Spotlight: Sue Nickels, Quilter, Author and Teacher

Two of Us made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels

Spotlight: Sue Nickels, Quilter, Author and Teacher

Meticulous attention to detail is a hallmark of Sue Nickels’ quilts. Inspired by traditional quilts, Sue, often collaborating with her sister, Pat Holly, freshens the designs with nods to current themes and fresh patterns and colors. She modernizes the techniques, sharing how anyone can create beautiful quilts with a home sewing machine.

Sue Nickels head shot

How long have you been quilting? How did you get started?

I have been sewing my whole life. My mother was a wonderful seamstress and taught my sister and me how to sew. We made doll clothes and then our own clothes. I did all kinds of crafts – knitting, macramé, cross stitch, basketmaking and much more.

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I was an art major in college and was most interested in the textile type classes – weaving, crewel embroidery and even woodworking. At that time there were no textile specific programs. It makes sense now looking back that I would be drawn to quilting, because of my interest in sewing and art.

I also loved my art history classes and that helps explain my interest in antique quilts and their stories. I made my first quilt in 1976 – the first year I was married. It was a log cabin “quilt as you go” from a Family Circle type magazine. It was made using my machine – my high school graduation present – a 1972 Kenmore. We used it on our bed until it fell apart! I am sure I used polyester batting and poor quality fabric.

I made my next quilt in 1978 after my first daughter was born. My sister made a wonderful baby quilt for her and I thought, I want to do this! I signed up for a class at the new quilt shop that opened near me and was surprised to find everything was to be done by hand! For the next 6 years or so I made quilts using hand techniques. Eventually, I missed my sewing machine and started to machine piece, then machine quilt and machine appliqué.

The answer to your question about how long I have been quilting – since I made my first log cabin quilt – 43 years! 

Two of Us made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels
“Two of Us” made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels and was the 2013 Block of the Month Quilt for The Quilt Show with Ricky Tims and Alex Anderson. It also won Home Machine Workmanship Award at the 2014 AQS Show.
Two of Us DETAIL by Sue Nickels and Pat Holly
DETAIL: “Two of Us” made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels and was the 2013 Block of the Month Quilt for The Quilt Show with Ricky Tims and Alex Anderson. It also won Home Machine Workmanship Award at the 2014 AQS Show.

Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?

I do have a dedicated space for creating. I have 2 daughters and when they moved out, I took over the larger of the bedrooms. It is still pretty small compared to some studio spaces.

I call it my “sewing room” vs. studio which I think refers to the size of my space! My BERNINA 770 is for piecing and appliqué and my BERNINA Q20 for quilting. I also have my business center – computer, printer and supplies.

I do have a small design wall that measures 6 ft. by 4 ft. But I store my fabric in another place. I do a lot of my designing and large cutting at my kitchen counter. I like this for the height and because I feel a change of scenery is nice!

The reality is I use almost every area of my house for my quilting. 

What is your favorite tip for organizing your stash of creative supplies?

I have just spent the last few months reorganizing. I have most of my fabric in plastic bins and sorted by color. They are on shelves and easy to access. I have my books on shelves in the same area. I donated lots of fabric and books and now feel I have a manageable amount of fabric and books.

My favorite tip for me is – I need to know where everything is, so reorganizing and reducing every few years is most helpful. Right now I know where everything is and it saves lots of time! 

"Le Panier de Fleurs" made by Sue Nickels 2001
One of Sue’s favorite quilts. “Le Panier de Fleurs” made by Sue Nickels 2001
Detail of Le Panier de Fleurs made by Sue Nickels 2001
DETAIL:”Le Panier de Fleurs” made by Sue Nickels 2001

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

My BERNINA sewing machines are my #1 indispensable tool! I love a using machine that I know every detail and has all the features that allows me to create beautiful quilts. For a quilter that makes quilts completely by machine this is extremely important. 

I love my small curved tipped snips that easily clip threads for machine quilting. I use Tooltron curved tip scissors with foam grips. These work well because you do not have to put your fingers in scissor holes, which takes time and they are curved so you will not clip your fabric. I also like the foam grips because they are bright colors and easy to see. 

I also use self-threading needles to pull threads to the back of applique stitching and also for machine quilting when I need to bury threads. My favorite brand is Clover. 

What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?

When I started free motion quilting over 30 years ago, there were not many products on the market for machine quilters. I felt like I needed something on my fingers to help me move the quilt easily, evenly and with a light touch.

I decided to try my kitchen dishwashing gloves – they worked great except they were uncomfortable. So, I cut the fingers off and used just the fingers. They have better grip than anything else I have tried over the years, which is so important to be able to move the quilt with a light touch. I am still using my kitchen dishwashing glove fingers! A few brands are better than others – good quality Playtex (the ones in the box, usually purple) and Mr. Clean ultra-grip (usually orange).

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

I like to listen to music and sometimes I listen to podcasts. Music is great, especially when I am machine quilting. I tend to zone out a little, so with books and podcasts I miss lots of what is being said. I do not like silence – I need some kind of noise!! Would it surprise you to know I listen to the Beatles Channel on Pandora most of the time!

This is "The Beatles Quilt" made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels in 1998 and won Best of Show at the 1998 AQS Show in Paducah.
“The Beatles Quilt” made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels in 1998 and won Best of Show at the 1998 AQS Show in Paducah.
DETAIL The Beatles Quilt made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels
DETAIL: The Beatles Quilt” made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels in 1998 and won Best of Show at the 1998 AQS Show in Paducah.

