Friday, December 16, 2011

Cathy Miller - the Singing Quilter

Cathy Miller and I met a few years back shortly after she and her husband, John Bunge, moved to Victoria. Our friendship evolved over the years as we spent time going to quilt retreats, teaching on quilt cruises and sharing stories and ideas about quilting.

Tell us a bit about the beginnings of the Singing Quilter?

The first quilting CD "One Stitch at a Time" came out in September 2000, but I was writing songs about quilting as far back as 1991. I had been hired to write music for a play about quilting which was put on as part of Quilt Canada that year, and the playwright and I did a huge amount of research about quilting traditions, society, superstitions, and practices (neither of us were quilters). It was fascinating. As part of my own research, I took a quilting class and got - slowly - hooked. My passion for quilting was really solidified when John and I lived in Darwin Australia for 8 months (1999-2000) and I learned much more about making quilts, and also about the community, history and wonderful stories associated with it. By the time we returned to Canada I had enough songs written about these stories to record a whole CD of quilting songs. John had to talk me into recording these songs (I didn't think anyone would be interested in buying a CD about quilting.....!) and we haven't looked back since.

Do you travel a lot as part of your singing career?

We generally spend between 6 and 8 months every year on the road. It doesn't leave me much time for quilting! In 2010 we traveled to Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada and Europe - we sang for the first time at European Patchwork, which was amazing, and very different from what I'm used to. I did a part of each of the 8 shows in French (which was a challenge!), and taught quilting classes for a week in Belgium. When we travel, I try to keep everyone up to date on our adventures on my blog at During the recording of the most recent CD "Little Crazy Quilt" in Toronto in August 2010 I blogged every evening about what we did that day. I thought that quilters might be interested in how we go about constructing a CD. In many ways, it's similar to how you make a quilt. (I wrote an article comparing the two for Canadian Quilter in the Spring 2011 issue.)

Your songs often evolve from a story. Do you have a couple of favourite songs or stories that you could tell us about?

There are so many amazing stories where quilts feature prominently. I was so fortunate to see the Rajah Quilt when we lived in Darwin. It is still the most important quilt story I've ever found. The quilt is the only known surviving convict ship quilt in the world. It was made in 1841 by female convicts aboard the ship "Rajah" on its way to Van Diemens Land (as Tasmania was known back then). Thanks to the compassionate work of Elizabeth Fry, an early English prison reformer, the women were taught how to quilt (a marketable skill back then) and given a bundle of sewing supplies. They made the quilt as a thank you to Mrs. Fry while they were on the ship taking them to seven years' transportation. It was found in Edinburgh in 1988 by an American quilt historian Janet Rae, while she was researching her book "Quilts of the British Isles". Janet connected the owners of the quilt with the National Gallery of Australia and Australian quilters, and negotiated its return to Australia, where it is now considered a national treasure.

I also write about contemporary quilts I consider important. Several years ago I learned about the making of the Quilt of Belonging in Ontario (Canada) - Esther Bryan took on the daunting task of making a huge quilt that would feature an 11" block from every country whose people have emigrated to Canada - 263 in all. That's every country in the world! She has also included 90 blocks made by native nations in Canada. The quilt measures 36 metres by 3.5 metres - a truly extraordinary effort by many volunteers. I finally wrote the song about this story and recorded it on my latest CD: Little Crazy Quilt.

Last year I decided to finally write a book with all the stories from my songs - in as full a format as I could. Because many of the history tales "ripple back" to me after I've written them (ie, I've met descendants of Elizabeth Fry, as well as Janet Rae and visited the "Female Factory" in Tasmania where the convict women ended up), I wanted to include the complete stories as I know them now. While I was at it, I decided to include all the sheet music for the songs from all the CDs, as well as many (mostly funny) little stories that people have told me over the years. The result is the "Singing Quilter Songbook", which came out in September of 2011. It was a huge job, and I'm very proud of the results.

It sounds like you keep very busy, but you have other projects you’re working on, right?

In recent years I've started to teach quilting as well as singing about it. I have long experience teaching - I taught private singing classes for 25 years, and also songwriting workshops. It has felt very natural to include teaching quilting in our schedule. I'm having a lot of fun with this - especially a class I call "Mock Mola Applique", which is a design class as well as a very effective way to use bright hand-dyes and batiks to spectacular effect. When we're on tour, teaching a class is a great way for me to connect more deeply with people, rather than just coming in to do a concert and leaving town the next morning. It's also given me the opportunity to participate in quilting cruises! We're just about to go on our 4th quilting cruise, this time to the Caribbean, and there'll be more in the future. It's a great way to travel!

I certainly couldn't do all this without the full partnership of my husband John Bunge. Not only is he the tour manager, CD seller and (mostly) driver, but he also sings harmony and plays harmonica during the concerts. He also finishes every one of our shows with the "hit" song: "Quilter's Husband's Lament", which usually brings down the house!

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