Shirley T. Hodge




Shirley T. Hodge




Shirley T. Hodge


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Washington, D.C.


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): This is Evelyn Salinger and I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Shirley T. Hodge. Today's date is June 1, 2010. The time is 9:40. [This interview is taking place during a Daughters of Dorcas meeting.] Hi, Shirley.

Shirley T. Hodge (SH): Hi.

ES: Good to see you today.

SH: Nice seeing you again.

ES: What did you choose today for your interview?

SH: It's the piece that I made. It's entitled, "Billie's Fruit." It's based on the song by Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit." There was a call for entries in 2005 for a jazz-themed quilt for an exhibit. I wanted to participate. This is the first and last quilt that I dreamed. I dreamed the whole quilt. Then I had to figure out how to make it. When I dreamed it, I went online to look up the song, "Strange Fruit." And the story was really absorbing, because I found out that the song, "Strange Fruit," started out as a poem. It was written by a Jewish schoolteacher. He had seen a picture of two men that had been hung and that image stayed with him, and he wrote the poem. He and his wife had gone out one evening and they heard Billie Holiday sing. And he took the poem to her, and she and her musician did the song. But it's a story: I just kind of got attracted to the story. So that's how this quilt came about.

ES: Did you hear this song as a young person?

SH: Not as a young person, but I had heard it as an adult but I didn't really know the story. And I tried to put images in here to reflect that song. The gradations in her silhouette defined the different changes in her life, because she had a very difficult life. And then ultimately she ended up addicted to drugs. The flower, that's her signature, gardenia.

ES: In her hair.

SH: Right. And these images are what the song says, 'Strange fruit hanging on a poplar tree.'

ES: They're really not fruit.

SH: That's not fruit. It's people.

ES: People being hung.

SH: Right. To me it was important--well, we have different eras in our life span. There are some things, you know, you want to remember so you can do them again. And there are some things you want to remember so they don't happen again. And that's what this quilt signifies.

ES: It's wonderful. When did you make that?

SH: In 2005.

ES: And I notice that you have--tell us the colors.

SH: The gradations are real light gray going to black.

ES: And that's five of those. And then you used red and black and white.

SH: Yes. When I finished the quilt, I knew what I had for my borders, but it just needed a little touch of something else, so that's when I came up with the red stripe to go around the edges before I put the borders on.

ES: And the backing?

SH: Oh, I found this beautiful material with instruments, that was just right for this.

ES: Did you appliqué this all by hand?

SH: This is all hand appliquéd and machine quilted.

ES: Did you do the machine quilting?

SH: I did.

ES: What sort of thread?

SH: This is the mono filament thread and I had white cotton on the back. This is on my home machine.

ES: Just stippling?

SH: Just move it around.

ES: Where do you keep this?

SH: I haven't hung it yet.

ES: But it is for hanging.

SH: Yeah:

ES: It is so beautiful.

SH: Thank you.

ES: I did not realize the story.

SH: It has been a while since I've read it, but if you get a chance, look it up. It is really interesting, because, also the man who wrote the poem of the story, ended going up going into his life. He had two friends, a husband and wife, and during that era back then, it was really dangerous for people to accuse you of being a communist and her brother was about to be arrested as being a communist and he told the authorities that his sister was. So they arrested the sister and the husband and they were executed for being communists. And this man, who wrote the poem, raised their two boys.

ES: What a story. Do you know their names?

SH: I don't remember because it's been a while since I read this. All I have to do is to pull up "Strange Fruit," the song.

ES: How long did it take you to do this?

SH: Well, it took me probably about three weeks to finish it because I was working on a deadline, so I wanted submit it to see if it would be accepted.

ES: Where was this?

SH: It was a call for a traveling exhibit. It's still traveling. It was not accepted.

ES: Oh.

SH: That's okay. But it is still traveling. It was "Textural Ribbons." Something in jazz. I cannot remember now, but it is still traveling.

ES: When did you get started with sewing?

