Catherine Whalen




Catherine Whalen




Catherine Whalen


Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


New Haven, Connecticut


Elaine Johnson


Bernie Herman (BH): This is Bernie Herman of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project at the University of Delaware with Catherine Whalen, who is a member of a Yale University quilting guild.

Catherine Whalen (CW): Actually, the name of our group is the Batting and Chatting Quilting Group, mostly made up of graduate students at Yale.

BH: So, Catherine why don't we start by you telling us a little bit about the quilt you brought today.

CW: Okay. This is a quilt that I'm almost finished with, not quite, and I've been working on it since I've been here in Delaware on a research fellowship at the Winterthur Museum.

BH: And? [laughs.]

CW: It's a bed-sized quilt, and it uses a lot of different colors and particularly stripes, as well as some other patterns. I've been wanting to make a quilt with stripes for a while. I had seen a quilt that used them in an exhibition that was at the Bard Graduate Center, "Women Designers in the USA." There was this quilt there with stripes in the sashing, and with fields of large intersecting triangles of very vibrant turquoise and red-orange. And I really liked this quilt, and I went home and drew it, and I went to a fabric store and pulled out those kinds of fabrics and colors. But I didn't really want replicate it, because I felt it would take the life out of it. It was a very vibrant and slightly quirky kind of pattern/design. So, I ended up just getting stripes, and I was collecting stripes for a couple of years, I guess, and then a friend of mine gave me the catalog from the Gees Bend exhibition that was at the Whitney and elsewhere. I thought, 'Okay, it's time for me to get my stripes out.' Because those quilts had some of the feel of this other quilt that I had seen, and they used patterns and colors in somewhat unexpected ways. I wanted this quilt to be not all that regular, even though I was using something like a stripe that implies regularity.

BH: What did you find engaging in the quilts at Gee's Bend that are reflected in this work?

CW: Well, I hadn't actually seen the exhibition when I started this quilt. What I saw were reproductions in the catalog. So, it was the juxtaposition of bright colors and variations on certain kinds of large scale patterns--but also not having to stick to a regular kind of pattern. What I realized, when I saw the show, was the immense scale; they were much bigger--the scale was much bigger--than what had appeared in the catalog, and they were more irregular. This [pointing to quilt.] is really based on seeing them miniaturized as they were reproduced. But I liked the freedom of them, and the unexpectedness.

BH: And how do you incorporate those ideas into the quilt we're looking at today?

CW: I got the fabrics, and I laid them out on the floor. The process of designing it began with selecting these squares. Like this darker green pattern, and the turquoise which is a hand-dyed fabric. I think later I incorporated the dark blue. And then just building pieces around it. Then that sort of made a larger square, and then kind of putting them together. At the same time I was designing this I was thinking, actually, about how I was framing my dissertation. I'm looking at a series of collectors of objects, and so I had sort of decided that I was going to pick certain objects to illuminate or begin a larger discussion about these individuals and their collecting practices. But, I was having a hard time seeing how I was going to get from the specifics to the larger ideas. And I was thinking about these squares as objects, and these other elements as ways of linking them together. And there would be places where those connections were very clear and distinct, and there would be places where they were very murky and unclear. And there would be places where I would be borrowing something ready-made--a ready-made idea or interpretation--that would link them together, and so it would be very flat. And so putting this together was a way for me to materialize that process and to accept the lack of clarity involved in that process. And, that you could still make a whole composition even with a certain level of uncertainty. I also wanted something to reflect that complexity and that depth. That there are these series of objects and ideas, and you're drawing these connections through them, which is a linear narrative. But, this is sort of a snapshot of that. Sort of a slice through that, in a way. And then the quilting is kind of like the way you write: it fixes in place. And so this quilting is in a fan pattern, but it also is the shape of the circle, or arc, that you make with your arm when you write. Anyway, it was a way for me to work through that process and imagine this big project that I wasn't really sure of, and how I was going to get from where I was to the end.

BH: I guess the first question is, did it help?

CW: Yes, it did.

BH: And the outcome?

CW: Well, I'm not done yet. I'm almost done with the quilt, but I'm not done with the dissertation. It's made me more comfortable with the process of researching and interpreting and writing that I'm engaged in.

BH: Could you talk a bit more about this relationship between narrative form and quilt form or composition?

CW: The quilt is made up of these pieces, right, and they're really kind of random, and you put them together in some kind of sequence that to you makes sense or communicates something. Narrative: you're taking ideas, words, and you're stringing them together and fixing them in order to say something. But it is a process that is made up of smaller elements that by combination and re-combination make something larger than the individual pieces. That's one way that I think about it being similar. And then you have other things, like character and tone. We use certain kinds of language metaphorically to talk about language, like color, texture, those kinds of things.

