A Labor of Love for Nancy Sterett Martin
Photos by Jamie Plain
When you think of quilts, you probably envision traditional patchwork quilts made from various fabric pieces — decorative but useful on a chilly night and often passed down through generations of families. Nancy Sterett Martin is an award-winning quiltmaker, but her creations are not your grandmother’s quilts.
Using an original technique, Nancy paints on silk and then quilts in the texture to create a unique piece of artwork.
She started quilting around 15 years ago, after attending a quilt show in Paducah. “I thought, boy, these are really artistic, and I’d like to do something like this,” she said. Her grandmother taught her to sew when she was nine, and after taking home-ec classes, she found she enjoyed sewing as a creative outlet. This eventually led to her becoming an interior designer, but not before attending engineering school and working for her father at Sterett Crane & Rigging as a secretary.
Her understanding of color, drawing talent and ability to read blueprints gave her the perfect skill set to create her highly artistic quilts. She started with one traditional quilt, but it just wasn’t to her taste, she said.
“Who wants to cut up fabric into a million pieces and then sew it all back together?” Nancy said with a laugh.
That was when she got the idea to paint freehand and apply that to quilts, and she learned that no one else was painting full-sized quilts but instead were painting smaller pieces and putting them onto quilts.
Knowing she wanted to paint on silk, she befriended a renowned silk painter from Washington, and spent several days with her, learning and experimenting.
“So, I started painting quilts,” she said. “Within the first year, when I started doing that about back in 2015, I made two quilts for entry (in competition), and both of them were accepted. Then they traveled around the United States and the world.”
Nancy said she entered seven or eight quilt shows a year because she enjoyed the competition and learning new things. In 2015, one quilt of a heron won seven first-place awards in quilt shows, and others have won awards and been added to the permanent collection at the quilt museum in Paducah. She’s entered approximately 30 quilts into competitions, but has made nearly 500, and given them to family and friends.
Making each of those quilts is a long process. Nancy begins by sketching her inspiration onto a letter-size piece of paper and then uses a computer program to enlarge the pattern and print it out. After painting, she then has to quilt the piece. Painting one quilt can take up to 90 hours, while quilting is another 500 hours.
“Once I’m done with a quilt, I’m tired of it,” she said. “On to the next. The best quilt, in my mind, is the one I’m going to work on next.”
It takes all of those hours to add the incredible detail she includes in each piece. Working mainly with images of animals, Nancy examines and studies every fine detail. Sometimes she works from photographs, blowing them up and using a magnifying glass to figure out how to quilt them. “I quilt what I see,” she said. “I just quilt and paint what I actually see.”
The hours that pass as she’s making art are well-spent for Nancy, who has used her time lately on resin work and drawing, but occasionally will crochet or cross-stitch when she isn’t quilting.
“I like doing things with my hands,” she said. “I think just sitting and not doing anything or watching TV is a waste of time. I love creating and I do this just to give stuff away.”