Kathleen McCrady




Kathleen McCrady




Kathleen McCrady


Karen Dennis

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Houston, TX


Heather Gibson


Karen Dennis (KD): My name is Karen Dennis. It's October 22, 1999. It is 4:00 and we're starting the interview today with Kathleen McCrady. Would you like to tell me a little bit about the quilt that you brought with you today?

Kathleen McCrady (KM): Basically I'm a traditional quiltmaker. The center of this quilt was taken from one that was made in about 1800, and the quilt actually resides in the Long Island Historical Museum. I had a picture of it, a black and white picture. It had an intricate six-pointed star center that's actually a star within a star 3 times. It had a different border than I put on this one. I didn't have any intentions of trying to do that. It sat on my worktable for a long time, and the more I thought about it I thought, 'Well if a woman in the early 1800s could draft this and piece it, surely I could.' So little by little I decided I'd draft this. I began to collect this grouping of fabrics in turquoise and reds and beiges and pinks and what not. My idea was to do this for the center and do many borders around, pieced borders like the 1800 quilt. So there were a lot of things to be worked out when you get to that. It was not worked out from the beginning to the end. It was worked out as it went. It's been in a lot of shows, and it's traveled many miles, and it has won a few ribbons along the way. I've had many things happen as a result of the quilt.

KD: So it has special meaning. Did you use this quilt in teaching?

KM: I did for a long time. I taught quiltmaking for about twelve or thirteen years. I taught beginning quiltmaking a lot, workshops in other areas some, did programs, judged quilts. I'm a certified appraiser with the American Quilters Society. I did take this quilt with me many times to programs. It has kind of retired with me.

KD: Your plans are to keep this quilt in your own possession?

KM: I had an offer from a museum that wanted me to donate it. I thought long and hard about it because I though that was a real privilege to have it in a museum. However, it was not in Texas. Then I thought maybe they would consider a loan. They cannot show all their quilts that they have all at one time anyway. I knew it would be in storage part of the time. I thought maybe they would like to have it for five or six years and then I'd get it back. At about that time I started to do some things that I would need it. My family would not have been very happy with me. They wouldn't even have considered letting it go.

KD: Do you have family members that are interested in keeping your quilts as their heritage?

KM: I have four children and nine grandchildren and soon eleven great-grandchildren. I've sold a few quilts along the way. I don't make them to sell, but I've done that a little. When I talked about trying to do something with them, they all put up such a fuss. Usually we work out where it's going to go and I keep a record of all my quilts. I document them all and where they are to go and who is to get them and all of that.

KD: So you plan to keep everything within the family?

KM: We hope so.

KD: Possibly a museum if it's in Texas. How about your own interest in quilting? Can you tell me when you actually started?

KM: I grew up in a quiltmaking family. I married into a quiltmaking family. I began to use my hands when I was, oh, five or six years old with a needle. In fact, I have a piece of embroidery work that I did when I was about five or six years old. My interest in quiltmaking didn't come until I was probably a teenager in high school. I learned to quilt from utility quilts. I grew up in the Depression era when quilts were made for cover. We didn't have pretty quilts like this. We made quilts to sleep under and to use. I learned to quilt, actually, when I was a teenager. I didn't do very good, but I did learn. I didn't really start making quilts until after I married and had children. We were given quilt tops when we married. I quilted those. I mended clothes for my family. I sewed for my children and myself. You create this scrap bag. If you grew up in the Depression, you didn't throw them away. In the late 1940s, early 1950s I began to do a great deal of quilting, and did for a long time. Then I got away from it and learned to knit and all those crafts. I've been back since the 1970s, quilting being the top thing that I do.

KD: With the fabrics that you had kept from clothing and things like that, did you make specific quilts for specific people because of the scraps you were using?

KM: I made each one of my children a quilt out of scraps from clothes they had. Actually, my two boys had interchangeable fabrics because one of them was the one that got clothes handed down to him. He wore shirts from the older boy. I made a quilt for my girls out of fabrics from their clothes. To keep busy hands, with all my kids, my boys included, we did a state bird quilt. We all embroidered the blocks. Of course, my boys never did much sewing. I only have one daughter that took to sewing. The youngest daughter is a musician and she likes counted cross-stitch, but quilting is not her cup of tea. My oldest daughter didn't quilt any until she was fifty years old. She decided she wanted to learn to quilt. She'd been around them all her life and never sat down at the frame with me. I never did really think to teach her at the time when she was young. Anyway, after I quit teaching and began quiltmaking, she wanted to know when my next class was because she wanted to take it. [laughter.] So we did a one-on-one for a while. She had learned to sew. Of all the students I've had, I've never had a student--When she started quilting it was like she'd been quilting for a long time. I commented about that. She said, 'You don't understand, I've been quilting all my life.' She means that she's been around it all her life. She's won a ribbon or two and that makes momma proud.

