Gerry Sweem




Gerry Sweem




Gerry Sweem


Karen Bennick

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Gerry Sweem


Houston, TX


Heather Gibson


Karen Bennick (KB): This is Karen Bennick and I'm interviewing Gerry Sweem at the International Quilt Show. It's October 22, 1999. I'm standing in front of her quilt at this time and I see this beautiful ribbon. It is the "Robert S. Cohen Master Award for Traditional Artistry," sponsored by RJR Fashion Fabrics. She won a five thousand dollar prize. I do think before we start the interview we will go back to the interviewing booth in order to have a more clear quality tape. [tape shut off and restarted.] This is Karen Bennick getting started again talking to Gerry Sweem at the International Quilt Show. The first question we normally ask is, 'Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.' However, I've just seen your quilt hanging there. Can you tell me what inspired you to make this quilt?

Gerry Sween (GS): Yes, I have a great inspiration. This quilt is a replica, or my version, of a quilt owned by the Smithsonian Institute made by two sisters in the 1850s. A friend of mine sent me a Christmas card with the quilt on it and I just loved it. I thought, 'I've got to make that quilt.' She happens to be a graphic designer on the computer. I said, 'You've got to make me a pattern.' She made the pattern which made making the quilt ever so much easier. She's real good at that. That was my inspiration and that's what got me started on this particular quilt.

KB: Did you ever plan it to be in shows like this?

GS: Well, normally when I make a quilt like this I send it to shows.

KB: What other quilting have you done other than this particular quilt? How long have you been quilting?

GS: I started in 1975. I took a class from Sandy Fox who at that point in 1975 said, 'There was no such thing as a sewing machine. You will be doing it by hand and drawing around all the pieces and putting them together.' I believed her and did it for some years. I've made over a hundred quilts. In 1975, I think it was, maybe it was 1985 because I just stayed home and made quilts on my own. I took a class in 1985 from Judy Mathieson and she showed me how to use a rotary cutter. Wow, a new concept. I didn't appliqué at all until I took a class from Ellie Siekiewicz and the world opened up for appliqué. I used to not like appliqué at all.

KB: So you were quilting for quite some time before you actually took classes that opened it up like it has. It has blossomed.

GS: Yes. We used to use sheets. They used to make better sheet fabric than quilt fabric. Then when we'd go to quilt we found that you can't quilt through sheets. The needle doesn't go through so those are little things we learned a long time ago.

KB: What the earliest quilt you can remember? Something in your life that was kind of a focus or starting point of memories.

GS: There were no quilts in my family. None. Absolutely none. I sewed and my mother sewed clothing but not quilts. I always wanted to make a quilt. I thought, 'I can sew squares together.' I just never did until I took that class from Sandy. Nobody in my family quilts or even gets the quilting thing. To them quilts were something you threw away when you could afford to buy blankets. They don't have an appreciation for quilts.

KB: What are your future plans for the quilt that you have here? How can you top this?

GS: I know, I know. This is such an exciting thing. I don't know. I've been walking through the show thinking, 'What am I going to do next?' I tell you, I want to go home and read books, just read and stop quilting for a while just to give it a rest but I won't. I always have something going. I belong to a quilt group and we do things together so I will always be quilting. I don't know what my next project is.

KB: Did you have any thoughts that you might win the prize that you won when you came here?

GS: Oh, absolutely not. I thought it might possibly win a ribbon. They call me the queen of third place. I'm always thrilled to win third place or honorable mention, especially, in a show of this caliber and size. I'm just always very excited to be recognized. When they called me about this my knees went weak. I just couldn't believe it.

KB: It's about time. [laughs.] How about the members of your guild? Are they a big part of your life?

GS: Not so much. Not anymore. I was very active in two guilds and did all the jobs for about ten years. I just kind of got burned out on that.

KB: You paid your dues.

GS: I paid my dues, really, thanklessly. I have a mini group that I belong to. We still meet twice a month and I wouldn't miss that for the world. In fact, our minigroup was to be the Tuesday I was gone, and they cancelled it so we can meet when I get back. One of the other girls from the group came with me.

KB: What part in your life do they play?

GS: A lot.

KB: Do you use them for a sounding board?

GS: Absolutely. Right now we're working on round robin quilts. We did this once before and they were published. They were wonderful. Quilts Japan published the finished ones. We're working on another round of them. We did this about five years ago. This time around we are directing each other, 'Well I think you should do this,' and so on. We all play a big part in each other. They are all a bunch of really wonderful quilters. Any one of them could make something like this. They are a good group.

KB: Do you discuss things just related to quilting when you're together?

GS: Oh, no. We have discussions about irons and dust busters. We always laugh, 'Here we go. What are we talking about?' No, we talk about everything. One of the girls in the mini group came with me, Gayle Cyrus. We've been friends for thirty-five years. One of the other girls I went to high school with and we've been friends ever since. We have a long history.

