Jean Lyle


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Jean Lyle




Jean Lyle


Joe Koval

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/ United Notions


International Quilt Festival
Houston, TX USA


Megan Dwyre


Joe Koval (JK): This is Joe Koval, today is November 1, 2002 and it is 10:15 a.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Jean Lyle for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project at the Houston Quilt Festival. Jean, why don't you go ahead and tell me about the quilt you brought today.

Jean Lyle (JL): Well, this is a quilt that came from the Boot Heel of Missouri, that's down in the Southern end, almost to the Arkansas border. It was made by two sisters, who I can't give you their name because the family asked me not to. They used one piece of cardboard for every triangle in here. When you lay this quilt out or hold it up, you can see where the triangles got smaller and smaller, because the cardboard became more worn. I believe it has over four thousand pieces in it and it was put together as a four patch. When you look at it, the four patches are of the same fabric. I believe there's fabric in here from 1840 through 1880. If you notice on the binding, which brought back to front, that it will start with maybe a quarter inch and then it ends up down at the bottom almost an inch, an inch and a half and of course that's due to it not being perfectly cut. This was a very rural family and they worked on it, the information from the granddaughter, for several years. A lot of the fabric's from the clothing that they had or that their neighbors had and didn't use and I just think it's a real interesting quilt, and I wish I could give you their names, but the family asked that I don't.

JK: How old is the quilt?

JL: I think it was finished around 1880. The fabric would indicate that and the information from the family.

JK: Why did you choose this quilt to bring today?

JL: My grandmother and my great-grandmother were quilters, I was raised in the Depression Era, and they always referred to their quilts as 'waste not, want not.' They never threw a piece of fabric away that was good. In the early Depression, they would take my father's shirts and suits and reverse the collars on them. Then, they would take the clothing and make us jackets and shirts. When I was a child, my great-grandmother lived in Gainesville, Texas- that's where my mother was born, and she would come to visit them day after Thanksgiving, by bus from Gainesville. She stayed until the day after Christmas. She was only five feet tall. The bus driver got off and brought her big bag of scraps to us. I sat on a footstool and strung the pieces as she cut them. She never had a pattern to look at. It was all in her mind, how this quilt was going to go together? I still have family quilts.

JK: How old were you when you strung the pieces?

JL: Five years old.

JK: Is that your earliest recollection of quilting?

JL: No, but that was the earliest that they trusted me with the needle. [laughs.]

JK: What do you plan to do with this quilt?

JL: I've been enjoying it, really. If there's somebody that's interested in this quilt in the future, I will sell it. I just thoroughly enjoy the quilt as it's a great study of old fabrics. I have taken it to several guilds, where I've lectured to show them various stages of dating fabrics, and that everything wasn't technically perfect back in that era.

JK: Do you quilt yourself? Are you a quilter?

JL: No, I don't. I never considered myself a quilter. I made them for my grandbabies, but I do not like making quilts. I love restoring old family quilts, but I don't do it anymore because of the arthritis in the fingers. The pain's not worth it.

JK: How did you get started in buying and selling quilts?

JL: Well I live in the farm area of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois, right were the states meet on the Mississippi River. I used to love to make auctions with a friend of mine I went to an auction across the river in Missouri that had a whole stack of farm quilts. I bought them for five dollars each. Of course that was like forty years ago. When I came home Bill said, 'What are you going to do with these?' and I said, 'Well, I have friends in Houston that want good old farm quilts. I'm going to load them in my suitcase and next time I go visit my mother and I'm going to take them down there. That's how I got started. The first time I sold to a dealer, Karey Bresenhan right after she opened up her shop. I walked in with a suitcase full and said 'Hi, I'm Jean Lyle, I've got some quilts here to sell. Would you be interested?' She bought most of them. [10 second pause.]

JK: Were their other quilters among your family, other than your grandmother and your mom?

JL: Well, my mother pieced, my mother loved to do embroidery on the crib quilts. Her sister pieced as well as my grandmother, great-grandmother, and my great-aunt. They never quilted. When they got through with their tops they sent them to Levi, Kentucky to a Presbyterian mission and they were quilted. My mother made a quilt for my first child. It was quilted in Levi, Kentucky. My family didn't like to quilt, but they loved to piece.

JK: What impact has quilting had on your family?

JL: I think it brings the family together, particularly in the family that quilts or sews. My family wasn't spread out all over the country when I was a child, like mine is today. It was the great foundation. My children love the quilts and the family quilts. Being in the business, it made me appreciate the labor of love that went into them. Years ago, even today, it's a labor of love. It's a wonderful business, I love it.

