Elaine Carlson



Elaine Carlson




Elaine Carlson


Flavin Glover

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Houston, Texas


Elaine Johnson


Flavin Glover (FG): My name is Flavin Williams Glover today's date is October 23, 1999. I am conducting an interview with Mrs. Elaine Carlson, and she is going to tell us about a quilt that her mother made for her. And this is at the Save Our Stories Quilt Oral History project in Houston, Texas at Quilt Festival 1999 in Houston. Tell me a little bit about your quilt Ms. Carlson?

Elaine Carlson (EC): I should tell you a little background. My mother was into quilt making. And she told my two brothers and me if we would pick out a picture or a pattern, she would make us a quilt. So, she expected a regular piece quilt. My younger brother brought her a cover of the Saturday Evening Post for April 1930 and he said, 'I want this.' And my mother kind of laughed, that was not what she had in mind, but it intrigued her. So, she took the picture and divided it up into inch squares with threads running across and up and down. She enlarged those inch squares to one foot and thus created her pattern. Then she looked for material until she found what approximated what was in the picture. She cut the material using her patterns and made the quilt. It was all done by hand, and we were all pleased with the project. Then my older brother brought her a picture that he had found in an old issue of Printer's Ink, from the 1920's. It was a picture with a red background and there was an oriental lady with her hand reaching out to a white parrot in a black cage. That required a lot of embroidery on the gown of the woman. But she made that quilt the same way and it turned out well too. Then I brought her another picture from Printer's Ink, it was an advertisement for Filene's in Boston. So, she produced my quilt for me. Mine was done in about 1936.

FG: It appears that your mother was quite artistic.

EC: Yes, she had done some painting and other craft items. We have some pictures that she had painted.

FG: Do you know how long it took her to make this quilt?

EC: I think it took her about a year that she spent on this quilt. The second quilt that she made for my older brother--there was an Eastern States Exhibition that was held out in Stowton, Maine I believe it was. That was in 1936. She had heard about this quilt contest, and she sent that quilt out there. They said they had nothing to compare it to, but they gave her a special prize for that quilt. So, when that quilt came back then she started on mine.

FG: Were you involved at all with the selection of fabrics?

EC: No. No, she did that all herself. And we had a quilting frame that she set up in the den of our home and my younger brother used to sit under the quilting frame making balsa wood airplanes. [laughs.]

FG: Did you spend any time under the quilt frame?

EC: No, I didn't.

FG: Do you quilt?

EC: No, no I don't.

FG: What about sewing or other needlecraft skills?

EC: I do counted cross-stitch and I have done needlepoint. I did make one quilt, but it was a kind of a sampler quilt, and I decided quilting wasn't for me.

FG: Do you mind telling us what age you were when your mother made this quilt for you?

EC: I was about 16, I think when I picked it out but, in 1936 I was probably 19 when she did it.

FG: So, this was before you were married?

EC: Yes, it was.

FG: Did she make the quilt to fit on your bed?

EC: No. I don't really believe she thought of it as being a bedspread, although we've never hung them. My younger brother has put his on a bed for display purposes. But it was a southern exposure and even if they drew the draperies, it was so bright in there that it has rather faded it. So, I've never used mine on a bed at all-even for display.

FG: So, at the time your mother made it, you think she was doing it truly as a composition rather than a bed quilt?

EC: I think so. I don't think she thought of it as--I really don't know though.

FG: At that time quilts were not hung on the wall?

EC: No, no.

FG: The colors are so true and so pure. I assume you've kept it out of sunlight.

EC: Yes, I have shown this quilt more than my brothers have ever shown theirs. It went on a kind of a tour in Illinois in 1994. And when they brought it back to me… I had it just rolled up in a pillowcase. But when they brought it back to me, they had it in an acid free box. And I have kept it in there until I sent it down here.

FG: During your time of early marriage and all--I'm assuming this quilt was with you?

EC: No, it was with my mother. She kept it until she died and then I got it.

FG: And what about your brothers did they have their quilts?

EC: Both of my brothers are dead now, but his widow has one and my nephew has the other, the parrot quilt, the red one.

FG: Are they works of art like this?

EC: Oh, yes, yes. They're beautiful. I have pictures that I've left in our car of those quilts too if you'd be interested in seeing them.

