Susan Davis




Susan Davis




Susan Davis


Heather Gibson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Houston, Texas


Elaine Johnson


Heather Gibson (HG): Susan, let's just start with talking a little bit about the quilt you brought in today. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Susan Davis (SD): I'd be happy to. In fact, I have, I'd like to read to you the history of the quilt that we have put on the label of the quilt so that I at least get the dates straight.

HG: Wonderful.

SD: This quilt was made by my great, great grandmother and what I've written is; 'This quilt was made by my great, great grandmother, Celia White Hankerson Bean 1829-1905. She was born in Bangor, Maine and in 1852 she made a perilous sea voyage, sailing around the tip of South America to come to California. She was widowed in 1874 when her son, Leon, was 11 and her daughter, Blanche Celia, was 9. She supported the family by becoming a seamstress. She was one of two women who were sponsors of San Mateo County. This lady made the quilt for her granddaughter, Celia Blanche Watrous Dodge, sometime between 1894 and her death in 1905.'

HG: That's beautiful.

SD: Isn't that wonderful? So, I knew her in a way because one of her great granddaughters was my mother and my grandmother was her granddaughter. I knew my grandmother's older sister, Celia, who the quilt was made for. So, that is how I have a connection with these incredible women. [laughs.] From early on in my family.

HG: How did you come into possession of the quilts?

SD: My Aunt Jeanie gave it to me.

HG: Okay.

SD: This is how; I've had it for many years, and I don't think I truly appreciated this quilt until I became interested in quilt making myself. I always loved what was happening in it, but I just didn't appreciate the intricacy of her work or the technique she used until I started familiarizing myself with quilts and learning myself what it takes to make one.

HG: Well, since the tape does not record visual information why don't we go through and talk about what the quilt looks like.

SD: Okay. It's a Victorian sampler and each block, I believe, is utilizing the fabrics that she had from her dressmaking; things that she'd saved for years. The fabrics in the quilt are the original fabrics of the time which explains the condition of the quilt where the silks have actually evaporated from the exposure to air. The fabrics that have held up beautifully are the velvets. I imagine the color is true, almost as true as at the time that she made them. She's used some wonderful techniques. There is a woven basket in one of the blocks where she's taken velvet ribbon to make the basket. The flowers are appliquéd and then embellished with beautiful stitching, bringing out the texture of the flowers. Another block below that shows the moon and the stars and a streak of light from a star and we know that Halley's Comet went through at some time during her life. Another block is a treasure because it has an American flag, with an embroidered eagle holding part of an American flag, and she has appliquéd exhibit ribbons of the time period. There's one that says, "Sacramento of California Exhibition," San Francisco 1894. She has one with the California bear on it and the flag and the eagle for the United States to commemorate the twentieth national encampment in San Francisco held in 1886. This is one of my favorite ribbons, the 400th anniversary in commemoration of the discovery of America in 1492 and so the date on the top of the ribbon is 1492-1892. So, that gives you an idea of things that were incredibly important during the time that she was living in, or near San Francisco. And many of the blocks are traditional, here's a baby block pattern and the one down there is a log cabin using a technique in which each of the myriad of little logs are pleated which is a technique that I had never seen before until I realized it was in this quilt. She's done wonderful, wonderful decorative stitching on it using many of the crazy quilting stitches of her time and they are phenomenal. Every time I look at it I admire more and more about it even though the fabrics are disintegrating. She has her initials in the center, which is probably a pretty common thing I've seen that in other quilts. So, it connects me to people that lived a hundred years ago and that cared very much about their environment and are sharing it with us a hundred years later.

HG: Amazing.

SD: It's a great gift she gave us.

HG: Can you tell me, do you have any inclination of how, what purpose the quilt was made for or for whom?

SD: Well, it was made for her granddaughter.

HG: Okay.

SD: It was her first granddaughter, which was my great Aunt Celia, and I think she was sharing her time and days with that generation of children. And she did such a beautiful job. Two more generations now have had it.

