Ethel Shulam




Ethel Shulam




Ethel Shulam


Jo Francis Greenlaw

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/ United Notions


International Quilt Festival
Houston, TX USA


Joanne Gasperik


o Frances Greenlaw (JFG): Good afternoon. This is an interview of Mrs. Ethel Shulam from Peabody, Massachusetts and she is here at the Houston quilt show being interviewed for Q.S.O.S. project. This is Saturday, November 2, 2002. We are commencing this interview at 3:25 p.m. the interviewers are Jo Francis Greenlaw, G R E E N L A W and Pauline Salzman S A L Z M A N. All right Mrs. Shulam, you have brought a very nice quilt for us to look at today. First, does it have a name?

Ethel Shulam (ES): Oh, it certainly does. It's called "Going in Circles"--

JFG: "Going in Circles."

ES: Because that's what I literally did trying to finish and do this quilt. [JFG giggles.]

JFG: And you made this for a special project?

ES: Yes it was for entry in a Sulky contest of 2001 and you had to use only Sulky thread that was visible on the quilt and it had to be 40" by 40" in size. The rest of it was what ever I wanted.

JFG: What ever design you wanted. And has this been traveling, you say?

ES: It's been traveling around for a year. And I just it got back about a month ago.

JFG: And what are the materials that you've used besides your Sulky threads, what else?

ES: Cotton, that I dyed myself and lots of batik fabrics and some, oh just regular cotton fabrics. But I picked fabrics that have a lot of details so that I can cut it up and get interesting effects from the fabric.

JFG: And you're using several different kind of threads, it looks like.

ES: Many different, I'm using rayon, cotton and metallic.

JFG: Well does this quilt have any special meaning to you now that you've gotten it back? [laughter.]

ES: Well I enjoy working with lots of colors, as you can see from the quilt. The fact that there are a lot of other people that can see the quilt and enjoy it, that gives me enjoyment too. I did teach quilt making and all forms of stitchery for 22 years and then at some point I said that's enough I want to do my own work. [chuckles.]

JFG: What is going to become of this quilt now that you have it returned?

E S: Well, it will probably go into a couple of more shows. My son collects my quilts not because I forced it on him, but he has quite a few of my quilts hanging all over his house and he does have a very big house. [laughs.]

JFG: Good! Do you sell your quilts?

ES: On occasion, if somebody is willing to pay for them and take good care of them, because they are part of me sort of like my babies.

JFG: Do you have a large collection yourself of quilts?

ES: I have the ones I've made, yes. But I don't collect old quilts.

JFG: Or other people's?

E S: No, not really. I don't have enough space because we have a lot of paintings that we collect from various places.

JFG: Well, how did you get started in quilting?

ES: Good question. [chuckles.] I think I was working with a pair of scissors from the age of five. My first project was to pretend I was a barber and I ran around the house chasing my sister and I cut her hair. [chuckles.] Also I pretended to be a surgeon and fix a toy dog, repaired, sewed a dog. My mother was also a seamstress, so I think I started at an early age.

JFG: Was your mother a quilter?

ES: No she was a seamstress and the odd thing is, when she was single, she had a store where she sold fabrics and she made aprons to sell. And I found out afterwards that another cousin had her fabrics store in New York City, that's my mother's side. On my father's side it seems that one of his sisters in Europe had a tapestry business, had other people working for her doing all sorts of things. [chuckles.] So I think it does run in the family.

JFG: Generational interest.

ES: I did start out as an embroideress, but I did use padding and quilting on a lot of things. At one point I decided I wanted to have recognition and I felt that in the embroidery stitching area I wouldn't be able to get ahead. So I sort of laid it aside and incorporated that in my quilting.

JFG: Did you have plans from the beginning to sell your work or to have an income from it?

ES: A very small income

JFG: Not a lot. [laughter.]

ES: Well I did have an income from teaching, I gave workshops and I worked four days a week for the adult education programs in my area so it was two nights a week and two mornings. But it did take away an awful lot of my time and then I decided I want to stop teaching.

JFG: How much time to spend quilting?

ES: A long time. Our house is a split entry and it's sort of a garage underneath but it's not really under-underneath and at one point I said I want to look for place to put all my things. I'm going to rent somewhere because I can't stand working--I was working in a 12 ft. little room and it wasn't enough for my supplies. So he said ' no, no, no I don't want you to leave the house. How about taking over the garage and making a studio out of it.' I was so flabbergasted that he wanted to do that. See, we never kept the cars inside the garage anyway. They were always outside. So I have a full-fledged studio that is 19 by 24 something like that and the door faces my hanging boards. The other end opens this up into the other end of the house. So I can stand away 50 ft. in the back and look and see if something really shows up. So that made it marvelous.

JFG: You're quite lucky. I don't have all that.

ES: Right, but I'm not satisfied to just go to the store, buy fabric, cut it up and do something with it. I silk screen. I print. I do rubberstamps. I make my own rubberstamps. What else? Paint. I do all kinds of techniques to enhance and make the fabrics for quilting.

Interview: And have you been teaching these kinds of techniques?

ES: Some of them I have. I'm looking for people that want to learn, but there aren't too many people in my area that are that advanced that are interested. In fact yesterday I took a whole day workshop here on marbling, because, I had tried it at home but I didn't have luck. I did 17 pieces of fabric; I was so excited about doing it [laughing.], so I'm going to do more.

JFG: What about other people in your family who quilt? You said your mother was a seamstress.

