Gertrude Braan




Gertrude Braan




Gertrude Braan


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Brenda Brinn


Washington D.C.

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): Today we are interviewing Gertrude Braan during a Daughters of Dorcas meeting, which meets at the corner of I and 6th in Washington, D.C. This is October 12, 2004. Gertrude's number is [DC.] 20002-005. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger. Hi, Gertrude.

Gertrude Braan (GB): Hi.

ES: It's nice of you to agree to be interviewed today.

GB: It's my pleasure.

ES: Good. I think we will start off with looking at the things you brought us today. I see that it is all quilted clothing. And it is beautiful. So I would like to discuss that. What is the style of the first piece here?

GB: This jacket is a bolero type jacket. It's short and that's why it's called a bolero, not a regulation length.

ES: The fabrics you used--

GB: All one hundred percent cotton. This was a challenge jacket. We got about five different fabrics from Seminole Sampler Quilt Shop in Catonsville, Maryland, and then we had to add to it. So I came up with the idea of a jacket using Yvonne Porcella's book. I used the Clam Shell design on it and then I found variegated thread that was the same color as the different fabrics I used. And on my machine, I just used different stitches to sew down the shells.

ES: Now are these shells sewn down originally by appliqué first?

GB: No.

ES: Or just down by the fancy machine work?

GB: Down by the machine.

ES: Very beautiful. The colors are from fuchsia and orange, blue and turquoise, green, black. Very, very beautiful. Let's look at the back. [of the bolero.] It has a diagonal of kind of an Indian-looking, to me, a Native American-looking fabric. Different abstract designs--

GB: Uh-hum. And then it also has some three dimensional clam shells on the sleeves and on the back and on the front. [telephone ringing.]

ES: Just beautiful. For whom did you make this?

GB: Well, I was supposed to make it for me, but it was too small. I did not get the right size.

ES: Has it ever been worn?

GB: No.

ES: Could you put a date on it?

GB: Let's see, that was--I do not know the date of any of them. Probably in the nineties.

ES: [noise nearby on table.] Let's look at the second item you brought. Because your pieces are small, we can do more than one.

GB: The second one is--I call it "Christmas Now" because it's got Christmas fabrics on it, and this was probably made in the nineties, also. But it has about 15 different fabrics and--

ES: They are in square inch pieces. [more bells ringing.]

GB: Some of the designs are in square inches. Some of them are inch strips, some of them larger than an inch.

ES: Like in the pockets. And one side seems to be lighter fabrics and over here it gets darker on the other side.

GB: It all goes from light to dark. All the fabrics were put together from light to dark.

ES: Do you design this first out flat? How do you decide what fabric goes where?

GB: Well, I was in a class when I took this and so she was teaching us how to work with all of these fabrics and also going from light to dark. So then, she has a method of showing us how to go from light to dark, by using either candle light or dim light in the room. If you are home, you can go in your bathroom, you know because that is pretty dark, and leave the door open a little to get light from the outside. So we can truly see which fabric is lighter than the other. And then so I started designing it by just drawing some lines on the pattern, and then laying out my strips however I wanted them.

ES: And did you do that by machine, each strip as you pieced it?

GB: This was all done by machine. It's stitched to the lining.

ES: Oh, yeah. And the lining is a lovely gold color with poinsettias and all sorts of musical instruments.

GB: It shows Christmassy inside also.

ES: It's just beautiful. Do you wear this one?

GB: Yes. That one I wear. I also used different color buttons--two colors, red and green.

ES: Uh-hum. Set in with hexagonal shape buttons with colors in the middle. That is just gorgeous. And then the loops that you have--

GB: To close it.

ES: How long does it take you to make something like this?

GB: Some like that I worked on pretty steady, 'cause I was in the class. And I think it was a three weeks' class.

ES: Feels good and warm, too.

GB: Yeah, it is. [bells again.]

ES: It's lovely. And your third item here is a light summery one.

GB: A light weight vest. Yeah. It has a diagonal opening and it's got an uneven hem. A few of these pieces of fabric I dyed myself. Most of them were bought, machine dyed.

ES: Batik type. Again, there are multi colors.

