Louise Reynolds




Louise Reynolds




Louise Reynolds


Martha Spark

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Rockford, Illinois


Joanne Gasperik


Martha Spark (MS): This is Martha Spark. Today is October 4, 2002. It is 2:37 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Louise Reynolds for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save our Stories project in Rockford, Illinois. Louise, thank you so much for being interviewed. [paper rustling in microphone.]

Louise Reynolds (LR): Thank you for asking me.

MS: Tell me about the quilt or the objects that you brought in today.

LR: I brought in a patchwork quilt and a China doll--family heirlooms that have been passed down through my maternal lineage. Elvira Smith Brouse, my great-great grandmother made the quilt in the 1840s. Mother [Marie (McVey) Renken.] estimates that time period because Elvira died in 1850 – at the age of 21 years, 4 months and 6 days. When I received the quilt, I was familiar with its generational heritage, but I didn't fully appreciate that connection until a couple of years later. A few weeks before Mother gave me Elvira's quilt I'd started work on a red and white, Double Irish Chain quilt top for my daughter's wedding present. One day Susan told me, 'Mother, Kevin and I've discussed it. We know you don't have a lot of money to spend on a wedding gift, all we really want is for you to make us a quilt [their wedding was less than 6 months away.].' As soon as we agreed on the pattern [she originally wanted the Double Wedding Ring.] I feverishly began hand-piecing blocks every minute I could. [I was working FT.] During the same time period I was helping chauffeur Dad to his bi-weekly dialysis treatments. One evening I asked Mother to show me the quilts she had. While she prepared supper, we began looking at quilts. A cardboard box from the closet revealed several quilts that I remembered from childhood. Most had been made by my paternal grandmother. One was made by mother's uncle. The last box she pulled from under Dad's bed. As we unfolded Elvira's blue and white patchwork quilt the hair stood up on my arms. I thought the pattern was the same as I was making for Susan. Elvira's pattern looks like a large checkerboard, 42 - 12 inch blocks [21 blue/white and 21 all-white.], 6 rows across and 7 down. I don't know the exact pattern. Others tell me it's a version of the Nine-Patch. The blocks consist of 81 [9 by 9.] 1 and 6/8 inch precise pieces. From a distance the indigo fabric appears solid, up close one can see two miniature designs: one resembling a beetle's body; the other, a snowman with a tail. A third design in the border symbolizes a cross--two rows of tiny white, intersecting dots.

MS: I wonder if that has any significance in--

LR: You know, I think it might. When I was working on my thesis I started thinking about Elvira and her family background. I knew very little about her - only what few facts Mother had recorded from oral history. One day at work I did a computer search for “Highland County, Ohio." The search engine revealed the name of Rinda Ferguson, native of Highland County. [Elvira's home.] Rinda lived in Indiana. She was working on her genealogy certification. I promptly sent her an e-mail listing what little I knew about Elvira. Rinda replied immediately. For $20 she would send supporting evidence to my questions. In her information, I learned that Elvira's father [Moses Smith.] had been a prominent member of the Auburn Methodist Church in Highland County, Ohio during the 1830s. [he may even have been a minister.] Moses Smith was listed with several others including Peter Cartwright, the famous circuit riding preacher. I like to think Elvira selected her fabric for religious reasons. Anyway, I think her quilt holds more significance than I will ever be able to determine. I've searched the quilt looking for Elvira's name, initials or perhaps a date the quilt was made. I'm not even sure Elvira made the quilt, however that's where the China doll enters the story. Mother has said, 'Elvira won the China doll for her quilting ability. If you measure, there are 10 stitches to the inch.' The doll and quilt have always been a duo. I'm the fifth generation custodian. The doll and quilt will go to my older daughter, Susan, then to her only daughter, Elizabeth. They will be the fifth and sixth generation descendants. I'm trying to take good care of the quilt. After 150 years it's showing wear-- especially around the binding. I'd love to duplicate the quilt. I've shopped for reproduction fabric [no luck.], but when I look at the postage stamp-size pieces [1701 in all.] I realize what a challenge the patchwork would be, not to mention Elvira's quilting. The solid blocks are quilted in a clamshell pattern. The checkerboard blocks and the border are quilted in a diagonal design, lines approximately ½" - 5/8" apart. The only quilt I've hand-quilted took me four years to finish, so I appreciate the time-value in Elvira's quilt. I want to pass her genealogy along with the quilt. All pictures and any other personal belongings of her have been lost. [Martha: hmm.] Elvira's husband remarried in 1854, a little more than four years after her death. [He married the housekeeper.] Her household items probably stayed in the Brouse home; maybe some personal items went back to her parents [Moses and Catharine (Underwood) Smith.] or were lost over the years.

