Lela Alcorn




Lela Alcorn


Lela Alcorn learned how to quilt at the age of six from her mother, and now is a quilt teacher herself. She belongs to a guild, and is passionate about the love and the sense of family felt among quilters as a society. To Alcorn quilts are the physical manifestation of a person’s love, and that is one of the reason she thinks it is important to preserve quilts. She believes quilts represent a cultural history that has become more readily recognized, and greater strides should be taken to preserve quilts.




Christine Sparta


Lela Alcorn


Kay Jones

Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Forth Worth, Texas


Kay Jones


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Kay Jones (KJ): This is Kay Jones. Today's date is May 19th, 2002. It is 12:50 p.m. I am conducting an interview with Lela Alcorn for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Fort Worth Texas. Tell us about the quilt that you brought today, Lela.

Lela Alcorn (LA): This quilt is a Wedding Ring quilt and it was made by my grandmother on my mother's side and there were four cousins, myself included, that were all in the same age category. We were all going to graduate within a year or two of each other so my grandmother made all four of us Wedding Ring quilts. But she died in 1959 and didn't get mine quilted for my graduation in 1960 so my mom quilted it, probably in the '70's, because it was after I had gotten married. And she quilted it in the 70's and it's very important because it has all of the family things: it's hand quilted, hand pieced and it has all of the fabrics that were in my family and my aunts' and various others' on my mother's side of the family so there's a lot of fabrics in it that I recognize.

KJ: Could we open it up and look at it a little better?

LA: Um hum.

KJ: Now, what was the time frame again?

LA: My grandmother quilted it before 1959 because she died in 1959 and I had a cousin that graduated in 1959 so I know she made all of these before that time because three of the quilts were quilted. So it could have even been in the early part of the '50's when she finished piecing it. The fabrics were typical of the late '40's and early '50's.

KJ: How do you use this quilt?

LA: Whenever we first got it I used it on the bed. We used it after I got married and then the back started deteriorating very rapidly and it's just pieces that my mother had for the back. She had pieced these together and some of it is really wearing. It's probably pieces of old sheets or just some broadcloth that she had because there is two or three different colors in the same color family but it's two or three different colors and they started splitting so I mended it as best I could and then put it away. And I don't have it displayed because we don't really have a good place for it but one of these days--and I take it out and hug it every once in a while.

KJ: What are your plans for this quilt?

LA: Well, I'm probably going to give it to one of my nieces or nephews. My older brother has seven children and they will probably get it so that it keeps them tied to their roots here in Texas.

KJ: So it was made in Texas?

LA: It's made in Texas, here in Fort Worth.

KJ: Tell me about your interest in quilting.

LA: Well, my interest in quilting started a long time ago and it's become a consuming passion right now, which I didn't say a while ago, but it is. My mother taught me how to quilt, how to piece and I think that it is just something that I have been doing and been interested in. My mother didn't believe in idle hands so I was doing needlework and making quilt blocks and quilting at six I believe.

KJ: So you started at a young age?

LA: Yes, my mother had me at the quilting frames--we had the old quilting frames hanging from the ceiling that my dad made which I forgot about a while ago. And he made the quilting frames and we hung them from the ceiling and I had to stand because I couldn't sit because I was not very tall and I would poke the needle through and pull it and then poke it back through because I could look under and poke it back through. On the quilting frames we had nails that held the frames together so that we could roll the quilt and the quilting frames were always there in the ceiling so it's just something that we grew up with.

KJ: What's your first quilt memory?

LA: My first quilt memory is, well, doing that, but actually making my first quilt blocks which were Dutch Doll which is now called Sunbonnet Sue. Back then my mom called them the Dutch Dolls. So I did Dutch Dolls and I did it all by hand and I did blanket stitch by hand with black embroidery thread and that's my very first quilting memory.

KJ: Do others in your family quilt?

