Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. -Save Our Stories interview with Janet-Lee Santeusanio. Janet-Lee is in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview by telephone. Today's date is August 5, 2008 and it is 9:07 in the morning. I want to thank you Janet-Lee for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend", which you chose for the interview.
Janet-Lee Santeusanio (JLS): This is a piece that I chose to make because Ialways admired the pattern. I found the piecing aspect of it to be very intimidating. As a machine quilter I had machine quilted many of them and we often discuss this particular quilt pattern as being a sombrero because the inside can often be very full, the outside setting triangles and setting squares can sometimes be awfully wavy, so it takes not only a decent level of experience to piece a quilt like this, but it also takes time, patience, and attention to detail. This particular piece, I began probably in 2004. I took a class from a quilter that I admire greatly. Her name is Ildi Tari and she was conducting a class at a quilt shop quite a ways away from here but I know her work and I admire her piecing skills so I thought this was the time to do this. Well I chose the fifteen fabrics that are in the Lone Star and I decided that I would take into consideration the machine quilting aspect since I am a machine quilter and have been since 1999. I took into consideration how the fabrics were placed and the colors as they graded through the star pattern. I finished the star, oh the class was probably three months long and I finished the star very easily. Now if you will notice in the picture that the setting triangles and setting squares are done in a watercolor fashion and that means there are an additional fifteen fabrics. Those fabrics were chosen to compliment but not take away from the fabrics in the Lone Star. That part intimidated me. Of course at the time the star was finished, the class was done, I put it away, walked away, went about my business and that was that for several years. Last year during 2007 I decided I've got to finish this, it is just too pretty not to finish so I just took it upon myself to really take my time, and read the directions. I sought help from another quilting teacher that I respect at a local quilt shop, her name is Helen Gosselin and she helped me to understand the directions and get it put together. Of course again as a machine quilter I don't have time to quilt any of my own stuff so I decided that I would enter it into a show, the Vermont Quilt Festival, and that would force me to get it done in time but barely. It won a blue ribbon. However let me back up a little bit and say that when I finally got it pieced, the borders put on and machine quilted it was, the colors are beautiful and it really had punch to it but it was missing something. I decided that I would invest in Swarovski crystals to highlight some of the machine quilting and I believe there are now about nine hundred crystals on it. The setting squares and triangles have two millimeter crystals and the individual diamonds each have a three millimeter crystal on each end and those alone are five hundred and they are all color coordinated to the fabrics. The machine quilting--I'm well known as an heirloom custom machine quilter so I really put my all into it. If you look closely at it, there are feather patterns in every other color way which is what I had planned. Urns in each of the setting squares with pretty dramatic feathers and background quilting. That is it on the piece. [laughs.]
KM: How long did it take you to put the crystals on?
JLS: The crystals took about fifteen hours to put on and I have since added somebecause I ran out of the two millimeter crystals and hence that is where it got its name. It was originally called, and on the label it indicates an AKA, also known as, "My Very Best Favorite Quilt." [laughs.] That was the original name but once I got the crystals on I thought "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" was probably more appropriate.
