Virginia Todd Phillip



Virginia Todd Phillip




Virginia Todd Phillip


Heather Gibson

Interview Date



Milford, Delaware


Heather Gibson


Heather Gibson (HG): It is June 28, 2000. We are at the Milford Public Library in Milford, Delaware. My name is Heather Gibson. I'm with Bernard Herman and we're talking to Virginia Todd Phillips. What's the title of the quilt you brought today?

Virginia Todd Phillip (VTP): The title of my quilt today is "Memories of the Chesapeake," or "Chesapeake Memories."

HG: It certainly evokes images of the Chesapeake Bay. Could you talk a little bit about some of the animals and maybe landmarks that are featured on it, in the blocks?

VTP: Well, I had sworn I was not going to undertake anything else until a friend came along with the pattern of the Hooper's Island Lighthouse. And my husband is originally from Hooper's Island and he and I had fished around that lighthouse out in the Chesapeake Bay many times. So I was off and running, along with my friends. If you're familiar at all with the bay you know about the sea nettles. [pointing to sea nettle block.] This [pointing to a block] is Thomas Point Lighthouse, our wonderful eagle. [pointing to block.] I didn't like the fish because to me the Chesapeake Bay only has one fish--and that's rock fish, or striped bass. [pointing to block.] So we changed things around a little bit. This is our wonderful blue crab, which looks very green here--[pointing to block.] The blue heron--[pointing to block.] The skipjack was especially important to me, because my husband's grandfather had a skipjack. [pointing to block.] He had played on that as a child after it had been beached. So I named that "Lizzy" after his grandmother.

HG: Where are you from?

VTP: Well, I am from the Peninsula, but we live in Camden, Delaware now.

HG: So these images probably evoke, maybe, a sense of home to you?

VTP: Oh yes, definitely, because as a child, we played on the water all the time. We were always on the water one way or another. Not that my parents were water people--we were farmers. But at the same time it was always there, always a sense of it, you know, and all that went with it.

Bernard Herman (BH): Well, let me ask a question in terms of design. This is not what one would consider a traditional quilt. What are you're design sources? How did you come to pull this together?

VTP: These were actually patterns from a girl over in Baltimore. But, we changed some of the things, added to, and took away, to make it more personal for me. How she saw some of it was different than how I viewed it. So I tried to change it to make it my way.

BH: Those are individual blocks?

VTP: Yes.

BH: But the whole composition is your own?

VTP: Yes.

BH: Can you talk about the process about how you designed this quilt, and went through putting it together?

VTP: Well, I did it block by block, and really there was a diagram to follow. The colors we chose ourselves. There were three of us working on it at one time. I decided I couldn't have the Chesapeake Bay and the marshlands without a red-winged blackbird. And certainly not over here could you have it without the mallows or the butterfly so all of those things made it very personal for me.

HG: The fabrics that you use as a background for the different blocks all look very unique. This one with the sea nettles [pointing.] seems to have--it almost looks like seaweed in it.

VTP: Yes it does.

HG: And the other fabrics have a rippling effect. Where did you find your fabrics, and did you have to do anything to them--surface design?

VTP: No, I didn't do anything to them. But we did really struggle to find the right ones, you know.

HG: Did you find them locally, or do you have to order them?

VTP: No, well you know another thing about being a quilter- you go to a lot of quilt shops, at every opportunity. If you could be as productive every time you went, as we were with these it would be great. But you're always looking for just the right fabric- that'll really do what you want.

BH: Folks have said a lot about quilt shops, and I've actually never asked about them. They seem to be fairly recent. You couldn't always buy quilting fabrics.

VTP: No, no it's changed drastically in the last ten years, really. There's so many more into design than there ever was. There's so much more available than ever. There was a time when you wouldn't have--well, you wouldn't have begun to even think of doing the sea nettle, much less been able to find just what you wanted for it. Every shop has something different. So you have to go to every shop that you can.

BH: Do you have preferred fabrics, or a preferred line and why?

VTP: No, I can't say that. I use a lot of RJR [fabric company.] and a lot of the batiks. And you can see here [pointing.] it's a mix. Some of the batiks are more closely woven than some of the others, and of course that'll give you a different reaction. HG: Where does this quilt live now? Is it on a bed?

VTP: No, it really hasn't found its proper spot. It's kind of been traveling around to family functions for the time being. But, I don't really know where it's going to go because we have four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I would hope that it will stay in the family, because they know why I made these blocks this way. I would like to think that it would stay within that realm. HG: Has it been shown anywhere?

