Virginia Quinn




Virginia Quinn




Virginia Quinn


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Frances Dowell


Washington, D.C.


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): Today is October 6th, 2004. I am interviewing Virginia Quinn, Number [DC.] 20002.003. We are meeting on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger. Hello, Virginia. [background noise.]

Virginia Quinn (VQ): Good morning.

ES: It is nice of you to submit to this interview. We should first discuss your quilt. I would like to know what quilt you're going to show us today.

VQ: I'm going to show this little quilt because you said, 'A signature quilt,' and I think this is representative of what I like to quilt, although I like to make bed size quilts and this one is small. I like to use scraps and there is only one fabric in here that was not about to be thrown away because it was so small. And I like to make stars and geometric designs. And I like to make playful quilts and this has a little skier going down. I like to make quilts for children and this has a little skier going down through the quilt.

ES: Oh, very nice. What do you call this little star here? It's an eight pointed star.

VQ: Oh, it's not an Ohio star, is it?

ES: I'm not sure. But there are several different stars and they are set in a what--four inch square?

VQ: Four inch.

ES: So there are four inch blocks. There are black stars, black with little stars in the background [of the fabric.] and there's a lot of green and red. Had you thought of this as a Christmas quilt?

VQ: Yes.

ES: I see some holly. Not much of it, but the skier is certainly prominent going down.

VQ: We often go skiing around Christmas time and I made a quilt for a grandson who lives in Colorado and skis--he's really a good skier now--which used this ski fabric.

ES: Aha. It also has the black with a few stars. It's lovely. So this would be a foot and a half square, more or less. It's lovely. When did you make it?

VQ: 1993.

ES: And you hang this up here in your house?

VQ: At Christmas time, yes.

ES: Good.

VQ: And also another thing about this quilt, it has a glaring flaw.

ES: Oh-oh.

VQ: Which I never noticed until the quilt was completed and hung.

ES: Oh, yes. Well, that's supposed to be the tradition. It takes people, I bet, a while to find where that spot is. Very nice. Would you tell us your earliest memories of quilting or quilters, either one?

VQ: Oh, my earliest memories are of my mother's quilting bee. And they used to quilt in the winter. I would come home from school, I cannot remember earlier than that, but I would come home from school and my sister and I would play under the quilting frame. In the morning before we went to school, my dad would set up the quilting frame on stanchions with clamps and he would help Mother set that up in our small, little house. And then all the women would come, I guess, after I'd gone to school. And then when we came home, we'd play under there. And my mother always made jell-o, fruit jell-o, and donuts for the dessert for the women and so that was just fabulous.

ES: Were personal friends making quilts for each other or was this a church group?

VQ: They were making their own quilts, you know. They would meet at somebody's house and quilt their quilt and then they'd go to somebody else's house and quilt their quilt. And I suppose they had to meet a couple of times at least. But there would be at least eight women. They would just be close around the quilt and then those quilts would be in use right away.

ES: Did they start from the outside because they are sitting around the whole edge. I never could understand how they get in to the center.

VQ: They had it rolled on, they stretched it out on the poles and then they tacked it. I think they used pins and thumb tacks and stretched it out. Then they started quilting at both ends, I think. It seems like they were on both sides and started rolling the poles in and moving the stanchions in.

ES: I see. I always wondered how people did those. You always see them [in pictures.] around the huge frame, so how do they ever reach to the center?

VQ: Well, they keep rolling it up until they get to the middle.

ES: Keep changing the clamps.

VQ: Or sometimes they would, I think, start the quilt for one person and get a lot of it done until they have it rolled up and then she would finish the end of it herself.

ES: And these were usually traditional patterns?

VQ: Uh-huh.

ES: And what did your mother do with the quilts? She just kept them in the family?

VQ: She used them. We just had them on our beds.

ES: Now this was in what state?

VQ: In Kansas, in western Kansas.

ES: Is that where you were born?

VQ: Yes.