KM: It is a wonderful title. Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
JLS: I got started as a result of--there were two factors that got me involvedwith, first with piecing and then with machine quilting. The first part of it was piecing of quilts. As a mom who decided to have children fairly late in life, I had two children bang, bang in my late thirties and my husband traveled a lot so when he came home, my daughter was about a year old and my son was probably a little over two, I handed him both children and told him I was going to take a piecing class. My mother-in-law had made the children both quilts when they were born and I've always sewn so that is sort of how my interest was sparked in piecing. From that standpoint I made several quilts but the perennial dilemma of how to get a king size quilt in the throat of your domestic sewing machine posed a problem and therefore there were numerous quilts, quilt tops that were left unquilted. One that I had made in 1998 I had gotten an estimate from a machine quilter who I had hired to do a couple of pieces before but the price tag for the trapunto and background quilting and specific design work that I wanted for this piece was going to cost an excess of six hundred dollars. [laughs.] So I said, 'This isn't going to get quilted anytime soon.' And in, let's see, right around that same time 1999 my home was featured on the cover of Timber Frame Home Magazine and some of my quilting friends didn't realize that we had built somewhat of a dramatic home and they said they wanted to come see my house, so in the spring of '99 several quilting friends came over and we had coffee and brunch and chit chatted and they wanted the ten cent tour of the house. We went through the house and came downstairs to this basement that is just huge. The house in of itself is fairly huge but the basement we had built out in case we had to ever have one of our parents live with us, the house is big enough to accommodate an in-law apartment. This basement area, because we didn't have parents that needed us at that point, we had it as a playroom for our two little kids. It is big enough for them to rollerblade and bike ride down here. [laughs.] As we came down the stairs and the girls looked at it and said, 'Oh my gosh look at this room. It's great. This would be a great sewing room.' As we walked up the stairs my very dearest friend, Pat Welsh said to me, 'That playroom is way too big for those two little kids. Why don't you get one of those big quilting machines and quilt all of our quilts for us?' I remember turning around as I walked up the stairs and said, 'Yeah right.' But the seed was planted. The machine was delivered three months later and I have never looked back.
KM: How did Machine Quilters Exposition come about?
JLS: Interestingly enough that came about because a couple of other women that Iknew had purchased quilting machines around the same time I did and two of them--two out of the six that I knew and I only knew them as acquaintances, but we had been in quilt guilds together and we would compare notes and said, 'I just bought a quilting machine.' 'Oh I did too.' [laughs.] That kind of conversation and two of these gals sold their machines within six months and I remember being shocked and I specifically called them and asked them why. What happened? Both of them said, and neither one of them knew each other, both of them said they could not stand the solitude that goes with having a quilting machine. They had both left jobs- one in the healthcare field, one was a nurse and another was in an administrative capacity for a corporation, but they did not like the solitude. They wanted the people contact and if you do it for a business you might have one or two or three people a week come through your studio so you have to like yourself enough to be alone for long periods of time. I decided in April of 2000 to form a get together for people in the area that wanted to schmooze and eat. As we all know quilters like to eat and do show and tell and just hang out together, share information and techniques and that kind of thing. So on April 15, 2000 forty women showed up in my living room and they were from all over. They were from New York State. They were from Connecticut, Rhode Island, all over New England. We called it the New England Longarm Quilters Association and we had a blast. It was so much fun. I met a number of people I had never met before from other states and it was great. I remember it very fondly. I remember farming out my kids and my husband. I said take these kids and go somewhere else and we just had the house to ourselves for the weekend and everybody left and said, 'Oh we have to do this again.' Oh great, you know, but I have two little kids so a gal from Vermont that I had never met until that day, her name is Mary Schilke, she called me probably in December of that same year and said, 'Are you going to do the get together again?' And I said, 'Nah I don't want to do it again. I have little kids. My life is busy. My husband is traveling. I don't have time.' And she said, 'Would you mind if I did one?' And I said, 'No, go for it.' She had a friend, or has a friend that owns an inn up in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire and she offered to let her use all the public spaces for free. People would pay for their hotel rooms if they wanted to stay. In March of 2001 she did the get together and about, I think there were almost eighty people that showed up and we were just shocked and Mary and I slowly became friends. The following year in 2002 she called me and said, 'I will do it again but I need some help. I'm not going to do this alone.' I said, 'Sure I will help you. I will do what I