Anne Oliver




Anne Oliver




Anne Oliver


Rebecca Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Houston, Texas


Elaine Johnson


Rebecca Salinger (RS): My name is Rebecca Salinger and today we are interviewing Anne Oliver from Alexandria, Virginia and today is October 23, 1999. We're at the International Quilt Festival. What can you tell me about this quilt?

Anne Oliver (AO): This quilt is from a pattern that evolved from an original pattern of Baltimore Album I started to work with and realized that I couldn't put my life into the block and so I put that aside until I was ready to put the stories into blocks.

RS: Are you saying that every block is a story?

AO: Yes.

RS: So, is this block right here with the flowers, the pot with the blue flowers, what is this about?

AO: This is a forget-me-not and I used to pick them when I was young and loved the outdoors. I used to love to do anything in the wild, bring anything home, put it in the ground and it would never grow. I realized that those plants were saying that you can't pick me out of my environment and put me in there and grow. This probably the flower I remember the most from that time and I decided that I had to have this in here.

RS: What about this block right here?

AO: This one has a very interesting story.

RS: What is that?

AO: It's a poppy.

RS: A poppy?

AO: When we originally moved to California, we moved into a house that had tremendous ivy patches all around and we had to clean them out, so I dug up the ground. We didn't know what to put there so we just left it to itself and over the course of a year we saw around the house these most beautiful blue-green leaves. I had never seen these before. Then there were these beautiful bright red poppies that came on top. I thought, 'Aren't these wonderful?' They got to be about four feet tall. One day there was a knock at my door and a uniformed policeman said, 'Do you know what you're growing out around your lamppost?' Suddenly it dawned on me, I ran out and dug them all up, I was so embarrassed. Opium Poppies - this was in California, and I kept wondering, 'Are they edible?' I decided even if they were I didn't want to use them.

RS: Is there another block on here that means something really special to you?

AO: Yes, the corner block.

RS: It's beautiful.

AO: And this one is "Valentine's Day." I was in elementary school I made the Valentine's boxes for each classroom. They held the cards the kids gave to each other.

RS: So, this is a memory from childhood?

AO: Yes.

RS: Actually, this has a little valentine card with a flower and heart.

AO: And this one is special.

RS: Oh, it's a basket with an Easter bunny, and eggs, and a blue ribbon on top of the basket. It's unbelievable.

AO: When we were young, we lived on a farm and obviously loved it. And we lived in an area that was poor – money poor but food rich. We had a seven-acre farm and although we were very poor, my parents tried very hard to have some semblance of holidays even with all the debts we had to pay and so Easter and Christmas were the two most important holidays where we received something. For Easter we always received a basket with mint creams in the middle. We didn't have colored eggs. But that was our basket. It's a memory that I realize I wanted my friends to know about. There were seven of us. But it meant so much to me that we had those holidays.

RS: So you basically took a lot of your memories. Did you draw these yourself?

AO: On tissue paper, it was easier to use the tissue paper and with more patterns and more sketches done, I actually worked with the block itself. And then in order to hold the quilt together this--I call this a shoebox full, powder blue, different sizes and I made each block separately, then would put it away. And then I wouldn't be influenced by that block when I did this block. I tried for a block a week and it pretty much worked out that way. The first several were hard. I was creating my ideas and I didn't have all of my ideas. I preferred to have the appliqués down to look at, like the basket, and remember it and then think of things to put down that would make it different.

RS: I see the Easter Bunny holding them. How long have you been quilting?

AO: Since the middle of the seventies.

RS: And when was this quilt made?

AO: I believe this was around 1984, when I started to teach in the '80's and these quilts were used as my memories but also as advertisement for my quilt classes I didn't have to pay for any publicity and that helped. And they were in quilt shows and quilt magazines and that's how I first got started in teaching.

RS: Where did your influences for quilting come from? Was it in the family?

