The third in this year’s series of quilt exhibits at the Ozark County Historium in Gainesville is drawing quilt lovers from throughout the region to see the prize-winning works of Douglas County resident Marla Yeager. Through Sept. 28, visitors will be able to view a large selection of this artist’s creations. Marla recently shared her quilting story and how one of her quilts wound up in the nation’s most prestigious quilt museum.
When Marla’s Douglas County neighbors hear the word “buckskin,” they naturally assume it is a reference to a certain color of horse – a logical assumption since Ava, the county seat, is home to the national headquarters of the Missouri Foxtrotting Horse Breed Association. But for Marla, buckskin has an entirely different meaning.
It’s the name of a quilt, but not just any quilt. Marla’s Buckskin, named by her husband Joe because the color reminded him of an old Indian deerskin blanket, won Best of Show at the 2007 Mid-Atlantic Quilt Festival in Hampton, Va., and the Bernina Machine Workmanship Award at the prestigious American Quilters Society annual show in 2007. The $12,000 Purchase Award from AQS made Buckskin a part of the permanent collection of National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Ky., which is visited by more than 40,000 people every year.
Buckskin is now just a memory in the Yeagers’ home, but as Marla explains, “I’m happy that others can see it at Paducah. The best part is that lots of kids come to the museum and are influenced by what they see. It’s good when young people are inspired by crafts that are rooted in tradition.”
From novice to prizewinner
Quilting was not a tradition that Marla learned from her own family, however; no one in her family had ever made a quilt. After growing up in Ava, Marla moved to Springfield to work for the Frisco Railroad, where she met Joe, a fellow employee. After they were married, the couple was transferred to a small town in Nebraska, where Marla received a sewing machine as a Christmas gift from Joe.
“When I couldn’t decide what to make, Joe said, ‘Make me a quilt!’” she recalls. “I had no idea where to start, so I bought a log cabin quilt-in-a-day book with instructions to create all the blocks, quilt them separately and connect them at the end. It was horrendous! I knew there had to be a better way.”
With the railroad’s propensity for moving employees frequently, the Yeagers soon found themselves in Galesburg, Ill., a move that was a turning point for the novice quilter. A quilt shop there exposed her to newer fabrics and techniques, and it wasn’t long before she was gaining proficiency and turning out better quilts. As she continued to improve her skill of free-motion machine quilting, Marla found her niche.
“I had the luxury of taking classes from some world-renowned teachers along the way, including the late Doreen Speckmann, Jean Lohmar, Harriet Hargrave, Diane Gaudynski, Gerald Roy and Ricky Tims,” insists Marla. “The best quilter is an educated quilter.”
Marla has created numerous stunning quilts, many of which are prizewinners. A spectacular piece named Glass Menagerie won first place in Traditional Pieced Category at the International Quilt Festival in Houston in 2002. Several of her creations have been featured as cover art on quilt publications around the world; some have hung in museums as far away as the Netherlands. And the recognition of her skill has put her in demand as a teacher in workshops across the country.
No bad quilts
When she teaches, Marla emphasizes that there is no one right way to make a quilt and that there is no such thing as a bad quilt. She does, however, offer lots of basic advice.
“If the quilter asks, ‘Did it turn out like I wanted?’ and the answer is yes, then it is a success,” Marla says. “The best route to achieving positive results is to use the best materials you can afford. A good quality sewing machine, though not necessarily the most expensive one, and the best fabrics, threads and batting are worth the price. Educate yourself as to what is available and be willing to try it, even though it may be expensive. The end result will be head and shoulders above what you’ll get with substandard materials.”
Marla uses 100 percent cotton fabrics almost exclusively. The newer cotton batting is essential to her exquisite machine quilting, and she prefers silk thread on the surface with cotton in the bobbin.
“Choosing the best colors takes more time than any other aspect of design,” Marla continues. “My works include my original designs, but they are all inspired by traditional quilt patterns.”
“I want my quilts to look like quilts!” she emphasizes. “I think it is important for me to stay attached to quilting’s roots. My quilts would look as good in a log cabin as they do in a museum. I enjoy taking old patterns and giving them my own look, using modern tools and fabrics.”
Settling back in the Ozarks
When Joe retired from the railroad in 2003, they moved back to Marla’s native Douglas County and built a country home. Having moved more times than they could count during Joe’s railroad career, the Yeagers knew exactly what they wanted in their retirement home. They chose building materials and furnishings that reflect their love of nature, while Marla’s quilts provide the artwork to complement the natural look.
Marla’s pride and joy in their country home is her sewing studio. With windows on three sides, the natural light helps in selecting colors. Two sewing machines, two design walls, specially crafted racks for spools of thread and shelves in a large walk-in closet filled with carefully organized stacks of colorful fabric make the area a serious quilter’s dream workspace. But one small piece of furniture holds a place of pride.
“My director’s chair, a status symbol throughout the quilting world, was part of the award when Buckskin won at Paducah,” Marla points out. “I put a lot of myself into making that quilt, and it was hard for me to give it up. But doing so allowed me to achieve one of my goals, and that was to have a quilt in the National Quilt Museum. Also, knowing the exposure Buckskin has gotten and its potential to inspire others to begin quilting is a source of pride that made giving it up easier. It is meaningful to know that my grandchildren will be able to travel to the museum to visit Buckskin.”
Even though she has attained a high level of success, Marla Yeager is never satisfied with what she has achieved in the quilting world. She believes there will always be more to learn as the process continues to evolve.
“And it’s good for me!” she exclaims. “As we get older, it’s vital to have something we love to do. Quilting will keep your mind sharp and make you think. It’s as simple or complex as you choose to make it. The well of knowledge is as deep as you want to dip out of!”
At Historium Sept. 12-28
Marla’s quilts will be exhibited through Sept. 28 at the Ozark County Historium in Gainesville. The Historium’s regular hours are 10 a.m. till 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. The exhibit is free and open to everyone. For more information, contact [email protected] or 417-265-3372. The Historium phone is 417-679-2400.