can.' We brought in a quilting machine so people could play a little bit and we did a dinner theater thing and a mystery, one of those theater dinners and that was lots of fun. That year almost one hundred women showed up so we were a bit taken aback by it all and at the end we did an exit interview and said to the gals. Oh, and one thing that happened during that little get together in 2002 is that some people came through and said, 'Where is the quilt show?' We were like, 'There is no quilt show.' [laughs.] The inn had hung up some of our quilts in the hallways just so we could show them off and everybody said, gees maybe we ought to do a quilt show. Mary looked at me and pointed the finger--I can still see her standing up there in the public room saying, 'Get up here I don't want to do this by myself.' We put forth a proposal. We got everybody's opinion. Had everybody sign up that thought that they might be interested in getting something going and probably twenty-five or thirty people signed up and we said, 'You know we will put forth a proposal. We will do some research into like a hall at a church or whatever.' Mary and I got together. We did some research and we found an exposition center upon on Lake Winnipesauke in Laconia, New Hampshire. They gave us a pretty good price, so we put forth a proposal and said to everybody, 'There is this many of us. If we all put up x amount of dollars, I don't even know what the number was, it wasn't even that much, if we put up x amount of dollars this is what we could do.' Nobody responded. Nobody had the money. Nobody responded so Mary and I got on the phone and we said, 'Oh gosh do we want to try and do this ourselves? What do we want to do?' We decided to move forward. Economically neither one of us had the resources to do this, so it was absolutely foolish for us to even consider it. Be all that as it may, we decided to forge ahead and we put together a show in mid-March of 2003. We had one sponsor [laughs.] who gave us a few hundred dollars and everything else we fronted ourselves. We hired four teachers from other parts of the country to come in and teach classes. We had vendors and we had some pretty doggone nice quilts. We opened the doors and a thousand people showed up. We almost dropped dead. There were hundred and fifty-two students that signed up for classes, so we were stunned. We kept looking at each other and going what is happening here. At the end of the day on Friday, the quilt show opened to the public on Friday, so it was a Friday, Saturday, Sunday show at the time. At the end of the day Friday, we knew that when we counted the receipts if we had hit a certain target number that we would be able to pay the bills and this sort of reaction we both had is so indicative of our personalities. We sat there, closed the office door, locked it, she counted her cash box from the classes and I counted my cash box from the attendance--through the door attendance and we looked at each other, said our numbers and realized we could pay the bills. I started to sob and she laughed hysterically and that was the beginning of not only a business partnership that has withstood lots of stress, but it is the fact that neither one of us had--I don't have a sister and Mary has a sister but she lives in another state so she is a little disconnected, but it forged a friendship, a partnership and a sisterhood that to this day is the best relationship both of us have ever had. It has helped us to grow the show in a way that neither one of us ever would have imagined. From 2003, we went to 150 some odd students. In 2004, we were in the same location. We took all of the square footage they had, hired a quilt judge so it was now a judged show had prize money that second year and had 267 students. At that point we knew we had to move it to a convention center, of course that sort of blew apart our five year plan. We thought we'd move it to a convention center in 2007 or 2008. We moved it to Manchester, New Hampshire in 2005, came up with over 500 students and 2500 people through the door. It has grown exponentially since that time. In 2008 we registered over twelve hundred students and had thirty-five hundred people through the door. Now we are getting ready to move it to the next level of convention center. We will move it in 2010 to the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, Rhode Island. It has now outgrown or out paced every other machine quilting show in the country. It is now the largest, most well supported machine quilting show in the country.
KM: Why do you think that is?
JLS: I think there are two reasons. I think that Mary and I pay attention, treatpeople with respect. For instance, when teachers come in we don't have a teacher meeting and say you can do this and you can do this and you can't do that, and you can do this. We know that they are professionals and we treat them as such. We hire now, between forty-five and fifty teachers every year. Have over two hundred classes. If you treat people with respect they will respond in kind. The other important factor is attention to detail. If you listen to people, listen to their suggestions, listen to their complaints and make improvements and adjustments as you go along, it will go a long way. Other shows just don't have that flexibility. They have boards or they have people that don't, that can not delegate. Mary and I call each other on the phone. 'Have an idea, do you like it?' 'Yeah, you want to do it?' 'Okay it is done.' It is not a matter of saying, 'Well should we do this? Let's take a vote.' None of that. If we think it is a good idea and it will benefit our students and teachers and attendees it's done.
KM: How much time does this take?
JLS: The show?
