Raelaine Swanner




Raelaine Swanner




Raelaine Swanner


Bernie Herman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Milford, Delaware


Heather Gibson


Bernard Herman (BH): This is Bernie Herman and we're in Milford, Delaware and today is June 28, 2000. And this is a continuation of The Alliance for American Quilts project, the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. And we are doing an interview today with Raelaine Swanner.

Raelaine Swanner (RS): Raelaine.

BH: Raelaine? Thank you. And we have in front of us the quilt "Exotica." Do I have this correctly?

RS: Yes, you do.

BH: And could you tell us a bit about this quilt please.

RS: Well, the design was so interesting because it was a Jacobean design and I had always enjoyed doing Jacobean crewelwork years and years ago. And so, it was a challenge to get the same effect with fabric. And it was a pleasurable challenge. The colors are so vibrant that they appeal to me, although I'm normally mauve and rose, soft colors. But this just has taken my heart.

BH: You said Jacobean.

RS: Yes.

BH: Could you fill me in as a person who doesn't know much here?

RS: Jacobean is very stylistic, and it's from back in the Middle Ages when they did much embroidery and tapestries. So, it's a style adapted from that, and it lends itself better to embroidery because you can get more intricate detail. With fabric it's a little more of a challenge, which it has worked out beautifully. I did not design it. It was from a pattern. But it was up to a friend and I to decide what colors we wanted to use. And it was made in conjunction with the same lady. We did everything together, cut everything together. We worked individually, so it was a joint decision on the colors and what we would use together. And there are some strange combinations if you think about it, but they work together so beautifully.

BH: Well, first of all who is your friend that helped?

RS: Virginia Phillips.

BH: Great. And what are some of the patterns that--

RS: Well, there are tulip trees, and just exotic flowers. These tulips are much different than what we picture tulips as. This is a tulip tree in the center and there are just exotic flowers. We really can't name them. Jacobean style.

BH: What were the challenges in the design?

RS: Oh, deciding on colors and what combinations to put together and finding all of the different pieces of fabric that we wanted. We thought we had most of it in our collections of fabric, but we ended up buying more as we usually do. Never enough. I don't know how much we'll need to have enough.

BH: Well, how do you go about the process of handling the color? It sounds like it's fairly complex.

RS: Well, I suppose it might be. But when you get into it you don't think about it that way. It's just combining the different fabrics and the different colors, and the different patterns in the fabric to go well together. You don't want all the same type of design in the fabric. You needed some bright, what we call spark, which this orangey-red, orangey-gold has.

BH: [pointing.] You mean this highlight here and in the corner.

RS: Yes. And we have them in the tulip centers. And they just- it feels to us as though it gives it some life and more eye-catching. Other than that, and the challenge of getting them all pieced together as neatly as you can and with as small a stitch as you can, that's a challenge. So, this is essentially appliqué. Yes, this is definitely all appliqué.

BH: Where did you learn appliqué?

RS: There are books, there are teachers, experience. I started out with fairly large stitches when hand-quilting and doing appliqué. And so many people think they will never like appliqué, and then it becomes a passion. And then it's everything you want to do.

BH: Is there a quilter who works in appliqué who you particularly admire?

RS: Yes. My cohorts here, Virginia and Ruth. [laughs.] Among others. But I would strive to do as well as they do.

BH: So, the origin of the design was a published design?

RS: Yes.

BH: But the color and all these things are of your own device?

RS: Yes. We somewhat followed the pattern colors because that's what appealed to us in the first place besides the design. But the final bottom choice was ours. Nobody told us what to do. It was just how we felt about it, and we discussed some of them. We had different choices and we just narrowed things down, fabrics down to a final choice, a final selection.

BH: You've chosen this quilt out of many you have made, I imagine. Actually, I should ask how many have you made, an estimate?

RS: I don't know.

BH: Or how long have you been making quilts?

RS: I've been quilting for fifteen years. And I first learned in Florida. At the first quilt shop I ever saw, I thought they were out of their minds, because it was ninety degrees, ninety degrees humidity, and who wanted a quilt? I did not understand what it would become to me. They are not necessities. They are pleasurable. It's become the main thing I like to do with my life--besides going to quilt shops. [laughs.]

