Selma Gray Lee




Selma Gray Lee




Selma Gray Lee


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Brenda Brinn


Washington D.C.


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): Today is October 6th, 2004. I am interviewing Selma Gray Lee Number [DC.] 20002-004. We are meeting on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., at the home of Virginia Quinn. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger. Hi, Selma.

Selma Lee (SL): Hi. ES: How are you today?

SL: Fine.

ES: It's nice of you to come over here to have your interview. I usually start to talk about the quilt first. I think we should probably talk about the quilt that you brought. [background noise.] First of all, it is in a lovely bag that's purple and green and blue. Huge. [noises as we spread it on the table.] Can you spread this here? Oh, beautiful backing. It has a purple background with little hearts and through the middle it has a beautiful contrasting border print. And what did you bring today?

SL: I brought that one because that's one that I made for my daughters when they first moved into their townhouse. And that's one that I made because they have a big wall. And I made it to hang on the wall.

ES: Oh. It is a huge quilt. And they could hang it up on the wall as a decoration?

SL: Uh-hum. Yes.

ES: And the two daughters were living together at the time?

SL: Yes, the two daughters were living together.

ES: That's very nice. So let's describe it for people who can't see it. It's made of--

SL: Butterflies in all different color fabrics.

ES: These fabrics that you had around the house?

SL: Yes.

ES: And then you seemed to put feather stitching around all the butterflies?

SL: Yes.

ES: And embroidery on the antennae. Now, is this hand done completely?

SL: No. It's machine sewn.

ES: The borders and so forth--but I think the quilting here is lovely.

SL: The quilting is all hand quilting.

ES: Lovely hand quilting. It's just beautiful. Do you know when this was made? Do you have a date on here?

SL: It should be—on your end, on the back side.

ES: Just your name is there, maybe beneath the wall hanging--

SL: I usually put the date on it.

ES: You can give me the date later, when you think about it. It's very nice. Were these some of the fabrics from the girls' clothes or anything like that?

SL: No, just scraps.

ES: Just scraps. As I say, it has a beautiful lavender background.

SL: Virginia [Quinn.] says that's one of her fabrics.

ES: Uh-huh. That's beautiful. Now where does it stay at your house, or did you have to borrow it today?

SL: They borrow some of my quilts. They don't keep the quilts up full time. They borrow some of mine and then I have to take theirs back over to my house to keep, because they don't have any place to keep them.

ES: Yeah. You keep them safe. That's beautiful. [table noises.] Could you tell us your earliest memories of quilts and quilting?

SL: I can remember around 1976, I was talking to my girlfriend and she was telling me about how her grandmother quilted. And it sounded so interesting. I said, 'Let's do it.' And when we started making tops and all and my girlfriend said, 'I don't know about quilting, all I know is what my grandmother showed me.' So then we got books and started that way. And then my mother started. She said, 'That's the quilting that's you all's idea. I'm not going to get interested.' Then she got more interested than we were. [laughs.]

ES: Oh, my.

SL: But it just started that way and then about 1987 after my mother died, I got into the group. [Daughters of Dorcas.] And then I learned more and more from people like Virginia [Quinn.] and Viola [Canady.] and all. And that's just how my interest grew.

ES: I see. Had you done a lot of sewing as a child?

SL: No.

ES: Your stitches are so fine and beautiful there on that quilt. You had to pick that up all later?

SL: I picked it up. And that was my hobby. I could quilt all day.

ES: Aha.

SL: But recently I've had a medical problem and I can't do it any more. I tell the girls, 'Do it while you can, you never know.'

ES: That's right. Where did you grow up?

SL: I grew up in Washington. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. But I grew up in Washington at about age 5. So I have been here in this vicinity ever since. [banging noises.]

ES: Did you work here? Did you have a career for part of your time here?

SL: Yeah. I taught special education part of the time. I taught in the government part of the time. I had different jobs.

ES: But it was teaching most of the time.

SL: Uh-hum.

ES: And you raised two daughters.

SL: Yeah.

ES: And does either one of them quilt?

SL: No, neither one of them quilt but I have one that knits. She is a fantastic knitter. But neither one of them quilt.

ES: When you taught your mother, was she able to have some years of enjoyment of making quilts?

SL: Yes. About ten years or so.

ES: Did you inherit some of her quilts?

SL: She gave all of hers away. As she quilted them, she gave them away. And I may have one or two that belonged to my father.

ES: And now, what do you do with your quilts?

SL: I keep them, and I give them away, I give the girls some. I keep them. I can't get rid of them. I want to get rid of them, because I have too many, but I haven't gotten to the place that I can just give them away yet.

ES: Yeah. And do your girls use them on their beds?

SL: Yes.

ES: Would you tell us about the wedding quilts that you made?

SL: I made each one of them, with the help of Virginia [Quinn.], a wedding quilt. Patty does not use hers. She just keeps hers away. But Lola puts hers on the wall.

