Ruth Hamlin Stokes




Ruth Hamlin Stokes




Ruth Hamlin Stokes


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Washington, D.C.

Interview indexer

Anne Lafferty


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): We are interviewing Ruth Hamlin Stokes number 20002-021 on November 22nd, 2005, during a Daughters of Dorcas meeting in Washington, D.C. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger. Hi, Ruth.

Ruth Stokes (RS): Hi.

ES: I am so happy that you came on this rainy day for the interview. You've brought three wall hangings today and I would talk about each one. First, this one here, it says it was done in nineteen ninety--

RS: Nineteen ninety-eight. The title of it is The Little Christmas Tree.

ES: Okay. Will you describe it for us? What did you put together to make the tree?

RS: To make the tree, I put some leftover scraps that I had, Christmas scraps, and I made yo-yos out of them. Those small yo-yos then I just put it in the form of a Christmas tree.

ES: Are there any two the same?

RS: No.

ES: All different Christmas fabrics?

RS: All different Christmas fabrics. I put the buttons in the center. I went into my stash of buttons to match different colors.

ES: It is certainly an array of buttons. Where did these buttons come from?

RS: These buttons came off of old clothing that I had. Pieces that weren't any good to give to somebody else, I pulled the buttons off of them and threw them in a box. So, I went in my box and got out all these little buttons and put them in the center. And those are the Christmas tree bulbs and lights.

ES: Oh, I see. And did you sew each button on or did you glue them on?

RS: Some are sewn on; some are glued on.

ES: It's a very good way to use old buttons.

RS: Yeah.

ES: They're so ornamental. And at the top you have--

RS: At the top, I put a white dove and the dove is carrying the garland that comes from the dove's beak, which enwraps the tree.

ES: And those are some kind of beads on a string?

RS: Yeah.

ES: That's the lights going around. And the background, you have blue?

RS: I put stars. It's like the sky. I put silver stars on the back. And I used metallic thread--quilting.

ES: Is this by hand or by machine?

RS: That's by machine.

ES: Aha. Is it variegated or did you alternate gold and red on the rows?

RS: It's variegated. [background noise.] [inaudible.]

ES: And on the outside the border is one piece of fabric?

RS: Yeah. One piece of fabric. I don't think that fabric is in the tree. I don't remember putting it in there.

ES: It has many fabrics. Do you know how many there were?

RS: No. [laughs.]

ES: It multiplies. There are quite a few. And then you have a little name tag on which you write with a gold pen.

RS: Yes.

ES: The title is, [reading.] 'Little Christmas Tree. Ruth Stokes, '98.' That is lovely. And do you use this at home at Christmas?

RS: Yes, I do. I hang it up.

ES: Was this ever in a show?

RS: It was in a show in the Sumner Museum.

ES: Okay. That was a year that we had Christmas as a theme, didn't we?

RS: We did. We had Christmas themes every year. And I think that was one of the last years that we had the Christmas theme.

ES: Yeah. And this last year it was School Days.

RS: It was School Days.

ES: To commemorate the--was it the two hundredth year of the school?

RS: Yes.

ES: And the second wall hanging here is made of--

RS: These are just little scraps of fabric that I hadn't thrown away. I went into my scrap bag and got out all the blues that I could find and made the Attic Window. In the Attic Window, I put these little kittens because my daughter is a cat lover and I wanted to give her a Christmas gift. So I made this for her for Christmas in the year two thousand.

ES: It is called the--

RS: The Kitty Watch, because cats like to sit in the window and look out.

ES: It's a perfect setting for cats. And I love all the different blues. You can definitely feel the dark, medium and light of each window. That is very nice. And does your daughter use this now? Is it hanging in her place now?

RS: No, she keeps it folded up or wound up or whatever. [laughs.] She puts it away. She doesn't want it to get dirty. And I told her, maybe we will frame it eventually and put it in a nice frame and she can hang it up.

ES: You can put a glass cover--

RS: Yes. With a glass cover and then she will always have that to remember me.

ES: Uh-hum. The thing is these pieces outlast human beings, so even if she would hang it, it would still be there sixty years from now. It's very nice. And you chose blues for any reason?

RS: Because blue is her favorite color, that's why I chose the blue.

ES: That's a charming one. And your third one you brought to show us?

RS: The third one I made to hang at the Sumner Museum again for the year two thousand and three. And I just chose this because I thought it would be good to make.

