Our Lives: Quilter stitches a musical career

Each square on a quilt tells a story about either the person who made it or the person it was made for.

That alone makes it something more than a means with which to keep warm. When made properly, a quilt becomes a family heirloom to be passed down through generations. It can be hung on a wall, much like a piece of art. It can also be laid out on a bed, adding a touch of design to an otherwise drab room.

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For Cathy Miller, quilting represents all these things — and more. Miller makes her living as musician and tours the world on a regular basis, albeit with one fabulous, ingenious twist.

She is the Singing Quilter.

By her count, Miller has sold “tens of thousands” of copies of her five quilting CDs to date. She is unique in that she writes, records and performs material that is not simply quilting related. It is entirely, unapologetically, unequivocally about the art and process of quilting.

“I’m the only person I know of who does this, in terms of writing songs about quilting,” Miller said.

“Other quilters have CDs out, and they might make reference to quilting, and there are certainly songs around that use the idea of quilting. But to have dedicated quilting CDs? I’m probably the first.”

An Ottawa native, Miller moved to Victoria from Calgary in 2000, shortly after she was married. It was then, at the urging of her husband, John Bunge, that Miller put her passion for quilting into practice. She recorded One Stitch at a Time, her first album of quilting songs, in 2000, nine years after she was contacted by a friend who had been commissioned to do a play for Quilt Canada.

Miller was asked if she could write the music for it. “And so started my connection with quilting,” she said.

It was an odd twist for Miller, who began playing folk music when she was in Grade 10. “I learned three chords and began writing songs,” she said. Miller acquitted herself quickly.

“Before I left high school, I had already played most of the major halls in Ontario.”

For the next 15 years, she dabbled in both theatre and music. “I loved the group part of theatre. The trouble is, it doesn’t pay anything, so I went into folk music, which pays a slight bit more if you are a solo artist.”

The ironic part of her current career is that when she was asked by her Calgary friend, in 1991, to write a song about quilting, she was not familiar with the practice whatsoever. As part of her research, Miller made her very first quilt.

“It was not my most successful piece, but it is good to look back and see how much I have learned.”

She signed up for an introductory appliqué quilting class and was off to the races. Miller said she was surprised to learn of unique quilting superstitions, especially where bridal quilts from the 19th century were concerned (a new bride had to bring 13 quilts to her marriage bed, for example). She also learned quilting as a generational tradition hit a speed bump after the Second World War, when the children of quilters began distancing themselves from what they felt was an antiquated practice.

“Everybody started to say they weren’t going to do anything their moms used to do.”

Miller is infatuated with not only the practice of quilting, but the culture of it as well. The social interaction created through quilting — from quilt shows to craft fairs — is a large part of the appeal for some, including Miller. Her network of friends now includes more quilters than “normal people,” she joked.

“What I am doing, to boil this down to the essence, is looking at life through the lens of quilting. People say: ‘How can you write more than one song about quilting?’ It’s about life. When you’re a quilter, you tend to see life through what we do as quilters. Each block [on a quilt] has its own name, and therefore has its own significance.”

A succession of quilt-themed albums has sprung from Miller — A Quilter‘s Embrace (2002), A Quilter’s World (2004), In the Heart of a Quilt (2006), and Little Crazy Quilt (2010) — and she tours in support of each. She and Bunge are on the road between six and eight months annually. By taking her quilt songs on the road, she has forged new relationships with other quilters across the world.

“It is astonishing,” she admitted. “This is the best move I’ve ever done.”

She is now equally in demand as a guest speaker and singer, something she never envisioned when she took up the idea of the Singing Quilter all those years ago. Miller now officially qualifies as an artist, too.

She is collaborating with friends and fellow artists Eileen McGann and Louise Parsons for Refractions: Mud, Brush and Needle, a gallery show at the Arts Centre at Cedar Hill. The show, which runs until March 4, features quilts from Miller, paintings from McGann and pottery from Parsons.

Much like in quilting, the friendship she shares with McGann and Parsons is what drew her to the collaboration.

“The intersection of the three media is interesting. But the fact that we are really, really close friends who have never worked together before was a win-win for me.”

Quilting, painting, pottery, music — at the end of the day, it’s all part of the same mindset for Miller. “I make quilts like I write songs, which is to say I don’t want to repeat something somebody else has done. You can’t get away with that in music. I’ve always quilted that way, beginning with my first quilt.”

 

Because you spend so much time on airplanes, I expect you read a lot. What are some of the last ones you read?

I just finished The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, and Cocaine Blues: A Phryne Fisher Mystery by Kerry Greenwood.

 

And your favourite books?

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. Or Alice in Wonderland.

 

Musicians often have vivid memories of their first concert. What are yours?

I remember watching [classical guitarist] Andrés Segovia and seeing the most extraordinary thing happen. I was in high school and he came out after the interval, and us students had taken a little too long to settle down, so he walked off stage. He returned a couple of minutes later, and we shut up immediately. He did it so beautifully.

 

What is your favourite concert?

Recently, Leonard Cohen at the [Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre] arena. Spectacular sound, in a hockey arena, for heaven’s sake.

 

What is the most important thing you have learned in your career, and why?

My mother taught me this: If you have an all-white room, make sure there is a cerise pillow somewhere. That rule applies to songwriting, and it applies to quilting.

 

What’s your greatest regret?

I don’t really have any. I don’t look back like that.

 

What’s a surprising thing we likely don’t know about you?

Most people don’t know it’s possible to write more than one song about quilting.

 

What is your tour history to date?

We have done over 700 shows for quilt guilds, and at other events, on three continents. We have sung in every province in Canada and all but two states in the U.S. We’ve also been to England, Scotland, France, Germany, Belgium, Australia, and New Zealand. It has been quite an amazing time.

 

Fair to say you make a comfortable living doing this?

Yes, and have done so since September 2000, when we launched my first quilting CD.

 

What do you want to accomplish over the next year? 10 years?

I just had a significant birthday, and if I have 25 years left, I still want to make a difference. That’s what I’ve been trying to do all along.

 

What do you think is the most important issue in your field today?

What’s about to happen is that all of us grandmothers are going to depart, and the thing to keep this going is by keeping the younger generation interested.

 

How would you address that issue?

The modern quilting guilds. It’s hard, though. For the same reason we lost a generation of quilters after World War II, people want to move on if they relate something to their mother, which is a sensibility of our time. Modern quilting guilds are making it “cool” for the new generations, however.

 

Is there hope at the end of the day?

We are currently in the golden age of quilting. There have never been more quilters in the world. These little bell curves of interest in the 1890s and 1930s were big ones, but now we have huge numbers all over the world.

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