BH: When the dissertation is done, [laughter.] somebody will be able to pick it up and be able to read it and follow the line of argumentation. When the quilt is done, somebody sees it, the narrative you've recounted about the relationship between the quilt and writing is one that would not seem to me to be readily apparent from looking at the quilt without the narrative. So, somebody looks at this and how do they see--say, the resolution of murkiness?

CW: Well, it might be more helpful for someone else to answer that besides me. There are certain things about it that are like other quilts. It does have a block structure that would be recognizable to someone who is looking at it to see how it's put together. It does have a reference to something like a border, where I've only used certain fabrics on the outer portions of it, and I've repeated those fabrics only there. And they are permeable, they leak, but they are a form of border. And I have a binding, which is what makes it a finite thing as opposed to an ever-expanding one.

BH: Just like a dissertation.

CW: Yes, like binding, literally. So I think in some ways, rather I would hope, that someone would see the sense of complexity, but also some set of expressed relationships; and, that there's a feeling that there is something that's keeping it together. Or that there are parts of it that relate to other parts of it. But, whether they would see resolved or unresolved murkiness, I don't know.

BH: How do you plan to use this quilt?

CW: As a bed quilt. We have a spare bedroom, a guest bedroom that we will probably put it in.

BH: Do you ever exhibit?

CW: Yes. The group I belong to has an annual exhibit where we reserve a room for a day at the Hall of Graduate Studies at Yale, and we put up all of our quilts and then take them down at the end of the day.

BH: Is this a quilt you would exhibit?

CW: Actually, I exhibited it in an unfinished state at the end of April.

BH: And what was the response?

CW: Pretty positive from the people I spoke to about it.

BH: What did they say?

CW: I don't remember specifically.

BH: Well, did you tell them the story?

CW: No. I've told maybe a few people, but at that particular time I didn't feel any need to do so. People responded to the color and, I think, the vibrancy and the size.

BH: Could you tell us a little bit more about your interest in quilt making? How you got started and how your work has evolved?

CW: Yes. A friend of mine was in this group at Yale, and this was maybe towards the end of my first year in the American Studies Ph.D. program there. He had been telling me about it, and then I asked him about it a couple more times, and then finally asked if I could come and join. And he said, 'Sure.' And the way the group works is, when a new person comes into the group someone else--sometimes, in fact, the last person who learned--gets out the scrap bag and says, 'Here, make a small project, so that we can go through all the steps together, in a relatively brief period of time.' So it's a very simple project that just involves, usually, squares of fabric that you pull from this scrap bag, and you go through all the steps. You go through cutting out the squares, piecing them together, marking a quilting design on the top, and basting it together with the batting and the backing, then actually quilting and binding it. By the time you've done that, you're at least familiar with what all the steps are, and you can go on to something bigger. This method of teaching comes from Heather Williams, one of the founders of the group, and an extraordinary quilter. With the idea being that the first project is something manageable. And some people come in and do that, and that's all they do, and then they leave. And then some people come in and get hooked, and continue to work.

BH: And this is how you began? And how did you end up getting hooked and how has your work evolved?

CW: I really liked it. I really enjoyed doing it. It's also a wonderful group. It's primarily other graduate students. There are some people who work on staff in some of the departments, and some of the faculty come in and out. But it's just a wonderful group of people, and it's an opportunity to talk about things--in part about what you're doing in graduate school, but also about anything, really. It shifts the focus away from whatever else you're usually doing, like going to class with other students. And the students are at different levels, so you learn from people who are farther along about what the next phase is going to be like, and tell people who are coming in about that yourself. I also really liked being able to make something like this. It's something you can finish. There are a lot of things in graduate school that seem like they go on forever. So you have the satisfaction of finishing a product. You know also for me, working with the color and pattern is very satisfying. A couple of careers ago, I was an interior designer, and for me working with fabric and color was something I enjoyed and something I missed doing.

BH: I was going to ask you about your earlier career as a designer and how it has influenced your work.

CW: Well, certainly I love working with materials. The second quilt I made was a crazy quilt. So I used all these silks and velvets, and all these wonderful materials. But even just with the cottons, there's a lot of great things that are available to use. I really enjoy the designing process the most, out of all the steps. But I have a certain kind of precision, there's a certain quality that comes from being a designer and doing drafting and working with models and thinking about things three-dimensionally. I have worked not only with stripes, but with plaids, and no one else in my group does that. And what I'm interested in with those types of things is, those are the basic elements of weaving itself--warp/weft, under and over. So some of these quilts I think of as large-scale textiles. Like weaving without a loom. And I've done some where I'm really interested in just the way some things go underneath and come up--so you've created something that looks woven. And that might, in part, come out of that experience--really being interested in the design process itself, especially selection, arrangement and sequence, as opposed to something more figurative.

