Meet Nancy Crow
A talented modern quilter before her time.
It seems as though all eyes are on the modern quilt movement. We constantly hear that it’s young and fresh. But I would like to remind fellow quilters that modern/improv quilting has been around for longer than we think. Nancy Crow is a huge part of the modern quilt heritage, yet she began her quilting journey in the 1970s! Even though decades separate us, her creative process is still very much in style.
How It Began
Born in 1943, Nancy grew up in a highly creative atmosphere without television, and home computers weren’t even invented—meaning no blogs, tutorials or online classes! As a young woman, she hated traditional quilts and thought they were totally uninspiring. Perhaps that is why she started her art career as a tapestry weaver.
In 1969, she decided to make a quilt for her soon-to-be-born son, Nathaniel, when she was three months pregnant. She designed the quilt and purchased fabrics before leaving for Quito, Ecuador. It was her mother, who came to help once the baby was born, who did most of the piecing of the quilt. It was then hand-quilted by another person whom Nancy unfortunately does not remember. Who can blame her? Like so many other newcomers to quilting today, it was just supposed to be a quilt for her son—nothing more.
That was her first quilt. It was a very traditional design using only four colors: black, yellow, white and red, with one stripe fabric. To this day, she still wonders why she had limited herself to these colors. Having only seen very traditional quilts made out of three colors, she may have thought that that’s how quilts had to be. And like many other quilters designing their first quilt, she overestimated the fabrics needed and still has a stack of leftovers from that quilt somewhere in a box.
It was only when she made a quilt for her second son, Matthew, that she realized she could become a full-time quilter. The idea was planted in 1973 by a friend who showed her an heirloom quilt from 1905. That was her “aha” moment! As Nancy explains in her book Quilts and Influences, it was as though the quiltmaker was talking to her, sharing her deepest secrets: “I am a strong person, I have ideas, I am not afraid, I was here, know me, don’t forget me.” That’s when Nancy’s quilting journey began.
She started making quilts by hand using only solid fabrics and templates. Her quilts were then
hand- quilted by a third party. Living near an Amish community, we can see their influence in her quilts. She refers to them on many occasions. Amish carpenters worked on her studio barn, and I have also noticed that many of her quilts were handquilted by Holmes County, Ohio, Amish women.
Developing a Style
Because all her work was handmade, she did not make many quilts at first. The King’s X quilt was her last hand-pieced quilt. She recalls taking a year to finish it and thinking she was being original using more than four different shades of brown to create the desired effect. The quilts that followed were made while she was discovering the joy of strip piecing; it was 1975. After creating a few different quilts, she realized the need to work on a series of quilts relating to the same topic. And to this day, that is how Nancy Crow works her magic.
She starts with a theme and makes several quilts to perfect her work. She doesn’t sketch her quilts; she simply sews fabrics together and lays them on a design wall. As she discards blocks, or has new ideas that cannot fit into the design, she begins a second or third quilt. Over time, the need for design-wall space influenced her needs in her studio, incorporating many design walls so that she could create several quilts simultaneously.
And that’s how Nancy became probably one of the very first improv quilters. In 1978, she made eight quilts based on the magic of strip piecing and called it the Matisse series. In 1979, she made more than 20 quilts. They were more contemporary than her earlier quilts.
March Study was the quilt that got the attention she needed to launch her career. The quilt was included in the 1980 exhibition at the American
Craft Museum, and a detail of the quilt was featured on the cover of the
American Craft magazine’s April/May 1980 issue. After those two events, she began receiving invitations to exhibit her work.
Time for a Move
It was also in 1979 that the family moved to a 50-acre farm. Her studio had always been a room in the house, but in 1980 she decided that she needed more space. It took four years, but she finally got her wish. She purchased a barn and had it moved to the back of the house, 20 feet from her kitchen door to be exact. Once the renovations were completed, she had an upstairs office and a full basement added, giving her 1,600 square feet. She quickly outgrew that space and added a 400-square-foot addition in 1987. Believe it or not, she even outgrew that space and added a new 2,800-square-foot timber-frame barn in the 1990s.
Becoming a Quilting Star
Nancy got another breakthrough in 1985 while making the Yellow Crosses IV. She decided to let go of her fear and try something new. Her quilt was included in the 1986 exhibition Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical in the American Craft Museum in New York. In researching for this article, I noticed that a phrase had been added to her design wall: “Focus … Set Goals.” This proves again that what was happening to Nancy in 1986 is also very current today.
By then she was a star among quiltmakers. You might think it would be a time when she could simply enjoy the long, hard work it took her to get there and rest on her laurels. But that is not who Nancy Crow is!
I believe it was a difficult time for her as people expected her to keep on creating quilts like she had been doing for over a decade. But she became bored, wanted to reinvent herself or quit altogether. At age 50, she abandoned templates and began cutting shapes freehand without a ruler, judging proportions instinctively by eye. Sound familiar? She recalls that it took
more than two years to learn to use the rotary cutter smoothly.
In 1995, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum held a one-artist exhibition of her quilts. It was accompanied by a catalog entitled Improvisational Quilts! It was during that period that she realized she needed to trust her instincts and her ability to recognize strong composition. She has never looked back.
Where is Nancy now? Believe it or not, at age 74, she still teaches around the globe and holds retreats in her very own timber-frame barn. But that’s not all! She curates many quilt exhibits worldwide, showcasing quilts made by her students. Now that’s passion and devotion all in one!
When I view Nancy’s work, I understand that each piece is meant to express her thoughts. She often used her art as self-therapy. And just like the quilt her friend showed her back in 1973, when I see her quilts I can hear them say: “Don’t forget me!”