SH: Well, really I have been sewing since I was about ten years old. I used to tear up fabric and put together little cloth dolls and things like that. My mother sewed but she made us dresses. She made entire dresses by hand. And she would take apart old dresses and use them as a pattern to make us new dresses. I watched her do that. We never really sat down for her to teach me, but I just kind of watched her. And then for a while--I was born in Washington, DC, and for one summer I went with my grandmother in Atlanta, Georgia. And, while I was there, we would go and visit one of my grandmother's older sisters, and I saw what she was doing but I didn't really understand. And what she was doing was making quilts. She had a room that the door always stayed closed. And one day, we went up there and the door was open. And in that room, from floor to ceiling was clothes. You know, people would give her old clothes and she would cut up the old clothes and make quilts. But I don't think I was old enough to really ask her to explain what she was doing. And I watched her.

ES: Do you know what she did with the quilts that she had made?

SH: She gave them to relatives. I had one, but I think my sister ended up with it. She won't admit it, but I think she had that quilt. It was just made from old clothes. I started in high school making garments, so I have garment sewn for years. I had an interest in quilting and when I retired, I signed up for a photo transfer class to make a quilt. I was going to make a quilt for my grandkids. I went to that class with my sewing knowledge and me and the instructor butt heads. I was not understanding what she was talking about, this quarter of an inch. All these years I had sewn and if you get somewhere close to 5/8 of an inch, I mean, it worked. She could not explain to me what this quarter inch was. So, we butt heads until I got that quilt almost together and it was a mess. So then it clicked, it finally clicked. I had to do all this unsewing to get it to lay flat and so I said, 'Well, I need a class. I need to take a class before I do anything else.' So I signed up at a local quilt shop in August or September, of, I can't remember now, maybe 2004. And between August or September and March of 2005, I had over a hundred hours of quilt classes. I wanted to learn everything, everything, hand piecing, appliqué, all of it, whole cloth, Baltimore Album.

ES: You went at it hammer and tongs.

SH: [laughs.] I had to understand as much of it as I could because I had so many questions. So after I finished that it gives you a working knowledge of the art.

ES: For you to produce this quilt so early in your quilting stage, you definitely had an understanding already.

SH: I had a really good teacher because it was hand piecing and hand appliqué. She was very strict about that.

ES: Was that, did you say, after you retired?

SH: Yes.

ES: What did you do before retirement?

SH: I was an accountant for a government agency, USDA.

ES: How many years did you do that?

SH: Thirty-six and a half years. [laughs.] Well, not all of those years. I started out as a licensed practical nurse. And I worked in that field for five years and the place that I was working at, they were beginning to close down. So I had to make a choice as to whether I was going to continue in nursing or choose another field. At that agency, I had worked with children. Children came to us that were homeless or abused or anything. The nurses worked with the children from six months to three years old and in seeing a lot of what I saw, I didn't have the stamina to go back into working in the hospital. I had lost my ability to handle that type of stuff. So I started taking an accounting course and I changed my field. And then I started in '71 working in accounting.

ES: Very good. And during that time you were raising a family as well?

SH: Yes, I had one daughter.

ES: And now you have grandchildren?

SH: Yes. I have twin grandbabies.

ES: Oh, nice.

SH: A girl and a boy.

ES: Have you made them quilts already?

SH: No. I have something I'm going to do. I made the one quilt that had their infant pictures on it and their birth certificate and their christening certificate, and things like that. But I had crocheted them blankets that I made for them. I haven't made them any quilts, yet.

ES: When did you get started with the Daughters of Dorcas?

