Eleanor Wertz Alpha




Eleanor Wertz Alpha


Eleanor Wertz Alpha is a retired business education teacher living in Memphis, Tennessee. Although all of the women in her family were quiltmakers, she did not begin to quilt until she retired from 30 years of teaching. Alpha praises new quiltmaking technologies, including machine embroidery and the automatic threader, because she developed carpal tunnel during her time as a teacher. She works on quilts in her sunroom and creates them for personal use and to give as gifts for her family.




Melanie Grear


Eleanor Wertz Alpha


Sharon Ross

Interview Date



Memphis, Tennessee


Sharon Ross


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Sharon Ross (SR): My name is Sharon Ross and today's date is March 19, 2008 at 6:40 p.m.I am conducting an interview with Eleanor Alpha in her home in Memphis, Tennessee for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Tennessee State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Eleanor is a quilter and is a member of Zachariah Davies Chapter NSDAR. Eleanor tell me about the quilt you bought today.

Eleanor Alpha (EA): The quilt that I have today, and that is in the photograph, is called a Crazy Quilt. It's based upon an antique quilt design that I remember as a child seeing it with my grandmother [Mammie.] on my father's side. And I chose this quilt today because it is the first quilt that I ever made in my life, and I made it to commemorate my retirement from teaching high school Business Education after 30 years. And, I had not even thought about quilting until I had the free time to do that when I was staying home after teaching. What someone would conclude about my quilt? I like a lot of bright colors, and I like a lot of fancy designs, and most of my quilts that I have made use and reflect that in bright bold colors. I plan to use this particular quilt just for myself. It is my own personal one I keep it on my bed. I put it away when it is not necessary because of the weather. I plan to keep it and probably give it to my daughter when I am no longer here.

My interest in quiltmaking is kind of surprising to myself. It must have been in my blood because until I retired from teaching, I did not know I had an interested in quiltmaking. But immediately I learned to make a quilt. I started making it when I was roughly around sixty some years old. Nobody taught me how to do it. I knew that you could cut up scraps of pretty material of color combinations that I had chosen and start sewing them together, being out of a square or a pattern. When I started quilting, I probably quilted at least 2 or 3 hours a day. So that would roughly be around 15 to 18 hours a week in my free time. Actually it was like an obsession that I really wanted to just do this.

So that my first memory is of my grandmother [Maggie Trout Wertz of Roanoke, Virginia.]. A candid one and other quiltmakers in my family on my grandmother's side, on my mother's side. My grandmother [Betty Collete Harp of Davie County, North Carolina.] and all of the women of my family were quilters. I just need to say that I had five aunts [one was Ethel Harp.] that were all quilters. I have samples of some of those at my house and also one from each one of my grandparents.

And so the impact upon it is that when you enjoy it. I have since made six quilts for my three grandchildren, two each year for Christmas in the last two or three years.

To get through a difficult time, I think sometimes when my husband passed away I moved here from Little Rock, Arkansas to Memphis [Tennessee.] in June of 2003. The quilting was a wonderful way to enjoy, and I suppose you could say therapy to my loss and not just sitting and moping around I guess or grieving so terribly.

An amusing experience that occurred from my quiltmaking, I cannot think anything right off hand; but if I do, I will come back to it.

But what I enjoy about quiltmaking particularly for my grandchildren is that as I'm sewing, I am thinking of them and probably putting my love into that quilt. So that is what I enjoy about it.

I belong to the Uncommon Threads Quilting Guild which is in Memphis, Tennessee or actually meets in Germantown [Tennessee.] at the United Methodist Church.

The advances in technology have influenced my work because as a teacher, a business teacher using my right hand, constantly marking papers in grading and writing on the board, I was developing carpel tunnel syndrome and was afraid that I could not use my hand as much. But with machine quilting that is all I do entirely. I do not do any hand sewing or quilting but maybe a little bit for trimming or for hemming; but nothing very much because of this difficulty with my hand. And as a result, because of the advance of technology and also the automatic threader, which I love on my machine, I don't have any problem being able to keep up with it. I probably do with my back, would be the only thing, I would need to just stop and get up and walk around and do something else.