ES: And you lived there for how long?

VQ: I lived there until about 17 or 18. I went off to college and then I moved to Kansas City. And then I got married and lived in Manhattan, Kansas, where Kansas State University is, again, for seven years and then I went with my family, by that time I had husband and four children, and we went then to Bangkok, and lived in Southeast Asia, mostly, for about 12 or 14 years.

ES: Did you do quilting all this time?

VQ: No, I never quilted. I was never interested in the quilting, only in eating the donuts. [laughs.]

ES: Did you do other sewing? Did you learn sewing skills as a child?

VA: Yes. We were in 4-H when we were children. I had two sisters and they were both older. So, we started sewing and embroidering when we were six, I think. We embroidered tea towels and made potholders and then we, in the 4-H program, we moved up till we were making tailored suits.

ES: Oh, good.

VQ: So when I was in high school, I probably made all my own clothes and except for jeans. But when we lived overseas, I made almost all of my children's clothes. And I did make denim pants for them, there, 'cause in some places, it just wasn't available. We had to have clothes tailored or wear sarongs. [laughs.]

ES: It is quite an experience. So, when did you come to D.C.?

VQ: We moved to D.C. in 1983.

ES: And where and when did you run into quilting-- that you started with quilting here?

VQ: I wanted to have some quilts then, because we had lived in the tropics so long and I had some quilts from my mother, but I wanted more colorful quilts. And so I found a class out in Chevy Chase. It was an old store, Community Quilts. And I took a little class there. And then, the woman who owned it, I think it was Lee Porter, told me about a group that was just starting on Capitol Hill. So I envisioned a quilting bee like my mother's, that we'd be quilting each others' quilts around on a frame in somebody's home. But it was the Daughters of Dorcas that was just beginning. And I don't know if that was '84. I had not lived here very long when I met Viola [Canady.] So I went over, found the church, and I think there were twelve or twenty members of the group at that time. It grew rapidly from that time.

ES: Did you take more lessons as you--

VQ: No.

ES: You just began teaching yourself?

VQ: I learned a lot from Viola. Later on, other members. Just kept learning little bits from various people.

ES: And your sewing skills came in very handy.

VQ: Yes. All the 4-H training was very useful.

ES: Would you tell us what is your most favorite part of quilting? And what do you like least as well.

VQ: I like the quilting.

ES: You like the stitches themselves.

VQ: I like to quilt. I like to piece. I like the hand piecing, but I like to quilt the top when it's ready. I like least, the binding.

ES: Yes.

VQ: One of the most important steps.

ES: Do you do any of it by machine? Or do you do pretty much everything by hand?

VQ: I do most of it by hand, but sometimes I will piece by machine.

ES: How do you feel about machine quilting in general?

VQ: I think machine quilting is really beautiful, but it is like a different art form. I think for bed quilts, the hand quilting is so much softer and more comfortable. And I really like bed quilts. I like to make bed quilts. So, to see the wall hangings that are made by machine quilting, I think they are really beautiful. They're like tapestries. To me they're not really quilts.

ES: Now you have made many quilts. Are they for your family, in general? For charity?

VQ: Family and friends usually. [I have sold a few. Some commissions.]

ES: Does everybody have a quilt in your family now made by you?

VQ: Everybody except our son and his wife who live in Granada.

ES: Oh, yes. That's too warm.

VQ: [laughs.] But their children have had several quilts apiece, that they play with.

ES: How much time do you spend on quilting, would you say, in a week's time?

VQ: I'm pretty much a full time quilter. Right now, I'm doing something else, but in the past few years, normally I treat it like a job, a separate job. I had a separate studio. I'd get up in the morning, fix my lunch, take my sandwich, go to the studio and quilt pretty much all day.

ES: Do you give quilts to others, charity quilts?