KB: It's very satisfying that you have them to help pull it all together and celebrate the winnings.

GS: Oh, yeah. They were so excited. Somebody asked me, 'Gee, do you think they are jealous of you?' I said, 'Absolutely not.' They are absolutely so happy for me as I would be for one of them.

KB: Do you teach quilting?

GS: No. I could sit and teach you to quilt and do anything that I know. One-on-one I can do it. I cannot do a whole class.

KB: So what is your connection with quilting? You are involved with a small mini group now. You've been in guilds before. What does quilting mean to you in your life?

GS: Oh, everything. I do this every day. Somebody asked, 'How long did this quilt take?' I said, 'Two months to appliqué and two months to quilt.' As you can see, I spend a lot of hours each day doing it. My husband works long hours and drives long distance so I'm alone a lot. We don't get a whole lot of house cleaning or cooking done during that time. [laughs.] I get obsessed with this. I must get up every morning and do a quota. My quotas are pretty big!

KB: Do you have a large family?

GS: I have two children. They're grown.

KB: Do they appreciate what you do?

GS: My daughter is very happy if you buy her a bed-in-a-bag from Macy's. Don't be giving her a quilt because she just doesn't like country stuff. She calls these things 'country.'

KB: At this point in her life.

GS: She's thirty-three so I don't think she's going to change. She's always been this way.

KB: Not until she's fifty.

GS: Maybe. Well when she sees what she can sell them for she might get a bit of appreciation. My son loves them but he would put them in the back of his truck and put the dogs of them. The mothers don't get it at all. They call it, 'Gerry's little things. Oh, she's doing her little things.' They were very happy when I won this prize, very excited. It kind of opened their eyes, too. 'Oh, this is important.'

KB: So what are your plans for the future with your quilting?

GS: Keep on quilting.

KB: Are you going to write?

GS: No, just make more quilts. I don't know right now what I'm going to make but it will come to me.

KB: Will you enter contests again?

GS: Oh, yeah. I do that all the time. That's fun. My quilts travel more than I do.

KB: How do you find out about the contests?

GS: I'm on a mailing list. You get sent the applications from all over- Houston and Paducah [Kentucky.], Lancaster [Pennsylvania.]. There are quite a few that I send to.

KB: What comes first, the design or the fabric?

GS: I have all the fabric, as we all do. This quilt I actually bought fabric for. I mostly make scrap quilts. I make quilts with lots of different fabrics in them. I love to do that because you don't have to worry about matching. It all goes together if you do enough. This one I actually picked the fabric for. It's the first time I've actually done that. I usually just use--You keep buying and buying and using and using, and then you have to replace it. This one I bought.

KB: Do you sell any quilts?

GS: I sell quilts. Our guild has an auction. I used to belong to two guilds. We had two shows and I would do about two small quilts for every show. Now I am just in one guild and I do a couple quilts. They are small quilts. I have not sold big quilts.

KB: What aspects of quilting do you enjoy?

GS: I love the quilting part. Anymore I don't like to sit at the machine and piece. It's really tedious. I do it because the reward is to sit down and quilt. I sit in my nice chair and get my little Ott-Lite and I'm a happy camper. It's just very relaxing.

KB: Is there any aspect of quilting you don't like?

GS: I did not like appliqué at all. I wouldn't appliqué. They would say, 'You have to appliqué something,' in my group. We'd do friendship squares and they'd want something appliquéd, and I'd say, 'Oh my neck hurts. I can't do this, my neck hurts.' Once I learned how to do it properly, now it's just the most relaxing thing and I love it. I can't think of anything I don't like except sitting at the machine for a long time. I usually make things with little small, small pieces so there is a lot of sewing.

KB: Have you taken classes from other people?

GS: Oh, yeah.

KB: You mentioned how you were first inspired and you had two other teachers that you mentioned.

GS: One year I was workshop chairman in the guild, so all the teachers that come through, and in Los Angeles we get a lot of the good national teachers. I had a whole year, well, two years for all the good teachers. It's nice. You learn a lot.

KB: With every teacher you learn a little something more.

GS: Everybody has something to give you.

KB: Because you are working on something in a class people recognize your talent.

GS: You go to a class and you always hate your fabric and love everybody else's. [laughs.] I always do, anyway.

KB: What do you think makes a great quilt?

GS: I love antique quilts, so anything I make looks old. I try to make it look like an antique quilt. I think graphics are very important. As you can see, that quilt is graphically very strong. I think you've got to have a lot of good contrast.

KB: What makes a quilt special for a museum or special collection?

GS: I think the quilting itself is very important. That makes a strong statement. Got to have lots of quilting, and hand quilting. I'm a really strong hand quilter person. I think machine quilting has its place and it is lovely, but it doesn't compare. It shouldn't be in the same category. It should be a separate entity onto itself. I love to look at the quilting, and not necessarily teeny, tiny stitches. Just the design of the quilting is pretty important.