HG: Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview with you?

SD: Because I'm so proud of it, and it's a privilege to be able to share it. I think the more that I can share this quilt with my generation and other quilters many will be inspired by that and appreciate this work. I wonder if this is what she was thinking of when she made it, I hope. So, that's what my goal is.

HG: Do you know, since it was given to your great Aunt Celia, how it's been passed down, since then? Are you the next person?

SD: Then it went to my mother and my mother's sister is who is my Aunt Jeanie. Jeanie gave it to me with some other tops that Celia Bean had worked on but never completed.

HG: Okay. And do you know if any restoration has been done to it at all?

SD: Only the back where my grandmother put some kind of a backing on it, I think just to hold the integrity of the shape. I know that she had it on beds, because I remember seeing it on a bed in some San Francisco house she lived in when I was a child.

HG: Do you remember was it for any special occasions that it was on the bed?

SD: I think it was on the bed all the time in a darkened room and it was a room that I went in very rarely as a child. That's all I can remember about it.

HG: [inaudible.]

SD: Oh, I'd be happy to. Okay. Right, Okay.

HG: How was the treatment of the quilt treated by other members of your family?

SD: I have a feeling it was, it's always been treasured, and I think the reason, well one of the reasons I received it is I began to have an interest in quilting. I'm also the oldest granddaughter, which is a very nice sibling position to be in when the quilt was coming down.

HG: And do you remember any stories associated with it?

SD: I really don't.

HG: Many generations back. [laughs.]

SD: Just stories of the lady and her life.

HG: I'm very interested in these symbols that are also stitched onto here, I wanted to make note of those. There's a man and I see a sort of sunflower and, I know that all the symbols have specific meanings for the time I just, here's a small bird.

SD: Many flowers.

HG: Yes

SD: There's some seaweed down at the bottom. She seemed to use many things from nature that were very important in her quilt. Here's a stork, here's two babies [laughs.], every time I look at this quilt I find a new little treasure somewhere, it's a delight.

HG: And where do you keep this quilt or how do you use it?

SD: I have kept it in my house on a special quilt rack that I've covered with muslin, certainly not in any direct light, and then periodically I will re-hang it so that I can see different areas of it, because every time I reposition it it's like a brand-new piece. I've never tired of it and it lived for many, many years in a chest, the chest that she had on the ship, when she took that incredible trip from Bangor, Maine. It lived in the trunk many years, but I want to see it, so I have to display it in my house.

HG: What sorts of reactions have you gotten?

SD: It lives in my bedroom, so anyone I take in there I know will love it [laughs.], of course, because it's the nicest thing in the room and I've had wonderful experiences whenever I have shared this quilt in the many places that I've lived. For instance, when I belonged to a guild in Oklahoma, they had a quilt show and it was just a wonderful time for many people to see the quilt, yes it was nice.

HG: Let's talk a little bit about your own interest in quilting. Can you tell me how that began?

SD: Okay. My own interest in quilting began when I took a class in making log cabin jackets. I was fascinated with the pattern and the fabric, and I did a little bit of sewing. I took a class by Judy Matheson in California, and I made a log cabin jacket. Then I proceeded to make two more jackets, one for my mother and one for a friend.

HG: About how old were you when you started this?

SD: Well, it had to have been over twenty years ago, so I was in my thirties. I won a prize which was the highlight of my life, in the L.A. County fair. I won a second-place ribbon for that jacket, so I dragged the entire family down and I know it was 1980 because I've got the ribbon in my picture book. That was my moment of fame.

HG: Wonderful.

SD: Yes, it was exciting.

HG: And how has that progressed and what kinds of things do you do now?

SD: Well, after I made the quilted jackets, I realized that what I love the most about the process was not the clothing but the quilting. So then I decided to learn how to quilt right then and there. And I love traditional quilting. So that's the jacket, see?

HG: Wonderful.

