Elsie Thomas Houston




Elsie Thomas Houston




Elsie Thomas Houston


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association


Washington, D.C.

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): We are interviewing Elsie Thomas Houston, number 20002.016, during a Daughters of Dorcas meeting in Washington, D.C., on September 20th, 2005. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger. Hi, Elsie.

Elsie Houston (EH): Hi.

ES: Nice of you to agree to be interviewed today.

EH: Ah, well, it might be interesting. Thank you.

ES: I'd like first of all to discuss what you brought to show today. You have two items. Which would you like to talk about, first?

EH: I guess, the Native American Hopi Dancer Quilt. It's the first one I've tried that's in a [three] dimensional--the feathers that he's wearing are not flat down on the quilt. And he has conchos up around the head, and beaded necklaces. And he's in a dancer's pose. And it has black appliqué radiating from the side. And the border is something I've never done before. I saw it in one of the quilting magazines, and I thought I'd try it. It's not a regular straight border.

ES: No. It has lots of waves.

EH: Yes. It's like waves all the way around the quilt.

ES: Did you appliqué that on?

EH: That's hand appliqué. Everything is hand appliquéd. And put it together. Nothing on there is [machine.] sewn.

ES: So, everything is hand done. The embroidery [stitches.] are those waves that come out.

EH: Yeah.

ES: Where did you get this inspiration for this?

EH: It was a design that one of the other ladies in the guild had this pattern ["Eagle Dance" by Arlene Walsh.]and she knew that I liked Native American. And it's been about two years, so I couldn't find the pattern. I will give you the name of the lady who designed it.

ES: What would be the dimensions of this--it's a wall hanging, right?

EH: Yes, that's most of what I've done in quilting. I would say it's probably about a 54" by 40" quilt.

ES: And the colors you've chosen have a particular meaning to you?

EH: I guess, the top part of the quilt is pastels with yellows and pale pinks and creams to represent the sun in the sky in the middle of the day. And the pale green at the bottom under the dancer's feet, I guess would be the grass. Because at first, the way it was shown in the pattern, he's just in mid-air and I wanted to show him with his feet on the ground as dancing, so I put this piece in there and I just quilted it by machine, randomly around.

ES: The quilting, then, is by machine--

EH: The quilting all the bottom and just in here is--

ES: Just that part.

EH: Yeah. But the quilting that is echoed around the body of the dancer, everything else is done by hand.

ES: And when did you say that you made this?

EH: It's about a year ago. [2003.]

ES: And for whom is this quilt?

EH: Elsie. [laughs.]

ES: For yourself, eh? [laughs.] Good. Do have a place to hang some of these?

EH: Oh, yeah. I have two walls in my living room, well, one is in my living room and the other is in my dining room, that I kinda alternate the quilts because they will not be in direct sunlight.

ES: Very good. Very nice. And could I ask you about your second item you brought today?

EH: Oh. Christine [Bradford.] and a couple others of us were trying to make jackets out of the sweatshirt. And we saw this lady on television, Karen Boutay, that gave demonstrations and they had been on a couple of times on different quilt shows on TV. So, I said, 'Oh, I can do that.' So, because of my African American heritage, I decided to try with a jungle theme. And that's with some fabric I had bought, and I just cut it out with the elephants and the giraffes.

ES: Now, those are appliquéd on top of a background--

EH: What I did was, the big piece of fabric I took and put fusible behind it and ironed it on and first of all I put the background fabric on, which was a separate piece, and then the animals and the foliage, I just cut those out individually and ironed them on to the background, 'cause there are two pieces of background fabric, I think.

ES: Yeah, there's the orange for the sunset--

EH: Yeah, the orange is in the middle, and down at the bottom, I think that's a different piece because I ran out. [laughs.] The top part with the burgundies and golds and so forth for something like a horizon.

ES: Or the sunrise or sunset.

EH: Yeah. So, I just took the animals and foliage and put them where I wanted to be and then I ironed them on to hold them in place, and then I top-stitched so that they are there permanently.

ES: Did you take apart the sweatshirt so that you had to do the sleeves flat out separately?

EH: It's the same kind of construction that you would do for a regular jacket or blouse, where you leave the side seams of the jacket open, and the under-arm seams of the sleeves open so you have a flat piece to work with.

ES: That is lovely. It has wonderful bright lining--

EH: And I just took a piece of fabric I had for the lining that I like.
ES: It looks like an African fabric.

EH: Yeah, and the top part of it is machine quilted with a shiny metallic thread. And some of the threads, you know where the sewing machine, where you cut the thread? I just left the ends hanging.

ES: Yes. That's very interesting.