VTP: No, it hasn't other than to the guild. Hopefully it will be shown at our next show in 2001.

BH: How did the guild respond to this when they say this?

VTP: Oh, they were delighted with it.

BH: Do you remember specific comments?

VTP: Well, we have one lady that just kept saying, 'Wow, wow, wow. How'd you do that? How'd you do that?'

BH: Did you quilt this yourself as well as--

VTP: No. We have a lady in the guild who's very adept at that. We tried to do different things to get some motion, like behind the eagle you'll notice that's its quilted so it looks like he's in flight. [pointing.] And different things--you see what I mean? The lines go from his feathers--

BH: So they kind of create the idea of motion of the air--

VTP: Yes, that he's going through the air; and here around the ducks [pointing.], we just did circles like that because the water would be rippling a little bit; and around the fish to try to get just a little motion with short lines of a different length.

BH: In quilting, so much attention is paid to appliqué, color, patchwork. And you seldom hear people talk about the quilting. And maybe it's because we forget to ask about it. Could you comment a little bit about the role of actually the quilting part?

VTP: Well, the most basic thing about it, of course, is to hold it together. But, I think that you can get a lot of action and tell a lot of stories with the stitching. I think it depends on the pattern that you have. As to what you do with your quilting--Now I don't think that cross-hatching would have done well in here, and yet I think it does beautifully in the Baltimore Album Quilt. But the more quilting you have, the better it is. And yet you say, 'Well I don't have a lot in this one,' but I think I have enough. It gives the motion that I want. Now on this particular one [pointing.] on the Thomas Point Lighthouse, since I had a stormy background I made sure the lights were on. Where on Hooper's Island it was still a sunny day, so we didn't have the lights on in that one. Little things tell the story along with the quilting.

HG: How many quilts have you done and how does this compare to your others?

VTP: Well, I don't know exactly how many I've done because all of the family have one, and my niece and two nephews. But this one was not as hard, or as complicated to do, as some of the others. Now, I have done Irma-Gail Hatcher's "Conway" and am presently involved with other people in making a second one. There are some more complicated things, particularly when you get into the Baltimore Album Quilts. I have not done a Baltimore Album Quilt per se. This was a challenge, but that's what makes it interesting. As my husband says, 'Well you wouldn't want to do it if it wasn't challenging.' That's true, that's true.

BH: How does your husband respond to quilting?

VTP: He is tickled to death that I do this because he fishes. When I was getting ready to retire we were both talking about it and he said, 'I suggest you find something to do because I'm not going to stay home and entertain you.' So, I had my first quilt class in [19.] '85. But he's happy that I'm doing this and that I've made so many friends which is really wonderful. So lots of times when he's fishing, just like today, I'm here.

BH: How about your children and grandchildren- do any of them quilt with you?

VTP: I have one granddaughter who does but she's a junior in college. But she's really the only one that's really interested. All the rest of them do cross-stitch. But my grandmother sewed, both my grandmothers. One I didn't know, she died in 1921. But the other one--I spent summers with her. And she would always help me, showed me how to sew and do things. And I always sewed for my family.

HG: You've only been quilting for about fifteen years, then?

VTP: Yes.

HG: Were there quilts around you--you said they sewed. Were there quilts around in your family?

VTP: Not really. I had an old one of my grandmother Todd's that was given to me. But, I just held on to it. I didn't really appreciate it, you know. I have some blocks that came to me from my other grandmother, which I've put together in something small. But nobody really quilted. My mother did some things back during the Depression, but they were all tied, very utilitarian. Old shirting and things like that were used.

BH: What brought you to quilting?

VTP: What brought me? Well I had to find something to do while he fished. I always liked to sew, and a friend of mine suggested, or told me about, this quilt class. So she and I went. She has never finished hers. She never did another thing. She finished that top and its laying in the closet. She's never done anything else with it. Of course I've been gung-ho ever since.

BH: So how would you say over fifteen years- we're looking at a recent quilt- how has your quilting evolved?

VTP: Well, it's definitely come to appliqué and everything pertaining to that. And I think sometimes it's hard to imagine it's been fifteen years that I've been doing it. I would almost say in leaps and bounds. And I'm like everybody else--I'm always in over my head. And we have a favorite four-letter word: D-O-N-E. [laughter.]

