Quilter's haven in O'Fallon: Creativity is a common thread in her life

News-DemocratMay 26, 2013 

Art quilter Nancy Monroe plays with thread, something she's done all her life.

"My mother had two kids in less than a year," said Nancy, 65, of O'Fallon, standing in her spacious studio. "My brother is 11 1/2 months older. She used to give me spools of thread to play with when I was 1. Her mom ran a general store through the Depression. She was appalled that she gave me 5-cent spools (to unravel). My mother thought it was a good bargain for a little peace and quiet."

Those 5-cent spools paid off.

Nancy, an award-winning contemporary quilter, will be featured at Hearts 'n' Hands quilt show June 1 and 2 at Whiteside Middle School.

"Her (quilts) are sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious and touching, but always beautiful," said Katie McMillan, quilt show chairman. "Her use of color and dimension really draws people to her quilts and her subject choice holds their attention."

Her first quilt was a simple flannel for daughter Lisa, born in 1993. Now, her focus is bright florals. Many have won awards.

Nancy's studio could be an award-winner, too. Her lower level workspace spans three good-sized rooms and a utility room. They hold Bernina sewing machines, a long-arm quilting machine and everything involved in her elaborate process of creating three-dimensional pieces -- including two cabinets full of thread.

Quilts, some finished, some in progress, hang on walls.

"When we bought the house (in June 2007), the basement was not finished except for the bathroom," said Nancy, who is retired from teaching art at Scott Elementary and Mascoutah Elementary. She and husband, Ernest "Trey" Monroe III, moved to the metro-east in 1975. He encouraged her to create her dream studio. He died two years ago.

"We thought we would have this done in 7 or 8 weeks. It took 18 months. There were at least a dozen exposed poles. My son Jon angled the walls to conceal the poles."

A kitchen-type room with cabinets, countertops and a double sink is the place to paint, dye or silkscreen.

An old wood library card catalog -- Nancy also likes antiques --holds metalsmithing tools and scraps of metal. A wood dental cabinet with leaded glass doors on top and narrow drawers below is the place for beads.

"You can still get a whiff of the dentist's office," she said, opening a door.

Alongside it is a large Craftsman metal tool center on wheels, her place for buttons.

"I was at Sears, pulling open drawers, pondering its size, and a salesman said, 'Oh, what a great wife you are spending all this time picking out a toolbox for your husband. I said, 'This is for me.'"

Floor-to-ceiling metal rolling racks of fabric fill a walk-in cedar closet.

"My 9-year-old grandson looked in here and said, 'Why, Grandma, you're a hoarder.'"

Nancy, mother of three and grandmother of six, explained the difference between hoarding and collecting. She organizes her fabric by color and value.

"Cottons in one area, silks in one area. I also have a wool collection. I even have fabric in here that was supposed to go into my trousseau. That was in 1969."

Nancy's first interest was clothing construction.

At Virginia Polytechnic University, she kept a small Featherweight sewing machine under her dorm bed. She held up a pale plaid wool skirt and double-breasted jacket she made at her dorm desk.

"The point is, you really don't need a huge studio," she said. "If you have the passion, you will make use of the space and supplies you have."

Her current studio is grandkid-friendly. There are baskets of toys and easels holding children's art. To see some of Nancy's quilts, you have to step over a miniature train track.

"This was made for Clara's bedroom," said Nancy, of a happy quilt with a white picket fence, sunny skies and bright flowers created after granddaughter Clara Monroe was born.

She picked up a small, sweet wall hanging of a vase tightly packed with three-dimensional blue and yellow silk flowers.

"I did three very different quilts from my husband's clothing after he died in January 2011."

One went to each of her children, Lisa, Jon and Chris.

"This one is made with ties, his swimsuit. This was a shirt," she said of the striped background. "He was a very conservative person. He didn't have bright colors, but for the swimming suit. I will display all three in the show."

Nancy has been collecting awards for quilts and garments since 1993. She recently had two quilts juried into the selective American Quilters's Society Show in Paducah.

Judges in the 1995 Good Housekeeping/Sew America Creativity Contest gave her grand prize for a jacket and vest using her trademark curved piecing technique.

Among her prizes? A cruise to Greece and Turkey.

"It was my 15 minutes of fame in the quilt world," she said. "My husband and I had a really good time. We got back, and he came into my sewing room."

He was holding a couple of old threadbare T-shirts.

'"These are my favorite T-shirts,' he told me. 'Why don't you fix these?' He didn't understand there was something I couldn't do."

Tips from a quilt artist:

If you store fabric in a cedar closet or chest, don't let fabric touch wood. Oil from the wood can cause fabric to discolor. Nancy stores her fabric on metal racks on wheels.

Take classes. "You will always learn something, and those skills will help you in the future. The more you can branch into other fields and come back and apply knowledge, the better your results will be."

Patterns and kits can be educational or stifling. "It depends on how you go about using them. They can be a jumping off point. Since we are all unique, you don't want to be like everyone else. Give yourself permission to take risks. It's OK if everything doesn't work out. It's part of the creative process."

When you're stumped: "Move on to another project. I have several going at a time. Or sleep on it."

If you go:

What: Hearts 'n' Hands Quilt Show

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 1, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, June 2

Where: Whiteside Middle School, 111 Warrior Way, Belleville

Admission: $5 for adults

What to expect: More than 200 quilts, antique quilt bed turning, demos, a boutique and vendors

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