SD: I had a young family [laughs,] so my quilting was limited. The first quilt I made I gave to my mother and that was a sampler quilt, where I was learning all the different blocks and techniques like appliqué, piecing, how to quilt, and it was a very nice venue for that.

HG: What is it about quilting that's appealing to you?

SD: I love the use of color, I love learning about shading, I love fabric, I love the feel of it, it's something that I can do in my life that's very organized when all about me is disorganized. When I quilt, mayhem can be going on within my family unit and I can be working on a quilt and become very peaceful doing this kind of work [laughs] and so for me it's a great outlet in all phases of it.

HG: And how does your family react to your quilting?

SD: I think they've been seeing me do it for so long that they don't even react anymore [laugh.] they just say, 'when will it be done?' [laughs.] They're very supportive.

HG: Were there any other quilts in your family?

SD: Not really. I have an Aunt Sara on my father's side that does a lot of quilting but in my family itself there were a couple of generations after this lady where I don't believe much quilting went on. And so, I just sort of picked it up myself later.

HG: Did your mother teach you any sewing?

SD: No, but she's been very inspirational and very supportive. She was a recipient of my first quilt because no matter what it looked like she would think this was a grand thing [laughs.], so she's been an inspiration that way and she loves anything we do. She loves art and so I've been exposed to a lot of art all my life and so that's, not the hands on sewing but everything that goes into making a piece fabulous.

HG: Well can you talk a little bit about the relationship between quilting and the art world?

SD: Well, at the quilt festival there's such juxtaposition of the two, they're so entwined that's very obvious, but often I don't associate the two together. I find quilting an art form in and of itself and I love all of the varieties and the ways that quilters express themselves through the medium. There's no right or wrong way to do it and there's such a freedom in that and the results are astounding, absolutely astounding.

HG: Can you talk about some of the ways that you express yourself through quilting?

SD: Well, I have such total pleasure in creating and giving these pieces as gifts, which is, if ever I get anything done, what will happen to them, and I have a very patient family and friends also. I also feel that the influence of quilting, very much in my personal life and as a professional. I work in human resources in a clinical laboratory, and so a lot of my quilting was put on the shelf for many years because I was so busy with my work. When we were living in Pittsburgh, I was part of a group of people that formed a Valuing Diversity Committee. Now, it was really a very interesting group of people because it was a mixture of scientific, technical, professional, and support people. All of us came together in this large company and it was very important to us as a group to teach the value of diversity and the gifts everybody brings to the workplace. So, one of the ways that I used quilting was we had several meetings and we decided we needed to teach the lessons we'd learned in our lives, and we needed to reach other employees. We wore a diversity pin that we got from a professional society and it's a circle with a mosaic design. I took this design, and I enlarged it and I made it a quite huge circle and then I cut out all the mosaic shaped pieces in different colored paper. I gave each of the valuing diversity committee members any shape or color they wanted and said, 'Now put things in your piece of the quilt that represent--

[tape turned off because of announcement over the loudspeaker.]

SD: So, to continue with that, each member of the diversity committee had their own block and within the block they would put those items that they felt made them unique as individuals. And it was a wonderful talking point for these people to use when they introduced themselves as part of a committee before they went into the program that the group presented. No one was comfortable talking about themselves but through the medium of something that looked like a round quilt there's a comfort associated with anything like a quilt or patterns or color and then it just worked for everybody.

HG: Wonderful.

SD: So that I felt was how quilting has influenced not only my personal life but my professional life as well as it provided a bridge that all of us who were so different in our backgrounds were very comfortable with, and, and it works, so that's how my quilting has, enriched my life. [laughs.]

HG: Now, can you tell me approximately how many hours a week or how much time does quilting take up in your life now?

SD: My life right now I'm quilting I would say maybe every evening for at least an hour, so in a week maybe five or six hours and that's phenomenal for me to be able to sneak that much time in.

HG: And where do the projects go that you've created?