EH: So that was my first jacket and I'm really pleased with it.

ES: Is it something you did recently?

EH: I did that in November of last year. [2004.]

ES: You certainly enjoy your quilting, don't you?

EH: Yeah, but I don't do as much as I should or I would like to, 'cause I get involved in other things. I guess, like all of us. We have so many projects that we want to do. And I'm not much of a traditional quilter. I quilt things that are a challenge to me. I like a challenge. Everything you see, most of the time, is something different, completely different. Although my favorite is doing hand appliqué. That is my favorite thing to do. That's how I started out - with hand appliqué.

ES: Let's go back a little bit. Where did you learn your sewing skills?

EH: From my mother.

ES: Where was that? In what state?

EH: In Washington. I grew up in Southeast Washington. At the time on the other side of the Anacostia River was just country. Really country, a rural area, then. She taught me how to crochet, and a little bit of knitting and tried to teach me to sew. [laughs.] And I think when I got about twenty years old, she gave me a sewing machine. I think I made one garment. When you are young like that you don't have time to sew. And when I started to work and I saw how expensive clothes were, that's when I really started using the sewing machine. I started making all my clothes. I love to make coats and jackets. I got a whole bunch of those. So, since I retired, I've cut back considerably on making suits and dresses because here I have no need for them. I think that's the beginning of the quilting coming back into vogue.

ES: When did you first get interested in quilting?

EH: That's when I did. I wanted to see if I was interested in it. And I had my husband take me down to Annapolis. They have a museum down there, near the governor's mansion for Booker T. Washington. And they had an exhibit down there. And that's how I found out about the Daughters of Dorcas and the Uhuru Quilt Guild. And my mother had said she had heard something about Daughters of Dorcas and Sumner School. So, I called Sumner School, and they gave me one of the members which happened to be Ruth Stokes. And Ruth told me they had the meetings here and I came to the meetings.

ES: Uh-hum. Do you know what year that was, approximately?

EH: It had to be about 1997, around that time.

ES: I wanted to know what is your earliest memory of quilting and quilters? Did you have some--

EH: No, I don't have. I never saw my mother doing any quilting. She did more sewing. My grandmother, I never saw her do any quilting, so I guess it just started with me, really. Uh-huh.

ES: And when you retired, what did you retire from? What were you doing?

EH: I was an administrative officer in the District government. I had been all over because I had worked for thirty-six years. I had worked in the Department of Health, and I think Policy and Planning and I think the last job I was working was Facilities Management.

ES: Good for you. You gave a lot to the city government.

EH: Yeah, well, then I had nursing. I did nursing in the beginning, that's how I started, in nursing. But I hurt my ankle, so I had to stop nursing. So, I went into the administrative end of nursing. Then I left that and went to different places within the government.

ES: And so, you have stayed in Washington all these years?

EH: Yes. Uh-huh.

ES: And you raised a family here?

EH: No, I have no children. I've been married. I was married for twenty-three years. My husband died. So, it's just me and my mother.

ES: Oh, she's still alive?

EH: Yeah. She's ninety-three.

ES: Is she able to sew?

EH: Oh, yes, she does. She has one of the newer machines and she sews now and then. She lives on her own and she does pretty good. She is very self-sufficient. [laughs.]

ES: Very good. You said your favorite aspect of the quilting is the appliqué.

EH: Yeah.

ES: What other things have you made?

EH: I started out with three-dimensional, it's Oriental. I can't think of the lady's name, but I did two quilts of hers that were Oriental in style and culture. I think I did three or four of them. Everyone told me I picked the hardest thing to do. Well, as I said, I like the challenge. And they said I did a very good job. We had them in a couple of the shows at Sumner School. Then I had a couple of them in a show at--when the other guild I belong to had a quilt show.

ES: Uh-hum.

EH: 'Cause it's something that you don't have to have a machine. You can do it anywhere.

ES: That's what I like. Do you keep track of what you've made, do you have an album?

EH: Yes, I have pictures. I try to remember to date them. They don't have names. [laughs.] But I try to keep track of them. I did do one quilt. It was for a king size bed. It was a commission I did for a young guy who works at the post office who was getting married. And he wanted a quilt with the African Adinka symbols. I did do that one for him. And I did one for my dentist. It was one I had made. It would have the Nine Patch. But the fabrics I used remind you of the Southwest and he liked that. So that was another one that I had sewed.

ES: That was commissioned.

EH: Yes.

ES: Good. So, for whom do you make quilts?

EH: Me. [laughs.]

ES: Yourself and these commissioned works.

EH: Yeah, and community service projects.

ES: You contributed to those over the years.

EH: Yeah. Every year.