JK: What's the most pleasing thing about what you do with quilts?

JL: The people, the other merchants. As you well know, some of the best friends we have made do the same thing, friendly competitors so to speak. I think it's one of the best 'caring, sharing' businesses. In the early years, being in business, it was the stories, museums, the early quilters, but going into their homes and hearing their stories, on the farm basically, how they were so willing to talk, not only about their families, but why they did this quilt, who helped them or who didn't, it's just a very caring, sharing business. World of mouth has been very good to me in the area over the years, and when I'm buying privately I never just walk in and say 'Where is it?'. I might have to sit down and have coffee or tea or whatever, and hold the babies sometimes. It has taught me so much, because I learned. Like in the early years, there weren't classes. There weren't shows. There weren't many books. We still had people in our church when I moved to Quincy in 1952 we would all sit around the quilting table. I didn't quilt but I'd sit and listen. Some of it was about quilting and some of it was about life in general but it was a great learning experience to me. It taught me a lot of patience that I didn't have.

JK: What don't you like about quilting?

JL: There's not much I don't like about this business. When I'm home for about three or four weeks at a time, I'm chomping at the bit to get on the road and get to another show [laughter]. I just love the people, I love the shows, I don't do as many as I did eight or ten years ago, but the ones I do I thoroughly enjoy.

JK: What do you collect yourself?

JL: I don't. I've had quilts that I've enjoyed for myself for four maybe eight years, one I had for ten years, but I never collected. When I'm home any length of time, they're spread out all over my house except the kitchen or the bathroom.

JK: How about your family quilts? Did you have any of your family quilts?

JL: Oh yes. I have, between my daughters and my sisters, we probably have thirty quilts. Dog-eared. Some of them. I've got one, that as a child, I strung the pieces for. When I was in college and I would come home, this quilt was on my mother's bed. We referred to her room as the Throne Room. We'd come in off a date my sisters and I sat on this quilt, which was a no-no today. The center of this quilt is in very good condition. The three sides of it are totally worn where the buns sat down there and rubbed it. It's on my guest room bed today because I can still see my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, piecing it. Not only that it's really warm.

JK: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JL: Use of color, the visual effect. It's like how many flavors of ice cream are there? There's something for everybody. I prefer the scrap quilts over the contemporary. I like them, but I love scrap quilts, and most of the time that's what I carry. I think that looking at it visually and if you like it or you don't like it, it appeals to you or have a place for it.

JK: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

JL: Exquisite workmanship, age, condition, not a pattern that you would see all the time or an unusual display of workmanship, plus the story of the quilt.

JK: What makes a great quilt dealer?

JL: I think first you have to love what you're doing, and love the quilts that you have and having the story from the maker. Most of them I know, or know all the families, and being willing to share that information. People come in and say 'Well, that's nice,' and I'll say 'Well, let me open it up for you. You can't appreciate a quilt until you open it up.' I have sold a lot of quilts because we try to take time whenever possible and love what you do.

JK: What do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

JL: I'm a traditionalist, there some beautiful machine quilted quilts, but I'm a traditionalist, I love the hand quilted. I don't mind a quilt that's been machine pieced, but I appreciate the hand quilting and the different styles and the time that it takes them to quilt by hand. If I were younger, probably I would get more into the machine quilting, but I don't.

JK: What ways do your quilts reflect your region or your community?

JL: Well as I said, I'm in the Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois area. The closest big city is 120 miles away, St. Louis. Kansas City is 250 so it's a very rural area. The people I run into are very conservative. They made scrap quilts. You very seldom find an appliqué or crazy quilt that came from my area. It's usually scrap quilts. 'Waste not, want not.'

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

JL: There's a lot of love that has gone into them. People have worked through their emotions, births, deaths, happiness, I look at some quilts and I say, 'Oh boy that is a happy looking quilt.' Not all quilts are happy looking to me. A quilter's heart and soul goes into it, and their emotions reflect in the quilt.

JK: Have you ever used your quilts to get through a difficult time?

JL: Oh yes, which I don't care to go into. Not the making so much as sitting down and taking a couple quilts that have some very sad stories, looking at them and thinking, 'What I'm going through is not as sad as--'

JK: How do you think quilts can be used?

