?

MZ: Yes, I teach, but my classes are simpler, have simple themes, because these complex themes need a long time and it's difficult to get these women together more than five times, in these times today.

TF: So your classes are usually five sessions?

MZ: Five sessions, five to ten, yes. Depends on the theme.

TF: So you do have themes for the classes?

MZ: Yes, I have themes for the classes, yes. The next one is a Christmas theme. Yes. And I made some suggestions and my goal is a special technique, but when the women have their own ideas, I like it that they do the work with their own ideas. I give them all the support I can but they go home happy with their own ideas. And I have one theme, but when I have eight women, they have eight different quilts.

TF: Where do you teach the classes?

MZ: At the Civic Center, a room in the Civic Center, and there's a little cost for the room.

TF: Have you published any of your patterns or books?

MZ: Yes, not patchwork books, no. I'm just working on a book project but I don't want to talk about it. [laughs.] But my quilts are published in magazines. After the quilt show in Den Haag, the exhibition in Den Haag [The Netherlands, 2004.], this quilt, I think twice, this quilt was published twice.

TF: So you are working on a quilting book that we can expect to see at some time in the future?

MZ: I hope so. [laughs.] I hope so.

TF: Are you a member of a guild?

MZ: Yes, the German Patchwork Guild. We have about 7,000 members.

TF: Seven thousand?

MZ: Yes.

TF: Wow!

MZ: Yes, about.

TF: How often do they meet?

MZ: They all [meet.] every two years, but they have--no, there's an exhibition every two years, but they meet every year for working on special things.

TF: Are there smaller groups within the guild that get together?

MZ: Yes, small groups, yes, and they meet very often, more often.

TF: Are you a member of one of those?

MZ: No, I'm not a member of those. I'm a member of a group of four women and we are free but we like to work together to inspire each other and to support each other. And we have very different styles, very different.

TF: I've seen several of your quilts and I've never seen one that looks to me like it was made from a pattern. Have you ever made a quilt from a pattern?

MZ: No, only for to try something and little blocks or so, but no, my quilts are all original, especially those--no, [except.] the Lone Star quilt is a very old pattern; it's not mine. I think those traditional patterns I take from the heritage of all women.

TF: This quilt that you made for your husband, where is that quilt? How is it used now?

MZ: Where is it now?

TF: Yes.

MZ: In his working room.

TF: He hangs it on the wall in his working room?

MZ: Yes, it's on the wall, yes. And this room is very, very--not much furniture, because it [the quilt.] has power and [needs.] space.

TF: What kind of work does he do in that room?

MZ: He's working on his Apple, on the computer.

TF: Oh, I see, so it's like an office?

MZ: Like an office, yes. He's a yoga teacher and he prepares for his lessons and so on.

TF: Do you use quilts in other places in your home? Do you have quilts displayed?

MZ: Yes, I have some, yes. And when I have the mood, I change the quilts from time to time. It depends on the mood, on the feeling, yes, or if it is spring or summer or winter or Christmastime.

TF: Do you have a quilt on your bed?

MZ: No, not on mine, but on the bed for my guests.

TF: Have you made quilts for family members?

MZ: Yes, husband and for friends.

TF: And your sons.

MZ: And I have sold my quilts, some of my quilts. Some are ordered.

TF: Ordered?

MZ: Not ordered. They ordered a quilt from me.

TF: Oh, I see. So they commissioned quilts from you?

MZ: Commissioned quilts, yes.

TF: Do you quilt all of your own quilts, or do you ever have them longarm quilted?

MZ: No, I quilt all the quilts of my own except one quilt, and this was a Round Robin I did with four wonderful women. One lives in South Africa; it is Irne van Tonder. One is Tomme Fent, from Sioux City in the USA. And one is Wendy Lawson in London. And we made a Round Robin quilt, and this quilt was so big that I felt not brave enough to quilt it myself, so I gae it a longarm quilter and she did wonderful work.

TF: How do you feel about hand quilting versus home machine quilting versus longarm quilting in the quilt shows, as being judged?

MZ: I think you can't mix it, but I think it's both important to do. And I like the very traditional quilts but I can't make them, and I like these tiny stitches very, very much. But I like also these free-form quilts and the machine quilting. You can't compare the two. It's another thing.

TF: Do you think they should be judged against each other or separate categories?

MZ: In separate.

TF: And do you think the ones people quilt on their home machines and the ones quilted on longarm machines--

MZ: That makes a difference yes.

TF: Let's see, why don't we talk a little bit about quilting in your society, in Germany where you live. Do you think quilts play a part in your society?

MZ: No, I don't think so, not really. And some women are fighting for this and they are fighting for recognition in the art world, and I don't think so. I think the handiwork of women have a long tradition in our society in our country, but this is not recognized as a work of art, and today, I think there is a lot of work to do that we get this recognition as artists.

TF: What are you or your group doing to bring about that recognition?