KD: Very much. Your connection with quilting then has been with teaching. What other aspects of quilting have you been involved with?

KM: Well, I've done judging. I decided in about 1982 or 1983 that I would try to learn to be an appraiser. There's a woman here in Houston who was an appraiser at the time. She had done some workshops for our guild. I asked her to help me. So I worked with her a few times and did a little bit of one-on-one. Then, of course, the appraisers program in Paducah came about and I went there in 1989 and was certified. I had been appraising for about five years by that time. The Texas Sesquicentennial Quilt Association, which Nancy [O'Bryant.] and Karey [Bresanhan.] were a part of, I worked with them when we had the exhibit in Austin, the state capital. A year previous to that, after their quilt search, the quilts that they found that they wanted to use in the exhibit and in the book, they had to have some conservation done on them. They set up a conservation seminar here in Houston with some nationally known people and also our curator from the University of Texas. I got indoctrinated a little bit about the restoration and conservation of quilts through that. Along with that exhibition in Austin, I had a story to tell with my family quilts that not many people are privileged to have. My mother-in-law had quilted for a long time. My mother didn't quilt much after I had a family, but my mother-in-law had some great times together. I thought, 'I have four generations of quiltmaking.' I approached a gallery in Austin. I was mighty brave. It had never had a quilt exhibit and it was a city run facility. Unfortunately, the director of that was a black man who was not quilt-oriented at all. He was not receptive at all. Besides that, I was not a non-profit group. I wasn't a for-profit person individually, but he just didn't give me any encouragement at all. Actually, during the time I wanted to exhibit the space. They didn't have anything scheduled. He took my resume and my slides and whatever I gave him to his board and they accepted my exhibit. We hung about thirty-five pieces at the museum. During the time we had the Texas Sesquicentennial Exhibit in the capital that weekend. My exhibit hung for a month. In that building was part of the administrative offices from the city, so we had a lot of traffic through there. It also had an arts and crafts facility at one side, and we had traffic through there. Little by little, when that exhibit was over, they had more people that attended my exhibit than any other thing they'd had there. It was really my aim that quilting be made known to the public besides honoring my grandmother, my mother, my husband's mother and his grandmother. I had work from all of them down to my youngest granddaughter. From that exhibit, Karey invited me to come here to the festival one year with parts of that exhibit. It traveled to a quilt show in Victoria, Texas. With my family's quilts, I've been able to let people see where I came from and where quilting in our time has come from.

KD: What aspects of quilting do you enjoy yourself?

KM: I enjoy fabrics first. I enjoy the piecing. I do enjoy hand quilting. I do both. I'm losing strength in my hands, so I have to guard that. I guess I enjoy the quilting more than anything. Again, at this age in my life I have to limit that. I used to quilt all day and never stop unless I had to. I just love the quilting.

KD: On your quilt, is this what they call Broderie Perse?

KM: There is a little bit of that in there because this fabric that these roses come from is a large print. They are cut out and appliquéd down. I used the actual leaves in the fabric. There is some Broderie Perse and, of course, appliqué and piecing and borders. There is some stippling over here and the red bows are appliquéd. This series of fabrics that had these roses in it had one really big print. It's right here on the back. Of course, when you cut all that up in a quilt you can't see that. From the beginning I knew that I probably wouldn't use this in the piecing. I used it on the back in a design. I actually put some of these on this border in Broderie Perse as a technique to decorate the back.

KD: The back of your quilt is more beautiful than some quilts are on top. What is it that you think makes a great quilt?

KM: Design work is a big portion of it. Workmanship is very important. Execution of the process makes a great quilt.

KD: Is there anything about quilting you do not enjoy?

KM: I guess the marking of a quilt top is probably the least enjoyable. Figuring out the design, that's a hard part. It's a part I don't like. Once you get that done, the actual marking is so boring. It is very necessary. I sort of do it by time. I do it thirty minutes and quit. I just don't want to do it. I wish it was already marked.

KD: What do you think makes a great quilter?