FG: Yes. Did your mother make many quilts?

EC: No, I think she made these three and she also made one, I think it's called "Around the World," it's made in inch squares. She made another stylized quilt of a rose for one of my brothers. When my daughter was born, she made a quilt for her. But it was a crib-sized quilt. It was a girl in a voluminous skirt. My husband has brown hair and eyes. I was sure that I was going to have a dark haired, dark eyed child. So, the little girl has black hair and dark eyes. After our daughter was born mother put my daughter's name and date of birth in quilting on the quilt. But it is a crib-sized quilt. And my daughter is blonde and blue eyed. [laughs.]

FG: And does your daughter still have that quilt?

EC: Yes, she does. She lives in Dallas, and she has the quilt.

FG: What about your daughter, does she quilt?

EC: No, she does not.

FG: Well, I can see the wonderful talents that your mother had. Tell me what this quilt means to you, now?

EC: It means a connection to my mother who was very dear to me.

FG: You mentioned that your mother kept the quilt until she died, and when was that?

EC: In 1951.

FG: And when you think of this quilt, has there ever been a time that it's been in a special exhibit like this?

EC: Not as large as this. In Rockford they have an organization called Sinnissippi Quilter's and a couple times they have asked me to display it. That was how June Culvey she's the woman who nominated my quilt. She saw the quilt in a Sinnissippi Quilt exhibit in 1986 and she remembered it. So, when this came up about this show, she was one of the judges and she was the one who submitted it. Although she had trouble finding it, she didn't know who had the quilt. She had just seen it in the exhibit, and she asked around in Rockford and somebody sent her to the public library. Well, in 1993, the quilt was included in a book about Illinois quilts. So, she went down to the Rockford Public Library and asked about quilt books, and she found this one about Illinois quilts. The book is titled History from the Heart by E. Duane and Rachel Kamm Ebert. And she found the picture of the quilt and the picture that mother took it from and a picture of my mother. Then she had to ask people where to find Elaine Carlson. And she called quilters. And one of the quilters was a friend of mine and she gave her my phone number. Mrs. Culvey called me, and I was amazed that she had submitted it without my even knowing it and it had been chosen. But then it was… like I said it was shown a couple times and I've shown it maybe at church shows and that sort of thing. And after this book was published--It's written up in there--The Illinois Historical Society had a traveling quilt show and it was shown in three different places in Illinois, ending up in the Illinois Building, in Chicago. So, it has been shown around.

FG: And you currently live in Illinois?

EC: Yes, in Rockford.

FG: And is that where you grew up?

EC: Yes.

FG: So that is where your mother lived at the time, she made the quilt.

EC: Yes.

FG: Do you think she had a clue as to how extremely talented she was at the time she was making these?

EC: I don't think so. She just liked to do things like that and that was just what mother did.

FG: Describe to me what it was like when she was working on a quilt? Did she do other things as well?

EC: Oh yes, she kept house, and she was an avid gardener. So, she was busy keeping house when she was making the quilts. But she spent a lot of time at it, because we lived out in the country and so my brothers and I were in school, my father went to work. So, she was home alone all day so she could spend the better part of the day working on the quilts.

FG: Do you know--did you select the name, or did she name the quilt – "The Fairy?"

EC: It just sort of evolved "The Fairy".

FG: Do you still have the cover of the Printer's Ink?

EC: As a matter of fact, it's out in the car if you wanted to see that.

FG: That's great documentation for this quilt. What do you anticipate happening to this quilt, once you're no longer here?

EC: My daughter will inherit it, and she has a daughter also.

FG: All right. When you think of quilting today, it sounds like with this quilt being in shows you're familiar with the quilt revival we're currently in?

EC: Yes, yes, I am.

FG: And seeing the impact of it here in Houston and all.

EC: Yes.

FG: Well, it's such a delight to see such a lovely work of art and to know the story that goes with it. I think that all of us will find this connection.

