Behind the Scenes with “Craft in America: QUILTS”
by Laura McDowell Hopper
Dec 27, 2019
For art quilter Michael Cummings, being featured on the television show Craft in America was literally a dream come true. “It was such an honor and I thought I was in dreamland,” said Cummings. “I had seen prior episodes and I fantasized about how nice it would be to be on Craft in America.”
While previous episodes of the Peabody Award-winning series Craft in America have featured short segments about quilters including Faith Ringgold, Joe Cunningham, and the quilters of Gee’s Bend, the series is now devoting an entire episode to quilts. “Over the 12 years that the Craft in America series has aired on PBS, quilting has grown into a huge industry and method of personal expression for millions of Americans from all backgrounds and regions of our country,” said Carol Sauvion, Director of the Craft in America series. “We felt that quilts and quilters needed to be featured in a more prominent way.”
Craft in America: QUILTS features quilt collector and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, historic quilts from the International Quilt Museum, and quilters Judith Content, Michael Cummings, Victoria Findlay Wolfe, and Susan Hudson. Being a part of a PBS documentary is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and several of the people featured told Craft Industry Alliance about their behind the scenes experiences. Sauvion says internal preparation began by “re-visiting the information we had gathered on quilts from previous episodes.” Quilter and quilt scholar Joe Cunningham, who was featured in the previous episode Craft in America: INDUSTRY, helped advise the team about different types of quilts as well as potential quilters who could be included in the episode. From there, Sauvion and her team narrowed their list down to the four quilters included in the episode, and used the International Quilt Museum and Ken Burns as historic resources so that each segment about a contemporary quilter was grounded in the lush history of quilting.
The Craft in America team then reached out to quilters to ask if they’d like to be included in the series. As Cummings explained, when the team first reached out, they were in their initial planning stages and needed to secure funding before they could travel to each quilter. Once funding to film the episode was secure and travel was finalized, Cummings said they were asked to tidy their sewing space. He “had to clean up [to] look like a neat quilter, not a messy quilter,” Cummings said, noting that the task was hard for a quilter like him who uses his floor to design quilts.
Preparation for the episode went both ways, with quilters telling the Craft in America team what they needed to know about their locations in advance. “I did let them know that they would probably be in culture shock,” said Navajo quilter Susan Hudson. To interview Hudson, the film crew traveled to Sheep Springs, New Mexico on the Navajo Reservation where Hudson said there were areas with “no electricity, no running water, an outhouse, and definitely no wifi.” Hudson was impressed with the team’s determination to tell her story while working with constraints they aren’t usually accustomed to.
Once on-location filming started, Michael Cummings was impressed with how nimble and adaptable the 6-person Craft in Americateam was. “Their questions and concept changed as I talked,” Cummings said, “because I told them that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture here in Harlem had one of my quilts in their collection.” The team then made an impromptu visit to the Center where they had a tour from a curator and learned about the Center’s importance in Harlem’s Black history. The Craft in America team also took a historic tour of Harlem itself, led by one of Cummings’ friends, to learn not only about his quilting but about the storied neighborhood he calls home. When Cummings viewed the final cut of the documentary early, he was delighted to see that his segment included so much about Harlem’s history.
The crew visited each quilter for two or three days for in-person interviews and came prepared with long lists of questions and quilts they wanted to film and photograph. “This team, they worked as a family, as one unit,” Cummings said. Both Cummings and Hudson said that their lunches each day with the Craft in America team were highlights of the experience. “By the time we finished, I didn’t want them to go,” said Cummings.
Participating in the Craft in America episode became even more meaningful for Ducey. “For me, the show takes me back to my mom in some really, really lovely ways. She might not have been a celebrated artist, but she was a great maker and the kind of woman who never sat down without something to do,” said Ducey.
Ducey also appreciated that the entire museum was featured, from volunteers doing sewing demonstrations, to Quilts of Valor volunteers, to multiple staff members. The Craft in America team visited the International Quilt Museum on National Quilting Day in March 2019, a day when the museum is buzzing with quilt energy.
The final product:
The early reviews of Craft in America: QUILTS have been glowing. “Their production is so beautiful, it’s almost lyrical the way they do their camera shots and the way they show the shots of the artists at work,” said Ducey. “It’s just a top-notch production.”
Michael Cummings loved the documentary, saying, “It’s really engrossing, you want more when it’s over.”
For Susan Hudson, the exposure her quilts will get from the documentary carries meaning beyond her. “They’re history, they’re storytelling quilts,” Hudson said of her quilts that often speak to the intergenerational trauma faced by Indigenous communities. “But what they really are is the story of my family, of the struggles that my ancestors went through.” Honoring her ancestors is an important part of her work, and it shines through in Craft in America. “The cutest part is when they went to my grandma’s house,” said Hudson of her 90-year-old master weaver grandmother. “I wanted the spotlight on her, not me.”
Above all, Hudson is thankful for being included in the episode, which allows her legacy to last beyond her years. “I want to thank them because I want my descendants to realize a hundred years from now when I’m no longer walking on this earth, that they can see this and know what we’ve gone through so they can be here,” Hudson said.
She hopes that her quilts will inspire people to learn more about issues facing Indigenous peoples today.“The Great Spirit chose me to do this, and millions of people are going to see my quilts and they’re going to learn something.”
Participants in the documentary also hope it sparks creativity and inspires more people to start quilting. The show’s director Carol Sauvion said, “As with other crafts, we hope our viewers will support quilters and perhaps begin to quilt themselves.”
Carolyn Ducey hopes that people will try quilting and not be intimidated by the beautiful quilts highlighted in the episode. “When you meet an artist, you can’t help but be inspired because they are so committed to their artwork. They have a passion that is so important for everybody to find, whatever level you are at,” she said. “It’s the passion and the expression that I think is important for us as human beings.”
Michael Cummings and fellow quilter Victoria Findlay Wolfe have become friends since both were featured in Craft in America’s episode about quilts. Cummings has been sewing using the same machine for 35 years, which he calls his “dance partner, because it knows all my moves.” The machine is featured in the Craft in America episode, but sadly his beloved machine broke down in December and the repair shop wasn’t able to fix it.
Cummings mentioned his broken sewing machine to his new friend, and since Findlay Wolfe also lives in New York City, she loaned him a modern, computerized sewing machine. When Findlay Wolfe showed him how to use the new machine, Cummings said, “I feel like I’ve been working in the dark ages!” These new friends will also both be exhibiting quilts together at the upcoming Quilters Take Manhattan event presented in September, 2020 by the Quilt Alliance.
QUILTS: 4 Directions showcases the work of Content, Cummings, Findlay Wolfe, and Hudson, focusing on what Sauvion describes as their “unique directions” in quilting.
Craft in America: QUILTS premiers on PBS on December 27, 2019. Check your local listings for the airtime in your area. The exhibit QUILTS: 4 Directions will be open at the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles from January 11 – March 7, 2020.
Laura McDowell Hopper
Social Media Manager and Staff Writer
Laura is our Social Media Manager and Staff Writer. Her work has appeared in Quiltfolk, Modern Patchwork, QuiltCon Magazine, and more. She is also an award-winning curator focused on textile preservation, an avid quilter, and a volunteer on nonprofit quilt boards. Laura believes that every crafter has an interesting story to tell, and she is committed to telling those stories elegantly and rigorously. She lives near Chicago, Illinois.