KM: Oh my, I don't know that I've ever considered what anybody else would be to be a great quilter. I see a lot of people who have done a lot of very unique and different things, yet I don't think any one medium makes a great quilter. I guess if I had an answer to that it would be the same as what I said a while ago about the execution and how it looked and the techniques that they executed well. I guess from a judging standpoint I would look at it like that.

KD: Other than this quilt, can you tell me what you think would be your favorite quilt that you've either made for yourself or seen, or that your family has made?

KM: I don't know that this is the answer that you're looking for, but I have a quilt. I didn't make the quilt. It's one my grandmother made. I think it's really a unique thing that I have it. It's strictly a utility quilt, but it's what we call a friendship quilt. Each block has a name on it. It had two dates on it, 1932. It has my name on it at six years old. I think if I lost that quilt I would really cry. My grandmother had twelve children. She has all twelve of her children named in that quilt, and they are in the order of their birth. We didn't know that for a long time. I had that quilt a long time before I realized that these names had an order to them. It only has three grandchildren's names on it. She had thirty-some grandchildren. My name is on it, so the possibility of that happening is not very great. She had four daughters. Just the fact that my mother ended up with that quilt, but I didn't get it until my mother died in 1972. The fact that I have it is really a unique thing. It's not a well-done quilt. The workmanship is utilitarian, but the emotions I feel about it, I would really hate to lose it.

KD: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum of special collection?

KM: I guess a museum would have their criteria. It wouldn't necessarily have to be the best quilt ever. It could be for a unique technique or workmanship, or excellent workmanship. Most times, I don't think condition would be a problem if it was a real old quilt. I think the museum is taught to save that history regardless of the condition of that quilt if they have the facility to keep it. I guess you'd have to really consider their own criteria.

KD: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or the region where you live? You mentioned that you wouldn't place a quilt in a museum other than in Texas.

KM: My quilts don't necessarily reflect Texas. I grew up in Oklahoma, but I was born in Texas and I live there now. My quilts reflect quilts that have a challenge to meet. Quilts that a lot of people haven't tried to make. At this point in time I try to make something that's not as common. I used to copy whatever pattern was available because I didn't know how to draft a pattern or make templates. We didn't grow up knowing those kinds of things. We just took a newspaper pattern and used brown paper and cut templates and cut it out. The intricate work is challenging to me.

KD: So basically you are self-taught? Did you have classes available?

KM: A great deal, yes, just from being with my mother and mother-in-law. No, I didn't take any workshops to learn to quilt. I quilted and pieced a long time before that was ever available.

KD: Were you aware of other quilters in the community other than your own family?

KM: I left my family's area where I grew up. When I started quilting there was nobody in my age group that I knew that quilted. I simply quilted because I liked fabrics and I liked quilts, and I had this silly thing you are ingrained with not to throw anything away. In fact, when we moved to Austin in the 1960s, I quilted some and I didn't really like to talk to my neighbors about it because people that age in that generation thought I was crazy for cutting up little pieces when we could go the store and buy a blanket. Why do that? I didn't have anybody to share my quilting with until the late 1970s in the Austin Stitchery Guild. I happened to find out about a group of quilters in it. At about the same time our Austin Area Quilt Guild was founded. I found out about that. I thought that I'd died and gone to heaven because I had somebody to talk quilts with.

KD: Is a good share of what you enjoy about quilting the social aspects?

KM: It's sort of what keeps you motivated and gives you support. Of course, I had support from my husband all along because he grew up with quilts. It wasn't any big deal to him. He never hindered me in any way. Just the fact that I could have other bodies that we could give and take and share ideas. And of course I learned from these people. I thought I knew how to quilt. I thought I knew how to do all this. Well, I found out I didn't know anything. I began to come to Houston to take workshops. I just wanted to learn everything I had never done before. I would be so tired when I left here. I began to pace myself as the years went by. I never thought I would teach quiltmaking until our own guild was formed. Very few people really had as much experience time in quilting as I did, as far as actually quilting. I kind of had to learn to teach. I'm just a high school graduate. I worked with the school system a long time in clerical work. I've been around teachers a lot, but I had to learn to do that.

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

KM: I'm amazed that this quilt revival in America has lasted this long. I thought fifteen years would probably be its life. It amazes me all the time that there are, particularly here, people coming from all over the world. That's a wonderful thing. I feel blessed that I've lived long enough to see that. However, there are a lot of people that don't know that quilting is even going on. All the time you'll here, "Oh I didn't know people did that anymore." So I've tried to do a lot of informational things when I can get a word in edgewise. Of course, everybody that knows me knows what I do. I think it's just wonderful to see our younger women picking it up. I just hope it will continue.

