Nell Denman Smith




Nell Denman Smith




Nell Denman Smith


Teresa Tompkins Walsh

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Houston, TX


Heather Gibson


Theresa Tompkins Walsh (TW): My name is Theresa Tompkins Walsh. Today is October 22, 1999 and I'm conducting an interview with Nell Denman Smith for the quilt oral history project in Houston, Texas. Now the first thing we want to do is take out your quilt. This is wonderful. Okay, can you tell me about this quilt? Why you selected this one to bring?

Nell Denman Smith (NS): Well, when I first began to read about the Bargello quilt I was rather interested in the technique. I've been a member of the Embroiderer's Guild of America and I've done Bargello embroidery. So it was interesting to me from that standpoint. When I read Marilyn Doheny's book about it I decided it was something that I wanted to do, and some friends encouraged me. They wanted me to teach it. I said, 'Well I'll have to learn first.' So that's how I got into it.

TW: Okay, so is there anything behind this selection of colors?

NS: Not particularly. It's one of the few quilts that I've ever made that my husband really liked. He's an engineer and the technique fascinated him so he couldn't remember the name of it and he called it "Barcelona" instead of Bargello. But oddly enough when I've exhibited it I've had people come up to me and say it's just the perfect colors for Barcelona.

TW: Okay, wonderful. So how do you use this quilt? NS: I don't use it on the wall all the time. I have exhibited in several different places and I won an award for "excellence in piecing" in one show for it.

TW: Do you have any plans for this particular quilt?

NS: None in the future that I'm aware of.

TW: How did you get started in quilting? What piqued your interest?

NS: When I was in high school my mother insisted that I take homemaking. And strangely enough I fell in love with the sewing part of home-making and decided to major in home economics in college. And then I have taught sewing for a number of years. And from there I developed an interest in quiltmaking. My sister, Golda Griffin, encouraged me to get into quiltmaking, actually. At that time I was not too interested in it, but eventually my interest shifted from sewing garments to quilts.

TW: So you learned as a result of knowing how to sew. Did you have anybody in particular who taught you how to quilt? Or did you sort of explore that on your own?

NS: Well I've taken a lot of classes. And I guess from books and this sort of thing and classes that I've taken. I can't think of one particular teacher that has been instrumental.

TW: Do you have any earlier first memories of a quilt?

NS: Yes, I have two grandmothers,' Grandmother Denman and Grandmother Hogan and a great-grandmother McDaniel who were all quilters. I do remember as a child going to my great-grandmother's house, this would be my mother's grandmother, and looking at her quilting frame on the screened-in porch when she was not using it. So I do have that memory. My mother never did any kind of hand work or quilting, but there were quilters on both sides of my family.

TW: What portion of your time do you spend quilting?

NS: Well, it really is a little hard to say because I teach quilting and I am an AQS [American Quilt Society.] certified appraiser. I appraise and I travel and I do a lot of different things. I quilt every chance I can, whenever that comes along.

TW: So in terms of quilt-related activities, you've just described several different activities. Do you have any others? Are your social groups formed around quilting?

NS: To a certain extent. I belong to several quilt guilds. I belong to the Odessa Texas Quilt Guild. I belong to the Midland Texas Quilt Guild. Of course I belong to AQS. I also belong to AQSG. [American Quilt Study Group.] So I do have a lot of friends that are connected with quilting.

TW: So what is about quilting that pleases you the most or is the most enjoyable to you?

NS: Well I love to pick out the fabrics and the colors. It's really interesting and I think that's one reason I do more wall quilts than bed quilts, because I like to do the colors and the design. That fascinates me. And I love the fabrics.

TW: So as you're beginning to visualize a quilt, what come first- the fabric or the design?

NS: I think the design comes first, and then I have to find the fabrics to go with it.

TW: I see.

NS: I'm not a dyer. I do buy some hand-dyes, but I don't dye. I love to shop for fabrics.

TW: And what about quilting do you not like? Your least favorite part?