I have favorite techniques. I do like the zigzag machine. I like the attachments on my machine and the metallic threads are wonderful to work with. So much has been improved in embroidery that I can add to my quilts without doing it all by hand.

The place where I create is in my sunroom. It has overhead skylights and I have a magnifying glass with light that is really nice. And have now moved it into a studio apartment which has lots of room.

And so balancing my time, obviously not now at this present date, I am in the process of trying to sell my house; and so I have put my quilting away for the first time in three or four years so that I can have my house ready to show, and therefore not all spread out.

I use a design wall. I call it a design board to post up any of my ideas to see how colors look together, and measurements, and sizes. So I like that, it helps me plan and design.

I have also been to Paducah [Kentucky.] for their national quilt show and also Tupelo [Mississippi.] when they had a national quilt show. I've been to a number of workshops and with the group that I belong. We have had out of state teachers that have come in and have helped us to learn to improve our technique.

What makes a great quilt? I think it reflects the personality of the person who is making it, of artistic ideas that's what makes it so powerful. Each person expressing themselves just like any artwork of what they are making.

What makes it appropriate for a museum or a special collection? I think either the unique style; of course, the craftsmanship and just whatever is something about it that makes it so attractive and different. And that's only according to the beholder.

A great quiltmaker is one who loves what they are doing and usually most quilters are obsessive with their work.

Why am I drawn to it and why? Again, bright colors. There are some things I do not like to do. I probably shouldn't say this, but some of the more traditional quilts, I suppose of the plain or the more country ones my grandparents grew up on are not what I would care for a lot particularly again, I would like to get more creative and colorful in mine.

And I don't know of any artists that have influenced me. I've seen a number of different ones, but I don't know of any that stand out in my mind.

And I've just mentioned what I know about machine quilting and hand quilting. I only have one quilt that I had to do on a long arm quilt for me because of the problem with the design of a double wedding ring quilt that I made for my daughter, for my granddaughter, my second one. It was so involved in hearts and design that I could not handle all of that on my machine by myself, and I did have someone quilt one of the one's I've done. The rest of the one's I have done myself by piecing the parts of the quilts before I put them together or quilting them as I was putting them together before they were sewn together in one piece.

It is important to my life as far as probably my heritage. It's something that I enjoy doing passing on to my children and grandchildren and is an expression or hobby of my own talent.

The quilts reflect my community or region. I'm not sure that it does specifically being from Arkansas and Tennessee. It's pretty much a normal quilt I suppose.

The importance of quilts in American life. My grandparents used the feed sack material for their quilts; and it was necessary just for clothing and for warmth and for continuing the material that was being used in fact.

The ways that quilts have a special meaning for women in history in America is that something that I also learned and that I put into this quilt that I am showing today. I did cut up a very nice dress and top that I was no longer was wearing. It just wasn't in style. It's the green one that had some guilding in it, and it reflects the Victorians when they had very special dresses that they could no longer wear that would hang in the closet for a few years and never would be used or passed down. Those dresses were used as, especially party dresses, were used or cut up and made for Victorian satin quilts that are so beautiful and so elegant. And those were the ones that I prefer, especially.

And in fact, once I have finished making quilts for all of my grandchildren, I will probably go back to making basically the fancy crazy quilts which they're called or antique quilts.

And I do think they can be preserved for the future and I do plan to pass them along to my children and my grandchildren. I already bought them a sewing machine. Of course, they are teenagers, and right now don't have time to sew or do much of anything except homework and sports.

What has happened to the quilts that you have made for those of friends and family? They are still using them and are enjoying them. They are on their beds now. They can carry them with them when they go places.

What is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today? Right off hand, I'm not sure if I know of any because the people I'm around that are exposed it, and it seems to be growing and flourishing and developments are just going into more and more bigger and better things.

And so this concludes my part of the interview unless Sharon has something she needs to say.

SR: Eleanor, I appreciate your allowing me into your home. Is there anything that you would like to add to this interview? I'd like to thank Eleanor Alpha for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 6:55 p.m. on March 19, 2008.


“Eleanor Wertz Alpha,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/13.