MS: Right. And you mentioned the doll, is this--

LR: This is the China doll. [both speak at the same time.]

MS: China doll is here--

LR: Mother had the doll redressed by a dressmaker back in the 60s or 70s. How I wish they had saved the original clothing. The “new" dress is beautiful, but I doubt that it reflects Elvira's rural Ohio lifestyle. [Her father was a farmer.] The satin dress looks like a Victorian ball gown-- scooped neckline, fitted bodice, puffed sleeves tapered to the wrist. Over time, the blue dye has faded completely away--changing to a hint of pink. The billowing skirt has a petticoat, and an overskirt open in the front, showing a 4-tier accent trimmed with lace and black velvet. The trim also embellishes the wrist and skirt perimeters. Someday I hope to redress the doll in period clothing, typical of the 1840s. Mother entered Elvira's quilt in a quilt exhibit in 1979 at Biggsville's 125th Anniversary Celebration. It won Best of Show. [I have a photograph – the ribbon has been lost.]

MS: Wonderful. So--

LR: That may be the only official award Elvira's quilt has received.

MS: Yes. Now, why did you choose this particular quilt to bring to this interview?

LR: I've gotten interested in genealogy, and because of this workshop, Save Our Stories. Elvira's quilt has the most interesting, sentimental story of any quilt in my family.

MS: Do you have other quilts that she had made?

LR: No. [both speak at the same time.]

MS: This is the only one.

LR: It's amazing that Elvira's quilt has been preserved all these years--passed from family to family without being lost. It's starting to show wear. I've considered repairing the binding, but I've heard that would change the antiquity value and I don't want to do that. After receiving the quilt, I started thinking about Elvira a lot, especially when I worked on my thesis. During the literature review many questions came to mind. 'What was Elvira like?' 'Why did she die so young?' 'What was the real cause of death?' Mother said it was complications from childbirth. [The baby was named Elvira.] Her life had only begun. In August [2002.], I had an opportunity to visit Columbus, Ohio [my first Ohio visit.]. Quite by chance, I discovered in Rinda's material the name of the cemetery where Elvira and several of her family were buried. On the hottest day of the year, my friend and I headed for Hillsboro. Auburn Cemetery was 80 miles southwest of Columbus. The directions we followed were from a telephone conversation with a total stranger days before we left. The woman was an avid genealogist--I trusted her judgment, but as we passed cemetery after cemetery, some with hundreds of stones, I began to worry whether we'd have time to find Elvira's stone. All morning the weather radio had predicted a heat advisory for Columbus and the surrounding areas. At noon the temperature was near 100o, heat indices forecast for 110-115, maybe higher. Listeners were advised to 'stay indoors -- in air-conditioning, if possible, drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol, and limit outdoor activity until sundown. Weather conditions are extremely dangerous for the very young and the elderly.' Amazingly, our directions led us straight to Auburn Chapel and the Cemetery--out in the country, about 5 miles from Hillsboro. I was delighted to see the small cemetery. Jumping from the car I headed into the cemetery believing I would walk right to Elvira's grave. It wasn't quite that easy. Some of the inscriptions on the older stones were so worn and weathered the names were difficult or impossible to make out. Looking around, I noticed a broken headstone, one piece on top of the other. As I stroked the stone, I nearly overlooked the name, “Moses Smith." [Elvira's father.] I was ecstatic. Checking closer we discovered grave markers belonging to several other family members. Some of the slabs had fallen over. Others leaned at 45o angles. The stones had settled so deep in the ground the names were no longer visible. Reaching down I grabbed one of the stones with both hands and pulled. Surprisingly, it came right out the ground. In all, I pulled up four stones--three of Elvira's sisters and her 12-year old nephew. Nearby we found her mother's stone, flat on the ground practically covered over by grass. But we couldn't find Elvira. I was devastated. She was the first in her family to die or so I thought. We had started for the car when Bob said, 'If I had a shovel, we could dig up this rock.' Without a word I leaned over and began pulling grass. The first handful revealed the edge of another slab. Heart pounding, I frantically ripped up the remaining grass--exposing the backside of an entire slab. We turned the stone over. It belonged to my great-great grandmother. [she says this hoarsely, with emotion in her voice.]