ES: What's it called now?

RS: It's called Miss Mouse. And she's out shopping in the scene here. There are two scenes. And she met a friend, and they are talking, I guess, to each other. And here she's taking her baby for a ride in the baby carriage.

ES: Uh-hum. And it is all set together with this blanket stitch.

RS: Yes, blanket stitch, I outlined it with, so that the pictures would really pop out, because it's done in these pale colors.

ES: Uh-hum. And you've used different laces?

RS: Yes. And the little market basket. She went shopping and bought flowers. She's got flowers in her basket. She's got a loaf of bread and other parcels in her basket. On her shopping trip, she has stopped to talk.

ES: Uh-hum. Did you make this pattern up or is this a pattern that you could find?

RS: I found it in an old, old book.

ES: I have not seen it before.

RS: It's got more scenes. It's six scenes. I only did two scenes.

ES: And I notice you've embroidered little black noses with the black whiskers--


RS: Yes.

ES: Very nice. What do you do with this at this point?

RS: That will probably go to somebody when I find somebody to give it to.

ES: And I think there is some hand quilting in this one, isn't there?

RS: Yeah.

ES: I forgot to ask you what kind of quilting--[on the Attic Window hanging.]

RS: That's hand quilting. All that's hand quilting. The Christmas Tree was with the machine.

ES: With metallic thread. Very nice output. Now, why did you choose these today?

RS: Because that's all I have left.

ES: Why is that? [laughs.]

RS: Because I give away everything that I make, just about.

ES: Who are the recipients of all yours?

RS: Most of them are family members.

ES: Do you have a big family?

RS: I have a very large family. And I'm trying to make quilts for each of my great-grandchildren and I can't keep up because they're having babies too fast.

ES: How many--

RS: I have seven great-grands.

ES: Seven great-grands.

RS: And two grandchildren.

ES: Two grands.

RS: My grandson has five little girls, and my granddaughter has two little boys. So, I'm trying to make each one of them something.

ES: A full quilt so that they can have it--

RS: Yes.

ES: And how many children do you have?

RS: I have two daughters. Yes.

ES: And so far, the first generation has their quilts, and now you are down to the great grands?

RS: I'm down to the great grands. I made a Bow Tie quilt for my grandson, and for my daughter I'm going to give her the Stack-n-Whack [trademark technique of Bethany S Reynolds.] that I'm making. My oldest daughter. So, she wants that. You've seen the stack-n-whack.

ES: Yes. Tell us which colors. I know you have a few different ones.

RS: The colors green--

ES: Oh, you had the one with the green and turquoise--

RS: The one with the tropical scene.

ES: That's it.

RS: That's the one that she wants.

ES: Oh. It's beautiful.

RS: She wants that one. They haven't seen the other two, the oriental ones. They're what I'm working on now. I haven't completed any of them. I'm still working on them.

ES: Have you completed all of the original Dresden Stars that go on the stack-n-whack, and maybe done the star part on the machine?

RS: I've done the star part.

ES: So, the next is to appliqué the whole thing.

RS: I have appliquéd the first one, but I haven't appliquéd the other two yet. I made a Cathedral Window quilt with silk. And it's a queen size bed. That one is mine, for myself. That was the first piece that I made after I joined the Daughters of Dorcas.

ES: When did you join Daughters--

RS: I joined the Daughters of Dorcas in nineteen eighty-eight.

ES: That was near the beginning.

RS: Yes.

ES: I saw your picture in that photograph that had several members at the time and it was published in a magazine somewhere.

RS: That was a long time ago. That was taken in Virginia.

ES: Oh.

RS: I think we took that picture in Virginia in a hotel we went to. I don't know. We've taken so many pictures.

ES: I know.

RS: At the Bowie State College. And we had lots of pictures from there.

ES: What were you doing at these places?

RS: At Bowie State College, we were teaching, and showing everybody how to quilt. And we had people to come to us to learn to quilt. So we let them do the Nine Patch. And that's what we were demonstrating, the Nine Patch to them.

ES: I see. Was this one session each time, or did you return?

RS: We did just the one session. And the photographers were there that took the pictures, and they came out in the newspaper. And of course, I have all the clippings. I have a big scrapbook: a lot of pictures of members of the group that have now gone on, and places that we went, things that we did.

ES: Um. So, you have been an active member for a long time.

RS: Yes.