HG: Now you mentioned that you took one of your grandmother's blocks and made something out of them. What do you think the relationship is between quilts and family? That's kind of a physical relationship--

VTP: Well, those who know me know I dearly love my grandmother, because of the short times that I spent with her. My mother didn't sew at all, other than utilitarian things. I think it's a thread that continues on and brings you together. I wouldn't take anything in the world for those blocks that were given to me. There were twelve grandchildren and I was the one who cared enough to have them.

BH: And you put them together in a quilt?

VTP: A small quilt, a wall hanging.

BH: Can you tell us about that?

VTP: I could show it to you. They were just small blocks, but in the old browns. The old browns didn't hold up too well, because of the iron, etc. in them. But I was always real pleased that they came to me. I have no idea when she did them. She came from Germany originally, by way of Canada and on into Iowa and then to Maryland. But I really do prize them and my children appreciate them, too.

HG: Do you have any other quilt-related activities that you do? Or, are you a member of other guilds than the Piecemakers?

VTP: I'm a member of two guilds- Delmarvelous and Piecemakers. Delmarvelous was where I started originally. There were sixty of us who started Piecemakers in 1992. Of that sixty there are only twenty-seven charter members left through moving, and other normal processes. I think this is probably my favorite of the two. We all work together, too. This guild initiated a quilt-in for all of the local groups, and that has become quite a success. Now we have that twice a year. We meet in different areas for that.

HG: Can you give an explanation about what that is?

VTP: Well, we've invited the other guilds to come here, and we provided lunch. It's a show-and-tell; bring your work, share ideas, or do whatever you want. But it's a sharing thing. 'What are you doing in your guild?' 'This is what we're doing.' 'Who have you had as a speaker?' 'Maybe we'll get her. Did you like her--this that or the other.' But its all sharing and I can't say that enough really.

BH: Well it's a theme that we hear. How central is this idea of sharing, do you think, to understanding quilts?

VTP: It would certainly be the basis of it.

BH: I guess I need some more, as a person who doesn't quilt, if you could help enlighten me in terms of what sharing involves.

VTP: Well, suppose somebody said to me, 'How did you do this? How did you come up with this fish? Or this that or the other?' And you happily share it. You tell them. We have little mini workshops in our guild because we always have new members coming and going. We show how to do the bindings and line up corners, different things like that. You know, you don't have to go out and pay someone to show you that. Come to the guild and ask for help and we'll be happy to share it.

BH: Do you actually quilt at guild meetings or is it really more informational?

VTP: It's more informational, I think. But the guilds are also centrally connected through NQA in Ellicott City [Maryland.], and of course AQA down in Paducah. We are a chapter from NQA. We can get information from them also, which is a sharing type of thing.

HG: So there are quilt shows where they are juried and quilts are almost competing against one another. How does that relate to the sharing nature that takes place within it? How do you think they can coexist?

VTP: Well, we have felt, because we all know each other, when we have our shows that we would rather have it not be that way. We would have a viewer's choice. That way you get the novice's viewpoint as well as the quilter's. My friend and I were fortunate to be involved in the NQA show in Syracuse several years ago, I took my Conway up there and had a nice critique on that. I didn't win anything, but it was an interesting critique. So I enjoyed that.

HG: Looking at this [quilt.] you are obviously an artist, artistic, an artist. How did you choose quilting as opposed to other art forms to express yourself?

VTP: I suppose because I had always been interested in sewing. Well, I made my husband's sport coats and things like that, you know. I did the whole bit. All of my three daughters' clothes. Of course, then everybody started wearing blue jeans, so I was not going to make blue jeans. [laughter.] But it's--as the other ladies have said, it's just the most satisfying thing. I spend a lot of time alone because of my husband's fishing. And when I'm doing that, I don't mind it and time goes by very quickly.

BH: How many hours a week do you think you quilt?

VTP: Hmm. I don't know because sometimes I do it day in and day out.

BH: Do you quilt everyday, just about?

VTP: I sew just about everyday. Of course, I have a large flower garden and do yard work and things like that, too. I do need some exercise. But I spend a lot of time sewing, happily.

BH: For someone who spends a lot of time quilting, you must have a sense if what makes a great quilt great.

VTP: Well I would go with color and design first. Then, how much is quilted and whether that all flows in the color and design. BH: What about issues of...because one thing we sort of hear about is the emotional impact of quilts. And color and design is about the object. But quilts seem to have much more invested in them. And is that part of the equation? And how is emotion communicated out of the quilt?

VTP: Well, just when I looked at this and saw the meaning that it had for me. And yet I wouldn't expect it to have the same meaning for you. Or even for the ladies who worked with me on it. But each one of us sees something different in it. As with Ruth and her Baltimore album, nobody feels what she feels for that, nobody. It's just impossible. You put so much of yourself a quilt.