MS: Oh, my goodness. [sighs.]

LR: So, I have her quilt. I have her doll, and now, I've found her grave. [her voice quivers.] That experience has moved me away from the practical side of quilting into genealogy.

MS: But still, what a wonderful story. Oh. That was meant for you at that time.

LR: When I returned from Hillsboro, I could barely wait to see Mother and tell her about my discovery. Mother lives in an assisted care facility. She was headed to the dining room for supper. 'Mother, you've got to wait. You'll never guess where I've been this weekend. I've been to a cemetery in Highland County, and I found Elvira's grave.' Tears started tricking down Mother's cheeks. [One of the few times I'd seen her weep.] 'Oh.' she said, 'How I wish Mother knew this.' I told her, 'I think she knows.' Mother could not believe I had traveled 450 miles [three states away.] and found Elvira's grave. So little was known about her [inaudible.].

MS: [whispers.] Great. I'm so excited. Now, tell me more about this quilt. Do you only bring it out on special occasions or do you display it in your home in a certain way or--

LR: Mother kept it stored in a box under my dad's bed. After she gave it to me, I kept it stored away for awhile. But when I started on my thesis [quilting.], I hung Elvira's quilt on the bedroom wall next to my bed--most of two years. Had Mother known she probably would have had a fit, as she kept it carefully stored away? It was a daily inspiration to me. Each night I went to sleep thinking about the quilt and Elvira. My thesis was finished when I found Elvira's grave. If not for the research and discipline connected with that project, I could not have pursued genealogy, like I have.

MS: Wonderful. [softly.] And you mentioned that this quilt was probably going to go to--

LR: It will go to my older daughter, Susan.

MS: Yes.

LR: Traditionally the quilt has been handed down to the oldest daughter in the family. Mother is an only daughter and I'm lucky to be the eldest of three. The quilt will go to my older daughter, Susan, then to her only daughter, Elizabeth. As the quilt is handed down, I hope to pass on Elvira's family genealogy that I'm discovering. Mother and I have not talked about what would happen if there are no daughters to pass the quilt on to. I guess we'll let future generations decide that.

MS: Right [softly.] So, tell me a little bit about your interest in quilting. Did it start with Elvira's quilt or--

LR: I've tried to think about when my interest in quilting actually started. In 1978, we made a move because of my ex-husband's work. It was a move I didn't want to make. [pause of about 8 seconds.]

MS: Do you want to?

LR: Yeah.

[tape is shut off.]

MS: We've turned the tape back on and Louise is talking to us about her interest in quilting, where it began.