EC: I should tell you something else about it. My husband was celebrating a special birthday last June and my son and his wife, who live in California, wanted us to come to California to celebrate the birthday and I didn't really think we ought to travel; it's a little difficult for us. But, they insisted so we got out there and my son said, 'We've been going for several years to the street painting fair in San Rafael, California, so we're going to go over there. We think that you'll enjoy that.' So, on a Saturday morning we went over there. This is a benefit for the art students for the schools in San Rafael and they close off four blocks of one of the main streets and they resurface it, blacktop it again and then they divide it up into squares. And school children have a two foot by two-foot square. But then they sell larger squares, about 6' x 9' to industries and other people and they provide an artist for each square. The artist draws a picture with colored chalk in that square and they are sponsored. So, a year ago our son and daughter-in-law signed up to buy a square and they didn't tell us anything about this. But they contacted the artist that was assigned, and she liked the idea. They had a picture of the quilt. So here we were wandering around looking at these others--they do beautiful artwork you know and its chalk drawings in colors. They were so beautiful, and I was having such a lovely time looking at them and all of a sudden, I came to--Well they put the sponsor's name at the top of the square. I came to this one that said, "the Carlson Family" as sponsors and I thought, 'Oh, there are other Carlsons out here.' And then I looked down to see what she was doing, and she was doing "The Fairy." [FG: 'Oh.'] And we were just overwhelmed. But that was Saturday morning, and she was just beginning, and we came back again on Sunday afternoon when she had completed it and she had done a beautiful job. It was just lovely. That was a thrilling event. Sunday night they came in and washed the streets and opened the traffic again, so they were gone.

FG: So, it was a moment in time.

EC: Yes, it was a moment in time, and it was a very thrilling time. Just as this is.

FG: Yes, and this is just four and a half days that these quilts are together. I guess you had a tear in your eye when you saw her doing "The Fairy?"

EC: Yes, I certainly did. I just kind of lost it for a while.

FG: What a delightful gift your son and daughter-in-law gave you.

EC: Yes, yes it was.

FG: Do you have hobbies where you can express your creativity or artistic skills?

EC: Just the counted cross-stitch. And then I'm a scrapbook maker. I've been working on scrapbooks for years. And my son is after me to write my memories, and I'm trying to do that too.

FG: Does the computer play a role in your life?

EC: Yes, my son gave me a computer and I'm having trouble figuring it out. [laughter.]

FG: So that will be a tool so you can do your memories.

EC: That's right.

FG: Now that your quilt has received all this new fanfare and publicity and attention, does it make you appreciate the quilt anymore?

EC: I feel the honor given to my mother and that just thrills me.

FG: And you're seeing how that is living on. Can you think of specific ways that her artistic skills influenced your life or the lives of your brothers, looking back on it?

EC: Oh, I think so. I've always been interested in art and enjoy going to art galleries and things like that.

FG: Is your husband artistic?

EC: Not particularly, but he's been a machinery designer, so he has that ability.

FG: When you think of your quilt and the quilts that belonged to your brothers, is there any other special things you'd like to tell us about, the making of those quilts. Or any experience you remember your mother having when she was making the masterpieces like this?

EC: No. I can still see her at the quilting frame. It was a large quilting frame of course, and I can see her, and I remember her finger was all calloused before she finished the quilting of it.

FG: Was this a quilt frame that was extended from the ceiling or set on pedestals?

EC: It was set on pedestals.

FG: Right. So, you learned to live around the quilt frame.

EC: Oh yes, we did.

FG: Do you remember or recall--it appears that she purchased fabric specifically for the quilts?

EC: Yes, I remember her going shopping trying to find quilt material you know that would approximate the design or the material of the costumes in the pictures.

FG: Looking here at the fairy's outfit, it almost appears that the fabric was painted or airbrushed.

EC: She used crayon on it. And the hair is solid embroidery. And around the carnation it is embroidery and then some crayon. She wanted to create an ethereal look to the costume that the fairy has.

FG: She did a magnificent job with that. I think all of us could learn today by just coming and looking at this up close and seeing the tremendous artistic abilities that she had. And knowing she did this in the 1930's. And it's held so true--the coloring and the quilting. Every aspect of it appears to be in mint condition.

EC: She loved Maxfield Parrish's paintings and I think that that blue is a Maxfield Parrish blue.

FG: As a child did you go to art museums and things like that?

EC: No, no those were depression years.

FG: Right, right. So, times were tough. Did you have--you mentioned your two brothers did you have friends or people who came to your house that they're mothers quilted also, do you remember that at all.