ES: Will you describe some of those? I mean, not the quilts but the projects--from the Daughters of Dorcas?

EH: Dorcas and the other. We have community service projects every year and those are who I do the quilts for. And most of the quilts I do are for children, because I just like working with children. That's where I was working when I was in nursing. I liked Pediatrics.

ES: I want to ask you--you seem to have a fascination, I know from before, with Native American. Will you tell me what your interest is there?

EH: Well. My mother has told me that my grandmother said that we were of Mohawk heritage and around the Hudson River. I never paid that much attention to it. My mother would always mention it. And I remember when I was a child that my grandmother had a carving that she kept beside her bed. I don't know what happened to it over the years. But it had an odd smell to it. I guess it was like a piece of petrified wood that had carvings on it. In growing up, you just didn't ask a whole lot of questions about it. And she never explained anything. But if you look at my grandmother you can really see the features of a Native American and so my mother would talk about it off and on, so I eventually got interested. And back in 1994, I started having these dreams. I just started having them. They were dreams where I was living in New York City, and I had a bookstore and then I decided to move to Albany, not knowing where Albany was. And the story went on and I ended up about two hours' drive going north [west.] to Buffalo. And this was a dream I was having off and on until after my husband died, which was about, I guess a good ten years. And so, after my husband died and I had joined this group of ladies for exercise class, one of them was telling me about this magazine about the American cowboy. And she was saying that they had a video that you could buy, related to African Americans who had Native American heritage mixed in the race. So, I decided to buy the magazine and I bought the video. While I was in the bookstore, I picked up this magazine called, Native American, and I had bought the magazine before—it was an interesting magazine, but I was not particularly pleased with it because it only dealt with the Southwest. It never talked about Indians on the East coast. But this particular issue had an article about this bed and breakfast in Fonda, New York. So, I read the article. And so, I did a little research on the Internet, and I found out that was where I had the dream where I had moved to. And it's on the Hudson River. So, it piqued my interest.

ES: And Fonda is not far from Albany.

EH: No, Fonda's two hours' drive.

ES: To the west--

EH: Yeah, and it's on the Mohawk River. Right. So, I think that same year they had their first pow-wow down at the Mall to let people know they were building the new museum for the Native Americans. So, when I came back, I went to that. And ever since then I've just--I have piled books on top of books about Native Americans and I just love them. I think they are beautiful people, a very proud people. And I hope they come into their own more so than they are now.

ES: Uh-hum. That's very good. [laughter.] That's very interesting.

EH: Yes, it is.

ES: You said you have a lot of other interests, too. What else do you do besides reading?

EH: Reading is my--the reading part--I used to do a lot of reading when I was younger and then I stopped. But after my husband died, I started reading again--to get me through the evenings and nights. And it would occupy my mind and it would take me to another place. And so, I just started reading a lot--I started out with the romance, but I spread it out to other books, and I like to do that.

ES: I referred to reading because you talked about your reading so much about the Native Americans.

EH: Yes. And when I go to a bookstore, especially on the bargain tables, when they have the magazines about Native Americans, if it's something I don't have, I pick it up. And I just try to get as much knowledge as I can about them. But getting back to what you asked about--other interests--I'd started going back to Maryland University taking some classes in graphic design, because I always felt that I needed to--What is it your right side of your brain for the creativity? [laughs.] And I always felt that there was something else I could do to find my own little niche and do my own designs and stuff like that, 'cause I like to work with my hands. So, I take a course every now and then in that sense.

ES: Have you ever taken quilting courses?

EH: No. I taught myself because I just read--Oh. Do you want to know what I'm doing now? I'm dying fabric and selling it.

ES: Oh, my.

EH: Mary Jo [Dolphin.] and I bought our books, and she bought the first order of dyes, and she did all the mixing and stuff in my basement. [laughs.] So, we've got our materials together. It is a little expensive initially because of the fabric and the dyes and so forth, the other chemicals you have to use in getting the fabric ready for dying, if it is not already ready. And so, we've been dying fabric and so I decided it was too much of a process for me. I was on a lazy side. So, I found out in one of the quilting art magazines that you could paint fabric. And so, I've been painting fabric and I've been selling my fabric. I make fat quarters and I would just paint them, whatever, and I had the book. I read the book off and on as I go along, and it's just a matter to have the fabric ready to accept the paint, letting it dry, then ironing it and it is permanent.

ES: Oh. And these are mostly abstract designs, different colors--

EH: Yeah, whatever you want.

ES: Uh-hum.

EH: So, I started with the little two-ounce jars of paint to see if I was really going to stick with it. So now I'm really into it, so I bought the bigger jars. I really enjoy that.