KB: It seems to be a pretty strong feeling among most quilters that the design is very important. In what ways do your quilts reflect you community or the region that you live in? Do they at all?

GS: I'm not sure they do. I live in Los Angeles where they are pretty far out. My stuff is pretty traditional.

KB: So you've never picked up on, say, the colorful Mexican theme?

GS: Actually I haven't. Everybody goes through phases. One phase was the African fabrics. I love them. They are beautiful. I never bought one piece! Then they went through the flannel period and they all bought flannel. I didn't buy any. I tend to just really like the old-looking stuff. I buy fabrics that look old. I collect antique quilts, when I can find and afford them.

KB: So that's another aspect of your quilting that you enjoy, obtaining them but also seeking them out.

GS: Oh, yeah. That's fun.

KB: Where have you found antique quilts?

GS: I've found at swap meets some really neat quilts for fifty dollars. They are such treasures. It's like a treasure hunt, 'Look what I found.' Then I come here and these quilts are magnificent but I can't afford them. That's why I try to make things look old, too. I have an idea in mind when I start to have it look like an antique quilt.

KB: What do you do with the quilts that you keep? Do you display them anywhere?

GS: They are all over my house. My husband fills up big walls with racks. I have them hanging and I change them. I have some ladders and they're hanging on that. They are on the beds, three or four deep. They are everywhere.

KB: What do you think is going to happen to all your quilts in the future?

GS: Probably some big garage sale. [laughs.] I don't know.

KB: Oh, let me know. Send me a card. [laughs.]

GS: I know. My friends all say about this quilt I just made, 'We want our name on the back of it so when you die we can have it.' I said, 'You'll have to fight my husband for it.' He loves it. Who knows? I make them because I like them now. I use my quilts. I put them on beds and they get used.

KB: Then you don't need an excuse to make another one. You make them for the joy of quilting.

GS: Exactly.

KB: I can feel that. What do you think the future of quilting is going to be? We look around us and we've got more than fifty thousand people here. Do you see it peaking or leveling off or growing?

GS: I really don't know. I think the whole art quilt movement is a whole new medium for people to get into that don't like the traditional. That's become a legitimate form now. It's accepted. Creative people can really go crazy with that and make wonderful stuff. I can't do it. I don't get it. But I'm sure lots of people don't get making little squares and putting them together.

KB: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in America?

GS: When I look at the old quilts, just like this "Hundred Best Quilts" [One Hundred Best American Quilts of the Twentieth Century.] exhibit, I see what women did, brought them across the prairie and quilted by candle light. It's awesome to me how they did that. We have all the tools and toys. We are spoiled. We come here and there are nine hundred vendors that we can buy stuff from. They tore up their shirts. I just get shivers thinking about what they made before. They churned the butter and milked the cows and did all that, too.

KB: They didn't have televisions or even radios.

GS: They didn't have microwaves either so they had to cook.

KB: I think it was their social life as well because many women got together for that.

GS: I think it's the same today.

KB: This is just a massive quilting bee.

GS: It is, isn't it? I've always said that we could move to any place in the country and I would just go to the local quilt guild and I would say, 'I want to be a member.' There you are. You've got friends.

KB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about? Some specific story that's happened during the years that you've been quilting? Stories on friends or mentors?

GS: The last quilt that I finished has a pretty neat story. Our mini group exchanges names for Christmas. This is the girl I went to high school with. We've traveled the world together with our husbands. She had a real rough time a few years ago. She had drawn my name. We make quilts for each other. This isn't little gifts. We make big stuff. When it came time for Christmas and she hadn't gotten it done, and I understood. She kept saying, 'I owe you. I owe you. I owe you.' I just gave up and said, 'I'm not holding my breath. It's okay. Don't worry about it.' She had started a quilt last year and started quilting it. I loved it. It's a quilt out of the "New Jersey Quilt" book, another replica of an antique. She had not put a border on it. She had started to quilt it. She doesn't like to quilt, and she didn't like it so she gave it to me. I just was blown away. It has eight thousand, four hundred and some pieces in this top. I took her border off. It was just a small border. I didn't work. She didn't care what I did to it. I put another big border with swags and bows and sawtooth. I quilted it and I sent it to Quilter's Newsletter Magazine and they are putting it on the cover! It's for this coming December, this December.

KB: So that's another big feather in your cap. How many other feathers have you had? How many other awards and that type of thing have you gotten?

GS: This will be my fourth Quilter's Newsletter [Magazine.] cover and I did a quilt for the Christmas cover last year. That one impressed my family. Plus, they're published about seven of my other quilts. They always say, 'Send us what you've done.' Sometimes they use it and sometimes they don't. It's been a nice relationship with them.