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: And this you could wear in the summertime. And the back. Oh.

GB: I used multi-colored buttons, too, on the different pieces. I got some three dimensional pieces.

ES: Aha. Buttons used as decoration in the back. It is just beautiful. And this is a horse, I think, in this fabric here.

GB: Uh-hum. That's one of the batiks. And the lining, I dyed the lining.

ES: And that's a lot lighter. All the buttons--different colors going down. Oh, yes. That's nice. There's no filler in this one.

GB: I probably have--I'll have to see--a muslin in there.

ES: A piece of muslin, because it feels very light.

GB: No, I don't. [she checks.] Nothing is in here.

ES: Whereas the other ones have some batting.

GB: Batting. Uh-hum.

ES: That is beautiful work.

GB: Sometimes I use flannel for batting, also.

ES: I'd like to know when you got interested in sewing.

GB: Oh, it was in the eighties, from a co-worker. I didn't know anyone who knew how to sew. I mean quilting. And one of my co-workers was talking about it and we had a really wonderful supervisor who let us have lunch together. And that's how I took my lessons. Carmie Smith was her name and she brought in fabric, a pattern, thread, everything for us to start on it. She was teaching a couple of us how to quilt. And so we did a pillow. She said she was self-taught so she was going to teach us so that we wouldn't make the same mistakes she made.

ES: Before this you had to have had some sewing skills.

GB: Yes.

ES: I just wanted to know about your beginning sewing skills.

GB: When I was a kid, my aunt taught me how to sew. We had to sew by hand. And after that I was self-taught. I went to a lot of different classes. And then when my friend at the job taught me, I told her--by that time I was doing machine work--I wanted to learn to quilt by hand. So that's what she did. That's how I got started. Nobody in my family quilted, I never knew anyone that quilted.

ES: So what were your earliest memories of quilting? There weren't any?

GB: No.

ES: Now where were you brought up?

GB: Born and brought up in Brooklyn, New York.

ES: OH. And when did you come to Washington, DC?

GB: In '66. They closed down the Brooklyn Navy Yard so my husband had to look for a job someplace else, so he found a place in Carderock, Maryland. And we had to move.

ES: And you worked here, too?

GB: I did not work until after I got here. I really didn't have any skills at the time. And I went to school. So I went to school for nursing, and then started.

ES: Oh. When you talked about your supervisor that was in a hospital?

GB: No. She worked as an occupational nurse in government health units, government buildings, that's the way I met her. And so then I started working there, too, because I used to work at GW hospital.

ES: And you were a floor nurse?

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: How many years did you do nursing?

GB: Probably since '66 or '67.

ES: Did you retire recently?

GB: I conceded, recently. I guess I probably retired maybe six years ago or a little bit more.

ES: And during that time you raised a family as well?

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: I would like to go back to the quilting. So the first thing that you did was the pillow. And that was by hand quilting?

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: Do you still have it?

GB: Yes. Falling apart. [laughter.]

ES: So what did you launch into next?

GB: I think I did a wall hanging next and my daughter has that. In it I could look and see the difference because I was afraid to use a lot of different colors. Now when I look at it, it is rather bland. After that, I did take a class in machine quilting from Lois Smith. A class from her, I did the machine-made quilt. In fact, it is the only really large quilt that I've made. After that I was taking a lot of different classes--[noise.] wall hangings, and a lot of different things that I haven't finished. [laughter.]

ES: A general complaint.

GB: And then I started with clothing. At that time they called it quilted clothing, now they call it wearable art. And so I got interested in doing that, since I knew how to sew clothing. I took a lot of different classes from a lot of different teachers.

ES: At some point you met up with Viola Canady and with this group, the Daughters of Dorcas?

GB: Yes. The woman that taught me how to quilt told us about an NQA [National Quilting Association.] Seminar they had in Maryland and so we went to that and I took classes. One of the classes I wanted to take was Stained Glass Window and Trapunto. And when I got there, they had cancelled the Trapunto class because there were not enough students. And I met Viola. [Canady.] She was teaching it. So she was talking to me, and I told her that, so she said, 'Oh, don't worry,' she said, 'You can do both things.' So she had her kits for Trapunto and Stained Glass, so I took both of them. And then she told me about the quilt guild that she had founded. And so she told me where to come. At the time they were here at this church. And so then I came to the meeting, and I have been here ever since. And I did not work on Tuesdays for that reason.