ES: Good.

RS: I'm slowing down a bit now, but I enjoyed the group so much, I couldn't stay away.

ES: Yeah. It's really a compatible group.

RS: And when the dog bites you, you are going to be bitten. [laughs.] You're bitten good.

ES: Yes. When you first started, were you meeting here at the church?

RS: Right here at this church.

ES: Was that a large group at that time?

RS: It was at least forty people. When I joined the group, it was about forty people.

ES: And were they pretty much all actively coming?

RS: Yes, everybody was coming. Now we have a lot of them that's moved away, and some passed on and now we got a lot of new members.

ES: The number is building up.

RS: And the number has built up. I think it's gone over a hundred.

ES: Would you tell us what was your earliest contact with quilts or quilters?

RS: The earliest contact I had was with my mom. She was going to school to become a seamstress and she sewed and made our garments. I'm one of twelve. I'm the oldest of twelve. So, I used to help with the sewing, and I used to sew on the treadle machine, and she would give me her scraps and I would make skirts for myself and clothes for my doll. And my mother started making quilts and I would help her.

ES: Was this for the family, mostly?

RS: Yes, it was for the family because we were very poor, and we lived in a little house that had coal stoves in it. And at night, when the fire went out, you know we were sleeping and the fire would go out, and we would get cold. My mom made--we used to have old coats on the bed to keep us warm. She cut up those coats and made quilts out of them, so us children did not get so chilly at night.

ES: What did you put as stuffing in those quilts?

RS: We had cotton. Raw cotton. Yes, that's what we put in it.

ES: What state were you in at this point?

RS: Right here in Washington, D.C.

ES: Oh.

RS: I'm a native of Washington, D.C.

ES: Okay.

RS: My mom was born in La Plata, Maryland. So that's where she learned all the skills. [from her mother.] And she taught us to crochet, and she taught us to knit. And she taught us to sew. It was five girls.

ES: Did she work out of the house, besides?

RS: Yes.

ES: Amazing.

RS: She worked in the government. She cleaned offices at night.

ES: Oh, my.

RS: And she taught us to cook. She taught us to do everything. My mother was a lovely lady.

ES: Oh. How old did she live to be?

RS: She lived to be forty-nine years old.

ES: She died young.

RS: Uh-hum.

ES: She probably worked enough for twice that much.

RS: Yeah, because she raised her sisters and brothers after her mother and father passed away. She got married and she came to the District of Columbia, and she brought her family here from La Plata. And she started working in the laundry and then she went into the government to clean offices. Yes, so amazing. She was very young when she died.

ES: That's too bad. Yeah. So then, what have you done in the past for your skills besides your mom's teaching you? Did you go to classes for quilting or anything like that?

RS: The only class I had in quilting was when I joined the Daughters of Dorcas. Then some of the older ladies would give classes and I would attend those classes. And they were teaching some of the short cuts in quilting and some techniques in piecing that made it a lot easier because when I was piecing and doing, I was doing it all on my own and it was the long way around. So, they showed us a lot of short cuts.

ES: I see. Did you do most things by hand or by machine?

RS: Everything by hand.

ES: Do you have a preference for--?

RS: I prefer hand quilting. I find it to be faster than the machine.

ES: Really?

RS: Yes, because by the time I set up the machine, I can be quilting by hand. I can sit down and quilt in my lap. I can take it with me wherever I go, a block at a time and quilt. When you do machine quilting, you can only do it at the machine.

ES: Yeah. You said before that you have an album of clippings and things, do you also keep track of all the things you've made--photos that you have made?

RS: No. I don't have photos of all of them. No, I didn't take pictures of everything. But most of my work has been my family. So, since I didn't do it, I think I will do it by asking them if they would take a picture for me so that I can put it in my album.

ES: I think it is nice for our memory later on, if we can look over those things.

RS: Yeah.

ES: You said that everything goes into your family that you make. What are the impacts of the quilting on your family? How do they feel about your--

RS: Well, my young great-grands, they call me Gigi for great-grand. That's my nickname. And they're always bragging, 'Gigi made this made this for me, and Gigi made that for me.' And my six-year-old great-grandson, he told me the other day that I was the best great-grandmother that any little great-grandson would want. He said, 'I love you, Gigi.' That was so sweet. He made tears—My heart got so full; tears came up. And I just squeezed him, and I told him he was the same to me.