LA: No, my cousin Sheila Mitchell, who was one of the founding members, charter members, of Trinity Valley Quilter's Guild learned from my mother and hopefully maybe one of her daughters will. I'm hoping one of my other nieces, or even a nephew, might later but as of right now I'm it in the family. And that's sad because I would like for this to carry on so I'm trying to inspire some nieces.

KJ: I know that you are active in the Trinity Valley Guild. Tell us about your activities.

LA: Well, I've been on the executive board and I've served on the regular board. I'm going to do programs this next year and I'm on the committee for the donation quilt for 2003 and the hospitality committee, just other various committees. I try to take part as much as I can. It makes it fun. If you contribute more you get more back.

KJ: Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

LA: Yes, I used it whenever my mom passed away. I used it when I had my back surgery and when my husband and I have disagreements [laughs.] I use it to get through difficult times. So those are the difficult times that I've used it in just the last few years.

KJ: How many hours a week do you spend in quilting?

LA: With my handwork, whether it's hand appliqué or embroidery on my blocks or even trying the new techniques with the crayons, that's about two hours a night for say five nights a week And then I usually spend sixteen to twenty hours in my sewing room. I may not always be at the machine but I'm in there doing something with my fabric, or a pattern, or stitching, or pinning and designing one. [tape is stopped for 30 seconds for an announcement by show staff.]

KJ: You teach quilting, don't you, Lela? Tell us about that.

LA: I love teaching quilting. I've taught beginning quilting and I have taught pattern--specific quilts but the greatest joy that I have whenever I teach is what makes it all worth while is whenever you see someone's face when they start putting their quilt together and it goes together and they've got this work of art. It doesn't have to be anything real fancy because they have trusted me to guide them through this to this point and then they have this look that they've created, this beautiful thing, what they think is beautiful. And they take it home and even their husbands will say--I've had one man that I've taught--but even their husbands will say that they like this and it makes them feel so good and gives them a lot of self confidence to be able to create and that is worth more than just about anything so it's very rewarding for me.

KJ: What do you find most pleasing about quilting other than teaching?

LA: I guess the very most is making the quilt tops, creating, choosing the fabrics, pulling it all together. The same thing I have tried to inspire in the students is what makes it special for me. But the hand quilting is very soothing because it is repetitive. With the stitching and everything it's like sitting in a rocking chair and rocking and that's the only way I can describe the pleasure that you get from the hand quilting. But for me the creating, pulling the colors together and seeing what it's going to look like, what that quilt top looks like and then when it's quilted all of that still ties together.

KJ: Is there any aspect of quilting you don't enjoy?

LA: My husband says I've got too much fabric. [laughs.] That's about the only thing I don't like about quilting.

KJ: Tell us about your quilting space, Lela.

LA: Well, it's smaller than what I would like to have but I sure have a lot put in it. I have all these project boxes and I have all my fabrics and I have about nine of the twenty to thirty gallon tubs, nine to ten, full of cat fabric and I hope they don't quit making cat fabric any time soon because I need more. [laughs.] I don't use that very often. I don't use my cat fabric very often and I've got a tub of '30's reproduction. It messes up real quick but it sure cleans up real quick and there is not much space to have to clean up from.

KJ: Do you have an extensive stash other than the cat fabric?

LA: Yes, I do. I've got it in two closets and stacked in my sewing room on shelves and in the project boxes, lots of fabric, yes.

KJ: What do you think makes a great quilt?