VQ: The group I'm with the Daughters of Dorcas, we do projects from time to time. We usually have something charitable to do, like baby quilts. We quilted for border babies, once. We did an art project one summer--quite a long time ago. And it was combination of the senior citizens and children who lived in homeless shelters. The children and older people designed blocks and then the older people did some of the quilting. It was a way to get the generations together, I guess.

ES: Have you done teaching, per se?

VQ: Not really, no.

ES: But you do help a lot of people.

VQ: Yes, but—informally, I guess you'd say.

ES: Do you keep track of the things you do? Do you have an album?

VQ: Yes, I have albums. I'm behind, but--[My albums contain photos of each quilt I've made, along with bits of the fabrics, size, why I made them, or for whom, etc.]

[background noise.]

ES: I usually ask, how does your quilting impact your family?

VQ: I don't think it impacts them very much at all. I mean, they don't really pay much attention. Just, 'Grandma quilts.'

ES: They're just happy to get the quilts? [laughter.] And is there anyone else in your family doing it?

VQ: No.

ES: Have you entered shows and won any awards?

VQ: I've had quilts in a few shows. That one in Williamsburg. With Selma Lee, I made a quilt that was shown at Decatur House when they used to have the tactile architecture show. And I've had quilts at the Virginia Quilt Museum. [in Harrisonburg, Virginia.]

ES: What sort of show was that?

VQ: There was a feed sack show. I had a feed sack quilt. And also a [quilt in the.] Celestial Stars [Show.].

[background noises.]

ES: Oh, would you get that? Your other quilt was so small. Let's look at your [big quilt.]

For whom was this quilt?

VQ: Oh, this was for my husband, Pat. [The title on my quilt is "Many Crossroads." It's the Mexican Star pattern with a border designed by Penny Rigdon.]

ES: It's beautiful. What colors would you call this? Is it purple or--

VQ: It's black.

ES: It's so close to being purple.

VQ: It's kind of changing color.

ES: Yeah. Then it's beige.

VQ: Some of these [fabrics.] were reproductions, in the centennial year, of old fabrics.

ES: Some of them are the stars, circular stars having to do with the bicentennial.

VQ: And then it's Mexican Stars, the pattern. And we went to Mexico on our honeymoon, and I had dress that was sort of these colors. When I saw the fabrics I thought, oh, that's like my dress that I wore on my honeymoon. I was so proud of it.

ES: Yes. The block itself is about a twenty inch block, or something?

VQ: Uh-hum.

ES: With the 4 sections and then the star in the middle. It's hard to tell where it starts and ends.

VQ: I think it's a twelve inch block, actually. Because I think each of these sections is six.

ES: Aha. It is beautifully quilted.

VQ: Now, here they come together.

ES: When did you make this?

VQ: In 1992.

ES: You've got lots of writing here. You have embroidered on the back, 'Four children--

VQ: I have an inscription here. It starts on the edge. It's 'Many Crossroads. Pieced for love of Pat Quinn by Virginia after thirty-three and one-third years together. Four children; Michael, Jennifer, Patrick, Amy. Completed, June 1992.'

ES: That's wonderful. Good for you. We'll take a picture of it later.

VQ: That tiny quilt, most of the pieces in the background [are from this.], because this was one of the first big quilts that I made by hand and quilted on a frame, and I made a big mistake in cutting this fabric. And so all these little star shapes were wasted. And I ran out of fabric, too. But a friend found [more of the right.] fabric at a quilt show.

ES: Oh, how serendipitous.

VQ: So I managed to—I was going to have to use something else to make enough blocks, so I did use the little stars though, in these triangle pieces in the little quilt.

[background noise.]

ES: Did you win any prizes on these things? Or were they not juried?

VQ: No. Oh, then I also had--the feed sack quilt I made was also shown at an exhibition in conjunction with the quilt show at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, because they usually have a theme exhibit. And that year it was 'Feed Sack Frenzy.' So that quilt was shown there, which was a lot of fun.

ES: You mentioned before, collaboration with Selma Lee. Have you done other things with Selma?