SD: The projects are promised [laughs.] to, I have four children and the particular quilt I'm finishing now I started about 12 years ago at least [laughs.] and I'm now quilting the borders. There's great glee that I might actually finish. Now he's the oldest, but the other one's aren't giving up hope [laughs.].

HG: Now what pattern is that that you're--

SD: This is another sampler.

HG: Okay.

SD: And again, it was started in my early quilting period and I'm still finishing those things.

HG: What is your favorite aspect of the quilting process?

SD: That is a very tough question. I want to give you a, just a real quick answer. I have quilts in my mind for years so that's one part of it.

HG: The creation and design?

SD: The creation and design and I keep them there (in my mind) just because I don't need another unfinished reality of more of my creations. I love that the planning part, I love the piecing. All of the sudden it starts to become a reality. I love every aspect of it. Basting is kind of a pain, but I do it religiously so that I end up with a nice-looking piece when I'm done, and I love the quilting. I love every part of it. I'm relaxed when I'm quilting and what a difference it makes in the piece, so I couldn't pick one favorite thing.

HG: Now quilting, the actual quilting itself is one of the least things that you hear about in this kind of topic in interviews

SD: Yes.

HG: Can you talk a little bit about the process of quilting itself and maybe your favorite designs?

SD: I use stencils and I use some traditional designs; my quilting is very basic. I'll always outline pieced pieces and then I'll use it, for instance, in the sampler quilt I'm doing now. Each block is different so each block says to me a different kind of quilting is needed, and so sometimes I'll experiment and maybe do a textured background or stippling and I feel I can do anything I want with a sampler. So that's how my quilting keeps evolving.

HG: Is there any aspect of the quilting process that you do not enjoy? You mentioned the basting.

SD: Other than basting, I wish it didn't take me so long to do something. But I'm such a perfectionist. This is a huge problem I have, that I can't skip over any piece or any part of the quiltmaking.

HG: Do you do most of your work by hand or by machine?

SD: Piecing and putting it together is all machine. Most of my quilting is by hand although I'm learning and making an effort to do some machine quilting, because it in and of itself provides a whole new dimension to quilting and is an art form of its own that you really can't replicate with hand quilting.

HG: Can you talk about quilting by machine and different types of machines that you have come into contact with?

SD: Well, I have a machine that's a close personal friend; it's an old Viking and I've always used that really for the last 25 years. I'm sad that it's so old but it keeps going [laughs] and, so that's very successful for the piecing part. I've really only machine quilted one piece that was a baby quilt because I felt machine quilting was the only way to go with a baby quilt because I want this baby to use it, end of story. And you know what happens to a baby quilt, more time in the wash than out, that's the kind of quilt I wanted and created. It's adorable. And that's why I really forced myself to machine quilt the whole piece. But for a big area, not yet; I don't trust myself yet. [laughs.]

HG: How do you feel about longarm machines?

SD: I think they're fine for commercial quilting, they probably won't enter my life, but the more exposure I get to all aspects of quilting I think everything has its place and it's the best thing for certain projects.

HG: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SD: It's a visual feast for the eyes. I have seen quilts that just stop me in my tracks. That to me is a great quilt and I don't know, they're not all traditional. I have seen quilts at this festival that you could stand and look at forever they're so beautiful. I feel this antique quilt is a great quilt because every time I look at it it's a dessert. That, to me is what defines a great quilt.

HG: Can you talk a little bit about the term's artistry and craftsmanship in terms of quilting and how you feel they relate?

SD: I think that both are essential. I find that a high level of craftsmanship enables beautiful artistry to be visual. You can have some wonderful pieces where the use of color and embellishments are well done but if the crafter didn't have a certain level of experience or expertise it detracts from the artistic value. That's how I see things, and in a way, I think that it's an inhibiting factor because you almost feel that you're never a good enough craftsman to complete some of these wonderful pieces; it's a two-edged sword. I think you need both.

HG: Okay.

SD: Okay. That's great. Do you want to try [inaudible.]

HG: Why don't I just pass this over to you and Mrs. Nance is going to talk for a minute.