ES: Have you made anything yet, cutting some of these up?

EH: I did one quilt. I think I brought it in, Evelyn, but you weren't here. Yeah, I did one quilt with the hand dyed or the painted fabric, I don't know which one.

ES: Did you do it as a Crazy Patch?

EH: No, it was a design, I'm trying to--I don't know these different patterns. I'm not that good with the pattern names, but I did do it. It was a multi-color type thing.

ES: Did you have some black separation--

EH: Yes, black was the background and around the border I used the extra fabric that was left over for the binding around it. And I had in the border--I had little sections of the different colors that were left over. You remember now? [laughs.]

ES: More or less.

EH: You see so many.

ES: Yeah. That's very interesting. How quilting had meaning for the American woman?

EH: Well. I figure it's the outlet for her expression of the desires and talents that American women have. And I tell you, the quilts that I have seen, the traditional and the contemporary quilts are just fantastic. I was taking the class at the University, maybe something would come out of me where I could do some of these fabulous quilts that these women are doing. And it is an art. You know people want to call it just a craft, but I believe it's an art, just like painting, sculpture, whatever. We have some very brilliant and talented women.

ES: And of course, men, too, but I'm asking a woman.

EH: Yeah, we'll getting a few of those, too. We have to have something, you know, because women were always in the home and they didn't do that much that expressed themselves, so this was ours.

ES: Do you have advice for new quilters?

EH: In the beginning, I think it's important that you learn the traditional way of making a quilt like a Four Patch or a Nine Patch, to learn the basics of doing the quilt. And once you've gotten to that point it--they say that there are rules in quilting. But rules are in this sense where you express yourself are meant to be broken. So, whatever you feel looks good to you and whatever colors you feel look good to you, put it in the quilt, just like a painter. The painter is painting with paints, you're painting with fabric. So, just do whatever your heart tells you.

ES: Good. I think you have certainly done that with your quilts. They are very expressive. You say you need design courses, but actually yours are very unique.

EH: You know they tell you to keep a pad. I have this pad at home that's about 36 by whatever and it's in my bedroom. And whenever you see something on TV that catches your mind, if you can grab it, or if you are out somewhere and you have an opportunity to do some sketching or something comes to mind and put it on paper. Then at some point, hopefully, you can interpret it into fabric and do a quilt with it.

ES: This has been a great hobby for you since your retirement.

EH: Yeah. But I was telling a young lady the other day, I need to find some other things to interest me, and don't know what they're going to be, but whatever comes along and piques my interest. But I would like to start doing some design of my own and using a lot of the different threads to express my own. I want to get away from the traditional quilting and do more abstract, contemporary quilts.

ES: Uh-hum. Are there any other experience with quilting you'd like to share? Or stories?

EH: Oh, the only thing I can think of, I did make the newspaper a couple of times. I was on TV. [laughs.]

ES: Oh, dear. Famous names and faces--

EH: [laughs.] I don't know. J.C. Haywood was here one year. And the only thing that got on TV was my hands.

ES: Oh, oh.

EH: Showing me quilting. And it was a lady here about three years ago. She was interested in what the group was doing, and I happened to be working on the quilt for the young man. I had the squares, and I was doing the appliqué. And she did an article on me. And I didn't know. Somebody called me on the phone and told me, 'Oh, Elsie, you're in the newspaper on the Thursday, the weekend paper. So, I made the newspaper article. The lady had a long article about quilting, and I was in the last paragraph or something like that.

ES: But they only had your hands in the--

EH: Well, this was separate. The newspaper article was one thing and then J.C. came two years ago, and she had a guy with her who was filming. She was interviewing different people. She talked to lots of different ones, and I just happened to have my hands done nice, [laughs.] and they caught my hands. They didn't get my face. Everybody was calling me, telling me, 'Look on TV. Elsie, you're on TV.' [laughter.]

ES: They could recognize your hands?

EH: They were roaming around, and they saw my face, but when the guy actually got down to what I was doing, even though I was talking, and you could see my hands and I was working.

ES: Very good.

EH: So, I don't know what I want to do next. That's completely different from this. I sometimes wish I were a little younger, I would go into carpentry. I'd like to be--

ES: You still could do that.

EH: Do some carpentry. I think I would like that.

ES: It's not just the soft fabrics that you want to do, but you want to do something else.

EH: Yeah.

ES: It's never too late.

EH: Yeah. I think I would like some type of woodworking. But it's still working with my hands.

ES: Yeah. Well, it has been very interesting.

EH: Thank you.

ES: Thank you so much for doing this today.

EH: Okay.


“Elsie Thomas Houston,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1582.