LR: My first real interest in quilting started with the move I mentioned. I had been used to working outside the home and now I was home all day--my children were in school, and I was looking for some interest. I thought about organizing a neighborhood quilt club; however I didn't quilt, I didn't know my neighbors, and I wasn't sure they quilted. Before I got anything organized, I went to work in the local community college office. My quilting aspiration went on hold for 10 years, until a budget-crunch came along, and I was out of work for a year. When the college offered a hand-piecing quilt course I signed on. If students completed their weekly assignments, they could finish a sampler quilt top in 8-weeks. I loved the class and finished my first quilt top. Soon afterward some of the women wanted an evening class and when the instructor was not interested in teaching, I volunteered. That was the beginning of my quilt career. I taught the class 4 or 5 semesters, each time making a quilt top along with the students. I gave those [quilts.] to my children. [MS: mmm.] I have one son and two daughters.

MS: And the ones, the tops that you've made, were they a reflection of what was going on inside of you at the time or were they just--

LR: Not really. The sampler quilt tops made in class were selected for the patterns, so the students could have experience in stitching straight, curved and diagonal lines. Some of the classic patterns we used were Drunkard's Path, Clay's Choice, Dresden Plate, Baby's Block, Grandmother's Flower Garden and more. I don't remember them all. It was exciting to see their finished results. Each student was making the same patterns, but the quilts were uniquely different because of fabric and color selections. The only thing my tops reflected was personal preference in colors and material. The quilt tops did not reflect any social issues or women's issues--we did discuss feminine issues.

MS: So how many hours a week do you quilt now, would you say?

LR: Actual quilting? Because of my thesis and genealogy interest I do very little quilting anymore. But I have a deep desire to do some type of sewing almost daily. After a day's work, sewing is therapeutic. Usually, it's in the form of clothing repair or alterations. I sew for other people

MS: Do you have any stories to tell about quilting, and if quilting has gotten you through a difficult time in your life, besides this?

LR: [laughter.] I think I just did. I prepared a survey for my thesis and distributed it to the members in my quilt guild. I wish I'd had asked that question. I can't remember a time when I didn't sew. As a child I leaned on Mother's box sewing machine watching her mend clothes. I was fascinated with the mechanics of her treadle machine. She said I drove her crazy asking questions. I started sewing when my daughters were one and two years old. As far as 'quilting helping me through a difficult time,' I can't think of any [other than the move.] and that was 10 years before I actually started. Some days I should have been working on my thesis instead of quilting, but that was more procrastination than working through a difficult time--maybe it was a difficult time, and I didn't know it. Now, I spend more time altering or repairing clothes for other people than I do quilting. It's faster, and those short jobs satisfy my yen to work with fabric. I don't think this is a very good answer to the question, but--

MS: No, it's fine. It's wonderful. What now pleases you about quilting? I know you have these wonderful old quilts in your family, but what else pleases you about the nature of quilting?

LR: What else pleases me about the nature of quilting? I'd say starting new quilts. I usually have a new project in mind before I've finished what I'm working on. I have to fight the impulse to buy more fabric or to start new projects. I love hand quilting. I have a quilt in the frame right now. It took me four years to finish the first quilt I hand quilted. I designed matching pillow shams and hand quilted those too. When I was teaching the quilt classes at the community college, I was making tops faster than I could ever hope to get them quilted. At some point I met an Amish woman [MS: oh.] who lives about 25 miles from Macomb. She's a fabulous quilter [and fast.]. I don't like wearing thimbles so my fingers would get really sore. Then I'd have to stop quilting and let them heal. Now, I make the tops and let my Amish friend do the quilting.

MS: So, for you it's more the piecing

LR: [both are speaking at the same time.] It's more the piecing and choosing the pattern. I do machine piecing, but I prefer hand-piecing.

MS: And have you exchanged any designs with your Amish friend, where you both have had patterns that go back and forth or anything like that?