AO: I think if anything there was a negative influence when I saw my first quilt show. When I saw the show in California a bank had a display of quilts that were impressive on the front. I looked on the back and saw rabbit tracks all over and knots showed, and I thought, 'Well, I can do better than that.' That was how I started.

RS: What is a 'rabbit track'?

AO: It's a jump of the thread that shows on the back. Ordinarily we bury those in the batting, and we bury knots in the batting. But these all showed, and I just said that I could do better, so I made a first quilt and guess what, I didn't do better. [laughs.]

RS: What did you do after that?

AO: I decided to make a quilt, it was a Dresden Plate; I made 18" blocks, I made 60 of them – no sketch, no nothing. And used imaginable fabric I could get my hands on, I didn't care if it was cotton or whatever, and I put it on polyester.

RS: What year was that, about?

AO: Probably about 1976. And I put twenty blocks together and I was very smart, and I put sashing on the blocks so that I wouldn't have to sash when I was making the whole top. I didn't realize a sash of one and another sash creates two sashes, so I had to put another pink in there. My quilt of twenty was the largest quilt I would ever make.

RS: It doesn't look like you have traveling stitches here.

AO: No.

RS: It looks like you've come a long way since then. This is a very nice grid and diagonal grid, and it looks like ½ an inch apart, maybe ¾ of an inch.

AO: About ¾ of an inch. But the first quilt had 3 stitches to the inch. If you counted them, and by that time I had found a quilt book and it said 12 stitches to the inch and I taught that.

RS: What quilt book was that?

AO: One of the ones that just gave the standard size of 1-inch equals 12 stitches. And then I got my hoop out sampling an area. I thought I couldn't do that, 'Do they mean 6 on top and 6 on the bottom?' So, I just proceeded to quilt my own way and I counted – I took a ruler out and I had three. But, by the time I got to the end of the quilt I had 5 and so I thought, 'Does that mean I have 10 stitches to the inch?' I counted again, but I still to this day don't know how you count stitches per inch. It doesn't matter to me whether you have big stitches or not, to me it's just as beautiful if you have big stitches or small stitches as long it puts your point across.

RS: So, what do you think then makes a really great quilt?

AO: Warmth, putting yourself into it. We discussed this last night with the Japanese quilters, really even if the quilt isn't related to your background, still your heart and soul is in it and I feel if your heart and soul is in the quilt, regardless of what you make it doesn't matter if it's not the "best" quilt – it is the best quilt – for you it's the best quilt. I feel art is in the eye of the beholder. Somebody is going to look at it and say, 'That's my style that will influence me, that will get me going where I'm on track.' All of my quilts are really things I look at and things I love and "Painted Metal Ceiling" I worked in a 5 & 10.

RS: Is that the name of a quilt you made?

AO: Yes, the quilt that's One of the Hundred [special exhibit- "One Hundred Best Quilts.]. I sold leg make-up during the war.

RS: You sold what?

AO: Leg make-up.

RS: Leg make-up. What is that?

AO: When you had no stockings you brought this stuff in a bottle that made it look like you were suntanned. It was a cream, you put it on your legs, then you got a pencil (black stick) and you put a seam up the back. It was raining out and obviously when it rained it wasn't a good idea to be out in the rain with this stuff. I wouldn't have any sales and so I would look up and I would see the tin ceiling. So that influenced that quilt. My life influenced this quilt. So, each quilt is influenced by something that happening either in the past or at the time that I feel is doable. I use the word "doable" and with tissue paper I made a lot of things doable that weren't doable before because appliqué to me is so easy that I had no fear of an appliqué quilt. But I look for a way to make things easy for myself. Freezer paper has a shiny side and a dull side, you draw on the dull side and the shiny side sticks to whatever, I looked for McDonald's sandwich paper which has a coating, but it wasn't strong enough. I called all the paper mills to see if I could find anything that they put out, and one day I saw this piece of paper on the shelf and I thought, 'I think that's it.' And I started using freezer paper from then on.