BH: Well, what about this quilt in particular? You've chosen this out of the many you've made. What does this quilt mean to you?

RS: It was just the pleasure of doing it working with my friend, and seeing it evolve. I just love the design. And I think that goes back to when I did a lot of Jacobean crewelwork because I love that style. And I like it in fabric. I like it just anywhere you can put it, Jacobean, I like it. So, I think that was the main thing, just that fact of what it was. And then the colors just added to it for me. And just the pleasurable time I had doing it. And the times that it goes back to--that it reverts back to in my mind.

BH: Quilting often happens--some people work by themselves; others work in groups. In terms of association, in seems that memory and friends are a key part of this. Talk a bit about that--how a quilt might represent those friendships.

RS: Oh, it means so much. We do get together in groups and there are several that I belong to that are really enjoyable. One of them is sacrosanct. Just, you know, your children better not get married that day--they might have some problems. [laughs.] But just the pleasure of being together, and then we help one another. If you have a question, or somebody has a different idea on how to do a particular thing, they're willing to share. That's one of the beauties of quilting. We are so willing to share. We can't wait to tell somebody what we've learned that makes something easier or would work out better for that particular piece. And we have group discussion sometimes. You throw out a question and then you get all these responses, and then you can choose what you like to do. Or what you would prefer. There's no selfishness in quilting. We just want to show and tell everything we know. So that's important. The time of your life that you're in. Things may be happening or have happened that you refer to. There's one I get emotional about. I have memories of a friend who's died. And we worked on quilts together in Florida. And they mean so much to me. And I see them, and I see her. So, it goes way back like that. And happy times that are- it takes you back to the fun you had at that particular time, or at moments during that time. And times when you felt frustrated, and then you laugh back at--you got through it. And that's extremely important to me. And I have memories of all these people, some together and some separately. And that means so much. And I think most quilters feel that way.

BH: You say that part of this is sharing, a major part of this. And I take that part of that would be in the guild, as you all show each other your quilts and discuss them.

RS: Oh yes. Show-and-tell and supporting.

BH: How did the guild respond to your quilt?

RS: Oh, everybody's enthused. Enthusiastic. New quilters say, 'Well, it's not much and I'm just starting.' And we're just as enthusiastic about theirs as we are about the top-drawer ones. You know, the really perfect ones. Everybody shows enthusiasm. And everybody 'oohs' and 'ahs' over your work. And you're always impressed by theirs. Even beginners. I often look at beginners and think, 'Oh, I was not there when I started.' We're willing to share our ideas, even fabric. A message may go out- 'I need such and such a piece and if anybody has it, they'll be willing to bring it to you and share it.' Then sometimes you need it and they help you.

BH: When was the first time you showed this quilt, "Exotica," to the guild?

RS: At the guild, at the guild meeting.

BH: And do you remember any of the comments?

RS: Oh, they thought it was beautiful and they made me feel wonderful. A lot of enthusiasm. And friends have seen it. There's a lot of enthusiasm. They make me feel just so wonderful about it. Even though you know where, maybe, things aren't perfect, but either they don't see them, or they don't pay attention to those things. We're kind of easy on one another.

BH: Well, I know at one point Heather Gibson who's here with us today will have questions about the guild in terms of how guilds work. But there are a couple more question about the quilt before I'll move on to sort of broaden the conversation a bit. One is that what are your plans for this quilt? And how do you use this quilt, or where does this quilt live?

RS: I put in on my bed. Not daily. It's for Sunday, for show, for company. It's not quite large enough to be a real bed quilt. But I have a white-on-white one that I lay down first, and then I lay this one on top, so the bed is covered but this shows up very well. Being it's bound in green; it sets it off. So, I use it when I want to show it off, when I'm having company. And there will probably be times when I put it on just to make me feel good. And otherwise, it's on a quilt frame. And I see portions of it all the time, and I refold it so I can see a new portion for a while. It's in my living room most of the time until I put it on my bed.

BH: What will its future be, and where will it ultimately go?

RS: It will go to one of my children. All of my quilts will go to my children, because they think everything mom does is perfect. And they'll just have to work out who gets what. Some of them I make just for each one. Others they'll just have to work it out…negotiate.