BH: Well, weaving has sort of a strong narrative character.

CW: Yes.

BH: And it makes a lot of sense when you start to think about writing and design and the very physical nature of executing design. Does anyone else in your family quilt?

CW: No.

BH: And how have they responded to this?

CW: Very positively. My mother sews. She was a home economics teacher, and she taught classes in tailoring and sewing to adults while I was growing up. So we were always going to fabric stores. Fabric was something I learned about very early on. She sews beautifully and makes beautiful clothes. She has taken a class in quilting. I think she--they gave her this sort of preset pattern to do, and she didn't particularly like that; and, I think she also had injured one of her fingers, and so just the physical act of quilting was more difficult than she might have liked. But she likes my quilts, and she likes that I quilt. I have made quilts for family members.

BH: You started in your guild with sort of a set piece, and then you began to develop your own quilts out of that. Could you talk a little bit about how your quilt designs have begun to evolve?

CW: Yes. I really should talk more about the group because it has a big influence, I think, on what people in it do. What is interesting about the first quilt, the out-of-the-scrap-bag project, is that no matter who comes into the group, you know, everything looks different, nothing looks the same. And that's always a really fascinating thing, and so it's very exciting when people bring their quilts in to see what they're doing next. And so there are definitely moments when people are building on ideas that they see in other people's quilts, but they are interpreting them differently. And I've been away from the group for the past nine months. So I haven't had that experience for a while. And coming back and seeing what people are doing now, and seeing how different it is, is very exciting. So sometimes what you are doing is influenced by what other people in the group are doing. For me, I also like looking at other quilts at shows or in books. Another quilt I did is an abstract version of my garden; gardening is what I tend to do in the summer instead of quilting. And I actually designed it in this room on the second floor that I use to sew in, where I could look out the window and look over my garden. I kind of based it on that view, but also on a Chinese Coins pattern which is a traditional pattern. I've tried different kinds of quilts and patterns to see if they were for me. [laughs.] But, now I've gotten into this weaving thing and I'm enjoying that, and I will probably continue to do that. And I've started to do some quilts with photographs, and I also like doing those.

BH: I just wanted to ask, are all your quilts bed quilts?

CW: No, I've made smaller kinds of quilts that you might just use as a throw. I've made a few things that could be hung on a wall, though not many. The wall type, I think, all have photographs in them. So I see those as more suitable for something that goes on the wall, because the texture of the photo transfer is a harsher texture. It's not necessarily something that you would want to have physically close to your body. Whereas the other quilts--it's very important that they are something that you touch and cover yourself with. And just that they are something that people can take comfort from.

BH: So, then part of the aesthetic of the quilt then is the quality of touch or feel.

CW: Yes.

BH: Could you explore that a little bit?

CW: Well, I like the idea of making something that people sleep under. So, I've made a quilt for my husband and myself, and for my sister and her husband. And this one, for people who come to our house and stay with us. And I've made smaller quilts for other people. I made a quilt for my aunt and godmother, who had been ill with cancer and who recently passed away. And when she died, she had the quilt that I had made for her over her. And it's sad for me to think about that, but, it's important to me that something that I made was connected to her at that time. It's a way to maintain relationships to other people--through these quilts. Literally something you touched, they touched.

BH: Do you see that as transgenerational?

CW: Yes, definitely. One of the first quilts I made was for a friend who had a baby. The quilting pattern was the outline of the baby; my husband traced him when he was two weeks old. The quilting pattern echoes or expands that outline, and eventually gets bigger and bigger until it reaches the edges. His mother really cherishes that quilt. She has hung it up so that he won't destroy it, so that he'll have it later. And there's an appliqué of him as a baby on the back. The way they have it hung up; he can pull it up and look behind it, and see what he calls the 'wiggle man.' And that's his, and it is something that will be with him.

BH: Before we move on, I'd like to come back to one thing that was mentioned earlier, and that's your work space that overlooks your garden. Could you talk a little bit about it?

CW: It's basically our guest room that I've taken over because it has a double bed, and I like using that surface to design quilts on. Occasionally I sketch them beforehand, but mostly I just lay out the pieces. I've also tried creating them vertically on a felt wall, but I really prefer the horizontal surface. I think I see them that way. And this room has enough space so that I can get all the way around the bed. And it has enough space for all the boxes of fabric that I've acquired. And of course the sewing machine and ironing board. So I don't actually quilt in it, but I do the design work there, and sometimes the piecing. Then I usually quilt either at the group, which meets twice a week for a couple hours, or in the evenings at home. It's a way for me to watch TV with my husband without caring what's on television. [laughs.] I don't really enjoy watching TV all that much, but I don't mind it if I'm quilting. And he likes it, too, so it's a way for us to be together.