SH: Oh. That's another story. I've read a lot of quilt books and the Daughters of Dorcas name just kept coming up, kept coming up. Going back to when I was taking quilt classes, on my last class at this quilt shop I was on my way out the door, and this flyer was real bright and I picked it up on my way out. And it was this lady having a retreat. She had a well-known quilt artist. A [contemporary.] folk artist, Rachel Clark, was coming here. And I called her to see if I could get in to it and she had a space. And I had asked her, because I had been asking everybody, 'Do you know where the Daughters of Dorcas are?' 'Oh, they're in Washington, DC.' Well, okay. 'Where, in Washington, DC?' So when I called this girl I asked her, 'Have you heard of the Daughters of Dorcas?' She said, 'Oh, yeah. They are in Washington.' I said, 'I know that, but does anybody know where they are?' No. So I went to the retreat and I met a lot of lovely people, because at that point I did not belong to any organization. So I went to this retreat and I met some wonderful ladies and they invited me to join Uhuru Quilters Guild, based in Maryland. So I joined that group and any chance I got, I asked, 'Does anybody know where Daughters of Dorcas are?' 'Yeah, they're in Washington, DC.' Okay. So one day I was sitting there and there were some ladies standing behind me and they were talking. And they were talking about some activity at the Daughters of Dorcas. And so when they finished talking, I said, 'Excuse me. I'm not meaning to eavesdrop on your conversation, but do you all know anything about the Daughters of Dorcas?' [laughs.] And so the ladies said, 'Yes. We're members. Thank you.' So she said, 'Wait till my mother comes back and she'll give you all the details.' That was Maria and Sarajane Goodwin. So they gave me the details about how to come here at Daughters of Dorcas. I can't remember the year that I joined. It had to be like 2006, somewhere around there. But I had been looking for them ever since I started reading different books and they talked about Mrs. Canady and her stained glass. I really wanted to learn stained glass.

ES: Did you get here in time to learn that?

SH: Yes, I met her and, oh, she was such a beautiful person. And she just wrapped her arms around me and I just appreciated that. I'm glad I did get here in time to really know her.

ES: And did you make some stained glass wall hanging?

SH: Yes. Well, I had a rather embarrassing moment with the stained glass, because--She took it all in stride. I took a class at the Sports and Learning Center in Maryland and this lady had this stained glass pattern. So she was selling us the fabric and the kit and everything. I worked on that. It was somewhat crude, but I worked on it. But that was before my quilting class. So, anyway, when I came here to Dorcas, Mrs. Canady asked me to bring some of my work in. So, I said, 'Okay'. I brought in my stuff. I was so proud of my little butterfly. [laughs.] I went over there and I laid all my stuff out and she looked at my butterfly, and she said, 'Sweetie, where did you get this from?' [laughs.] So I told her where I got it from and so she said, 'Did you know this is my pattern?'

ES: Ohhh.

SH: And I went, 'What?' I said, 'No, I didn't.' So I told her where I got it from. Another lady came up and said, 'Oh, Mrs. Canady, there's your butterfly!' [laughs.] So she took it in stride. I thought, 'How come I did not know that?' But she was so generous with her patterns that she brought them all in and shared them with us all. She told us the right way to trace them and everything. She was so generous with what she knew.

ES: Absolutely. I wonder how that other woman had the right to use her pattern?

SH: She didn't have it. [laughs.]

ES: Did you have any other early contact with quilts or quilters? You mentioned your grandmother's sister.

SH: No. That was it. Because she sewed and like I said, my mother sewed dresses but nobody else in my family did any type of crafts.

ES: But somehow the seed was sown, because even after a while, you still wanted to do it.

SH: Well, I like making stuff different. You could easily go and buy items, but I like to have something different.

ES: Very good. What is your favorite aspect of quilting?

SH: I like the handwork. I like the piecing and am just beginning to enjoy the quilting part.

ES: Do you do it by machine or by hand?

SH: By machine. I want to get back to hand quilting, because it is so relaxing, but when you do it by machine, it's much quicker. You see on this one, I did it on my home machine, but now I do it on a long arm. [quilting machine.]

ES: Oh, do you have a long arm?

SH: No. A friend of mine has a quilt shop and I do her long arm for her.

ES: Great. How did you learn that? Just by doing it?

SH: Yes, I did it by doing it. I went with her to Utah last year. We went to headquarters and we had some training there.

ES: What sort of things do you do, this laser--

SH: Yeah. The pantograph. You do that from the back of the machine. You lay out the pattern and the laser light, you follow the light over the pattern.