LR: We have not. I've known A.F. [the name is omitted at the request of the interviewee and the initials “A. F." for Amish friend are being used.] now about 12 years. [MS: mmm.] One time I drove out and brought her back to Macomb to attend the quilt show my quilt guild was sponsoring at Western Illinois University. We've developed a close friendship. I take quilt books and save articles of interest for her, but we've not exchanged any patterns. We visit about her quilting orders, what she's working on or what she's completed. We look at the quilt tops she has for sale [hers and those belonging to other women.] and laugh about problems we encounter with our customers or our sewing.

MS: Right. Right. [softly.] And what do you think makes a great quilt?

LR: First I think it's the individual's interest in a particular quilt. I think each of us may look at a quilt and not be too impressed by it--that is, until we know more about the quilt, the quiltmaker or the person who owns the quilt. As we learn, we begin to understand and appreciate the greatness connected with a quilt. I think a great quilt is in the eyes of the beholder. A great quilt can mean one thing for one person, something different for another. I think there are several considerations that make a quilt great.

MS: And then going along with that what do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

LR: For me, its color. The first thing that I notice in a quilt is the color, then the pattern. That's a tough question. A lot of contemporary quilts may be art. I don't know. I'd rather listen to someone else answer this [inaudible.] question [chuckling.] than myself.

MS: Okay. Well, we can go on from there. What do you think makes a great quilter? That's kind of tied in, but it's a little different.

LR: What makes a great quilter? I think a great quilter is a person who is passionate about the craft. I don't think it takes an expert seamstress to be a great quilter. Anyone who loves fabric, quilt patterns, books, going to quilt shows or talking about quilts can be a great quilter. I no longer think it has to be limited to needle and thread activity.

MS: And what is your feeling about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

LR: Well, my preference is definitely hand piecing and quilting, although I've started doing machine piecing and machine quilting with members of my quilt guild and a small group at church. Machine work is faster, but I think hand stitching is more precise. I can better manipulate the fabric and seam allowances. I have a hard time keeping the pieces and seams matched when I machine stitch even when pinning the pieces.

MS: Interesting. How about when you see quilts on display? And is that some of the criteria that you use when you view them, whether you know, its machine piecing or--

LR: No, I appreciate both. One of the women in my quilt guild has a long-arm machine. She has switched from hand to machine quilting. She does outstanding work--for herself and others. As far as viewing quilts, I really don't have a preference of hand quilting over machine or vice-versa. I think either is good, in individual categories.

MS: And why would you think quilting is important in your life?

LR: First, quilting is important to me from a practical perspective. Secondly, it is important to me from an academic point of view. During the literature review phase of my thesis, I was surprised to learn there are two types of quilter scholars: educators who come to quilting through the educational process of learning [these persons may not quilt OR even sew.]; and independent quilt scholars, who work outside an academic setting and come to quilt scholarship through the love of quilts. I'd never imagined anyone who was interested in quilting who did not quilt [or sew.]. I still have trouble understanding that. [MS: laughs.] Now, I have met some of these women. They are out there doing research, being promoters, and lecturing on quilts and quilt making, but they don't quilt. I'd say quilting is my passion, whether from a practical or an academic standpoint. I can't imagine not being interested. This is my first American Quilt Study Group conference. Before arriving, I wondered what the conference and workshop would be like. I felt compelled to sign-up for this workshop, “Save Our Stories." This is just one more chapter in my quilt life. I'm more fired up than ever.

MS: That's great. In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or your region?

LR: I'm not sure what you mean with this question. I belong to one quilt guild--a local guild. Some women belong to two and three. For the past few years, we have made charity quilts for different organizations. This past year, through a contact person, we made numerous child-sized quilts that were sent to New York for the 911 volunteers--

MS: Wonderful.

LR--emergency workers, First Aid personnel and First Responders. We scout around for a community organization that can put the quilts to good use. My church group also makes charity quilts that are donated to a youth home. I'm not sure any of these quilts reflect my community or my region except for the donation they represent. [MS: hums.] I can't think of any particular type of quilts or quilting I'm involved in that highlights my community or region.