RS: So, is that your main technique now, of doing this?

AO: Yes. And it also creates, after teaching classes on freezer paper appliqué, to freezer paper designs for white work. That was the next step. I have two or three other things that you can use freezer paper for.

RS: Are you still teaching? And what do you teach?

AO: Yes. I was teaching for fifteen years freezer paper appliqué and the freezer paper white-on-white designs, folding paper to create designs. About two years ago I decided to take a sabbatical and it's been so much fun that I think I'll have a permanent sabbatical. There are so many good teachers that are coming into the quilting world as it's changing--it's changing. There was a time where we were just absolutely stunned if someone had a quilt in a show that was machined. Now I want to combine both in the same quilt because each one has its own strength and that's important and there are quilts here that if you did the same design by hand, it would not work and vice versa.

RS: Do you see any other direction that the quilting world is going in?

AO: A lot of tools. I'm waiting for a day where machines are going to have cams that will do hand stitching. That's the technology I'm waiting for. It's moving so fast that I have stepped back from the teaching world because it's hectic and the quilts are changing, the idea of taking a year as I have for the Four Seasons. The quilters--it's too hard, they want their quilt yesterday. And they work, two family members are working, and I have them at night for class and they have been in DC rush hour and they're coming to a creative class, there's no way it can be done. So, we switched classes to Sunday where spouses can babysit, and our class went with that. We realized that it's the stress of coming home and then trying to be creative and to me creativity doesn't happen when you're stressed. If you do something it's going to be stiff, it's not going to be warm and soft, it's going to be stiff. The two-family members working makes that hard and I had the privilege of not being in that rat race. I have four children who are in the rat race, and I get tired just hearing their schedule. It's unbelievable hearing what they have to do– run to the nursery, pick up their child, run over here, run over there, no time for groceries. I listen and start to get a headache back here and then I think about what my child is doing to be modern. And I'm thankful I'm old-fashioned. I used to resent that. I used to think that my mother was so old-fashioned but now I am grateful for old-fashioned.

RS: Well, let's get back to this quilt here. How do you use it other than advertising your classes?

AO: This is a difficult quilt. I don't even think about who the quilt is going to. It's sort of got a life of its own and I don't know what to do with it. I know where several of my quilts will go. My children have all gotten their one heirloom that they get when they're forty and the only reason for that is that I think that when you get to be forty you gain some insights of how valuable quilts are. Before that you may not. My children will say to me, 'Mom, when did you do that quilt.' And the answer was, 'When you were running in and out of the house.' They don't really see it until it is finished, and they see the appraisal and they see the value and suddenly it dawns on them that this is valuable. I just think that happens when you're about forty years old.

RS: Do you think then that quilting will continue in your family? Is there someone in your family quilting?

AO: No, I'm the only one. I do have children who definitely appreciate my work. When my son, who lives in Florida, took his heirloom, he called me and said, 'Mom, I didn't realize the value of your quilt until I went to my insurance agent to have it appraised.' I know quilts are valuable; they've graduated from being a craft to being art. And I think that we need to redefine the word "art."

RS: What do you think it should be?

AO: Anything that is pleasing to the person who is looking at it as something they'd like to have on the wall or something that they'd like to have in their house or on their bed. Something that makes them feel warm and comfortable with it that they'd love to own. And that to me is art. It doesn't matter if it's a sculpture, whatever it is, it could be a quilt and, for me, quilts do that.

RS: And what do you think you enjoy the most about quilting now?

AO: Probably the actual quilting, the creation of the quilting design; what will make you come back to my quilt and see something new and inspire you to go home and create something similar to that and get your creative juices going. This quilt was in Australia and New Zealand, the quilting in here, words and my children's names around the blocks if you look at that.

RS: You quilted their names in there?

AO: Yes. And they're in cursive. And this is Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

RS: The Christmas wreath.