ES: Oh, that is so sweet. I guess quilting is very important in your life. But you have a lot of other things you like to do. What are some of the very important things--

RS: I make dolls. I like to make angels. I like to make a lot of things because I find them challenging. And it keeps my mind occupied. I'm never, ever lonely.

ES: Do you live alone at this time?

RS: I live alone, but I never get lonesome because I'm always busy working or doing something.

ES: Uh-hum. And some of these projects, do you sometimes sell? Have you sold the dolls?

RS: I sell the dolls, but I don't sell the quilts.

ES: Where do you have an outlet for that?

RS: Well, at that time I was working. I worked as a bookbinder.

ES: Oh.

RS: Yeah. I'm a retired bookbinder. And I used to sell to my co-workers. They would always want angels for their trees. I still have people who call me and ask me every year to make them a treetop angel. So, I'm always busy doing something.

ES: I'll have to remember that. [laughs.]

RS: And my oldest great-grand child, she's thirteen now, and she belongs to a dance group, so I'm busy making ballerina dance dolls for her teachers. Everybody that she wants to give a doll, 'Gigi, can you please make me a doll? I need a gift.' So, I'm always busy.

ES: How big are these dolls you make?

RS: These dolls are about nine inches tall. They're not very, very big but they're unique, and the detail of work that I put into them. For each person, the doll is to represent that person. There's one teacher who has real long braids, and her favorite color was red, so I remember that one because my great-granddaughter told me that that's what she wanted for her. So, I made her a doll with the long braids and red tutu and slippers. And she thought that was so cute.

ES: Do you make your own patterns?

RS: Usually.

ES: And you stuff them, so they are soft sculpture essentially?

RS: Yeah. Uh-hum.

ES: How do you make the hair? What do you use to make braids out of?

RS: I have roving hair at the [bell ringing.] craft stores. At the craft stores they sell the doll baby hair and then I have a company that I order from. I order supplies from there. And I get doll baby hair. I get flesh colored fabric from this company and that's how I usually do the dolls. I use patterns that I find. I make some patterns myself. I draw my own patterns, if I want a different type of doll and can't find a pattern for it. Sometimes I incorporate different patterns and put them--take pieces from one pattern and put in another pattern to make a certain doll. So, I wind up with something.

ES: How many years have you been doing dolls?

RS: Since I was a little girl.

ES: Really. That's a great hobby. Any other crafts that you have time for at this point?

RS: Well, I used to do a lot of crocheting. I would take my crochet to work, and I had a class at work. We'd crochet on our break period. [in the locker room.] I had about eight or nine students.

ES: Very good.

RS: Everybody are experts now.

ES: Really?

RS: Yes. They make gorgeous stuff. They just loved to crochet. So, I don't do too much crocheting anymore. But I used to make a lot of afghans. I gave them to my family. And I have a few of those at home that I made for myself. One day I'll bring one so you can see it.

ES: I'd love to see that.

RS: It's what I cover up in on the couch.

ES: Have you taught quilting, by yourself or in groups? You mentioned the earlier trips that you took to teach the Nine Patches, but have you done any other quilting teaching?

RS: I've shown friends how to quilt. I have a few friends that are interested in quilting, and they'll come over to the house and ask me, 'Can you show me how to do this?' So, they come over and I show them.

ES: You do prefer hand work, you said already.

RS: Yes. I'm teaching myself to quilt on the machine. I'm thinking seriously about buying a machine to quilt with. You know the big machines?

ES: Yeah.

RS: I am thinking about doing that. I'm not sure, 'cause I have arthritic hands, now, and they hurt so I am not able to--my fingers are getting all disfigured. I'm thinking seriously about quilting. I might go into business, so hurry up and make some quilts for me to quilt for you.

ES: I know it's a needed thing because people are always looking for that. And one does get behind. We have lots of tops, but don't have the time to do the quilting.

RS: I don't have a lot of quilts, but I have a lot of tops.

ES: Maybe if you get a machine, it would be good. Do you have any stories or experiences you'd like to share about quilting over the years? Any quilt trips that you took--

RS: Each year, when I go to the quilt shows, I buy the pins and I have a hat that's filled with pins for all of the years that I have been in the group. And now the hat is so heavy with pins, I can't put it on anymore. [laughter.] It's an old fisherman's hat and I had them on there and I have it hanging up. I have to show it to you, one day.