JL: Well, I have a theory, when you own it you can do whatever you want to do with it, but I like to see them hung, I love to see them on beds, I like to see them draped. If they're family quilts or a collection, sitting in a closet folded up on a shelf, you can't enjoy them. They need to be displayed. That way you can get the whole look of the quilt, grant you not many people have a house with 20-30 quilts. If you have them you should use them. You can use a quilt without abusing the quilt.

JK: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

JL: Well no direct sunlight for one, bright lights. Of course don't wash them to death, don't wash most of them and definitely not store in plastics. Sitting on them or throwing them around doesn't help matters at all. Look at this quilt, it has had good storage. Some of the fabric has little age marks on the back or a spot. But it's had good care and a lot of old quilts never have good care. I personally don't think the new fabrics are going to last as long as the fabrics of this era. Use them but don't abuse them.

JK: Do you ever think about some of the quilts you've sold and what's happened to them?

JL: I used to take pictures of everything I had, up until about six or seven years ago, they're in a bag in a drawer and I got them out one time and looked at them and I cried through half of them I thought 'Oh wow, if I had this one today.' Quite a few of my really fine quilts, I know where they are today, but you sometimes wonder, were they passed on or did they take them and sell them? But I've had some very nice collectors buy from me over the years and so far [inaudible.], not all of them, which is fine, you know they're getting a good home. Sometimes it concerns me. I once had a silk quilt or sham and it was on a chaise lounge, a silk and I was doing a little show in Springfield, Illinois this lady came in with her decorator, and her decorator said 'That's just perfect for your dining room chairs,' and there wasn't anything wrong with these pieces and I looked at her and said, 'I'm sorry that's not for sale.' I took it down and put it under the table. I couldn't stand the thought that they were going to put these beautiful silk pieces, cut it up, and put it on dining room chair, after about three sittings, they would have been shot anyway. I've seen this woman since and she totally goes the opposite way.

JK: Your husband helps you with the business and quilting, and how has that impacted your life?

JC: Oh, great. People our age that have been married as long as we have shouldn't be having as much fun as we're having. I mean really we are having a ball. He sold his agency, retired. He always said, when you're retired you've got to have something to do, and he got in to featherweight machines and parts, he loves it. He's a salesman so we're having a blast. I don't know what we're going to do when we can't do this any longer, but we really are having a fun, fun time.

JK: I think you've covered a lot of ground and I've asked you a lot of questions, is there anything that I haven't covered that you might want to mention?

JL: I think you pretty well did it.

JK: Okay, I'd like to thank Jean Lyle for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 2002 Quilters' [S.O.S. -] Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 20 minutes 'til 11 on November 1, 2002.

[tape recorder is turned back on.]

JK: This is Joe Koval interviewing Jean Lyle and this is an addendum to our previous interview. It is 21 minutes 'til 11 on November 1, 2002. Jean tell me a little bit about your experience with quilt appraising?

JL: Well, I was approached, I can't remember how many years ago, in Paducah, Kentucky by Meredith Schroeder, that the AQS [American Quilters Society.] organization wanted to try to set up a program on quilt appraising. There were five of us that worked about six years time to set up the Appraisal Program and forms for quilt appraisal. It was very interesting and was also very in-depth. What one didn't think of the other on the committee did. We finally got an agreement. It's been very interesting to watch the program grow. Getting into more detail about quilts, how they were made, and histories of them. I'm retired, as of this year, from appraising, but the program has grown tremendously and I'm exceedingly proud of the people that have become appraisers. They network with all of the other AQS appraisers and share information. Nobody knows everything and so if you have a question on a quilt, or a collection that you're appraising, you've got all these other appraisers to network with. So you can come up with an answer that is comfortable for you and for the customer. It's a great program. I don't really like doing contemporary quilts, so it's time to retire.

JK: Why do you think it's important for people to have their quilts appraised?

JL: Well basically if they're lost, damaged, or stolen you have to have a basis for the value of the loss. An insurance company will demand proof of your claim value before they will pay under their insurance policy. A professional appraisal will provide this proof. The IRS will also accept this professional appraisal as proof of a loss on your tax form, should this loss be claimed on your 1040 form.

JK: Define differences in the young people coming to the place compared to the people that handle the antique quilts.

JL: I think that by the time they go through all the courses on quilts, fabrics and values including the three day testing that they go through to become certified, they could handle most anything.

JK: Okay, I'm going to thank Jean Lyle again for the interview for the [Quilters' S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project and we will conclude this interview at fourteen minutes until 11.


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