ES: She was a seamstress and I had three sisters and two of them died [inaudible.] not too long ago and one of them made handbags and also taught some quilting, and the other one was a seamstress, who made clothing. I'm the only one left.

JFG: But you're the famous quilter in the family.

ES: Oh definitely [laughing.] and both of them had quilts that I made especially for them.

JFG: In your family did you have traditional quilts that you grew up with? No?

ES: No. Not really. I think I've always been interested in contemporary art and everything.

JFG: Are you artistic yourself? You are an artist?

ES: Well, this is what I do. I know color. I love working with it. I'm not afraid of odd colors or anything. I think my designs are pretty strong. I try to help other people. I still on occasion, if people ask me, I give a workshop or I give a lecture. I work one day a week as a volunteer. There's a wonderful quilt museum in Lowell, Mass. It's been there I think almost 10 years. I've lectured there, given workshops there, as well as working in the library.

JFG: What's the name of that museum?

ES: Lowell Quilt Museum. It's called the Lowell Quilt Museum.

JFG: Well there is beautiful machine quilting on this piece. Are you exclusively a machine quilter?

E S: No, I started out doing everything by hand. I used to do hand appliqué and I ruined my hands. I have osteo-arthritis and I got trigger-thumb and I had to have an operation on my hand. Now this cutting bothers me. I've always liked the sewing machine. I'm never afraid of using it, but I did do hand quilting, but the repetitive motion caused my problems. Lots of people end up with the same problem.

JFG: Well how do you feel about the traditional type quilts that are all hand pieced and hand quilted as compared to the sort of artistic work that you do?

ES: Well it's up to the person and their heart. If they feel they want to do traditional that's fine. I personally don't care for a pattern or something that I've seen a hundred million of the same thing. Sometimes they take a traditional pattern and they use different colors and they change things. That means the person is a little bit more advanced. Maybe, because I do this kind of thing a lot, maybe I'm prejudiced. I don't have the patience to walk around at an ordinary quilt show, you know, the local one; I will not even go there. I don't get anything out of it. I don't get any feeling or anything. It isn't that I don't appreciate history but history in its place. I'm making a history of the present-day or future, and then somebody else will do that later on after that.

JFG: Well, where do your design ideas come from?

ES: My head.

JFG: Your head. So you don't necessarily see them at other quilt shows.

ES: No I can't copy or, I'll look at somebody and say, 'Oh my God I wish I had done that, that's wonderful.' But that doesn't mean that I'm even going to think, a couple of times I even tried, but it just won't, it just won't come, I just can't copy or do something that somebody else did.

JFG: Well, this is named--this quilt is named "Going in Circles." Does that mean something in particular? Is that some experience you've had?

E S: Well, a lot of times I am going in circles, because if I get an idea I want to start it. So right now I must have at least 10 half-started quilts, so I am going in circles because I can't decide which one am I going to work on next. So it's quite good for me when a special exhibition comes up because then I know I have to work on that one particular piece if I want to enter the show. Otherwise because I like everything.

JFG: Do you enter a lot of shows? Why do you enter?

ES: I don't enter a lot of shows. I enter the shows that I think are more prestigious although I have been in some of my local shows so that my work can be seen there. I want recognition, I don't even know why, I just do. Something inside of me.

JFG: Is that a validation for women's work?

ES: It may be. I don't know. I know what it is for me personally, and since I am a woman I guess maybe it is. But you see why,- I don't really connect with that exact thing because I've never been held down by my husband, who will say you know ,you're a woman, you should sit home and do this and that. The only time I had to be home and so forth was of course when our children were small because I felt I had to be home. And even then, I was teaching a couple of nights a week and I was doing my own thing. So I'm a little different. I have not been, but I empathize and I see other people and it does upset me when I see women being taken advantage of, and not being allowed to get ahead. Especially when I was teaching, I saw it in a lot of my students.

JFG: Do you think that the interest and the possibilities in quilting now are a good sign of what is available to women, how do you feel?

ES: I think so. I think it's fantastic. I think the advances, because I remember when I first started, I mean just look at how many women there are in this place [laughing.] and I would say most of them have families [inaudible.] they just take off. Why not, I mean, I believe in equality.

JFG: It's a wonderful validation of us. Well when you see quilts like you're seeing a lot of them here, what makes a really great quilt for you, in your opinion?

ES: First of all, if I walk the first time through, and I'm going really fast and all of a sudden something hits me and I say, 'Wow.' It's probably well-designed and the color says something. It does something for me. It's sort of like a magnet. It drags me over to look at it, and then I get very close and I start looking, 'Oh how did she do that.' In Fact, there were a couple of people standing around, I was looking at one of the quilts today and I was explaining to them the technique. [laughing.] It wasn't a quilt that I did, [laughing.] but I understood what she did with the machine. I should've written it down. It was unbelievable. It didn't win anything. Where was it? It was at Husqvarna. It was white on white. She used felt and machine lace; that's all she used. But it was pieces of felt and lace all around it and was over 50 in. plus. But how did she put it together? Because, if you're making lace you would have to do it in a hoop. You do machine work, so you understand, do you do machine?

JFG: Not like you all.

ES: Do you know if there's a hole, how to darn?

JFG: Yes.

ES: Well, this is machine lace. In order to do this you need something solid to begin with and then you stitch. So I don't know whether she maybe had vanishing muslin, she could have used vanishing muslin and put the pieces on it


“Ethel Shulam,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 19, 2024,