Lenoir quilter a national competitor

Sep. 07, 2013 @ 07:21 AM

Just inside the front door of JoAnn Nichols' home sits a gray recliner, a half-finished quilt furled at its feet. A large, surgical-looking lamp reaches above the chair from an end table, and a bag of needles and thread sits beside it.

This is the chair where Nichols quilts. Mostly. She has a sewing room with machines, fabrics and all the works, but the chair, beside an identical one where husband, Lloyd, sits, is where most of the work on her quilts is done, some of them taking up to two years to complete.

Stitch by stitch, Nichols makes a quilt from scratch, honing an art that goes back to her early childhood, and one that more recently has earned her national acclaim. Nichols is the featured quilter at this weekend's Wilkes County Quilters’ Show, which ends today.

When she was around 4 years old, Nichols began sewing clothes for her dolls. Soon, she was making her own clothes. She just kept sewing, she says, and in the fifth grade, she made the clothes that she wore in her yearbook photo.

When she had children of her own, she made their clothes, including her daughters’ prom dresses. And she made clothes on request from members of the community.

Nichols, 72, is a native of Lenoir, graduated from Happy Valley High School and worked as an executive assistant at Kincaid Furniture for 23 years before retiring in 2004. Today, she spreads her time between her home in Lenoir and the quilting organizations she belongs to.

Nichols says she finds joy in creating something artistically, putting down her vision in fabric and style.

When her kids were in school and playing sports or at piano lessons, Nichols would go and watch, but she needed something to do. Since she couldn’t bring along a sewing machine, she had to find something else. The answer was quilting.

While her children practiced, she practiced, putting together the main parts and piecing together the designs on top. Then, when practice was over and it was time for games, she’d have something to keep her warm on the bleachers.

It wasn’t long until quilting became her main sewing hobby, and it wasn’t much longer until she was entering quilting competitions – and winning.

She has entered in shows all across western North Carolina, into South Carolina, Kentucky, even Michigan. One of her quilts, called “Jacobean Royalty” -- which won her $5,000 for best hand workmanship at the American Quilters’ Society Show in Grand Rapids in 2011, and has basically been on tour ever since -- is currently being judged in preparation for the International Quilt Festival in Houston, where 40 states and seven countries are represented.

Nichols has completed about 40 quilts. She has never sold one and won’t even make a quilt by request, but two of her quilts have been appraised, at $3,500 and $3,900.

Sometimes, Nichols says, people skeptically ask her if she actually sewed her stitches by hand, and the answer is always yes.

Another thing that makes her quilts stand out is their style. Most quilts are pieced, or pieces of fabric stitched together in a geometric pattern to create what most people think of as a quilt, but Nichols is not one to walk with the herd.

“Pieced is mostly boring, everybody’s doing it,” she said. “I like to be different.”

About seven years ago, Nichols was attending a show in Paducah, Ky., and spotted a quilting book, "Jacobean Rhapsodies," a guide to quilts in the Jacobean style. The style was made popular under the reign of King James of England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but it dates to Biblical times.

Nichols latched on to the Jacobean style and made it her own, with its curving shapes and unusual designs, which fit right in with Nichols' own love for hand-appliqué, or making designs from small pieces of fabric sewn together.

Nichols belongs to the Pisgah Sisterhood of Quilters, a group she helped found three years ago that meets at Pisgah Baptist Church and donates quilts to cancer patients and newborns. The group donated 56 quilts last year.

She also belongs to the Pine Needles Quilt Guild, Wilkes County Quilter’s Guild, the American Society of Quilters and the International Quilters’ Association.

“It’s just the joy and the peace and contentment,” she said. “I enjoy the fellowship with other quilters, and I just like being competitive.”

Each quilt entered into a show must have a name, said Nichols, and hers come straight from the quilt itself, such as “Maisie’s Couture,” a quilt that was made from scraps left over after Nichols made a dress for her granddaughter Maisie.

“Jacobean Royalty” was named for the Jacobean style and its coloring, purple, which denotes royalty. “Tropical Breeze” is a quilt done in all aqua colors, named for its reminding Nichols of Maui, Hawaii.

Nichols hopes to finish the quilt she is currently working on by the spring, just in time to enter it into a competition in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 2014.

Nichols has no plans to stop quilting or competing and is working to continue the tradition, teaching the skill to her 8-year-old granddaughter.