Viola Williams Canady




Viola Williams Canady




Viola Williams Canady


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date



Alexandria, VA

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Ruth Duncan


Evelyn Salinger (ES): The project is for the Alliance of American Quilters and this is part of the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. This is tape number [DC.] 20002-001 and the informant is Viola Canady. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger, the scribe is Ruth Duncan. We are meeting at Cardinal Quilters, Alexandria, Virginia, July 12th, 2002. It's eleven in the morning. This is a short practice interview. Welcome to Cardinal Quilters. I see you have brought an article here to show. Could you describe it a little bit to us? How did you go about making this?

Viola Canady (VC): Well, this is string piecing.

ES: String piecing.

VC: Yes. On paper. I just cut out a piece of newspaper, then cut out these little things [shapes.] and I use African strings, you know the little strings that you throw away? And put it on paper, sew it on paper, pull off the paper and then I appliquéd it on this background using stained glass braid.

ES: Say that again, stained glass braid?

VC: Bias.

ES: You are using bias?

VC: Yes. 'Cause I make my own bias.

ES: Okay, so it's a black stained glass effect, going around the strips of African fabric.

VC: It's appliquéd on. This braid holds it down. And I call it Stained Glass Appliqué.

ES: Very nice.

VC: And I sashed it with tie-die fabric 'cause I wanted it to look glassy. It would wake up somebody.

ES: It certainly looks--yes.

VC: Then I had to do this in a hurry. And I had to quilt it so fast, and I was thinking, 'What kind of quilting design am I going to use?' And had to have it done so fast, so I just got me a pencil and started marking and quilting, and I called this Crazy Quilt. 'Cause I just went--

ES: It looks like straight lines going this way and that.

VC: It was just get a pencil and start marking and start quilting and no pattern. And everybody loved it once I had it at the museum. And I got it finished there. This has memories of my childhood. I only had strings and things to work with. 'Cause my mother was a seamstress and she would give me all the little pieces they had to sweep up. And my grandmother--on the floor--and they would throw all the little stuff which they did not use in that box. So I learned, before I went to school, I knew how to [a break in the tape.] Oh, I could sew well by the time I went to school. I made my brother a dress. [she chuckles and we all laugh.] My mother said, 'This child can sew.' But that was the beginning and that's why I like scrap quilts. I don't know what. They fascinate me, because I had only scraps to work with. A quilt with two colors, that don't please me. I want a whole lot of them. Colors, 'cause we had only little pieces.

And then the utility quilts, the quilts would be there to keep warm with was made out of old clothing. You didn't throw anything away. We had them stacked up. But then we had good quilts what they only used when company come. But when the preacher-- And then when somebody get married or something, that was when we used the good quilts. So the ones what we slept under, oh, sometimes they would be this big [gestures.] 'cause when they get old and dirty, you washed it and put it in between another one. And they were big, they were heavy. [inaudible.]

ES: Good grief. Now, who was quilting in your family before you?

VC: Everybody.

ES: Your grandmother, your great-grandmother?

VC: Grandmother. Everybody because that was the only way you had your cover. Down in North Carolina you had no money to buy anything. And you quilted, and you stayed warm. 'Cause we were from a large family. We were sharecroppers. You know, we didn't have our own place. And it was real hard to get any stuff and you saved everything to make quilts out of. And clothing, we patched them over and over and over. And when we couldn't patch them any more, when them little pieces was left, we would take them and put them in a quilt.

ES: That is wonderful.

VC: When we got the good stuff, like this, the mixture, I used to teach the people. My mother would give me the scraps that were left over, and always the scraps, 'cause we'd make them the quilts. And they'd give me the scraps and I'd get to thinking about it, some kind of-- 'I said I was crazy.' But I was glad to get that stuff. It wasn't nothin' but junk. [laughs.] That's all I could get. It was neat and it was pretty colors. That's all I could get.

ES: I know that you had a professional life of sewing. How did you get into that?