SD: And we want you to tell the things about the quilt that I didn't add into it because you were closer to people that were closer to great great grandmother, so that's what we need you to tell, just the things that you were saying about her life. You need to talk into the tape.

Clyde Nance (CN): Oh, okay. alright. Should I turn it on?

SD: It's on.

CN: Oh, it's on. I'm Susan's mother and I would like to talk a little bit about the lady who made the quilt.

Unidentified Person (UP): And give us your name.

CN: Oh, yes, my name is Clyde Nance and I'm Susan's mother and my grandmother had this quilt because her mother had made it. I often saw it in my grandmother's home, and I heard stories about the lady herself. One of the things I was so impressed with was how she got on when she was left a widow with these two children in California out in the wilderness in 1850's and with no family support. She had to support these two little kids, so she became a seamstress, as Susan pointed out, and she probably used some of the fabric she used in sewing to make the quilt. Her business grew and she had up to eighteen seamstresses working for her at one time. They made underwear and children's clothes for I. Magnin and Company, the very famous store that was in San Francisco at the time. Then when they formed the county of San Mateo in this little bit of a rural area the people that owned businesses had to be responsible for the formation of this county and with the over 400 to 500 people that signed for the responsibility for the county there were only two women, and this lady was one of them. She had a business, was successful enough so she took on the responsibility, mainly financial, to support this county. One other thing that I would like to talk about, my daughter's first large quilt that she made she gave to me, and it came at a time where I was very sad, I had just lost my husband and here she [laughs] made this beautiful quilt for me and [crying.] it's meant a lot emotionally it was very important.

UP: And the quilt you're referring to is one that your daughter, Susan Davis, who's sitting beside you in interview--

CN: That's right.

UP: Made for you and described earlier--

CN: That's right.

UP: In the interview--

CN: That's right.

UP: And she made it for you right after your husband, her father--

CN: Yes, yes.

UP: Had passed away.

CN: It's a lovely quilt and when you were talking about great quilts, I happened to think some of it is recognizing the fabrics and that I had been around for a while and it's lovely.

UP: What do you mean by recognizing the fabric?

CN: Well in this quilt, Susan always had a great eye for color and at one time she was helping a lady who had a quilt store and she would go over and pick out the colors for these other people's quilts and she just loved to have them go together, so here she would have all of these little tiny patterns and, different kinds of patterns and she'd work and work with the quilts. It was wonderful for me to see how she put them together. I'm sort of color blind; I was a math teacher. One other thing I thought was interesting, one thing she didn't like about quilting that she didn't mention, she's just miserable at measuring things [laughs.], 'Mother, what is one half of seven and three quarters?' [laughs.]

SD: That is very true.

CN: But see so I was a help [laughs.] even though I couldn't thread a needle, I was a help with the quilt.

SD: You really [inaudible.]. [laughs.] I blanked all that out, what I didn't like. I don't like the math. [laughs.]

CN: This was great.

UP: Thank you.

SD: Thank you

HG: I think it's very interesting the concept of quilts as therapy. Has quilting ever helped you through a difficult time?

SD: It really has, in times of loss or stress, I find comfort in just sitting and stopping and quilting. I don't have to think about the quilting, and it brings a kind of a peace, a time to collect your thoughts and see things as they are and it works, it works for me.

HG: Can we talk a little about quilts in American history and also how this particular quilt in front of us relates to your view of American history.

SD: Very much what my mother was referring to in that it shows how Americans are very resourceful how she used a talent she had to support her two children and used the materials that were available to her through her work to create this, this beautiful quilt. I think that in our history of America we have seen great quilts all the way from the revolutionary war period moving westward, wherever people lived they used quilts either in utilitarian manner as blankets and later the pieces of fabric were put together in patterns, and I think it's a wonderful reflection of how Americans particularly used what's available to them and make the best of it. [laughs.]

HG: That's a wonderful analogy, and can you talk a little bit about quilting in women's lives specifically?