BH: It brings up a question. Quilts are such an important part of family life, the making of quilts. I was wondering if you might talk a bit about that, your sense of that- the role of quilting and quilts in family life.

RS: Well, it's a warm feeling and in my case is a messy thing because I have things draped around everywhere that I'm working on. My children are all enthused about it. My children are all grown and out of the house, so they're not involved in it. Although I have a granddaughter who has taken it up and shows a lot of enthusiasm for it. And she has talent. To me it's just a warm going back--relating to women from the past. And my mother--she only made one but that's a treasure in my house and my heart. And I feel connected to other women and especially if there's an old pattern, I see that I would like to do or have tried to do at times. It's a connection to the past, and hopefully through me on to somebody else in the future. I think it's a connection among women.

BH: How do you think that works? I mean I hear about this idea of connection, and I'm sort of wondering how do quilts, almost more than any other object except for maybe food, represent those kinds of connections. Is it the making of the quilt, or--

RS: It's the making of it, and the feeling you get from accomplishing. And it doesn't matter what age. I have very young friends and I have older friends, and we have…this common thread in our lives and it doesn't matter what age you are. If you love to quilt, there's no age difference except maybe the older ones have more experience. But then you learn things from the young ones, too, because they come up with innovative ideas. So we learn from them as well. And I think that's it- the connection no matter what your age is, and if men are involved it wouldn't--gender would not enter in to it. It's just a common thing you enjoy.

BH: You say you didn't always quilt--

RS: No.

BH: That you came to this about fifteen years ago.

RS: Yes.

BH: I guess I have a two-part question here. One is, did you engage in textile arts?

RS: Yes.

BH: And what did you work in?

RS: I sewed. I made my children's clothes, most of their clothes for most of their lives when they were growing up. I made all my clothes- coats and hats. I like to knit, and I like to embroider. I did not like to crochet, but I did other things. I smocked, and I always, always like to work with fabric. So that was not new. This just took on a new dimension for me. And my wardrobe is very depleted. I don't have time to make clothes. I have quilts. I wear the same old thing all the time, because that's not important to me as the quilting.

BH: I hear that quilts tend to take over.

RS: They take over your life and your house, my house definitely. Because I just kind of spill over.

BH: Can you describe your workspace, or spaces it sounds like?

RS: Very, very cluttered and crowded. We never have enough sewing space. I have a sewing room, and I work there at the machine if I'm doing anything by machine. And planning, designing--well, not designing but cutting out and working things out. But in the living room I have a table by my favorite chair and that's always piled with handwork. And I work on different things at the same time because it can get monotonous. It's not that it's monotonous, but you just need a change from appliqué to stitching something, doing some embroidery on something you've done, and just the different designs. Just switch from one to another sometimes for a break, so therefore I have a lot going at one time and it seems like I'm never going to get finished. But eventually--

BH: So, you have several quilts happening at one time?

RS: Oh, yes. I don't even know how many at this point. I'd be embarrassed to tell you, probably, if I did. Yes, I'm a great starter. I do finish, but I get too involved with too many good ideas.

BH: How long does it take to--well, how long did it take to do "Exotica"?

RS: Oh, there's no way to tell. Because I don't work on it constantly and you work in time elements, blocks of time that you have, which are not always regular for me. I guess it took about two years, all told, to be appliquéd, put together and quilted. So about two years. But then I was doing other things in the meantime. And I often plan to write down the time I spend on projects, and that lasted about three times. And then I used to lose the tablet, or you're not going to do it now because you're too busy, and then you forget. So, I gave that up.

BH: Do you quilt every day?

RS: I do something every day with fabric, yes. It's soothing to me. If I've had anything upsetting or frustrating that day, I get into my sewing room and I pick up my fabric and my needle and it's calming to me. I don't need any kind of drugs to calm me down. My needle, my thread and my fabric will do that.

BH: Why do you think that is? I mean, I've heard other quilters talk about, you know the fact is quilting is so important to them not just because of friendships and memories, but also because it has this effect, this sort of calming--

RS: I don't know, unless it's just the love of the textiles and the tools that we use. I don't know, but I can get in my sewing room, or I can just sit down with it, and I can block out anything that might be troubling me in my life at that moment. I can just block it out. I'm just taken up by what I'm doing. I don't forget it but it blocks it out.