ES: I was going to ask you about your stash of quilt fabrics and such.

RS: My fabric stash has grown so much that I'm going to have to move out of my house and buy me another place to live and leave my house as the storage for it all. [laughter.]

ES: Oh, no. [laughs.]

RS: I'm starting to give away a lot now, because I have more than I'll ever use.

ES: Do you do some charity quilts, occasionally?

RS: Yes. I'm thinking seriously--that's why I want to buy a machine.

ES: It's a way to use up a lot of fabric.

RS: Right. I want to use up a lot of fabric and I'm thinking about taking some of my fabric and making quilts or covers for the homeless people and take them to the shelters. There's a lot of homeless people around. They could use some of that fabric that I have. I have old coats and I don't want to get rid of them because I'm planning to cut them up and make quilts out of them. But I'm hoping that I'll be on this earth long enough and able to do all or some of the things I'd like to do.

ES: How has quilting had meaning for the American woman?

RS: Well, it shows their expertise and their creation, how creative they are. A lot of people, they have so many unique ideas and they can put it into a quilt. I think that's how a lot of people have to soothe their nerves, help them to bring some of their memories in quilting. It helps you.

ES: Do you have a preference for traditional patterns or contemporary patterns?

RS: I like them all. I just don't do them all, but I like them all.

ES: And then you design some of your own.

RS: I do that, yes. I have one scrap quilt that I started, if I ever get it finished, it will have a couple of million pieces in it because they're very tiny and I sewed little pieces of scraps together, four pieces together, and then I make a tiny octagon shape out of it. And I'm sewing them all together by hand. And I have a box full of that little stuff, so when I go to the doctor's office, I'll grab something and take it with me. If I have to be at the doctor's office and don't take anything with me, I just feel miserable sitting there waiting, I feel miserable. I don't even want to look at the magazines in the office, because I'm so busy with my hands all the time. And when I'm not doing that, I'm baking.

ES: Aha.

RS: I like to bake. That's my other hobby.

ES: I know that you also like to sing.

RS: Yes.

ES: It's a different thing, but since I like to do that myself--

RS: Yes.

ES: And tell us what kind of singing you do.

RS: Well, I sing in my church choir now. I sang in my high school choir. I studied voice when I was in school. So, I have been singing most of my life. My mother was a singer. In fact, my whole family sings. Everybody. The boys and the girls. And we had a family choir. And most of the members are gone, except for one. I have one cousin that's still alive.

ES: How about your children?

RS: My children don't sing. They say that I passed everything down but the voice. [laughs.]

My brothers and sisters sing, but my children do not sing. My brother, he has a beautiful voice.

ES: Do you do Gospel singing?

RS: I am a Gospel singer. When I was young, I had an opera voice. I have a young cousin who is an opera star in my family. My opera voice is gone now. I'm seventy-two years old, so the voice is changing. It hasn't started to crack yet, but it's changing.

ES: Do you find that your range is not as big?

RS: My range is not as high as it used to be. It varies. It depends on what I'm singing and like The Lord's Prayer, if I have to sing high soprano, sometimes I can get that note and sometimes I can't. [laughs.] In my church, we sing The Lord's Prayer. She has two renditions of it. And she says, 'How's your voice this morning?' I say, 'I think we need to do the new one. [laughs.] I don't think my range is there today.'

ES: You must be a very stalwart member then, if she asks you your opinion.

RS: I have a loud soprano voice. The rest of them, it's only four of us now. They have very soft voices.

ES: Okay. That's why.

RS: So, she can hear me because I'm closer to her, too, where she's sitting, I'm near her.

ES: She plays the piano and directs?

RS: She plays the piano. We have a director. She directs sometimes, too, as well. She can hear me.

ES: Great. I'll get back to the quilting, but I am interested in the music. So, I'm glad to hear that. Do you have any advice to new quilters?

RS: Well, my advice to the new quilters is to keep on quilting because you'll find it very enlightening. And it helps you to keep your mind alive. You know we have so many people who really don't have anything to do. They get lonesome. But you'll always have a friend when you have a quilting needle in your hand. You'll always have a friend. So, you don't have to worry about getting lonesome. That's what I would tell them.

ES: That's a very nice thought. If there's nothing else that we need to discuss then we should probably say, 'that's it.' It was very nice to hear your story.

RS: I hope my story will help somebody else.

ES: Oh, yes. That's very nice. Thank you so much.


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