KM: Yes the show.
JLS: At this point in time we have, we have, the show happens in mid-April everyyear. We have probably about a month of clean up and closing the books, so we try to close the books by the end of May and we typically have June as a month that we can not pay as much attention to it. In July it gears up because we have to start getting class proposals in and recruiting new teachers, new techniques, new sponsors etc. Class proposals start coming in, I write the class event catalogue usually in September and then it goes out for mailing. We mailed last year about ten thousand catalogues and so that has to be done by bulk mail and is usually sent out in early October for November 1 arrival when class registrations are open. This year, well this coming year in 2009 we are trying to go with paperless as possible by doing just about everything online. It just eliminates the paper use, the cost for postage. We are going to try it and see how it works.
KM: Where do you see it going?
JLS: Well, [laughs.] in the fall Mary and I will go out to the West Coast. Weare now looking at west coast venues to do two shows a year, to do one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast about six months apart. We have been, we actually have been aggressively looking at venues since early 2006, but we just have not found the right place. Because the industry is dominated by women, you know they want to take their money and spend it in the vendor mall on classes, they don't want to spend it on a rental car or a huge price tag for transportation to and from the airport. Those kinds of things you have to think about, especially with women traveling alone, so we try to make sure the venue is reasonably close to the convention center. As it stands right now in Manchester it is about six miles away, seven miles away from the airport and the venue we are moving to in Rhode Island is about the same distance, so that is very good. But we haven't been able to find on the west coast that has similar properties. We have been to Denver. We have been to Texas. We have been to the Midwest, and now we will start looking aggressively in Portland, Oregon is where we are next going to focus our energies. If we do two shows, we will be really, really busy. [laughs.]
KM: How have you seen longarm quilting change? There was a time when longarmquilting was kind of a dirty word in the quilt world.
JLS: Absolutely, it was shunned, literally shunned at most quilt shows. I havebeen a machine quilter since 1999 and the biggest change I think has been giving machine quilters recognition for their contribution to the quiltmaking process. A lot of shows did not give credit for long, long time so you get somebody like me involved who has a big mouth and you know, I want my name up there with the piecer because my contribution can be equally as important, the line "Quilting makes the quilt" in a lot of cases holds very true. A very plain looking say, snowball quilt, this has a lot of blank space for exquisite machine quilting can really make that quilt set apart from a quilt that is either tied or stitched in the ditch or just cross hatched lets say. There are now machine quilting celebrities that have really brought machine quilting into being an art form and I think that has contributed to its acceptance now. After Mary and I both being shunned from general quilting shows, each of us had it happen twice, we decided that when we did Machine Quilters Exposition that there would be no hand quilted quilts, I mean for obvious reasons with the name, but none of it, absolutely none of it. That sort of set hand quilters back a little bit, they were kind of taken back. Why aren't there any hand quilted quilts? Well duh, look at the name and secondly we decided to take our ball and bat and go make our own show. [laughs.] I see the machine quilting industry only moving upwards. General quilting shows are now very accepting of machine quilted quilts and they are often Best of Show so I think it has evolved in a way that no one expected and probably faster than most people expected.
KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?