VC: Yeah. Well, I just always did sew. And then, when I came from North Carolina, I decided that I was going to--I always wanted me a job where nobody was going to boss me so much because I had been bossed all my life. I am going to do something. I am going to do it real well. So if they don't want--if it doesn't work out, I can leave to go home. But I did work for the Department of the Army for 19 years and 5 months, 'cause of tenure.

ES: What sort of thing did you do for them?

VC: I was a tailor/fitter. And I did almost all the generals and colonels and everything. The decorations on their clothes from General MacArthur all down through the line, also Maxwell Taylor, and all those. And I sewed for most of them's wives, mending their clothes, and doing things. And then I made slipcovers, draperies, bedspreads, covered headboards. I did all kinds of things. That's all I knowed, picking cotton and sewing.

ES: That's wonderful.

VC: From the cotton patch to the sewing.

ES: That is wonderful. You are so talented.

I wanted to ask, we have a short time here, I wanted to ask about the founding of the quilting group that you have. Did you start that yourself, or other people--?

VC: Yes. It was just my neighbor and myself. When I was retiring from the army, I went to the hospital and I bought the magazine for a friend, you know, at the gift store to buy her something, and I saw a quilting magazine, Patchwork Quilts. And I had never seen a quilt book, and I was fascinated. I said, 'Oh, I know what I am going to do for the rest of my life.' 'Cause I was retiring and looking out my room [inaudible.] So I went up the hospital stairs, and took her some magazines. I was sitting there, and she said, 'What are you looking at?' And everything. I was saying there, 'Lord, there are quilts in a magazine. They say a show is going to be in Greenbelt, Maryland.' That was the National Quilting Association. I had never heard of any of that stuff and I went home and told my daughter, and she says, 'I'll take you.' She took off of work and took my neighbor and I there. And we went there. And I saw all these quilts. I was afraid to go in. I think they are going to have to open the quilts. Oh my gracious, I was so afraid to go in there. And so we finally went, and that day I joined, and filled up the car when I come home. I went back the next day and filled up the car, and spent all my money. I bought everything that you needed to sew with. [laughter.]

ES: All that fabric. Wow.

VC: Yeah.

ES: Have you used any of them, all of them by now?

VC: Well. I've used a lot. Because I do kits when I teach classes. I would teach classes for the NQA, you know. I just go around places and I would make kits, stained glass and trapunto. And I have patterns in kits and what not. And the people would buy them, so I used a lot of fabric, lots of fabric.

ES: So how did you come about starting your own quilting group, Daughters of Dorcas?

VC: Well, my neighbor [Etta R. Portlock.] and I, one year was just the two of us, the president and the vice-president. [laughter.] Nobody would join us. Every time I would ask them, they'd say, 'Oh, I slept under quilts in South Carolina. I don't want to be bothered. I don't want to make one of those things.' Nobody would go with us, and it was just the two of us, and so we would go to Greenbelt with that group out there. And so then we get to Indiana on the bus in '80. Penny, was it '80? [she questions Penny Rigdon who is in the audience.]

ES: Oh. I had a quilt in that [NQA.] show in Indiana in about 1978 or 9, or whenever it was.

VC: That's the first time I met Penny [Rigdon.] I think.

ES: That was that show.

VC: I know we was on that trip together. But then we met the Goodrich's in Ohio and they was asking us, 'cause it was only us, out of all that show, was only two Black people. It was myself and my neighbor who we had as president and vice-president. [laughter.] So, and they was asking us if we knew Cuesta Benberry. Which we didn't know. And they showed us a quilt of hers, and they said, 'She would be so happy if you started a chapter or something.' They were going to write to her. And she called me, and she told me. 'Cause I knew how to get started, but we didn't have anybody to start with.