MZ: We make some exhibitions, and we are thinking about a theme especially for women, that we want to bring it into the--to make it public.

TF: For the next exhibition?

MZ: For the next, yes.

TF: What do you think makes a great quilt?

MZ: A great quilt. I think it's the original idea of the quilter, and it's good handiwork and a good use of color. And that must all work together.

TF: What do you think makes a great quilter?

MZ: A great quilter. I think a great quilter may be a person who tries to go a step beyond all the work she had done in her last quilt.

TF: She challenges herself.

MZ: Yes, and the next one could be even better and she is able to make new experiences and to try new techniques and so on.

TF: Have you taken any classes?

MZ: Yes, I have, some. Not much, but I like to work with other women. But in these classes, I really learn something more besides the work than to quilt or to do some patchwork, and that's very funny for me. But [for.] the great ideas, I need to be alone. I like to work for myself.

TF: What's your favorite part of quiltmaking?

MZ: Oh, there is no favorite part because I like to design. I like to cut. I like to sew. I like to quilt. I don't mind.

TF: You just love it all?

MZ: Yes, I love it all.

TF: So there isn't anything you--

MZ: No.

TF: Don't like?

MZ: Don't like? No, no. I think that's horrible. If you don't like a part of quilting and you make a quilt, it's not fun.

TF: That's true.

MZ: I wouldn't do things without fun.

TF: Well, for instance, there are some women who don't like the sandwiching part, the basting of the quilt.

MZ: Yes.

TF: To put that together, they would just as soon that would magically appear so they can get to the quilting.

MZ: Yes, for me, I don't think so. The time I baste my quilt, and I baste it the traditional way without pins, really, I'm really sewing the quilt. And I baste it very -- in small, small little spaces.

TF: Do you do it on the floor or on a big table?

MZ: No, all on the table.

TF: A big table?

MZ: Yes, I'm too old for the floor. [laughs.] When I baste, I think at all the time I have spent for this quilt, and I bring it to an end. And that's important for me. It's a little bit like a meditation. Therefore, I don't mind. I baste.

TF: Do you use any computers or the internet in your quilting?

MZ: No, only to e-mail with my friends and to stay in contact.

TF: So when you make your drawings and patterns for your quilts, you're doing all of that by hand?

MZ: Yes, I do it by hand, yes. And I do it in a very rough way, very rough. That's enough for me. I don't do it one-to-one. I make a pattern.

TF: So you don't do it to size; you just make a small drawing and then you go from it.

MZ: Small drawing, yes.

TF: Have you ever used quilting to help you get through a difficult time?

MZ: Yes, yes, I did.

TF: Is that something you would want to describe?

MZ: Yes. This is a part of my new project.

TF: So you'll describe it for us in your book.

MZ: I describe it a little bit and I think it's--well, I hope it will inspire other women because I am sure a lot of women have times, hard times, and it's good to have that something to go on with, to go through with. I think sewing is a good thing to do in hard times, quilting and sewing.

TF: How much time do you think you spend say in a week, each week?

MZ: A day or in a week? Oh, that's very different. There are times I spend eight hours a day or more, every day, and there are times I do not once touch it. It's not always the same.

TF: Do you work on more than one quilt at a time, or are you focusing just on a single project?

MZ: Yes, sometimes, but I don't like it. It's better to focus, yes, much better. When I made this quilt, I was focused on this project, the "Wintercounts."

TF: You said that you have made quilts for people on commission, like when they've ordered quilts.

MZ: Yes.

TF: So you do sell some of your quilts from time to time.

MZ: Yes, from time to time. I made a quilt with a chocolate theme that was very funny, and there was a woman, she bought it just from the exhibition wall. And she told me, 'Oh, I like chocolate. I like to eat chocolate, and you can see it.' And then I sold it to her, yes. The theme of this little quilt was--because all things, all chocolates, is fabric chocolate, "No Calories, No Risk."

TF: No weight gain.

MZ: Yes.

TF: Why is quilting important in your life?

MZ: Oh, it's like breathing. I don't know. It belongs to my nature, to my person.

TF: Our time is almost up. Is there anything we haven't talked about that you would like to talk about?

MZ: [laughts.] I think we've talked a lot. Maybe [we.] could sit until the next day, but I think I've talked the most about things I have to talk about. [Ah, there is one more thing about the quilt "Wintercounts," and then we can close the circle. On the backside, another spiral goes round and this spiral goes from the outer space just into the middle. Eveyr year, I appliqu one little picture of my husband's choice to the spiral line. I will do that as long as my hand can hold needle and thread and I'm able to sew. The backside remembers us and the viewer, where we came from and where we are going, just to the same place we came from - let me call it 'home.']

TF: Well, I want to thank you so much for allowing me to interview you as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. And I forgot to state the starting time of our interview but it was about 9:40 p.m., South African time. And it is now 10:19 p.m. So thank you, Margret.

MZ: Thank you, as well.