An expert textile artist, Nancy Billings specializes in art quilting and Jewish textile traditions, including chuppahs (wedding canopies), tallits (prayer shawls), and challah (bread) covers. Nancy grew up surrounded by fabric at her father’s Manhattan textile store and learned to sew from her grandparents. Over the last 30 years, she has mastered various traditional and experimental techniques in order to add a contemporary style to her pieces, which have been exhibited across the country.
More about Nancy
(The following is from an interview HistoryMiami conducted with Nancy Billings in 2015.)
Where were you born?
I was born in New York City.
When and why did you move to Miami?
My family and I moved to Miami in 1976 for business opportunities for my husband and because our parents lived in South Florida. We wanted our children to grow up with their grandparents.
Tell me how and when you first began working with textiles.
I grew up surrounded by textiles. My father owned a textile company in the garment center in Manhattan for many years. There was always fabric coming home for my grandparents to sew clothes for us.
My grandfather learned to sew in Europe as a vocation and continued this in a factory when he came to America. Since my grandparents lived with us, I watched them constantly and loved that they could create something beautiful from a piece of cloth. I was 12 years old when I received my first sewing machine and proceeded to make my own clothes. I graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn N.Y. with a BFA in Fashion Design. This allowed me to fulfill my aspiration to teach sewing and design to students from junior high through college.
What kinds of textile traditions do you practice?
The tradition of quilting as I learned it, was about matching points and using previously designed patterns from many years ago such as Nine Patch, Wedding Ring, Log Cabin, etc. Those who do Modern Quilting, a contemporary quilt movement which began a few years ago, use traditional techniques and new innovative designs.
Art Quilters, also known as Fiber Artists, Textile Artists, etc. have totally left all the rules behind and use fabric, paint, dye, photography, and many other mediums to embellish fabric that has been quilted in some fashion. Art quilts are not made for the bed! They are considered an art form that is equivalent to a painting which you hang on the wall.
I do not follow traditions in my quilt making any more. Art quilting is for people who don’t like rules and prefer to make art quilts their own way. I describe my work as textile or fiber art to be hung on walls. The difference between my work and a painter is that they mostly use oil, acrylic, or watercolor paint, and I use textiles with mixed media. It is all art.
The traditions I do follow are in making Judaica products. Making chuppahs (wedding canopies), tallit (prayer shawls), and matzoh/challah covers are themselves traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. What I do is put a contemporary look and feel to it all.
How did you learn to make quilts and art quilts?
In 1972, my husband, my baby, and I were living on a military base. I found a course in quilting that I immediately signed up for and loved. From this simple beginning, my career began and progressed from traditional quilts to contemporary fabric art. I found myself wanting to create more innovative work than you can from traditional quilt patterns. I decided I wanted to learn from the best and researched where these teachers were. I found the Quilt Surface Design Symposium in Columbus, Ohio and went to study there every year for many years. Thereafter, I would research a particular teacher or technique and follow them wherever they were.
How did you learn to make chuppahs, tallits, challah covers, and other Jewish textile arts?
Making Judaica art objects was a natural transition for me. When we were planning my daughter’s wedding, we talked about what she would like for a chuppah (wedding canopy), which lead to the challenge of designing and making it for the wedding couple. I thought that if I made this, it could become a family heirloom for many generations. For this chuppah to be special to each couple, I made leaves with each bride and groom’s names on the leaf and embroidered it to the background. For other designs which included grass, I put the names on blades of grass. This way, all the brides and grooms who get married under this chuppah will know its heritage.
It is traditional during the Shabbot (the Jewish day of rest) or Passover to have challah bread or matzo bread on the table and cover it with a cloth. It is also traditional at a bar/bat mitzvah (coming of age ritual) for the child to receive their first tallit (prayer shawl). I’ve taught classes at synagogues for those who would like to make their own tallit or for gifts to help carry on the traditions. These are traditional ceremonial objects that have been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. What I do is put a contemporary look and personal feeling to the design process that I make as commissions or gifts.
Tell me about how you combine innovation and tradition in your quilts and Jewish textile art.
Jewish traditions have been passed from generation to generation for centuries. What I have done is bring them into the 21st century. By combining the traditions of my faith with the knowledge that I have gleaned in the past 30 years, I have been able to merge the ritual objects with contemporary design. By learning and experimenting with many techniques such as improvisational cutting, freehand machine embroidery, dye painting, fusing, stamping, stenciling, and many more, I have been able to select which project is appropriate for which technique to enhance the final product. I am not bound to any one fabric or any single technique. I use what I believe will be the best fabric for my project in both the construction and design element. I often mix many fabrics together in each project to achieve my goal.
Tell me about the kinds of tools and supplies you use.
There are so many tools and supplies that go into a finished product. There are materials that allow us to fuse two pieces of fabric together. Other fabrics have been treated with special chemicals so that they can be put through a printer to print photos on fabric. I’ve even used a wood burning tool to make fabric look like fire.
In my studio I have a worktable with a special cutting board to be used with a roller blade, so a scissor is not necessary. I have rulers that have special designations for measuring and a design wall created to allow me to place the fabric on the wall with pins. I also have an iron and oversized ironing board, along with three sewing machines that are used for different purposes. My digital camera is one of my favorite tools, used often to refer to previous designs and compare different versions of a project in progress.
As a textile artist, I use many forms of surface design to embellish fabric that has or will be quilted in some fashion.
What do you enjoy most about your craft and working with textiles to create art?
I have been passionate about all varieties of textiles since I was very young, whether it was designing and creating clothes, or making pillows and art quilts, or tallit and chuppahs. Each genre of art helps me create, which is so satisfying. Working with textiles is a very tactile art. You feel it, cut it, stitch it, fold it, scrunch it, paint or dye it, and it hopefully does what you want it to do. It’s a very obedient medium. Creating art can be solitary which is why going to workshops, symposiums, conferences, and belonging to textile art groups is so rewarding both personally and for networking.
Most of all I appreciate the overwhelming positive response I receive from people viewing or buying my art. The art of creating with textiles is a joy.