The Challenge of Choice: A Trunk Show with Madge Ziegler

Madge Ziegler is a name that might be familiar to longtime Love of Quilting readers and TV viewers: she designed a series of Christmas ornaments and a seasonal wreath that have appeared both in print and on the “Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting” PBS show. A quilter since 1976 and a teacher since 1979, Madge lectures and conducts workshops throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and teaches for local shops.

Madge Ziegler of Newark, Delaware, learned to sew at the age of 8 in 4-H using her grandmother’s converted treadle sewing machine. Two years later, her godmother gave her a new Singer 401A for her birthday, a machine Madge sewed on for many years and still owns.

She learned a variety of handwork techniques over the years, including macramé, and regularly pulled various patterns out of women’s magazines for future inspiration. The birth of the younger of her two sons coincided with the rise in popularity of quilting during bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Needing to get out of the house, Madge noticed that the fabric shop down the road was offering a four-week “introduction to quilting” class, so she asked her husband to be sure to be home one night a week so she could take the class. “Had he known, he might have found something else to do on Thursday nights,” Madge says. After that class ended, Madge enrolled in another four-week class, then another, and then another. “By that time, I had the bug.”

The first full-sized quilt she completed was a poly/cotton, appliquéd tulip pattern from a magazine that she hand quilted on a frame she made herself. She entered it into a local quilt show, not realizing that the distance between her appliqué stitches was sure to draw scrutiny from experienced quilters. The judge’s feedback started with some compliments before noting, “It would have been nicer if the stitches were closer together.” Had it not been for the judge’s gentler comments, Madge believes she may have been too discouraged to continue quilting after that.

By the early 1980s, Madge was an active charter member of the Ladybug Quilt Guild in Newark. In 1983, she and three other guild members decided to work their way through every project in Roberta Horton’s An Amish Adventure: A Workbook for Color in Quilts. True to its subtitle, the book’s focus was on color and didn’t include patterns, which required the four friends to rely on their own knowledge and experience in those pre-rotary cutter days. “There were no patterns in that book. We had to make a lot of decisions on our own,” Madge says. “And there were no templates—you had to figure things out.”

Ladybug Quilt Guild completed 45 quilt tops in one year based on Roberta Horton’s An Amish Adventure: A Workbook for Color in Quilts, none of which had a pattern. (As seen in Quilters Newsletter Jan/Feb 1993.

Ladybug Quilt Guild completed 45 quilt tops in one year based on Roberta Horton’s An Amish Adventure: A Workbook for Color in Quilts, none of which had a pattern. (As seen in Quilters Newsletter Jan/Feb 1993.

By the end of their first year together, the group had completed a total of 45 quilt tops, all of which were eventually hand quilted. They did a presentation for their guild, followed by another presentation at the guild’s quilt show. They ended up presenting their joint program dozens of times for guilds in five states over the next decade, sharing what they’d learned. For Madge, the lessons were profound and forever changed the way she thought about quilts.

“I call it the challenge of choice,” she says. “Challenge yourself to make your choice about your quilts.” Even if you start by making only one decision per quilt that diverges from the pattern, she says, “Make a change. Change something.”

Madge implemented that lesson with the very next quilt she made after the Amish project, a scrappy charm quilt, her Royal Cross Quilt.

Madge began diverting from the pattern—challenging herself to choose different approaches—and her creativity blossomed, as evidenced by Royal Cross (Photo from Land's End all-American quilt collection, 1992-1997 [AFC1997/022] American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.)

Madge began diverting from the pattern—challenging herself to choose different approaches—and her creativity blossomed, as evidenced by Royal Cross (Photo from Land’s End all-American quilt collection, 1992-1997 [AFC1997/022] American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.)

Though she stuck to the traditional Royal Cross design in a pattern she drafted herself, she used a different set of fabrics in each block, resulting in a striking gradated effect that played up the secondary design created by the one-block pattern. The quilt won a few prizes, including first place for the state of Delaware in the Land’s End All-American Quilt Contest in 1994.

“Making my own choices and designing my own stuff was a getaway from teaching in shops, where I had to make the samples like the books and patterns they were selling,” Madge says. “I loved teaching. Making other people’s patterns, not so much. That’s why with very few exceptions I teach my own patterns now.”

In the years since she started quilting, Madge has explored a wide range of styles and techniques, ranging from traditional to contemporary to improvisational, even quilting vintage tops and finishing old kit quilts. “I’m all about the process,” Madge says. “I don’t necessarily care if I finish something. I let the process happen.”
A combination of her reverence for quilting’s past with her determination to make unique choices defines Madge’s quilting life, regardless of what style she’s working in at any given time. “I have always been hooked on history,” she says.

Madge claims quilt history has “taken over” her current quilt life, with collecting commanding as much of her attention as making. The first one she collected was a baby quilt with appliquéd terry cloth ducks that she bought for 50 cents at a farm sale in the early 1980s. She still loves that little quilt and puts it up every Easter. “Again, if my husband had only known,” Madge says of how she got started. “’Where are you going to put that?’ is not a question I can ever answer.”

Christmas is a wonderful season to celebrate your stitches by breaking out your quilts and put them on display.

Christmas is a wonderful season to celebrate your stitches by breaking out your quilts and put them on display.

The Christmas season gives Madge the perfect opportunity to display red, green, and white quilts she’s made and collected, which she’s been doing every year for the past two decades. The first time she decided to decorate for the holidays with quilts, she leaned her 108-inch quilting frame against the wall and hung quilts off it; in more recent years, her treadmill has been pressed into service as well. Last year after Christmas she left up only the red-and-white quilts for a Valentine’s Day-themed display; in the summertime she usually shows red-white-and-blue quilts for a patriotic display. It’s only in fall that she changes out all of the quilts for autumnal décor, saying, “Orange is a neutral in my quilt collection.”

Her involvement with the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG) allows her to indulge her interests in both quiltmaking and collecting. The quilt history world is one, she says, where academics, quilt history buffs, dealers, and quiltmakers can all get together.

AQSG holds a biennial study in which participants make a quilt inspired by an antique quilt in response to a selected theme. For the 2016 basket quilts theme, Madge made Four Friends Baskets that she based on a time-span quilt top she’d won in an AQSG silent auction because she loved its baskets and history.

Four Friends Baskets (2016) was a time-span quilt: an un-finished, un-quilted orphan top that Madge completed. (Photo by Lisa Erlandson for American Quilt Study Group)

Four Friends Baskets (2016) was a time-span quilt: an un-finished, un-quilted orphan top that Madge completed. (Photo by Lisa Erlandson for American Quilt Study Group)

Reducing the size of the appliqué, creating the appearance of improvisational piecing, and choosing quilting motifs may have presented challenges, but in her artist’s statement Madge said, “There was pure joy in every step of making Four Friends Baskets.” It’s included with the AQSG’s Quilt Study of Basket Quilts traveling exhibit through 2019.

Madge continues to give workshops and lectures; her newest topic is “This Old Quilt: Detecting, Inspecting, Collecting,” in which she leads attendees through her journey of building a collection to love and inspire. It is, quite clearly, a subject near and dear to her heart. “When you get old enough and people know who you are, quilts arrive on your doorstep,” Madge says. “Things find me. They may not be valuable money-wise, but they’re wonderful.”

Delve into the rich historical traditions of quiltmaking!

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