AO: Yes. In the block, around here and then I went back and why I did that. And in here Happy Easter and it's a little bit bigger. And it's in through here and goes down through there. And so, the writing is made so that it fits in with the bumps on the meandering and when it was in Australia at a show that had ropes in front there was an argument with the crowd about my daughter's name. They found the word "Sue", and someone said, 'No, that's "Susie,"' and someone else said, 'No, that's "SuzAnne."' They were so intent on proving themselves right that they knocked over the rope and the quilts. The doors all locked, and it was all because somebody found a name.

RS: How did they know to look for the names?

AO: Somebody must have had the notes on the quilt. Oh, it was on the sheet. And this is the uniqueness of this one. This has many, many words and do-dads that were done beforehand because meandering quilting is boring! It's one of the most tedious things in quilting and so to make myself finish ahead and keep me from quilting. I will give myself 10% free form (I will do a dogwood or fern or something). There's just a space that when I come up to it I think I don't have to quilt whatever there. And that allowed me to finish, because finishing a tedious quilting which is freeform it would be easy to put it down and not pick it up. And when I start something, I need to finish before I can go on. I can't go to a second or a third piece because I would fall in love with one and ignore the others. And may come back to the others too late for them to be finished or I'm not happy with it or I don't want to finish it.

RS: Why did you want to hide the designs, because on the outside you have this very even spaced diagonal grid, on the inside you have this meandering, but why do you want to hide the names in the design?

AO: Because I want you to come back to the quilt because somebody read it and will say, 'Did you see that quilt that has all the names?' and someone will say, 'I didn't read that,' and then they'll have to go back and read it. And the people who come back to your quilt and see the second thing that happens or the third thing that happens mixed in and will remember the quilt and years later when the Australian teaching quilters came, every one of them came with a picture of this quilt. It was amazing that they remembered and were still interested in looking, because they hadn't finished looking to see what some of the names were.

RS: It sounds like you really try to connect with your viewers?

AO: Absolutely, if I can have a viewer go home and just take a little bit of what I'm trying to impart and then tell me sometime or just mail that's saying that it was just amazing how over the years I have received volumes of letters from viewers saying that, 'You've gotten me over my frustrated period, I didn't know what to do and you made it look easy.' And then I just absolutely I turn red with embarrassment but then I realize that is exactly why I am a quilter. I'm a quilter first and a teacher second because I quilted them, and I remember the things that I learned in quilting them and then that is what I impart as I teach. So, I'm not a teacher first. So, am I a professional, absolutely not.

RS: Well, what do you think quilters in my generation and beyond are going to think about this quilt and quilting of their mothers'?

AO: I think they're going to cherish the quilts more, because I have seen antique quilts as blankets on horses and I've seen them in the park as blankets thrown on the ground. Some of them have been patterns I have never seen. Some of them are autographed on top. We actually rescued a quilt for fifteen dollars off of a horse. I don't know what the pattern was, but it was signed by somebody called "Missy." We assumed since we bought it in Texas that it was a southern made quilt with the name "Missy" and it didn't belong on the horse. My goal is to elevate quilts to where you look at oil paints and watercolors in art galleries--quilts too. To me if I choose to buy a quilt instead of the oil painting, I want that choice I don't want someone to say, 'A quilt is a craft and you're a craftsman.' I may be a craftsman but I'm an artist too. And again, redefine the word "artist." It's got to include quilts and unfortunately, it's an uphill battle sometimes but I believe we're getting there.

RS: How do you think we're going to get there?