JLS: I think the quilting industry since its resurgence after the 1976Bicentennial, I think people are now using quilts more for gifts, more for home dec, they are able to with the broad range of fabrics that are available to us now, we are able to change the wall quilt like people change those little flags that they have hanging outside their house. You know, one for Valentine's Day, one for spring, one for 4th of July, one for going back to school, fall, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. All of those holidays can now be celebrated with a quilt. I see as a machine quilter people wanting their quilts finished for graduation gifts, wedding gifts, retirements, all of those things people very much appreciate receiving something that was made from the heart and personalized, and I don't mean with their name on it, I mean a quilt that is in their favorite color or in a quilting pattern that they might have admired when they were in an antique shop. I think that the evolution of quilting has changed with those factors. The challenges I think the price, I think people want to buy quality quilting materials for the most part. However, the pricing, like everything else in our society at this point in time has increased in price and that makes the overall process much more costly for quilters. Now with the current economic situation and gas prices now exceeding four dollars a gallon, I see more piecers using some of the fabrics that they have in their stash as opposed to going out and buying, whether it be at a quilt shop or online and that sort of opens up another can of worms. Local quilt shops, the standard brick and mortar are having serious challenges because online quilt shops are so prevalent. There are search engines now that are available for piecers to find a piece of fabric if they didn't happen to buy enough three years ago. There are discussion groups that are available for them to say here is a picture of a piece of fabric I have, does anyone have any of this that they are willing to sell. I think that presents a serious challenge to the brick and mortar quilt shops of today. As far as machine quilting challenges, I think, from what I understand and from my business research, machine quilting is the only segment of the overall quilting industry that is in a growth pattern. Whether that remains in these economic times I don't know. We will see what happens at our show this coming April because that is sort of a barometer for us to be able to tell what is going on in the industry as a whole. That said, what we are seeing for machine quilting is that more and more people, home people that don't necessarily want to go into business are looking at the mid-arm and short-arm quilting machines as opposed to longarm, because they want to finish their own pieces and because they don't have room for a longarm. A longarm typically has a ten, twelve, or fourteen foot table so some of these people are looking at machines that might have an eight foot table so they can finish the baby quilts and the lap size quilts and wall hangings on their own and they send out their big pieces to a longarmer. Those are the sort of overall challenges that I see as a business person in this industry.
KM: How do you feel that the sewing machine companies are addressing the needsfor using them for quilting as opposed to just piecing?
JLS: I think, I think that they have more than addressed the piecing part of itbecause there is such a broad range of machines out there. Most machine companies are now developing machines for piecers that just do a straight stitch, go really fast and are more closely associated with an industrial machine. Okay. As far as machine quilting, having had a longarm for nine years I think they are trying, but I don't think they are there.
KM: I agree.
JLS: I think what I see, Bernina just came out with a Model 830 and that has atwelve inch throat space however they came out with a Bernina stitch regulator which is a mechanism that is on the machine that is I believe an eye that sees you move the fabric ever so slightly and starts stitching. So if you move the fabric fast it will stitch faster. However, when they developed that product probably what is it three years ago now, they put it on a regular size eight or nine inch throat machine which is ludicrous. How do you get a one hundred and twelve inch quilt, half of that underneath an eight or nine inch throat so their ability to think through or do appropriate market research was very poor in my estimation. Other companies have, I don't think any of the other companies in the domestic sewing machine market have developed anything like that as of yet. They have developed larger throat machines but again when you think about a king or a queen size quilt and you have to roll up half of it, get it underneath the throat in order to be able to access the center of that quilt to machine quilt it is a challenge no matter how you look at it.
KM: Let's move to esthetics and such. Whose works are you drawn to and why?
JLS: Oh boy, I tend to be a very traditional machine quilter and a verytraditional piecer. I am drawn to the old fashion feathers and Victorian designs that hand quilters have used for a long, long period of time. I tend to, because of the way that I have personally evolved I, go ahead. [pause.] Were you going to say something?
KM: No. I was listening.
JLS: Okay sorry. Because of the way that I have personally evolved to be more ofa machine quilter than a piecer, I tend to be drawn to the very traditional machine quilting designs with large spaces on a quilt that allow me to be very creative, whether it be. I'm not that adventurous personally with colored thread because I tend to want to see the texture of an old time quilting design as opposed to the artful look of decorative threads and those kinds of things. I tend to gravitate towards patterns like the Lone Star quilt we were just talking about, my quilt, "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend", that is a very, very traditional pattern and if I go through all the unquilted quilt tops that I have pieced. I see that I am drawn to very traditional colors and styles and patterns. Some of the machine quilters that I admire also think in this way and they are people like Karen McTavish and Carol Selepec, and Linda McCuean, I am drawn to their work because of their traditional tendencies.
KM: Is "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" typical of your work? If someonelooked at that would they say Janet-Lee made this?