ES: Aha. And what were the two patterns that you had for those?

SL: The first one was a basket pattern, little baskets.

ES: Little baskets?

SL: And the second one was a cut stack and whack--

ES: But it has a better name. Dresden Star. [laughter.]

SL: And it was made from a fabric that my brother brought from Africa. It's beautiful.

ES: Yes, it came out very well.

SL: Yeah, it really did.

ES: Good. What is or was your most favorite part of quilting?

SL: Hand quilting.

ES: You like the hand work.

SL: The hand quilting, not the hand piecing. 'Cause I don't piece by hand any way. I piece by machine.

ES: Uh-huh. And your least favorite thing to do?

SL: Machine sewing.

ES: Did you make your own designs as you went along or do you use traditional designs?

SL: Mostly traditional patterns.

ES: Have you kept an album or any kind of record of what you've made?

SL: I have started keeping albums but it got to be too much.

ES: How has quilting impacted your family? What involvement?

SL: My husband is very involved. Although he doesn't admit it, he is involved in everything I do. If I have anything outside of the home, he's always involved. If I need any help getting the quilting frame fixed or anything, he gets involved in that. So he's very helpful. He really is.

ES: And has he built some frames and things?

SL: Yes, he has built frames for other people. He doesn't do it any more, but he has done it.

ES: They are the kind that can ratchet, can move, that kind of frame, or--

SL: Yeah.

ES: Have you ever entered shows?

SL: I've done a couple of shows at the Decatur House. I've done shows at where I live in Prince George's County. I've done several shows there. I just can't remember everything. But I have done several shows.

ES: Were some of them juried? Did you receive awards or anything?

SL: No. Well the one at Decatur House was juried, but I did not get an award. But I did sell one at Decatur House, once.

ES: What was that quilt?

SL: It was a house quilt.

ES: Have you done any teaching--of quilting?

SL: I've had several classes. Virginia and I worked with the children. We did one at Howard University for adults. I did several classes. I've done one other one with Doris Scott [former member of Daughters of Dorcas.] in Prince George's County. I've done four or five classes.

ES: Very nice. And you yourself, when did you say you came into the Daughters of Dorcas?

SL: Around 1987. My mother died in '86 and I was lonesome and wanted something to do. Joyce Nixon and I came together at the Daughters of Dorcas.

ES: And what did you do first when you were there? Do you remember what you got involved with when you first joined?

SL: Just quilting and just learning. I think the first thing I was working on was Grandmother's Flower Garden. One of the ladies was working on that. And we all started working on that. Just different things that the ladies were doing and we were picking up clues from them.

ES: Very nice. Do you make quilts for charity sometimes?

SL: Just for the children with the Daughters of Dorcas.

ES: What you look for when you look at a quilt?

SL: I look at the colors. The first thing that hits me-- what are the colors and how do they work? And how do I feel about them. And then, next, the patterns, and how they are arranged. And of course I look at the quilting.

ES: Uh-hum. What is your feeling about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

SL: I think machine quilting is awesome. And I really would like--one of the ladies in the group is a fantastic machine quilter. And I really would like to learn from her. I really think it's awesome. And I really would like to learn more about it.

ES: Do you have any stories or experiences to do with quilting that you might like to share?

SL: I can't think of anything off hand.

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

SL: I feel it gives us an opportunity to project ourselves in different ways—art. It gives you time to be with yourself and be with what you want to do. And I feel that's very important.

ES: Very nice. Do you have any advice for new quilters?

SL: I feel that, just like Virginia said, finish what you start. Don't try to start too much, because it is frustrating. But finish what you start and then start something else. But most of the ladies don't take that advice.

ES: Yes. Some of us get so backed up.

SL: Yeah.

ES: Is there anything that we haven't covered that you had wanted to talk about? Oh, have you participated in quilt history documentation?

SL: Only the one that they had at Daughters of Dorcas, that's the only one that I have participated in when the ladies were here at the meeting.

ES: What did they do?

SL: They had a lot of old quilts and they were trying to give the meanings and age and all of them. That's the only time I have participated in it.

ES: Have you participated in any television programs? You mentioned something about the Daughters of Dorcas having television shows.

SL: A couple of times, Daughters of Dorcas were involved in television programs. A lot of my friends still tell me they remember me on television. [laughter.] One time, Virginia, Doris and I, and Raymond [Dobard.] were with the children on television. And then, once before we were on television. I can't remember what show that was. But some of my friends still remember me on television. [laughter.]

ES: Very nice. Is there anything else that we should talk about today?

SL: I can't think of anything.

ES: I think we've covered pretty much everything I can think of. Oh, one thing I see here—do you do any other crafts?

SL: No.

ES: I think we'll leave it there. Thank you very much for your information. It is very nice of you to come today.

SL: Thank you. [tape ends.]


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