MS: And the Amish are kind of separate in that, you mentioned there--

LR: There are several Amish families living in McDonough and Hancock counties. I'm not aware of them holding organized shows or exhibits where they sell their work. I think many of the Amish women sell their quilts on an independent basis. And this A.F. that I'm friends with, I've encouraged her to get business cards and advertise. But she is very humble about her work. I try to respect their culture and habits. I'm not very aggressive in prodding her. One visit she said, 'Maybe I should have business cards made up. What do you suggest I put on them?' When I stopped a few months later she had business cards.

MS: And so, and A.F. is your friend that you've known--

LR: A.F. is my personal friend--

MS: --for twelve years now. Yes.

LR: I'd love to have a picture of her, but the Amish do not want to be photographed. I wanted to use A.F. survey for my quilt thesis. She agreed as long as I do not write anything that would disclose her identity. A.F.'s mother reported on her survey that she had 75 grandchildren. And she's made quilts for all 75.

MS: This is a note to the tape then; we'll certainly want to make sure that we also respect A.F. privacy for the people who are listening to this tape recording. And what do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

LR: I think quilts have had more influence on women's culture in America than we realize. That's certainly true for me. That was the springboard idea for my thesis. How can quilts continue to be so popular when they are no longer “necessary" as bedcovers? This trend and pastime is thriving 300 years later. What has kept quilts so popular? The interest has spread internationally, as well as nationally. Quilting was revived during the Bicentennial in 1976, along with numerous other American crafts, but I think there is as great a revival in quilting today--maybe greater than the 70s. I don't have a good explanation for that. I think we're still discovering the impact that quilts and quilting have had on our society. The art world recognizes the importance of quilts today, where that wasn't the case 25 to 50 years back. Still, there's a lot more interest than just from the practical or artistic slant.

MS: And in what ways do you think that quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

LR: I think we're still discovering that. A couple of years back I learned about the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. That Center is a marvelous resource for the quilt world. It was established in 1997 with the donation of more than 900 quilts from the Ardis & Robert James Quilt Collection--one of the largest publicly owned collections in the world. James' also donated a million dollars toward establishment of the center. In 1998, the James Collection was named one of "the 100 top treasures" in the United States by Art and Antiques magazine [March issue.]. In August 2000, the Collection was designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an official project of the Save America's Treasures program. The fact that the Center is connected with a university is a tremendous statement about the interest and information that's available about quilting. I think we're just beginning to understand the influence and impact that quilts and quilt making have had on our society--not only for American women, but women worldwide.

MS: Not only America--

LR: Right. I think people have come to realize that quilts influence many facets of our lives. What used to be considered women's work or women's interest is now enjoyed by men. Quilt making is done by all classes and most cultures. I think it's the richest reflection of human history there is. I read once that 'the quilt is the only artifact or antique that has survived time-- that was actually made by the individual.' Furthermore, quilting has not only maintained, it has gained interest and popularity.

MS: Amazing. [softly.] And how do you think that quilts can be preserved for the future?

LR: “Save Our Stories" is an excellent start to preserving quilts for the future. S.O.S. provides insight and zeal that inspire people to tell their family stories. Education and information is a great plan for doing that. This workshop is a wonderful example of how we can preserve quilts by sharing communication, education, quilt exhibits and personal exchange. There are approximately 200 women [and men.] in attendance. What a wonderful resource and network we have here this weekend--everyone working to preserve quilt history.

MS: That's definitely true.

LR: So, that's what I'm excited about.

MS: Well, great. We only have a couple more minutes and I want to thank you Louise for taking the time to interview with us today. It's really been a pleasure.

LR: Thank you.

MS: Is there anything else that you'd like to add before we conclude the interview.

LR: Nothing that I can think of. This is probably more than you wanted to hear.

MS: All right [softly.]

LR: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.

MS: Thank you so much again. This will conclude the interview for AQSG-008 on October 4th. We concluded the interview at 3:20 p.m.


“Louise Reynolds,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1431.