NS: If I'm going to hand quilt, I guess I'm not real eager to do the basting. Other than that I like it all. [laughs.]

TW: Now, what's more important to you? When you're working on a quilt you are having the experience of working on a quilt. That's the process. But then you produce this quilt, so then you have this product. Something that you can use or display. Which is more valuable to you, the process or the product?

NS: Probably the process, although I enjoy the products too. But I have several that I don't display all the time. I enjoy the different techniques. Every quilt I make I try to use a little different technique that I've not done before so each one is a learning process to a certain extent.

TW: How do you use quilts in your home? Or do you?

NS: Yes I do. I have several on the walls.

TW: But you only use them on the walls? You use them for display?

NS: I really don't do bed quilts. I have done one kind-size quilt. I use them on the walls.

TW: Okay, so you use them for display. What do you think makes a really great quilt? Are there some qualities that make a great quilt?

NS: The first things I think that makes a really great quilt are design and color. Of course, if you have a good design and you have good use of color, you've got to have the workmanship to support it. But workmanship alone won't make a great quilt.

TW: So try to take that idea a little further. What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

NS: Design and color. [laughs.]

TW: So then going along the same lines, what make a great quilter?

NS: Well, I think the women coming into quilting with an art background have a real advantage. However, sometimes they're the one who don't have the sewing skills to support their design ideas. So it takes a combination of the whole thing.

TW: And do you think that, given the example of someone who studied art, can they learn the sewing skills or is that a natural talent?

NS: Oh no, they can learn the sewing skills. But sometimes they may not have the patience to learn the sewing skills because they have these terrific design ideas pouring forth and they sometimes don't want to go back and learn the sewing skills, I think.

TW: Do you know women like that? What do they do? In other words, you have somebody who has a design idea but they don't have the sewing skills. Have you been exposed to community projects?

NS: Well I'm a certified judge through The Embroiderers' Guild of America. Quilting is a type of needlework done with a threaded needle. And I see quilts in judging that have terrific design ideas and terrific use of color, but the sewing or the workmanship doesn't really support it as well as it could. And of course you find the other way too. You can find some terrific workmanship that doesn't have good use of design and color.

TW: So how does a quilter learn to put it all together?

NS: Trying and trying and trying. [laughs.]

TW: And how long have you been quilting?

NS: I made my first little quilted pillow in about 1975, and then we moved overseas. I didn't do any quilting for a number of years. And then I gradually got into quilting. So I've been involved since that time, but not totally involved as I have been the last, few years especially since 1990.

TW: And how long did it take you to finish this quilt?

NS: Three or four months working on it when I had the time. It's all machine work.

TW: Oh it is, okay. So the quilting is machine as well?

NS: Yes.

TW: And all the little squares are sewn together by machine?

NS: Totally machine done.

TW: Do you have a philosophy about that in terms of hand work versus machine work?

NS: I really love both. As I said, when I learned to sew I thought my machine was wonderful and I love to do machine work. And I love my sewing machine. But I teach a lot of hand work and I like the hand work, too. Handwork is portable and a little more sociable. With machine work you're pretty much home by yourself with the sewing machine.

TW: So you do both?

NS: I do both.

TW: Could you explain why quilting is important to your life?

NS: I think it's a creative process. It's an outlet. It's an expression of a person's personality and their interests, I think.

TW: So along those same lines, what does the process of making a quilt do for you?

NS: Well, it's something you get totally engrossed in. And you wake up in the morning thinking about it. And you go to bed at night thinking about it. You think about it off and on all day long. [laughs.] So I guess I'd say it gives a woman something to be interested in and to think about that's not concerned specifically with family, husband, children, associations, this sort of thing.

TW: Well then going along that line, how does your involvement in quilting affect your family?

NS: My children are grown now, and they're interested in it. I did not do so much when they were at home, but I did much sewing, especially for my daughter. It was when I didn't need to make the clothes anymore that I got into quilting I guess.

TW: So is there a sense in your home that quilting takes over everything?