ES: Do you find that you get mesmerized by the thing. Does it bother you after a while of doing that? How many hours can you do it without stopping?

SH: Well, I don't know because I don't quilt that intense. I quilt a while and then I stop. And the light, you don't really look directly at the light, you kind of look ahead of it. And you get better with that the more you do it, because it increases your hand and eye coordination. And that's what you need is hand and eye coordination.

ES: And you do an overall pattern or do you customize each thing?

SH: I haven't got to custom yet. I do it all over free hand.

ES: And do you do this every week? Is it part of your job?

SH: No. Whenever she gets some in, then I'll do it.

ES: And do you work other hours besides that?

SH: No.

ES: Just that job.

SH: Yes.

ES: That is wonderful to learn how to do that. And you can do your own quilts thereby.

SH: Yes. I do the training. I train people how to use the machine and then they in turn can rent the machine.

ES: And they rent it on the premises?

SH: Yes. It's huge and it's on like a twelve foot, fourteen foot table. I think her table is twelve feet. [talking in background.]

ES: When you think about hand quilting versus machine quilting, do you have a preference?

SH: No. I like them equally as well. The only thing with machine quilting, you can get your quilt done faster.

ES: The difference is not that much?

SH: I like both of them.

ES: In looking at your quilt here, at first I wasn't sure if it was even hand done.

SH: The appliqué is.

ES: I mean the quilting, the stippling, because it is very nice.

SH: It is machine.

ES: At first I wondered if it were by hand. It's very nice.

SH: I wasn't going to do the silhouette, but when I quilted the rest of it, this kind of like fell away from the quilt. So I had to go back and quilt it.

ES: Do you like to design your own patterns? You dreamed this.

SH: This is the only one. [laughs.] I have not come up with anything else. And that's why this one is so special to me, because I never have been one to come up with an idea. If I see something, I can either replicate it or change it. You know, once I see it. But, I'm not one of those people that can just draw something and put something together originally. I never have been able to do that. So that's why this quilt is so special to me.

ES: Do you use traditional patterns then most of the time?

SH: Uh-hum.

ES: What are your favorites? Or what have you worked on?

SH: Right now, I've gone into another angle, which is embroidery, because as a child, I never could get embroidery. I learned to crochet and knit as a child, but embroidery I could not get. So, I got back to embroidery and making with quilts with embroidery in it. But my love is appliqué.

ES: And what are some of the things that you have done?

SH: I'm working on a quilt that's called Blue Willow. It's a replica--you remember the Blue Willow dishes, long ago? I used to eat my oatmeal out of Blue Willow when I was a child. So, it's a quilt that's Blue Willow. I have on my agenda to do a Jacobean [appliqué.] and I love Baltimore Album. I've done a couple of blocks of Baltimore Album.

ES: For whom do you make quilts?

SH: I haven't made any quilts. [laughs.] I have all of my quilts that I have made. I want to do some quilts for people, but I haven't got there yet.

ES: You are doing so well at the beginning stages as you are. You are already advanced in your techniques.

SH: Thank you.

ES: Have you ever entered any shows?

SH: No. I've had my quilts hung like at the Dorcas show. You know, it doesn't have to be judged. After this judge thing, I decided--

ES: Somehow, I remember having seen this, maybe at the Sumner School.

SH: Yeah. But juried shows, no. I have a problem right now of my quilts being judged.

ES: You say that your favorite thing right now is appliqué. What is your least favorite thing?

SH: Squaring the quilt up. [laughs.] Squaring that quilt up. I hate that because there is no room for error at that point.

ES: Do you keep track of what you've done?

SH: Yes.

ES: Have you done any teaching or helping other people?

SH: Yes. At her quilt shop, I teach a beginning quilting class. Right now, we're running it as a Block of the Month.

ES: Oh, good. So, you instruct each month what they're supposed to do?