KD: Where do you think it will go from here?

KM: I hope it holds its own, at least. The only place I think it can go now is down because I think we've reached the pinnacle. Well, I'm sure there are foreign countries that haven't had it very much. It's worldwide, so it could increase in that realm. It could certainly increase in America, too.

KD: How do you think that quilts can be preserved for the future, the ones that have already been made? How do you think that they should be preserved?

KM: I do a lot of conservation, talking with people and trying to get documentation done. Sign your quilts. Tell your family how to store and keep them, to use them and yet to use them in a way that let's them live as long as they can. In the generation I grew up in, quilts were made to use and they were used up. That can be true today, however, I think we can make quilts for two reasons. I have grandchildren I'm making quilts for and I want them to use them. I don't care if they get used up. That's what they're for. Quilts that have some significance can be kept a long time. I won't live long enough to see how these quilts hold up. So it will be interesting if when my quilt is a hundred years old if it will look as good as some of the hundred-fifty year old quilts we see today. With our modern technology we think they ought to be better, but they may not be.

KD: What projects are you working on right now?

KM: I'm doing some things that are really kind of crazy. The only teaching I'm doing now is I have set up a little quilt history study hall at my home. I have a little classroom in a building in the back that I teach an overview of quilt history from about 1840 to 1970. It's a little four or five hour course. Physically, I can't stand and tote and carry and teach anymore. We have a lot of younger women who don't have quilts or quilt history in their background, so I think it's important for them to know where quilts came from. I've been sort of a packrat in getting and collecting old fabrics, blocks, tops, and quilts. I never really started collecting old quilts because I didn't feel that I had the income to do that for a long time. I'm still limited in doing that, but I have put together fabrics and things that cover all these eras. I do a twenty year span and put it together with what's happened in the United States in that twenty year span, the wars and all that. That's what I'm doing now to promote quilting today. Now I've forgotten your question.

KD: My question was what project are you working on today?

KM: In doing that, the feed sacks have become a collector's item. That's just so amazing to me because I grew up with feed sacks. I wore feed sacks. I made my boys shirts out of feed sacks. I didn't like feed sacks. When nobody else needed their scrap bag of stuff, and a lot of times people would give me feed sacks, here I had all these feed sacks. Ten or fifteen years ago I got my quilting bee together and said, 'Do you all want to make some feed sack quilts?' We made about eighteen quilts out of what I had. I almost got rid of them all. My husband's cousin had been to an auction. She said, 'I got this sack of stuff and she said, 'You can have it if you want.' I didn't know it was feed sacks until she gave it to me. Here I had all these sacks again. [laughter.] Then everybody begins to think these are great. To make a long story short, I used to buy them for fifty cents or a dollar if they weren't given to me. I started buying them a little bit along. When I opened my study hall, we did some remodeling inside the building and put up some wallboards covered with muslin and put indoor-outdoor carpeting on the floor. The only thing that's not done is it's not climate controlled all the time. I have air conditioning and heat, but that's the part that bothers me right now. Anyway, in order to help offset some of these expenses I thought, 'I'll make some little feed sack quilts and let people buy them if they want them.' They were about twenty-four inches. I took orders for those things. I think I made about fifty-five or them. I thought, 'I can't do this anymore. I'm doing this all the time.' I started cutting up feed sacks into six-inch squares and selling the little packets. I'm still doing that some, but I don't buy the feed sacks much unless I can get them at a very reasonable price. That's one of the things that almost made me late. I happened to see some that were reasonable, and that's not done here at this show! I'm working with that. I'm also trying to finish some things that were put back for a while.

KD: Is there anything else that you'd like to tell us to before we wind up our talk here today? This has been very informative and I'm really interested in your project.

KM: The neatest thing that has happened to me since I've been here is that this quilt won first place here in 1990. Then it won a red ribbon in Paducah that year. When I got here this year, I saw Karey one evening and she told me that it was one of the five hundred quilts that were nominated for the best one hundred.

KD: That must give you a great deal of satisfaction.

KM: It really does. We've really appreciated the time with you today. I think we'll conclude our interview now. I thank you so much for being here and helping out.



“Kathleen McCrady,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1217.