BH: You say you came to quilting about fifteen years ago. That'd be about, what, 1985.

RS: Yes.

BH: And you're in a quilt shop in Florida. Sounds to me like there's more of a story there.

RS: Well, I thought they were out of their minds. [laughs.]

BH: Who's they?

RS: Anybody that thought about making a quilt. And I worked in a fabric store, and a friend wanted me to take a craft class with her at a local school. I didn't get into the quilting right away. I ended up in a craft class and then the teacher wanted me to take her quilting class, which I did, and that's when I began to fall in love with quilting. And I understood it didn't matter where you were. And I ended up, three years later, teaching the class. So, I really got into it. And that was how I kind of accidentally slipped into it. And you see it took over my life. And then when I moved back up North, Florida was a temporary place, then I was really into it. And then I've met so many friends, and so many guilds. It's just become most of my life.

BH: Do you belong to more than one guild?

RS: Yes. Four.

BH: Is that an okay question? [laughs.]

RS: Yes. I belong to four guilds, two that I'm very active in.

BH: So that would be Piecemakers and--

RS: Piecemakers, Delmarvelous down in Georgetown, Heartland in Denton, Maryland, and the Helping Hands in Dover.

BH: Is it fairly common for quilters to belong in more than one guild?

RS: Oh yes, yes. About two's an addiction.

BH: Actually, I think Heather; you had a couple questions about the guilds?

Heather Gibson (HG): Yes. I'm just unfamiliar in general in what goes on in the guilds. Could you describe some of your experiences, maybe even how much time you spend?

RS: Well, meetings are usually about two hours in the evening; the ones I belong to are in the evening. Usually two, two-and-a-half hours. It's usually once a month. And we get together to see each other's work and to make plans for trips or different endeavors. We make raffle quilts. We make one for the library. They raffle it off and the money is theirs. Let's see, we have the show and tell. We have business meetings because there's always officers and things to discuss. And we try to make money to build up our treasury so that we can do trips or have renowned teachers to come in and teach us, give us classes. We also pay for people to come in and do lectures, or we call them our programs. So, every month we like to have a different program. Sometimes it's in house. Most of the time it's outsiders, quilters that we admire. We had one woman come and tell us stories, and she was just wonderful. And it was from stories she's read about quilters, and she embellished on them a little bit. And we get together and make plans for what we're going to do or get together and do with other people. I think the others can embellish upon that.

HG: So, you've worked in collaboration on different quilting projects?

RS: Oh yes, we have.

HG: How much of your quilting is done for your own personal project, and how much is done for a collaborative project?

RS: Oh, most of it is done for ourselves, actually. Usually, the different guilds want to do one raffle quilt every year, and that's a joint effort. And those that want to participate do, and those that don't want to or aren't able for one reason or another, that varies, that changes from time to time. I like to always participate, and I like to join in what I'm doing. So that's mostly personal that we all do. But we do things--there's Linus quilt projects that the guilds do. They make simple quilts because they give them away to children, but they are very popular at this time. So, we try to do community work, too. We try to do something for the community each year. Sometimes it changes as we do benefits, but we try to do that. In fact, we do do it, not just try.

HG: One more thing--can you compare the experiences of working with other quilters on a quilt to working by yourself?

RS: Yes, you have a good time. And we usually like to eat, we like to bake. Seems like quilters are good cooks and bakers, too, so we always enjoy that part of it. The camaraderie, and things happen that are funny that we can refer back to at later times about the good time that day or the funny thing that happened another day. And just enjoying--we just love to put quilts together. So, it's always enjoyable getting together to work on a quilt. And sometimes the work is pieced out. You take a block home to do and then it's a joint effort to put it together. So, I guess it's a very participatory project.

BH: One of the questions that we like to ask folks is--there's actually two parts to this--one is, in your opinion, what makes a great quilt great?

RS: Oh, I guess just the beauty of it, just art. And the effort that you know somebody has put into a quilt. And the appreciation of what they have done. I guess design and color would be the first impact. And then as you look at something I guess the greatness depends on the beholder. Some people are more affected by one thing than another. I think that would be it for me- the design, the color combinations, and the effort that I appreciate having gone into it.

BH: How do you see effort, or where would you look to see effort in a quilt?