SD: In women's lives it's a wonderful way to share, for instance if you belong to any group when women get together to quilt, they're relaxed, they're working on art, it reflects their personality in whatever they've chosen to work on and it's a time to share stories which women do when they're relaxed and happy. They share stories, they share skills; if you get stuck with your quilting there's someone that's already been down that bad road and gives you her expertise or who will be looking at your work from a very different perspective and give you just the information you need to bring life to your piece whatever it is. I know that the happiest times and the times I was most productive with quilting is when it involved working with others and the fun and joy and that comes with it. I think that that is very important in women's lives particularly if we are isolated because of where we live or just our lifestyles when we're surrounded with children and spend a lot of time in one spot.

HG: How much have you traveled around the country with your family, moving?

SD: We've moved quite a bit. We started in California, then we lived in Oklahoma, where I started working in that quilt shop that mother referred to and I ended up teaching the log cabin jacket and then I taught a sampler class. I hate to admit this; I even will on tape, my husband said, 'Susan, why are you teaching a sampler quilt class when you have never finished a quilt?' Consequently, I quickly finished Mother's so that I could have a finished quilt. Then we moved to Midland, Texas, I joined a guild in Midland. Texans and Texas quilts are phenomenal. The next move was to Ohio, Amish country, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven, went to every exhibition I could, there were incredible museums, dragged Mother to the Athen's Quilt Barn, made her come from L.A. [laughs.] We just love that, so Mother's been a great support person. The next move was to Pennsylvania; yes, more quilts, [laughs.] these people wanted wool and warmth, and then I moved to Texas, and you know what's in Houston, the Quilt Festival [laughs.]. Quilting has been a trigger in all the places I've lived; I'm a fabricholic. [laughs.]

HG: Would you say that you've found regional differences?

SD: I would. I find that back east quilts have a very different purpose; they're for warmth, so I was very influenced by the Amish quilts; the simplicity of the designs and the impact of the colors and what they used. I felt that in Texas it's more pizzazz, it's more stars, more open spaces are the thing; and then in California there's just no holds, no bars held whatever that is [laughs,]. They do everything there and its very arty.

CN: So when you talk about the regional differences, you're talking about regional differences in contemporary quilters that you've observed?

SD: Very, very different, yes and, and it has enriched me tremendously because then I see quilts differently wherever I am and I, we grow from that.

HG: We're running out of time; I have one last question. Because we have this antique quilt in front of us, I'd like to know how you feel about the preservation of quilts and how they can be preserved for the future.

SD: I love that question. In fact I took a class just a couple of days ago to learn more about the proper preservation of quilts and about the decisions you have to make, and one of the things that I learned which is a truth that I've been in denial about is that it is a textile and eventually it will disintegrate no matter what we do and in a way that gave me a sense of freedom that I'm doing the right thing with this piece. The more people that see it, even now as it ages, it's better, because eventually this will be gone no matter what we do and it's important, I think, to preserve the integrity of the piece, think of the quiltmaker, her life and so if you're going to do any kind of restoration I believe that it's better to possibly cover something with a net, a tulle so that you can see what was there originally if that's possible. Different ages used different fabrics and so those are the things that I feel are absolutely imperative with restoration.

HG: That's a wonderful way to end my line of questioning, now is there anything that you wished I'd asked, or you'd like to add either about this quilt, your own quilting, or about quilting in general?

SD: No, I think you were a fabulous interviewer. [laughs.] You had me coming up with things I had forgotten. [laughs.] I learned more about this quilt from my mother right then and there. I didn't know about the eighteen seamstresses [laughs.] or I had forgotten it's a math thing to.

HG: Fabulous.

SD: Yes, a quilt is such an innovative piece and I think your questions highlighted that so thank you.

HG: Fabulous. This is Heather Gibson, it's November 3, 2000, we've been interviewing Susan Davis at the Houston Quilt Festival and we're ending this interview at ten minutes until 3:00. Thank you.



“Susan Davis,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,