KB: What influence do you think you've been on other people that are quilting?

GS: I don't think I've been any influence. Other people influence me. I don't see it. It's been an eye-opener standing in front of my quilt at this show, and people coming up and admiring it. That doesn't happen too often except the local shows. When something gets published it's for my pleasure. All around the world people see this stuff, but you don't get the feedback. I guess it's like people on television don't get the feedback as stage people get audience feedback. It's been nice. Somebody came up to me yesterday and said, 'I'm so happy to meet the artist.' It took me aback and I said, 'Nobody's ever called me that.' I've never thought of myself as an artist. I'm a quilter. They say, 'Oh, you're an artist.'

KB: Do you think that quilting is more of a craft than an art?

GS: I don't think so and I hate that word. My family will go, 'Oh, she makes crafts.' I'll say, 'No, it's not crafts.' Well, actually I do think quilting is an art. I think a lot of quilting is art. You walk through this show, this is not crafts. This is magnificent art whether it's traditional or contemporary or modern or whatever. It is art.

KB: Do you do a lot of reading about the historic quilts and things like that?

GS: I do. Anymore I tend to never buy quilt books, a new book with patterns. I can usually figure out what to do. But I love to buy the state project books with the old quilts. My goal is to get all fifty of those when they get them out. I love to do that. My two favorites are New Jersey and New York. Every time I'm finished with a quilt I sit down with those two books for inspiration. I usually find it in one way or another.

KB: Probably you've learned a lot of things about other parts of life. Geography, everything comes from your love of quilting.

GS: One of the recent books was the "Quilts of Utah." It had some wonderful pictures, and it also had wonderfuls stories of the Mormon migration. Oh my goodness, that was really interesting.

KB: It's really fulfilling to learn all of these things. The hardships they went through and still produced beauty. It's amazing.

GS: And they didn't whine about it. We're whiners today. We whine.

KB: When people were standing in front of your quilt making comments, did you hear anybody criticizing anything?

GS: No, I didn't.

KB: Sometimes they do.

GS: If they don't know who you are, yeah.

KB: If they didn't know that you were the person that made that.

GS: The cheddar color is unusual. It's my favorite. I love it. I got a lot of comments like, 'Oh, you're not afraid to use that color, are you?' This could have been them saying they don't like it. I don't know. A lot of them commented about the cheddar and that they did like it. I think quilters going to a show pretty much are careful about making negative comments until they get away, 'Oh, that was terrible.'

KB: They are beautiful. Okay, is there any other story or comments that you'd like to make? We're going to put this in our archives and hope that scholars go through.

GS: It's just a humble little thing. [laughs.] I really don't know. This has just been a really good part of my life. I'm very happy doing this. I can't imagine a time when I can't. There will be a time. The hands go, the eyes go. They're going already. In some way or another, I will always--Actually I have always done something with my hands. My friend Gayle that came with me, we had a business for about twenty years before I started quilting. Well, I started quilting in the middle of that. We made the stuff that they're doing here now, chickens and dolls, for many years. We were very successful at that but I felt a need to do more. That was something I did eight hours a day. It was a job yet when I learned to quilt, my reward was at night I could sit and work on the quilt. That was what I loved. It became work and just manufacturing for me. I did it in my house when my kids were growing so I could be home. Back then, I was doing piecing and everything by hand. In January, I always know in my mind what I was going to start. It would take me a year to do a quilt. Now I've gotten much faster because I'm not doing anything else.

KB: What do you think makes the different between the project that you used to do before you started actually making quilts--you were doing the same type of thing? What do you think makes the difference?

GS: I love to do things with my hands. I'm not an athletic person. I don't go out and play tennis or golf. What makes me happy is to create things with my hands, whatever it is. I love to crochet. I love to knit. The only thing I didn't like was macramé. I think we all went through that period.

KB: I think that was a period.

GS: Yeah, I didn't like that in the '60s. I remember when my son was just a baby and I was knitting. He was crawling and all over the place. We had a console t.v. and I'd get up there and sit on top of the t.v. and knit so he couldn't grab it. [laughs.] I had this need to be doing this. I couldn't just sit and do nothing. That's it. I can't just sit and do nothing.

KB: The hands have to be involved.

GS: They have to be busy.

KB: You've done a wonderful thing with your hands, and we've been so pleased to talk to you today. I've really enjoyed it. I feel like I know you already.

GS: I've met so many people here and it's the same thing. I've talked to them and I feel like I know them.

KB: I think that what we're doing is going to help people in the future think about what we were thinking. It's not just documenting the quilt anymore. We're documenting the quilter. I appreciate your association with us and the time you've given us.

GS: Oh, thank you.

KB: Thank you very much.

GS: You're welcome.



“Gerry Sweem,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,