RS: Well, striving for neatness and--oh, I don't know how to describe how I would feel. The effort is to make it as perfect as possible, and I just don't have enough time to think about that.

BH: Let me add, because I'm really interested in the way you're stating this and the idea of making something as perfect as possible. What I've sort of suggested, you have thought about this, and how this works. What would be the hallmarks if you were asked to look at someone else's quilt? Or if you were asked to judge a quilt show, and you're looking at these questions that say 'perfection' and 'effort,' what would be the kinds of things that you would look for in the quilt?

RS: Well, in piecing you would want corners and points, points that are good and corners that are neat, perfect and seams that are lined up together. In appliqué it's the fineness of the stitching. And the way things are placed--the overall effect. And of course, there are things like straight bindings and straight rows. I've had quilts juried in a quilt show, and I've had compliments and I've had suggestions for improvement, which I appreciate because if I thought it was perfect and somebody else doesn't who has more knowledge, I'd appreciate knowing that so I can watch for that in another quilt. So, I like criticism. And when it comes from people that I don't really know--But it's not a personal thing. They are just showing you, telling you what you can improve upon. And that's helpful to me. And I still like the quilt even if it's not perfect. And that's another thing, you strive for perfection. But you don't always see it, and that's alright, that doesn't diminish it. That's the way I feel. It's not diminished because it might not be just perfect. Because some people just don't have the expertise that others do. I don't have it as well as other people I know. But I keep trying.

BH: When you talk about quilts being evaluated, I guess they are in shows and there's an element of competition to that. So, in your memory there's always sort of the high point and the low point. Is there a high point that comes to mind? And is there a low point in your showing of quilts?

RS: Well, the high point--I won a couple of first prizes in little in-house challenges. And I've won a couple times. And that was just wonderful. And I didn't feel like I deserved it because I thought other work was so much better, but somebody liked it and that made me feel good even though I didn't feel it was up to other pieces that were there. But that's been a couple of high points in my life. The low points, I don't know if they…I've haven't had criticism that I can say really upset me. I can't say that that ever happened, because we're so enthused about each other's work that nobody would really put me down. And the one's I've had juried have not been--well I wouldn't put it in the show if I didn't think it was passable. So, I can't say I've really had a low point.

BH: I want to come back to something you mentioned earlier on in the conversation. And you talked about your mother made one quilt. And I take it you have this quilt. Do you remember her making it?

RS: Yes.

BH: Could you tell us a bit about that?

RS: Yes. She made it in a church group that met every week, one evening a week.

BH: This was in Delaware?

RS: No, this was in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. And I would go and do crafts and she worked on her quilt with other women. And I learned to polka there. We'd go every Wednesday night for a couple of hours. It was a butterfly quilt; it was back in the thirties. And butterfly quilts were very popular in the thirties. It's all 1930s fabrics from scraps of fabrics that she had made dresses out of. The strange thing or the interesting thing about it--is it's quilted with embroidery thread. I don't know--I guess just regular thread was used, too. Six strands of embroidery thread it's quilted with, which makes it interesting. I guess they did a lot of it then. And I never was aware of it until I began to quilt. That was different than what I was used to. So that quilt's very important.

BH: You say she used dresses? Was this a design choice?

RS: No, I think it was just what she had. The butterflies are all made out of different fabrics, and she buttonhole stitched in black thread around the butterflies, and she embroidered the antennae. And, no it was just pieces she had that I can remember. I remember some of the different dresses that she had. But back in the thirties, I guess, you used what you had. And it was on muslin, and it was cotton batting which has shifted over the years. Cotton batting did that in those days. But to me it's a beautiful quilt.

BH: Does it live with your other quilts?

RS: Yes.

BH: So, Exotica hangs with your mother's Butterfly quilt?

RS: Yes, in the same room. I have different quilt frames, and yes, it's there with it.

BH: Did your mother also teach you to sew?

RS: A little bit, but I wasn't interested as a youngster. It wasn't until I was married that I began to really enjoy it. But she sewed, and she crocheted, and she embroidered, and she tatted, and she smocked. She did all that. So, it's kind of in my genes, I guess. My daughter does, and her daughter does. And another daughter does when she has to. She doesn't enjoy it, but she sews beautifully when she does sew. But she doesn't really enjoy it.

