QBL Faculty Profile: Meet Sue Nickels


Sue Nickels has been quilting for over 39 years, starting by hand and gradually focusing on machine work. She’s been teaching machine techniques for 29 years, both nationally and internationally, at shops, guilds, and major conferences. Nickel and her sister, Pat Holly, have won many awards for their quilts, including the 1998 AQS Best of Show for “The Beatles Quilt” and the 2014 AQS Home Machine Workmanship Award for their quilt “Two of Us.” Nickel has written several books, and her most recent is “Fabulous Feathers and Fillers.” Nickel’s priority in her workshops is to provide a relaxed environment for students to learn timesaving machine techniques. She emphasizes the best quality workmanship, never compromising quality for speed. Nickels is teaching two workshops at 2018 QBL’s first session, “Stitched Raw Edge Machine Applique Techniques” and “Machine Quilting on the Home Machine.”

Q. What or who got you started in quilting?
A. Sewing has always been a part of my life. I made my own clothes and did many crafts: knitting, cross stitch, macramé. I majored in art in college with a focus on drawing. The 1976 bicentennial inspired me to make my first quilt. It was a “quilt as you go” log cabin. I really started quilting in 1978 after my oldest daughter was born. I took classes at the local quilt shop and learned to hand piece, hand applique, and hand quilt. I started transitioning to machine techniques in the mid-1980s. 

Q. Why do you make quilts?
A. I love to create. I love to sew. It is a perfect combination of my loves!

Q. What do you like about quilting?
A. I like every step in the process of creating a quilt. The designing is such fun, to start with an idea for a great quilt and then put it down on paper. I love selecting the fabrics -- just touching fabric is wonderful! I enjoy the construction: I like the repetitive process of machine stitching the applique pieces. If I had to pick a favorite, it is quilting! I love being at the machine and machine quilting. It is where I feel at home and at peace.

Q. Are there any historical quilts, quilters, or artists that you draw inspiration from?
A. All of the above! I love history, the story of the quilters and their quilts. Much of my design inspiration comes from the early pieced and appliqué quilts of the 1800s. The Sara Ann Garges Quilt from the Museum of American Folk Art was the inspiration for The Beatles Quilt (this is a collaborative quilt made with my sister, Pat Holly, and is in the National Quilt Museum). Gwen Marston has been a big influence on me, and I consider her a good friend and mentor. I attended her Beaver Island Quilt Retreats in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She encouraged me to pursue teaching, and I love her approach to making quilts as well as teaching. I am also inspired by all forms of artistic expression and try to look beyond quilts for design and color ideas. 

Q. What is the most important step for you in the design process?
A. Most important for me is to have a well planned project. For my applique, I always work from a pattern and I do all original design. I have everything designed on paper first. This makes the construction an easy step by step process. I also think about the quilting designs from the beginning, however I design the exact quilting patterns once the top is complete.

Q. Do you sketch, draw, plan, or map out a quilt before you begin?
A. Yes, I am very organized and pre-plan my projects.

Q. How many sewing machines do you own and what brand and type are they?
A. I have 4 sewing machines currently. I sew on BERNINAs, which include 770 Quilters Edition, 530 (my travel machine), 1090 (my original machine) and I just purchased the Q-20 sit down longarm machine.

Q. How many yards of fabric do you estimate that you own?
A. I would say maybe 100 yards. Much of this is older fabric that is stored away. I am not buying as much fabric just to buy fabric. I am buying fabric for specific projects as I want current fabrics in my quilts.

Q. How many rooms in your home are devoted to storing fabric?
A. I have one area in my house that has shelves and my fabric is in plastic bins. I also have one small closet in my sewing room for my current fabric stash.

Q. How many unfinished projects do you have right now?
A. I have 1 major unfinished project and 2 small projects ready for quilting.

Q. What can you do with quilting that you can’t do with other media (like painting)?
A. I love that quilts are textural and have a softness to them. It is just a different art form than painting or sculpture. I love fabric and the different scale of pattern that can create more variety. I also think that “Quilting makes the Quilt”. That extra layer of design that is created with the quilting stitch.

Q. You and your sister, Pat, won an award for The Space Quilt, which was a tribute your father. Can you tell us a little more about that quilt, the process, and why NASA is so important to you both?
A. My sister Pat Holly and I have collaborated on quite a few quilts. Our first major collaboration was The Beatles Quilt which won the 1998 AQS Best of Show award and is in the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. Our second collaborative quilt was The Space Quilt. This won many awards including the 2004 AQS Machine Workmanship Award and lives in the National Quilt Museum also.

We think of these quilts as contemporary Baltimore style quilts. They both use symbolic applique to tell a story. The Beatles Quilt is about the music of the Beatles. The Space Quilt is about the history of NASA and U.S. space program. Our Dad was WWII Air Force fighter pilot and then a test pilot for the Air Force in the early 1950s. He went on to be an engineer for General Motors for the rest of his career, but he was always very interested in the U.S. space program and instilled in us a great interest also.

We worked on the design of the quilt together, looking at lots of antique quilts for inspiration. We divided the applique designs so each of us would work on the same number of blocks. On these blocks, we created our own original drawings and then did our own stitching. Then Pat was in charge of piecing the top together, and I was the machine quilter.

Q. If you have taught at QBL before, what do you like about teaching here?
A. Yes, I have taught quite a few times at QBL over the years. I also taught at Quilting by the Sound. I love the multi-day format and I love the great students. I like being part of the long tradition of Quilting by the Lake. It is such a great combination of students, teachers and organizers that are committed to learning and teaching the art and craft of quilting. I also like the variety in classes offered that bring in a diverse group of students.

Q. What is your favorite thing about teaching your two machine quilting sessions?
A. I teach both machine quilting and machine applique. My classes this year are on these 2 subjects. I like the process of creating applique and using a relatively simple machine technique. Students find it easy to have success and are able to create any design using this method. This is very rewarding to see quick progress in these classes.

I really enjoying teaching machine quilting techniques on the home sewing machine. It can be somewhat intimidating for students to free motion quilt and I teach them to be organized in their approach and specific skills to be successful. I also think my love for doing this is apparent and this helps the student feel more at ease!

Q. You have been teaching Machine Quilting and Applique for a long time. What drew you to these two elements of quilt making?
A. Because I have been sewing since I was a little girl, it was a natural progression for me to use the sewing machine to make quilts. I love quilting and I love using the sewing machine. I wanted to use machine techniques as long as I could achieve excellent results. Once I was able to master machine applique and machine quilting it was a perfect match!

Q. Do you dabble in other artistic media? If so, what?
A. I don’t have a lot of time for anything other than quilting currently, but I long to draw again and hope to do more of that in the future,

Q. Sum up quilting in three words:
A. Fabric, Friends, Family

Q. Is there anything else you’d like us know about you as an artist/quilter/maker?
A. I am so proud to be part of a quilting family. Working on quilts together with my sister Pat has been such a great thing. Our mom was a sewer and she taught us to sew at a very young age. She did not think of herself as a quilter, but she did make quilts over the years. She taught us to be really good sewers and emphasized good techniques.

Now my daughter, Ashley Nickels, is quilting. She is teaching both online and in person classes on modern machine quilting and more. I have two granddaughters that I hope someday to teach about sewing and quilting.