LA: For me personally making a great quilt is the love that's sewn into it. Because when I make a quilt for a special person, I think about that person, think about my family, and the love. And the good things that I think about them go with the quilt and I think that they feel this. I think that this is sort of representative of the way that people have felt about making quilts forever because they put a lot of themselves into the quilts. And I do too. I become absorbed by the quilts because I can just totally immerse myself, lose track of time and everything when I'm making a quilt. That's what makes a great quilt. It doesn't have to do with the stitching and it doesn't have to do with whether or not the points all match or anything, but it is what is absorbed while that quilt is being made. Now, what makes a great quilt to hang in a show or to win prizes or something is how pleasing it is to the eye of the people and the technique and the precision and that sort of thing because there are some quilts that appeal to some people and they don't to others. But I think that the greatness of a quilt in this show is going to be, first of all, how pleasing it is eye, then the technical aspect of it which includes how the quilt design enhances the quilt pattern, the color selection. And that's what I think makes a great quilt. I don't think that it has to be 'artiste'. By that I mean I don't think that it has to be all the wild colors or the wild, weird patterns or whatever. You can take a scrappy Log Cabin with a little hand appliqué on it and some very complimentary quilting and you've got a great quilt, prize-winning quilt. I'm sure that those people have put love into their quilt as well because some of them kind of generate that to me. Some quilts are very cold looking to me even though the people have patched a little 'artiste' to it but they're cold because there is no love. You can't feel anything from the quilt.

KJ: So there is a difference between a great quilt and an artistically powerful quilt?

LA: Yes, yes. To me there are a lot of people that I know that are in our guilds that do not make artistically great quilts but they make great quilts because they are made with love and the fulfillment that those people feel and to me that makes a great quilt. I know some people who try to make great, artistic quilts and they never finish them. So to me a great quilt might, maybe, be an unfinished quilt. [laughs.]

KJ: It certainly could. What makes a great quilter?

LA: That's a hard question because I think that quilters belong to a special family. That's the way I feel about my 'buds' and my bees and my guild members because I love going to the meetings. They're like family. I have an older sister and I love my older sister but we don't communicate and I feel closer to my quilting family. These people have a characteristic trait that, I don't know. It's a personality and it's a characteristic trait that these people kind of envelope you like a quilt does. I mean they can put their arms around you and give you comfort like a quilt does whenever you wrap up in a quilt. Sitting here thinking about that I really think that's true. That's a characteristic and they stick together. You may have a disagreement but they're going to stick beside you whenever push comes to shove. I really believe that and they're a family. And I know that that's the way my grandmothers were and my mother. They just had that quality to make you feel like you were just--

KJ: So you would describe the character trait as--

LA: I don't quite know how to describe it. I don't think that any one word or two words can describe it. It's just they make you feel the same way that a quilt makes you feel: secure, loved, warm. And when a quilt is torn it's mended and that's the same way with a quilting relationship. If you get mad at somebody it still is mended and you still go on and it can still give you the love. I know that's kind of a dumb analogy but I think that that describes it because it's a hard thing to describe. It is. It really is.

KJ: I like that description. Moving to a different point of view, how do you feel about machine versus hand quilting?

LA: Well, hand quilting is time consuming for me and because there is not much time left on this earth for any of us, I feel like there is only special people that are going to get anything hand quilted from me. But I make a lot of gifts for relatives and I have them machine quilted so that they can feel like they can use them and wrap up in them. Now, if they choose to do that, to save them for their children or grandchildren or whatever, that is their choice but by having them machine quilted I can make more for all the nieces and nephews. I couldn't do that. I'd be making more quilt tops and they would have to do it and there are so many of the quilt tops that are lost now days because nobody knows how to put them together. So machine quilting is fine for certain things. Hand quilting is great and you have to determine what the use is going to be and how long you are going to live to make more quilts. [laughs.]

KJ: Do you have an estimate of how many quilts you may have made?

LA: I don't really because I have worked in quilt shops and I have made quilts for customers at the quilt shops. I have had customers that I have made quilts for and I have no notes made. My husband tells me we have too many quilts around the house now. I get very attached to a quilt. I made a quilt for a great nephew for his wedding and it turned out I fell in love with the quilt as I was making it and it's going to be very difficult for me to give the quilt up. But it usually is. It's hard for me to give up quilts that I make.

KJ: I think we have touched on it, Lela, but why is quilting important in your life?