EC: Well, my mother had a circle of friends, women who were quilters and I think they inspired her even though they made regular patterned quilts, but they did lovely work and so she was influenced by them.

FG: Was there ever a time that she went to a quilting bee or went to the church or a school and quilted on other things?

EC: I don't think so.

FG: Okay. Hopefully the women knew what talent she had.

EC: Yes, we'd always haul the quilts out whenever we had company and show them to people.

FG: Sure. And your father what role did he play in her quilt making?

EC: He was just supportive of her ability.

FG: So, even though times were hard, and money was probably hard to come by there was still money enough to purchase the fabric needed?

EC: Oh, yes, yes. We were fortunate. My father was never out of work or anything. He always worked.

FG: Well, it is a stunning piece and I know that you're extremely proud to have this.

EC: Yes, I think that it's a great honor and I am very appreciative to June Culvey I hope I meet her here.

FG: Yes, that would be nice. It's quite a gift to you to know your quilt was being considered without your knowledge at such a prestigious show as this.

EC: Yes, I was very surprised when she called me.

FG: And you did mention that your mother made a patchwork quilt you referred to it like a trip around the world--and that was actually a bed quilt.

EC: It was bedspread. We never used the quilts as coverlets or covers you know.

FG: So, on your bed, then you did not sleep under a quilt?

EC: I forgot to mention that my mother did make another quilt for me that I still have for a bed. I had a single bed. She made a quilt that was called at that time "The Cactus" and it was done in lavender and green which was the color scheme in my room. And I still have that quilt. But that one has been used and washed, although it hasn't had any hard use.

FG: So, I'm assuming this quilt has never been washed.

EC: Oh, no, no.

FG: Today you know in thinking about the role quilts played in your mother's life. You've been able to tell this story to your grandchildren?

EC: Oh, yes.

FG: So, they're aware then of this prestigious--

EC: One of my granddaughters is here at the show today. I'm hoping she'll be interested in making quilts.

FG: Sometimes they say quilting is generation removed. And in this case it might be two generations. Do you think that quilts play an important role in America right now?

EC: Oh, yes.

FG: Are you aware of what is going on in quilting?

EC: Oh, yes, there is such a revival in quilt making today. I think during the depression years when my mother was doing it there wasn't a lot of entertainments you know. And the women just got together and quilted or made quilts and that was their form of entertainment. But it has certainly had a revival today.

FG: You can see though how it all connects. Artistic skills that were common in the 1930's is as magnificent as anything today.

EC: Yes. There are certainly a lot of beautiful quilts here.

FG: When you got married did your mother play a role in making a quilt or anything that you took into your new home?

EC: No, I don't think so.

FG: And thinking back on your mother's life is there anything that you would like to tell us about her? About her as a person, as a quilt maker or an artist.

EC: Well, she was a modest woman and a lively sense of humor and she loved to garden. She was just a typical woman. Although I think she had special talents that were subordinate to her role as mother and homemaker.

FG: Oh, yes, very much. We can see it here. As you have had the quilt and you continue to mature and age, do you think that things related to the depression era and the life you had then. Do you still feel the influences of that?

EC: Yes, I don't like to buy anything unless I can pay for it.

FG: So, no buying on credit.

EC: No, that's right.

FG: What about values and the things your mother taught you?

EC: Well, my mother was a great moralist. And my father was a man of great integrity and he used to tell us, 'When you get a job, you give everything you can to that job. And don't loaf on the job at all. Because your employer has bought and paid for your time and you owe to him to give your best.' So those were things that were impressed on us.

FG: Thinking back on those years and the role your mother played in your life, Is there anything else you'd like to tell us regarding her or her quilts. Anything we haven't covered that you'd like to mention?

EC: I don't think so. I think we've covered everything pretty well.

FG: All right. Well, this has been such a delight to hear about your mother a quilt maker, a quilt artist. So, thank you very much Elaine Carlson for sharing your story with us in the Save Our Stories Quilt History Project [Quilters' S.O.S.- Save Our Stories.] at Quilt Festival 1999, in Houston, Texas. This is Flavin Glover completing the interview.

EC: Thank you very much.



“Elaine Carlson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1233.