And then when I started making things and selling things, and getting round to Calvary [Episcopal Church, I and 6th Street, NE, DC.] and then the people just started coming until I couldn't take any more. You know, they were wall to wall, at one time there were so many people, at the Calvary Episcopal Church where we meet now. And so the people just started. I would show them some things and I have a quilt, the first quilt we ever made. 'Cause we went round there, that was the first time I ever knew that you had to pay to use a church. 'Cause we had tried, but we only had 12 members, that met at my house. But we tried to get some churches, and the churches wanted money. We didn't take up no money. We had no money. [laughs.] There's only 12 of us. So, what we did was, we asked Father West about whether we could use--'cause my grandchildren used to go to nursery school there. So I asked him, he said, 'Yes, you can come.' I asked him how much did he charge. He said, 'Oh, nothing. I like to see the ladies, their hands busy.' So he said you can just join with the crafts and do something and we made a quilt. I told him maybe we could make a quilt and give the proceeds to the church. And that's what we do. But the first year we had no fabric. I had fabric because I was buying fabric, but the average person didn't have. I suggested, 'Get what you got and wash it and bring it and we goin' to make a quilt.' And that's when I started piecing that star, from the old Variable Star. And then I had to do thirty-two, by that time we had thirty-two members, and I cut 32. Every week, I would bring in packets and pass them around. And we ended up with 32 of those quilts. And they were all different, sashed different and put together and everything. So then the members started, they started coming.

ES: When was that group officially started?

VC: 1980.

ES: 1980. Wow. [22 years.]

VC: Before we got a really good group it was '85. [inaudible.] It used to meet at my house. There was only 12 of us. Usually all of them would not come at one time.

ES: How many members are there now?

VC: Oh, over a hundred. I don't know, 'cause you know we have a lot of members, that want to be members but they don't come. [inaudible.]

ES: I think we have time for one more question. [questions suggested from the audience, restated next.] Okay. I was going to ask you, what are the goals of your quilting group? And Penny suggests that teaching is part of what you do at Daughters of Dorcas. And who are some of the special people you've taught?

VC: I can't tell you [laughs.] special people.

ES: You can tell us about the techniques you've taught.

VC: One thing that is special was the University of Kentucky. When I went there 'cause the biggest stained glass window in the world is in Covington there. And so NQA told the NQA president to get me to do that stained glass. And I didn't want to go out there by myself 'cause they would fly me out there, but nobody to help me and I couldn't do that. I carry a lot of junk. And then I took more because I sold my patterns and my kits, and when I go and do a workshop they would buy my kits, and then they would buy piles of them to take home. I said I take a lot of stuff, but I did. Well, I could not get out of it, so I went out there and it was the best thing I'd ever done because there was about a hundred and fifty people there who was teaching quilting 'cause they have a thing there in Kentucky--I don't know what it's--what did they call it? Something, the government gives you money to--[small deletion.] They would teach other people, so all of those people were teachers, a hundred and fifty of them and I was out there for three days. All them, they came there. But when I got back home, everybody wanted to teach the stained glass appliqué, but nobody wanted to cut it. And they started—every day I was mailing out a package, all over Kentucky, every which way, 'cause they would buy their stuff from me. They got money. The state, it was something like the 4H or--[audience participation. inaudible.]

Audience: Extension. [inaudible.]

ES: Agricultural Extension?

VC: Yeah. Something. I know the state would give them money to--

ES: To go out and teach.

VC: And they would get their stuff. But nobody would cut. Everybody, every day, I'd sit up all night long getting this package going, all over Kentucky. I have mailed stuff as far away as West Germany, different things, Vienna, Austria, and everything. 'Cause people that have come here and met me and they went back home. So I have met a lot of people, and a lot of them I don't even know who they are. But I did do a lot of work. And some of them was famous people, but I don't know them. I know all the NQA, 'cause they took me, five of those NQA presidents was up there when I was in Covington. And they took me out to eat. [laughs.]

ES: Oh. Isn't that nice.

VC: Yeah. So I know a lot of them, and everything.

ES: Well, I think we've probably done our 15 minutes. Plus. [laughter.] And we have a lot more to ask so I think, maybe I will continue this interview another time.

VC: Uh-hum.

ES: If it works out.

[The tape was left running. Conversations between Mrs. Canady, and the Cardinal Quilters in the audience continued. It is enjoyable, but hard to understand at times. This was a 'practice' interview, and a public one. We hope to finish the interview some time later. ES.]


“Viola Williams Canady,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed September 29, 2023,