VQ: Oh, yes. We've done a lot of things together. I think we really got acquainted when we worked in that 'Art from the Heart of the City' project [D.C. Arts Commission Program, 1989.] with the children in the summer. Selma was the team leader you might say. That group also included Ray Dobard, and Doris Scott, Selma and I, and I can't remember, I think there was one more person. And we did that for several weeks. It was quite a long project.

ES: And you were working, teaching other people, or were you making something yourselves?

VQ: We were teaching the children, just them. And then the quilt that our group of children made was hung in the Mayor's office for some time.

ES: Oh, how nice.

VQ: We don't know what happened to it. It was supposed to travel and be on show everywhere, but we don't know what happened to that quilt.

ES: What was it called, do you know? So they can identify it some day.

VQ: I can't remember what it was called.

ES: As you mentioned that, I was thinking about the other thing you did for the Mayor. Remember Mayor Williams?

VQ: Oh, Mayor Williams, yes. The project started by a woman in Chevy Chase. She was cutting bow ties blocks and sending them out to quilters all over the area not just in D.C. but in Maryland and Virginia. And then people would send [the finished.] blocks back to her and she put them all together. And she brought it to the Daughters of Dorcas to show and said, 'What shall I do with this quilt top now? Because it's all pieced and I have backing and batting and everything, but should I tie it, because I won't have time to quilt it?' So I said, 'I'll quilt it if whoever buys it at auction will pay the quilted price. If it can be presented as the quilting will be included when it's auctioned. And then they will have to give it back to me and I'll quilt it for them as soon as I could.' So they did that and it was auctioned. I took it home from the auction and quilted it and it was presented to the Mayor. The guy who bought it lent it to the Mayor. I think it's still hanging outside Mayor Williams' office. [The Mayor wears bow ties.]

ES: In D.C.

VQ: Yeah. That was very exciting

ES: That was nice. When you go to a quilt show, what do you look for in a quilt? What do you think makes a quilt great?

VQ: Oh, I think that the first thing I notice is the color. There are colors that I really like. I begin looking at the design and the way it's put together. I think color is the most striking.

ES: Do you have any stories or experiences about quilters or quilting that you'd like to share?

VQ: Well, I could talk for several hours, I suppose, but I can't think of anything specific. [laughter.]

ES: In what ways has quilting had meaning for the American woman?

VQ: I think it's a real wonderful personal art form that, for me, I feel that I love to make quilts that I consider beautiful. And I love working on them and just feeling them and working with the fabric and putting stitches in and just everything about quilting, very intimate and warm. And then, but also at the same time, I'm making something useful. I mean, it's not just a decorative thing, but it is also going to be useful. So I think that's why I like to make bed quilts rather than wall hangings.

ES: Do you have any advice to new quilters?

VQ: Yes. Try to finish what you start. So that means, if you can resist, try to start with smaller projects, simpler projects I should say, that you can complete them and then--and I did that for a long time, but recently I got too excited, and started too many things.

ES: Yeah. Have you participated in the quilt history project?

VQ: Yes. There was a project in history of the quilts, themselves. And I think they were going state by state and trying to document old quilts that people might have in their closet and hadn't been using because it was an old family quilt and trying to get down a sort of survey of the fabrics used in the length of time that it took to make these quilts. I don't know whether that material was ever put into a report or--it seemed to just kind of die out after a while. But we were meeting in various places, wherever there was a group of quilters, if they were meeting in a church, affiliated with a church, or if they were in certain areas. I don't think it continued, though.

ES: The only other thing is, I have not asked, do you have time for other crafts?

VQ: I'm really not interested in anything else. [laughs.] Cooking and quilting.

ES: Okay. Well, I think maybe it is time to stop now. Thank you very much for giving your time to this project.

[From ES: I did not ask her about her expertise and many years' experience in Yoga in this interview. She has told me, 'I sit in the lotus position when I quilt.']


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