AO: Houston, and other shows and I honestly don't want quilts separated into categories, like this is a machine quilt, and this is a hand quilt. The impact of a machine quilt can be so great, and a hand quilt done the same cannot be and vice versa. That I want to look at the quilt as a work of art and then if I want to look closer or get my binoculars out, then I can see the technique and so forth and I may decide not to use that technique if I were to choose that design, but that person who made that may not have even turned the seams under and went all over it with a machine, I call that the third arm. I have two arms and that person has a third arm which is the sewing machine. And the creativity with the sewing machine is mind boggling, could I do it if I wanted to, yes. I choose to look at that work and admire it and go back and do this, because I know people admire mine too, my hand work. Quilting has gone so far, and I don't want it to be so commercial that it loses that warmth. I look in all the books and look at the old quilts and I don't want to lose that. It worries me the quilts that are coming from China, they are beautiful quilts, but they are also a setback. Because when I see a sale on quilts that are $29.95 for any size, single, double, king, or queen, that's insulting. And I disapprove of the catalogs.

RS: Who is it insulting to?

AO: I think if we could make a clear separation to the non-quilting public what these quilts are it would be fine, unfortunately, the non-quilting public chooses its quilts from that quilt and that hurts. I think it hurts the Amish communities that make these unique quilts. I think it's hurt them as far as money and so forth. But it's flooding the market in making the quilts too common. It's become like buying a towel. And when you buy a vest for $129.00 in a catalog that has a quilt for $29.95 that's also insulting. There's certainly nothing I can do, but at least I have a right to feel that way.

RS: So you want to educate the public, is that what you're saying?

AO: I don't think we can. I think the public has a right to buy what it wants but I do think we need to educate the public on the separation, even the twenty-nine- or thirty-dollar quilt is a lovely quilt, but don't look at a thousand-dollar quilt and say, 'Well, I can get that for $29.00,' you've got to realize the difference. And will the general public do that, no, I don't think so, because the catalogs are continuing to bring more and more quilts in. But I think the quilting world is getting bigger and we are a mass industry, I mean an industry that can talk. As long as we respect our industry--if we want to call it that, it's not a craft, it's beyond craft. Would I buy a $29.95 quilt? Maybe yes, if I wanted to put it on a bed in the basement but if I really wanted to show it to the public, I would use one of my quilts and in my house, I would have the two totally separate. There is room for both if we let it, and I think it's doable. That's my favorite word "doable" but I think we have the fabric, which is coming into the quilting world, that is so phenomenal and mind boggling, that I have to go home and rest. I like the fabric, I put it in my stash, I want it in my stash, and I never use it, but it's a potential quilt. I just run some stitches over it and it's a quilt, it's that the fabric itself is so beautiful.

RS: What kinds of fabric are you talking about?

AO: Cottons and some of the fabrics we've seen here. We saw one all rayon that if I could afford the price, I'd buy it. And I would have not thought of using rayon. And the silks are just the same, the colors are so warm. I love cotton, I love the warmth of cotton and it's easiest for me to work with cotton, but when I hesitate, maybe sometime if I had a silk piece, I might use it. I don't want to get close-minded, but as you get older you do get a little close-minded. Creativity to me, you have to work at it, or you can lose it. If you stop using it for a year and you think you're going to come back and pick up where you left off, forget it. It has to build on itself, you see the roundness and the curves and if you stop, you're going to have to go back to the very beginning and start getting that back and the next one has more flow is more open. That's why these quilts that I see that are so soft, it didn't come right from the beginning, it gets built up and when you take a hiatus from it, you better come back and learn from it or do it again. For me I have a long way to go and many things I want to do. We always laugh and say, 'You have so many ideas; you don't have time to die.' To me quilting is a world in itself. It has been a salvation for me. It has been a way of introducing myself to my viewers. It's been a way of helping. There are so many things that quilts have done. I don't sew clothes and I don't wash windows. I don't do dinner and the quilt comes first. And that has never changed.

RS: How long has it been like that?