LA: Well, first of all, I think that quilting and other needlework is kind of a genetic thing for us getting started so early and my mother always doing something, needlecraft type things. Even whenever she started losing her eyesight, she still had something she did with her hands. It fills a place in my life. It gives me a chance to create. It puts me with a wonderful group of people. I don't know. It really is becoming a passion, it really is. My cats, my husband, my bicycling and my quilting: that describes my life, right there.

KJ: That's it. [laughs.]

LA: That's it.

KJ: Do you think that quilts reflect the region of the maker? Are quilts in Texas different from quilts in other places?

LA: I think that it does. I think that not necessarily patterns but I think fabric choices. I think if you go to the south, the Deep South, you are going to find a lot of different types of fabric in the Deep South because of the African American influence. You are going to find a lot of different fabrics there. You are going to find a lot of different fabrics whenever you get out into the wide open spaces in Wyoming. And I think that fabric choice probably makes a difference in those. You are going to take the same pattern but that's particularly true, I think now days where you can find so many different kinds of cottons. Back a long time ago it came from clothing and I think that that was regional in the clothing because of the hours of sunlight if nothing else bleaching out fabrics and that sort of thing.

KJ: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

LA: I think it's very, very valuable. I'm a history buff and preserving the quilt stories--I love reading the books telling about the women who have made it and the crazes, if you will, the Crazy Patch, the Red Work that got started, all of the patterns that were printed in the paper, the Kansas Star and all of this. And I think that each one of those reflects some of the things that were going on in our country and I know that even the Log Cabin pattern, which is one of my favorites, played a part in the history of this country and the Underground Railroad. And some of the quilt patterns played a part in presidential campaigns. So I think that quilts are intertwined with the history of this country from the get go, before we were ever really a country.

KJ: How do you see quilts in general being used?

LA: On the level for most of the quilts that I do are to be used and to surround the people with what I put into them. Every now and then there is a quilt that I want to have saved because it represents roots. I put together some blocks that my mother embroidered before she started losing her sight and I want this quilt to not be used. I want it to be tied to the roots for the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and my mother. So I think there are a few that should be preserved. There are some that are in the Smithsonian. I think there are people that are really trying to do that because they get the old tops and they preserve them. I've seen some of these quilts in the state museums and they're in plastic bags, they're just in old glass cases and the dust is eating the fabric up and they are beautiful quilts and someone thought they would be preserved in some of these little back woods museums and they're not. They're deteriorating very rapidly. We go to a lot of the old forts and some of these quilts are not being preserved at all by Texas Parks and Wildlife and I don't know if it's a lack of knowledge, a lack of funds, or what. But it's a shame.

KJ: That concerns you?

LA: Yeah, it's really a shame. I see that and it kind of breaks my heart.

KJ: How do you think quilts should be preserved for the future?

LA: If a person has the place and the climate to display the quilt then that's a great way to do it. But I think that for the most part that having it properly cared for and stored and brought out sort of like snapshots to keep people acquainted because you pull out snapshots to relive and to get acquainted with past generations. And I think that that can help the same thing with a quilt. That keeps the family acquainted with past generations and who wore what and what the fabric was like and what happened with this one, and tell these stories, the folk lore that keeps the family tree going. And I think that all those stories can come from a quilt top and the fabric in it and how it was made, how it came down to this person.

KJ: We've reached the end of the formal questions, Lela. Is there anything you would like to mention that we haven't touched on?

LA: No, really I think I have kind of talked your arm off. I just hope that I can inspire people in my family to learn to quilt, to continue quilting so that it's not lost in future generations. It would be a shame if it ended with me and that's part of the reason that I wanted to do this interview. So that if it does accidentally end with me in our particular family, somewhere someone will come up and continue, and pick up the threads which is not a bad analogy, to pick up the threads, for a quilter.

KJ: Well, I 'd like to thank Lela Alcorn for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 2002 Quilters' S.O.S. – Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 1:21 p.m.


“Lela Alcorn,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/11.