SH: Yes. They have the whole list of blocks that we are going to do for each month. And that way, as a beginning quilter you can learn. It's on machine, though. It's not hand piecing. You don't have a lot of people that want to do hand piecing. But they learn the quarter inch. We use the rotary cutter: all of those basic things and to get into curved piecing and all of those different things that you use.

ES: Do you enjoy teaching?

SH: Yes, I do.

ES: Do you have people that are older learners or some young?

SH: Both.

ES: And where is this store?

SH: It's in Capital Heights, Maryland. It's the Fabric Peddler.

ES: How has quilting had meaning for the American woman?

SH: Myself or American women?

ES: In general, and yourself.

SH: I think it unleashes your creative side. We don't make quilts now for utilitarian reasons, like we have to have bedcovers or anything like that. I think it's just the outlet. It's an escape. Your day-to-day drudgery is what you have to do and then you can run away to your pieced blocks and just enjoy what you're doing. I think it's an outlet. And some people, it puts balance back in their lives. All of the hectic stuff that goes on that you can come and sit down and calmly--even if you just go in your stash and just see a fabric, it's relaxing. Sometimes I go to the shop and just touch fabric. It just feels good. And you slip away when you get involved in enjoying the designs, the colors. That's the way that I see that it will help.

ES: Very nice. Do you have advice for beginning students?

SH: For beginning students it is so important and you save yourself a lot of grief and wasting of fabrics by taking a good quilt class. You need a good quilt class. You need an instructor that will give you the basics. That's the most important thing.

ES: When you come to Daughters of Dorcas, how do you feel about it?

SH: I enjoy this group because there's no confusion. If you come in here with a problem with your quilt, they're always willing to help you. If it is a technique that you want to know, there's somebody here that can do that. I just enjoy it.

ES: You say that you grew up here in Washington?

SH: For about five years, I went to live in Atlanta with my aunt, and then I came back. Right now, I live in Maryland, but I consider it Washington. [laughs.]

ES: It's all one. I guess you have mentioned your stash. I'm sure you have one.

SH: Oh. My stash is unreal. I'm in the process of trying to organize everything. I don't know what happened because I haven't been quilting that long to have as much fabric as I have. It's horrible. And I have bins of fabric that at this point I don't even know what's in them. I got to the point in the basement I could not move around so I had to rent me a storage unit. [laughs.]

ES: Oh, my.

SH: So now, what I'm doing, is going through the bins and cutting off a snip of fabric and putting it on a piece of paper in a notebook and numbering the bins, so that when I take it to the storage unit, I know what's up there. But I still have bins that I haven't got to yet. And I haven't been quilting that long. So, I have to decide that I'm not going to buy more fabric. And when I see a piece that I just can't live without, I ask myself that question, 'Where am I going to put it?' And that stops me from buying. So, I've got to use this fabric that I already have. And it's a lot of people with the same problem. [laughs.]

ES: Oh, yes.

SH: But I need to get better organized.

ES: It looks like you've got a new start. That idea about inventorying and using little snippets; that's a good idea.

SH: Yeah. Because this year I decided, I looked at my quilts and I realized that it has been a couple of years since I've finished a quilt. So, I have all these unfinished projects. So, I started in January getting those bags and opening them up and finishing the projects. I finished about five or six tops, so I have them with the backing and everything ready to be quilted. And one particular quilt that I made, I was trying to figure out what was I going to put on the back. And I went through my little notebook and in one of the bins I had the backing for that quilt. I wrote on the thing, backing for this particular quilt. And I don't remember buying the fabric. So, it has helped me very much.

ES: Do you have a sewing space?

SH: Yes. But it's a mess.

ES: It's hard to keep up with it all.

SH: Yeah.

ES: Quilting has given you a lot of joy.

SH: It has. It really has. I really enjoy it. And I like seeing other people's things. I enjoy going to quilt shows. Some people's work is just amazing.

ES: It has been very nice talking with you today.

SH: This has been really nice. And I thank you for asking me.

ES: You are very welcome.

End time: 10:20 a.m.


“Shirley T. Hodge,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 4, 2023,