ES: Aha. You could schedule Tuesday off.

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: Great. Now when was it you joined?

GB: It had to be in the eighties, the mid-eighties.

ES: That was right near the beginning of the meetings here.

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: It seems like you have always been the right-hand person to Viola. You helped the things with the group.

GB: Well, yeah. That came about because Viola was writing things down on little pieces of paper. And I would hear her telling someone, 'OK, you owe me so-and-so.' She was always hunting and trying to find her pieces of paper. So I went home one day and I got a clipboard and then I made out a paper where people could write down their names and what they owed and when they paid it. It could be done like that, so I brought it to her for her to use, but then I got elected [laughs.] as being the one to do all the work. So, I have been doing that ever since.

ES: I notice you are always doing the financial things when large bolts of fabric are brought in.

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: But then also, you seem to do a lot of teaching when you're here. I never see you working on your own projects. You are always teaching somebody.

GB: I usually, if I bring something to work, I get side-tracked by other people, so most of the time I do not bring anything. You know, they'll ask me questions.

ES: You have been very generous with your time. I see you working with people all the time.

GB: Uh-hum. Yes. I don't mind.

ES: That's good. What are your most favorite parts of quilting?

GB: Probably, putting it together. 'Cause I don't consider myself a good quilter at all because I just don't quilt enough often enough. And especially to hand quilt. Most of my quilting I do on the clothing there's not much. Most of it is flip and sew. Some of it isn't, but most of it is flip and sew, so I don't consider myself a quilter, when I do things like that.

ES: But you certainly are a patchwork artist. What is the least favorite part of the quilting process? Or do you have a least favorite?

GB: I really don't have a least favorite. Probably right now I would say quilting, because I can't do it well enough like I'd like to.

ES: How much time in a week do you spend on this art that you do?

GB: Not much, right now. But I used to spend many hours. In fact I would be up to two o'clock in the morning, sewing at the machine for some of my things. Right now I'm not spending enough time.

ES: You do enjoy working on the machine.

GB: Either way. I don't mind hand piecing at all. I like appliqué, and I do that by hand, I don't do that by machine.

ES: How long does it take you to get started on a project? Does it take you a lot of dreaming time?

GB: Sometimes it does. Because, usually I don't think of anything right off the top of my head. Most of the times I see a pattern and work from there. But to design myself, most of the time I don't. That Christmas jacket, I guess it took me a moderate amount of time to decide what I wanted to do.

ES: Are there any other crafts that you are interested in?

GB: No. I used to crochet before I started quilting. Novelty things I would crochet.

ES: Do you keep a record of what you made?

GB: Not an exact record, but I do have pictures of things. Like classes that I take, I have everything's all written down so if I want to go back to it, I can go back to it if someone asks me something about it. Usually I can't remember everything, so I go back to my notes.

ES: Uh-hum. And you have a lot of photos, you said.

GB: Yeah, I have photos.

ES: How does quilting impact your family?

GB: Oh, nothing. They like it. My husband will say to me, 'What you building now?' [laughter.] He'll walk past me busy doing something, cutting out something or at the sewing machine. But it doesn't bother. My daughter gets to get some of my things. Clothing, wearable art. She gets to get some of those. I haven't made any quilts for my children, though, or my grandchildren. [laughter.]

ES: You really concentrate on the wearable art.

GB: Most of the times, yeah.

ES: Have you entered shows?

GB: Yes, I've been in several shows. I was in the architectural show. It was at the Decatur House. [D.C.] And I was really surprised that they accepted my work, surprised and honored. I really felt good about that. It went around the country, even went to Switzerland. Yeah, I think it went to Switzerland that year. So, that I was proud. And that was wall hanging that Viola [Canady.] taught me how to do. She was in this program that the Department of Arts and Humanities paid her. And I was her apprentice. She taught me how to do that stained glass.

And that went in that show. And a little critique note went into the Washington Post about it, too.