BH: In talking to quilters over the last years, families respond to quilters work in different ways. In some household they are very, very supportive. In others, there's a, shall we say a greater degree of ambivalence to quilting. How does your family receive your work? I mean, you've been doing this for fifteen years--

RS: Yes, except for the pins and needles that stray…they torment me more about all the needles and pins that they've lived with. I mean, I sewed, they always lived with that. And I get a lot of grief about that in a joking way. But, no, they're very supportive. And anything mom does is just perfect and beautiful, and they all want it.

BH: Have they all been to see your quilts when they've been in a show?

RS: No, because they all don't live around here. One does, but she's the one that's the most involved in that type of thing. The others are too far away. The boys, they'd come if they were close by, I suppose, but they won't come a hundred miles.

BH: In terms of talking about quilts in general, you've given us some real insight into design- the impact of color and the impact of texture. Is there anything else that makes a quilt artistically powerful in your opinion?

RS: Oh, I really have to think about that, I guess. I think a lot of the emotion that you might feel--you've looked at things and wondered, I've looked at old quilts and wondered what their lives were like. I've looked at quilts that I thought, 'How could they do that,' knowing they didn't have electric lights, and they didn't have sewing rooms, and they didn't have large houses where--we need to spread everything out it seems. And I've seen such beautiful work that I know was done under what I would call great duress, because I don't know how they did it. And they have things so beautiful, when they didn't have the tools that we have. It seems like they had to make do so much more than we do, and they did such beautiful work. I think that's emotional for all of us. Because you just wonder, 'how could she do that,' knowing the circumstances that she quilted under.

BH: In another vein, there seems to be a kind of discussion that revolves around the place of quilts in terms of is quilting a craft or is it an art form or is it something that's both of those. Do you have an opinion on that?

RS: It started out as a necessity, I think, and then evolved into a craft. And now I think it's definitely and art form. I'm more traditional. I'm not too fond of the modern artwork that people do. Quilt magazines go in for it a lot, and quilt shows have a lot of it. I like more traditional quilts myself, traditional work, but I definitely think it's an art form. I don't feel artistic, but I feel like this is artwork, or a form of art. I did the mechanics of it, but I think it's definitely an art form. And going to be more so in the future.

BH: You describe yourself as a traditional quilter.

RS: Yes.

BH: And one of the things I have discovered is that quilting seems to have many identities that there are traditional quilters and transitional quilters and specialists in appliqué or crazy quilt. There are the art quilters and the comment quilters. What do you think is happening to quilting in the United States in general with all these different directions?

RS: Oh, I think it's expanding widely on so-called art forms. But there's young people coming in. They have different ideas and outlooks, and they look at things differently. I guess I tend to be more focused on the traditional. I admire their work. I appreciate it. I appreciate what they've done, but I don't want to do it. And I don't think I would have the eye for some of it. But that's my personal feelings about it. It doesn't make it bad, just because I don't particularly like it but for those who enjoy it it's wonderful, and it does open some eyes--it has opened my eyes toward color a whole lot. But I can do things like this. I think it's expanding. I don't think there's going to be an end to it--it's more and more all the time.

BH: You describe your own interests as those of a traditional quilter. What's that mean?

RS: You like the standard things. You don't like the artwork, I'm at a loss for words again. The tried and true, the familiar. And yet we've expanded on new things, such as the "Exotica," but it still has that traditional feel. And I like that. That's what I really like the best, and I think that describes the traditional, the traditional patterns. And sometimes you can put traditional old patterns together in new ways that make them look different, but they still have that basic feel.

BH: Always room for innovation within tradition.

RS: Yes, oh yes.

BH: As we move toward the end here, is there something that I've left out, or is there something you'd like to add.

RS: No, I think you've covered it quite well. I hope my answers have been adequate. I think you covered it very well. I may think of something later.

BH: That will be welcome as well. Well, we want to thank you very much for being out very first participant--

RS: Thank you very much.

BH: In the Quilters' S.O.S. [- Save Our Stories.] in Delaware.

RS: Well, thank you very much I have enjoyed it--slightly nervous, but I like being involved in things like this. It was very enjoyable.

BH: Again thanks.

RS: You're welcome.



“Raelaine Swanner,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1590.