What inspires you to create?

Many things inspire me. I love looking at antique quilts for ideas and many of my quilts have been inspired by the beautiful appliqué quilts of the 1800’s. I love traditional quilts with a fresh look at the colors and fabrics used. My travels also inspire me, and I have incorporated many of my visits to churches, cathedrals and graveyards as design sources. 

Tea at Tenby made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels 2008 Won Best of Show at The Birmingham Festival of Quilts in England 2009.. I like the machine quilting on the border of this quilt!
Tea at Tenby made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels 2008 Won Best of Show at The Birmingham Festival of Quilts in England 2009.. I like the machine quilting on the border of this quilt!
Detail of the machine quilting on Tea at Tenby
DETAIL of the machine quilting: Tea at Tenby made by Pat Holly and Sue Nickels 2008 Won Best of Show at The Birmingham Festival of Quilts in England 2009.. I like the machine quilting on the border of this quilt!

When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?

I am definitely a planner. I like to have my design drawn on paper and then work in an organized way through the quilt. But I sometimes change fabric choices as I work on the quilt and make some small design adjustments. 

How many projects do you have going at once? Or do you focus on one creative project at a time?

I usually have one project I am working on for myself. Because I have had a very busy teaching schedule, I have many class projects going on and preparation for my classes. 

What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?

I started machine quilting in the mid 1980’s and was one of the first quilters in my area to do machine quilting. I started teaching locally and then by the mid 1990’s I was teaching machine quilting techniques at national shows. Machine quilting on the home machine might be what I am best known for. I also love appliqué and have a traditional approach to my style. 

Sue and Pat in Beijing, China on an Asia cruise
Sue and Pat in Beijing, China on an Asia cruise

Many of your award-winning quilts are collaborations with your sister, Pat Holly. How do the two of you make decisions on design and divide the tasks?

Good question! Pat and I have always worked very well together. We start with deciding on the quilt theme or idea. We look to the antique quilts for design inspiration. Then we start with the design process, working closely together on this. We shop together for the fabric and divide it equally between the two of us. We like to incorporate some appliqué in our quilts. Both of us love appliqué, both design and stitching. Then we will divide the appliqué blocks and borders. Pat does the piecing, I am the machine quilter and Pat adds the binding! This has worked well for us.

Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?

I have entered juried shows over the years. I enjoy this and hope to continue entering shows. But I have been busy teaching and haven’t had enough time to make my own quilts for a while. I don’t think I do anything differently for a quilt I would enter in shows. I always want to have good design and good workmanship for my personal quilts, class quilts and show quilts. 

How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?

I am a list maker. I have a list of what has to be done today and then work from there. With teaching, the class to-do’s always go to the front of the list and the personal quilting always gets pushed farther down the list. This explains why I haven’t made many personal quilts in a while. A design wall is helpful while working a long-term quilt as I can always be pondering as I work on the things that have to be done first on the list. 

Sue and Pat on an Northern Isles cruise
Sue and Pat on an Northern Isles cruise

How often do you teach on Quilt Seminars at Sea cruises? Do you have a favorite port of call? Which destination has the best fabric shopping?

Typically, I teach on one Quilt Seminars at Sea Cruise per year. I have taught for Quilt Seminars at Sea since the early 2000’s, so that is lots of great cruises. I love teaching on the cruises and for Quilt Seminars at Sea. They do a great job for the quilters and the teachers. I have visited many places and have loved them all! My favorite always seems to be my recent – so I loved the New Zealand Explorer Cruise this past January! For fabric, I loved Amsterdam and the quilt shop we visited there. Alaska is also great and each port has great quilt shops. 

Sue in Ketchikan on an Alaska cruise
Sue in Ketchikan on an Alaska cruise

How can students/organizers find out about your classes and get in touch with you to schedule an event?

I have a website www.Sue-Nickels.com and all of my information is on my site. 

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?                                                          

I think you can learn creativity. Perhaps it is natural for some, but if you want to do something, I think the desire to do this is what you need.

When I teach free motion quilting, often students think they can’t do it and you must have a certain knack for it, but I always say it is about determination and practice. Maybe you don’t like to design your own quilts and you use patterns. That is always fine, but after doing that for a while, one day you start to change the pattern a little. That is creative and then you decide the next quilt you might add more of your ideas and “Voila” you have created your own original quilt!!!

Sue Nickels Quote

If you could spend a day with a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?

This is a great question and I have two answers. 

First, My mentor and friend, Gwen Marston. Gwen was a big influence on me and she passed away last year. I miss her influence and spirit every day and would love to spend a day with her again. For those who might not be familiar with Gwen, she was a fabulous quilter, teacher and author. She held her Beaver Island Quilt Retreats in Michigan for 30 years. I was fortunate to attend for many years. My sister, Pat Holly, and I took over the retreats in 2014 and now have Hollygirls Quilt Retreats every September. 

Second, as an art major I would love to spend the day with impressionist artist Mary Cassatt. She was one of the few women in the impressionist movement. She intrigues me because of her talent and her working in a male dominated field during the 1800’s and finding success. Cassatt was an early feminist and I feel she would be a very interesting woman to spend time with. 

Interview posted July 2020


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