ES: Oh, good. And was it a juried show?

GB: Yes.

ES: So you had to win some prize.

GB: You did not win a prize, you just got in the show.

ES: And what did the critique say?

GB: It was talking about how good it was, you know. I called it 'From the Ground Up' because that's the way you build a building. It was buildings. And that's how you build buildings. So he made a comment about that.

ES: Nice. Did you save that, I hope?

GB: Yeah. I saved that. In fact someone called me and told me it was in the paper because I didn't even know it.

ES: Aha. Are there any other shows that come to mind?

GB: Edgenetta Wilson. Viola knows her. That's how I got to be in her show. She had a show that also went around the country. And I put in my pieces of clothing and then small quilt shows.

ES: Have you ever won prizes?

GB: No.

ES: Have you sold any of your things?

GB: Yes. I sell some of my work, usually by word of mouth. My hairdresser will tell her customers. I might wear something there and they see it and say something about it. She introduces me to the people. She also, several years in a row, had me make something for her mother and her grandmother. Vests, I made, and jackets. In fact I made a tote bag. Her mother is a librarian, so I made a tote bag with books on it for her. And then [banging noise.] we exchange. I don't have to pay her until her bill is paid up.

ES: Good bartering.

GB: Right. She was tickled that I would do that.

ES: Are these always one-of-kind items you make?

GB: Yeah.

ES: If someone says, 'I like what you are wearing,' you wouldn't go home and make the same thing?

GB: Sometimes it is, but it never comes out the same because you're using different fabrics. So even for Gwen Ifill--

ES: I see her lovely clothing on the TV--

GB: Who did the Vice President debate. I made her one of those African coats that I make.

ES: Oh.

GB: Reversible coats. She saw that. She felt that she wanted one, so I made her one.

ES: Where did you run into Gwen Ifill?

GB: At the hairdresser's.

ES: At the same hairdresser?

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: Oh, that's great. I admire her clothing. It sets off her face. She's beautiful.

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: Do you make charity quilts?

GB: I've done that for children. We did it for the AIDS babies, along with the group.

ES: Mostly with the group here.

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: Do you collect quilts, anybody else's?

GB: No.

ES: These are some sort of general things. When you see a quilt, what do you look for? What makes a quilt great?

GB: I like to look for the design, what they did with the fabric, what colors they chose to go together and also their quilting, you know, how they decided to quilt it.

ES: Do you have a feeling of machine quilting versus hand quilting?

GB: No. To me it doesn't matter. And then, like with Lois Smith, I've always seen her work. She taught me how to--you know I was in a class with her--and she has such beautiful work. Because when I first knew her, they did not honor machine quilts, and now she has several in the Kentucky museum. Several of her quilts are there. So now they have a separate category for machine quilts.

ES: Uh-hum. Do you have any stories or experiences in your past about quilting in the years you have been taking lessons that you could share?

GB: I really can't think of anything.

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

GB: I guess, to show that they can design, that they are artists, which now they are beginning to say, which before you weren't an artist. And it's very relaxing. And it helps keep people sane. [laughter.] I think basically women doing this work are beginning to be recognized more as artists. And there are so many of the quilts now are artistic and not the general bed type quilts.

ES: Yeah. Good. Do you have any advice for new quilters?

GB: Go to quilt shows, because you see different things being done and you see different ways things are quilted and they really need to get some ideas from those things.

ES: Very good. Have we left out anything that you might want to talk about?

GB: No.

ES: This has been very interesting. You are certainly a great artist.

GB: Thank you.

ES: I did not ask you about the jacket that you have on, but that will be in the picture. Can you tell us about this jacket?

GB: This jacket actually is a pattern and the fabrics were from--they're called [Cherrywood.] sueded fabrics by Dawn Hall. She sold fabric packs. And this was one of the packs she sold. She had different packs, like some of them had the jewel colors in them.

ES: Did you just use what was in the pack and made it?

GB: Uh-hum.

ES: It's just beautiful. Well, we'll see it in the photo. Thank you again for doing this. It was very nice.

GB: You're welcome.

[tape ends.]


“Gertrude Braan,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,