JLS: I don't know. I don't know if I'm the person to ask. [laughs.] I probablywould say no because it has crystals on it and that is not typically, certainly you wouldn't find any antique quilt with crystals on it so I think that is sort of a little out of the box for me. The colors are, although fairly, fairly vibrant, not wild but vibrant, rich they might say that looks like something Janet-Lee would do. Although it is a traditional pattern, it has some, the watercolor setting squares and triangles are different, a different, non-traditional setting for that particular pattern. I guess maybe not, maybe not.
KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?
JLS: In what piecing or machine quilting?
KM: Machine quilting.
JLS: I would probably tell them, and I get a lot, I'm fairly well known in theindustry so I get a lot of requests for information. I also own a very large machine quilting discussion group, a Yahoo group that has currently over thirty-three hundred members so people know me and email me privately and say what would you buy if you were starting out again. [laughs.] When I bought my first machine I, I'm married to an entrepreneur so he knew that I had weathered many a storm in the entrepreneurial world, in other words, there are good times and there are lean times and the lean times are really lean and the good times are really good, but I've weathered many a storm with my husband so when it came time for me to buy a machine I dragged him out to the dealer, I tried a couple of machines, and he, he is such a great guy, he just opened up his checkbook and he said you get the machine you feel you want, I will write the check for whatever that amount is. I chose a middle of the road. Not--I mean it was expensive. It wasn't the most expensive and it certainly wasn't the least expensive and I bought it without researching too much. The reason I didn't research is because back in 1999 at the time there wasn't a machine quilting convention in this region so that I could look and try out different machines and there weren't any other dealers of any other brands in the region. This particular company is dealer supported so I really thought that it was in my best interest to have someone nearby that could help me out of a jam if I got into one. Now in 2008 there are dealers everywhere and there are machine quilting conventions for people to do their research. I tell people to get all of the marketing materials either online or by mail, figure out what they have room for and what they are trying to accomplish. Talk to other machine quilters and it is typically best to do that through a discussion group because all of the machine quilters in the area are going to go, 'Oh no somebody else to compete with so I'm not talking to her.' Talk to other machine quilters and get their opinions on their machine, ask them are they happy with what they have, would they purchase something else and if so what would it be, that kind of information. Then go to a machine quilting show, test drive all of the machines that you think are in your price range, in your size range and make a list of pros and cons and ultimately you will probably come out with some one brand of machine that is leading the pack and that is the one you will probably buy. I also encourage people whether it be at MQX (Machine Quilters Exposition) or any other machine quilting show to take a beginners class. You really want to see what you are getting yourself into. I encourage people to do that as well.
KM: We are almost at the end of our time together. Is there anything else thatyou would like to share that we haven't touched up?
JLS: I guess the only thing I would suggest to people is if they become prolificquilters, whether they go into business as a machine quilter or whether they just piece quilts and finish all their own quilts is to think about insuring them. People ship off quilts to their relatives or if they are very good at what they do they might compete in a show, there are a lot of people that would love to have a quilt that won't go about getting one in the proper manner. There is a website on the Internet called "Lost Quilts" [www.lostquilts.com maintained my Maria Elkins.] and there are hundreds and hundreds of quilts listed. There are insurance policies that people can buy on their own that will insure their quilts while they are in transport and as a show owner I get in hundreds of quilts a year and in 2008 was the first show that we ever had a loss and it was devastating. It wasn't even my quilt and I was absolutely devastated and I know the person it was, that was the owner of that quilt was absolutely devastated. We have insurance and we have taken care of it with her, but that doesn't lessen the fact that there is a quilt that was lost or stolen. We put a lot of ourselves into our work and to have it be lost or stolen is an emotional thing for us, so I would recommend that people consider insuring them for loss, fire, theft, flooding, it's a worthy thing to consider.
KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to talk to me.
JLS: No problem. See I talked the whole time.
KM: You did great. We are going to conclude our interview and it is now 9:52.