AO: Since about 1980 when I felt I had something to contribute to the quilting world, when things were starting to happen and people were saying, 'Well, Anne, you have a good idea,' and I thought that if I had a good idea and it takes me forever to get it across forget it. If I have a good idea and freezer paper can make it easier in getting the idea across to you then I'll use freezer paper. So, I will do anything that I can do with freezer paper, because it cuts at least a third of the difficulty out for me, in the way I use it. So, then appliquéing I would have never done it if it had not been for freezer paper. I know how to look for shortcuts, but the shortcut isn't a cheap way to get to the end, but the shortcut is a good way. The quality remains if I'm going to lose quality, I won't do it but if I keep my quality and give you a shortcut and help you get through something that would be very difficult for you then I have done what I wanted to do. I am always looking for shortcuts. I have found many with freezer paper that I use and didn't even teach.

RS: It sound like you did a lot of appliqué quilts.

AO: Yes, and I love it.

RS: But you said there are many things that you want to do. What are those things?

AO: I love the embroidery. I love the embellishment.

RS: What kind of embellishments?

AO: It could be by machine. I have a Bernina and my Bernina does what it wants me to do. But I may not use and am not sure what I want on the tops of quilts. I love ribbon. I have not found a way to use them on my quilts, but I love them. I was at Ellie's lecture, and she used machining and embellishment with ribbon. I love ribbon, I love the color and I think it's warm. So, there are things that I will probably do someday. But I don't look at it as there being a time that I am through quilting. I'm a quilter first, last, and always and then a teacher somewhere in between.

RS: So you think that maybe you are going to keep doing these appliqué quilts but adding?

AO: Adding, and a quilt is never duplicated for me. I did have one group that was a series of three. "The Painted Metal Ceiling" was the third and the two other ones were white work. I love white work. And to me white work is no longer only white. It can be the whole cloth and I can put color in it and I can over quilt the appliqués and you turn it over and it's a white quilt. So, I can get two scenes with the same quilt because it's my first love, when I look at a white-on-white quilt well done, I will leave aisles to go see that quilt. So, it's still my first love. But now with the quilt in Paducah, "Mama's Garden," the appliqué is in there with all the white work, whole cloth, you turn it over and there's a white quilt. So, I've done two things. I have two quilts in one.

RS: It sounds like a short cut.

AO: It's a shortcut, absolutely, [laughter.] and I love it. So, the backs of my quilts look like the fronts, the stitch goes completely through, so if you turn this quilt over its white-on-white.

RS: Maybe I can find those names better.

AO: They're backwards here. [laughter.]

RS: What do you think makes a quilt great enough to get into a museum and saved by that museum?

AO: I think that the initial impact that it makes, the warmth, the number of people that comment on it and the number of people that remember it. And I think the quilt, for me, that's remembered most is "Painted Metal Ceiling" and the second one then is "Mama's Garden" and the fact that to see a museum like Paducah's, the Quilt Museum at Paducah, they have elevated the quilt to such an extent, people go into the museum and see the quilt and come back and say, 'Anne, I saw your quilt at Paducah,' and I realize that they remember. And it's the museums and the big shows. It is the exposure, and the exposure is now all over the world, it's no longer national, it's international and for "Painted Metal Ceiling" the letter I received was not to Anne Oliver, it was to the street address but addressed to "the maker of Painted Metal Ceiling" the first line said, 'If you indeed are the maker of Painted Metal Ceiling, we invite you to Japan.' To me in the past that is exactly how the quilt has worked. Two hundred years ago the quilt spoke for the quilter, and for me my quilts speak for me. If someone admires my quilt and doesn't know my name, that's important, as important not more important than remembering my name. And that's the way I feel about quilts. And there are certain quilts that I've seen fifteen years ago, 'George Washington at Valley Forge' I will never forget it. The impact it made on me is vastly invaluable and if many people feel as I do then that's a valuable quilt.

RS: I see. Well, thank you very much for talking to me about this wonderful quilt and your role in quiltmaking and how you see things coming. This concludes the interview with Anne Oliver. I'm Rebecca Salinger and this October 23rd, 1999.

[tape ends.]



“Anne Oliver,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024,