BH: What do you think makes a great quilt great?

CW: Well, love, in a way. I mean that in many ways. Sort of the love of doing it, and the creative process, and the production. But also, I think, the connection to other people. I think a lot of people that I know who make quilts, make them for other people. And people do respond to that. I mean that, in sort of an abstract way, they're about love; and, of course, they are about many other things. But, I think the kind of emotions that they can convey is one of the things that makes them very unique to many people.

BH: And the follow along question then would be, what do you think makes a great quilter?

CW: Vision and commitment. You don't necessarily know how the quilt is going to end up when you start it, but you have some sense that there is something that you want to make. You have some sort of vision even though, again, it's murky. But you also have to have the commitment to work through the process that will eventually get you there. And you keep having those visions, and the process keeps repeating itself, until you can make more quilts. I think it's very hard to make a quilt if you don't have both of those components. And I think that the people who get hooked, and have that, are constantly seeing quilts, imagining quilts.

BH: What are some of the sources who have influenced your work, you talked a bit about the guild and the Gees Bend exhibit particular to the dissertation quilt. But what are some of the other sources? You talked about your flower garden.

CW: Rose garden.

BH: Rose garden, but are there the works of other quilt makers, other artists, or designers. How have they factored in?

CW: Well, in terms of other quilt makers, they have primarily been people in the quilting group I belong to, and published examples of quilts that I've seen, by named quilt makers as well as anonymous ones, including Amish quilts and more traditional quilts. Sometimes it's literally going to a fabric store or going to a quilt show and seeing certain kinds of fabrics, and being interested in doing something with those materials.

BH: Is it typical for you to start with materials and through laying them out and juxtaposition begin to visualize a design? Or do you work the other way around, or both?

CW: Both. I think that the way you describe is the more typical method that I work by. Occasionally I'll be interested in a piecing pattern, and I'll build around that rather than necessarily a free-form process.

BH: You've talked a bit about why quilting is important to you, but could you talk a little bit more about what you think the larger significance of quilting is?

CW: One of the nice things about quilting is it's something that people can do without identifying as artists. So there are people in my group who don't necessarily think of themselves as artists but make the most beautiful quilts. So it's this wonderfully creative production that you can engage in without having the burden, for example, of identifying as an artist or a painter, or something like that. It's also something you can do individually or as a group. Predominantly it's women in my group. That's been a very nice thing. It's kind of a language.

BH: Could you elaborate on that?

CW: Well, you go to these quilt shows, and there are all these quilters, and they have this kind of subculture that they share, even if their participation in it is radically different. I guess, particularly for women who have families and who are doing a lot of invisible labor, quilting is visible labor. And I also think that's why it's so satisfying for me as a graduate student. I mean, you can write a paper, but it isn't quite the same thing as making a quilt. [laughs.]

BH: Could you talk more about visible labor?

CW: So much of the kind of work one might, say, do around the house, such as cooking and cleaning, disappears when it's done--but quilting remains. A quilt is something that remains. It doesn't disappear, at least for a while.

BH: Let me come back to the thread you mentioned about quilt making as an area of--let's say, an area of aesthetic production, but free of the burdens of art making. Could you say a little bit more about that?

CW: Well, you don't have that dilemma of the blank page or the blank canvas. Where the idea of being a creator is so prominent. It isn't so much about your identity as a creator of some sort, but it's almost as if you can bypass some of the issues of thinking about yourself in that way and just get right to the stuff. And later on you might step back and say, 'Yes, I am a creator, and I did this this way,' and whatnot. But you don't have to spend time in that place worrying about your artistic persona. And that seems to be a real liberating kind of thing. And I guess maybe I'm thinking about that in terms of being a researcher and a writer of cultural history. I mean, you spend a certain amount of time situating yourself in relationship to other people's work. And this is a process where of course you're doing that, but you might not have the same level of self-consciousness about it.

BH: Is there an area that we haven't covered or a question that should have been asked but wasn't?

CW: I can't think of anything.

BH: Well, I want to thank you for doing this. I hope it wasn't too painful.

CW: Not too!

BH: This is Bernie Herman and Amy Tetlow Smith with Catherine Whalen for the Quilters' S.O.S. Today was May 26, 2003. Thank you.



“Catherine Whalen,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,