NS: Well my husband thinks so. [laughs.] He would say so, yes. He would say it takes first precedence.

TW: Do you think that your quilting in general, or maybe you could be specific about this quilt, reflects your community or your region in any way?

NS: How do you mean?

TW: We don't have to restrict this to this question. If someone in the future mounted one of your quilts at a show and said, 'This is a quilt from Odessa.' Would it somehow reflect what Odessa is?

NS: Probably not. Now I do have a quilt in the International Quilt Association Judged Show this year, and it goes back to childhood for me. I grew up in the Dallas, Texas area. It sort of reflects some memories of my childhood, but I've only lived in West Texas since I've been married and that's been off and on. So I don't know that there's been any regional influence.

TW: Well then thinking historically in general in terms of the history of quilting, what do you think that history means, or what has quilting meant to women over time in this country in particular?

NS: Oh I think it's been very influential as far as women historically. I think it has given women, at some period of time, some beauty in their lives. And they've done some amazing things with very little tools or equipment or good light, any of those things. And I think that's the reason that quilting has carried through generation after generation. Because it adds something to women's lives, an element of beauty. Perhaps it was missing. And they could take scraps without a great deal of expenditure of money, and create something of beauty for their home. A useful item.

TW: So again looking from that historical perspective, how do you think that quilts can be used? We talked about how you use your quilts, which is for display. But in general how can they be used.

NS: Well of course, they've always been on beds. And I think that's probably what most people think of when they think of quilts, bed quilts. They can be used for display in various ways, but I suspect a major way, historically, that they've been used is on beds. And usually from just a practical standpoint to keep people warm in the winter.

TW: Tell me what is going to happen to your quilts?

NS: Well I really don't know. My daughter wants them. Oddly, my son has a great deal of appreciation for them, too.

TW: Do you have any idea what they'll do with them?

NS: No idea.

TW: Connected to that, what do you think can be done or what is a way that we can preserve quilts?

NS: Well the biggest enemy of textiles is always light. So if you want to really preserve them, they need to be kept out of light. And they need to be kept away from acid and any wood product or paper product that has acid in it. We see a lot of really old ones that have been preserved, but they have been taken care of. So those are the prime ways, I would say.

TW: So are you saying, perhaps, that a museum collection or a guild or society that has a place to display them or show them would be the best place?

NS: Yes, however, there are a lot of museums that are not really interested in quilts because of the storage problem for them because textiles are difficult for them to keep. Certainly I think the really outstanding ones, or museum quality ones, should be kept there. I guess if all the quilts that have ever been made had been saved. We'd be up to our ears in quilts. So maybe some of them don't need to be saved. I don't know.

TW: Have you given quilts to family members?

NS: I have made one for my daughter, but I don't usually give them away.

TW: And what was the occasion?

NS: Nothing special. She asked for it.

TW: And what has happened to that quilt?

NS: She still has it.

TW: And how does she use it?

NS: She displays it. I have also made a quilt for each of my grandchildren, a baby quilt. My daughter-in-law has saved those very carefully. My daughter has two children now, so I have given those away.

TW: How are they being used?

NS: I don't think they are.

TW: They're tucked away.

NS: I think they are tucked away.

TW: So do you have anything to add about this particular quilt? We talked about it briefly in the beginning, but since you selected it, it's a beautiful work. Is there anything about it that represents you?

NS: Well as I said, my husband really likes it and was kind of fascinated with the process of it. So I put on the label that it's for him. And I guess it's made it a little special. He's an engineer and he's not really keyed in to design and color and he thinks in terms of numbers and this sort of thing. So I was pleased that he liked it and appreciated it.

TW: So this was a quilt that somehow created a connection between what you do in terms of quilting and what he values?

NS: I think so.

TW: Is there anything else that you'd like to add that might be of interest to people who are going to do research on quilts or quilters?

NS: I don't think so.

TW: This is Theresa Tompkins Walsh interviewing Nell Smith on October 22, 1999 and this is the end of the interview.



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