BH: How about a great quilter? The question has two sides. There's what makes a great quilt great but how about what makes a great quilter great? Or, are there quilters who you admire? Whose work you find particularly compelling?

VTP: Of course we have Ellie, a shining example in that particular field.

BH: That would be Ellie Sienkiewicz?

VTP: Yes. Now, Jane Townswick is making quite a splash I think with hers. This is still appliqué. But there's so many of them out there today, you know, that it's hard to pick very many of them. You just can't know them all. Or I can't.

BH: Most seem to have their followings.

VTP: Oh that's true, that's true. We have a friend who is a designer in Albuquerque, Susan Delaney. We really like her designs, too. We go to quilt shows and see what she's come up with next.

HG: Is quilting an art or a craft?

VTP: I think it's a combination of the two. Because to me a craft is sometimes repetitious, and I certainly think that our quilting sometimes is repetitious. And maybe the art part of it isn't, I guess it depends on how well we can express our imaginations, as to whether it is art.

HG: Do you make your quilts to put on beds, or do you make them for shows, to be on racks? What do you usually make them for?

VTP: They usually go on a bed. But, no matter what I make I make sure that it's washable and can be used. I think that whoever gets it may do that with it, and so I want it to be ready for that.

HG: Why is quilting important to your life?

VTP: Because I don't fish. [laughter.]

HG: Good answer.

VTP: I get seasick so I don't fish.

HG: How do you think this reflects the region, the Eastern Shore Region, I guess?

VTP: Well, this one definitely reflects it, you know.

HG: It certainly does.

VTP: Of course, when you get back into the Album quilts, there's so much about the Baltimore area. This one is all about the bay and the Eastern Shore, or the Eastern part of the country. There are so many things available to us here in the East, as Ruth was saying about going to the DAR museum. So many people in the country aren't able to go and see all those things, and participate and learn from them. We have some of the best teachers right here on the East Coast of anywhere in the country. Or I think we do. I'm a little partial.

HG: Fifty years from now this [quilt.] is hanging in a museum and someone that- a young person that's growing up around the Chesapeake comes and looks at it. What do you want their response to be?

VTP: I would hope that they would know everything on there. Everything including the skipjack.

BH: You've been quilting for fifteen years. It seems to be a magic number.

VTP: It seems to be.

BH: In terms of our conversations this afternoon. It raises a question about the future of quilting. And what do you see the future of quilting to be?

VTP: Well, I think we're definitely going to more machine quilting as opposed to hand. And I think if I were maybe fifteen years younger, I don't say that I wouldn't pursue that myself as opposed to doing everything by hand. But I think it's just going to continue. I'm not especially fond of the art quilts. I have seen them with feathers glued on them and numerous other things and gum wrappers and this and that. But then there are people who paint who do that sort of thing also, you know in the art field. But it doesn't appeal to me.

BH: So you would characterize yourself as a traditional quilter?

VTP: Yes, I think so.

BH: How would you define that? How would you define tradition?

VTP: Okay. Well, by using that little needle and thread, I think, in every way makes for tradition. You could do that with your art quilt, too, but a lot of them are painted, glued, etc. I think that the appliqué; the use of the blocks; settings; the different designs; and new colors makes them new but they are still traditional.

BH: So tradition allows for innovation.

VTP: Oh, yes.

BH: But what you see as the controlling factor is actually how something is made. I'm very interested in this. At what point does tradition begin to sort of fall apart?

VTP: That's a difficult one because each group of people that worked on this quilt had different things available to them. You go back and they used the old chintzes. They used scraps from gowns and things that were made when they did the Broderie Purse. They used what they had, what they could scrounge up, what have you. Then they moved on to the calicos. They thought they were making absolutely beautiful quilts with the calicos, and they were. Even the Baltimore Album Quilts you have scraps of calicos and things. And now look at all we have available. So what will be available in the next twenty, thirty, fifty years? But I think its using these things as they are available to us.

BH: So part of it is the idea of working within the set of things that are available. I guess I'm very curious about the distinction between traditional quilts and art quilts. And part of it seems as if traditional quilts are defined in part by what they are not. They are not assemblages of found materials, in the sense of feathers and beads and things of that sort. And that's where the--is that where you would place the distinction?

VTP: I would think so because I think all those additional things added to them change the whole concept of the quilt.

BH: How so?

VTP: Well, if you had just traditional blocks, a traditional nine-patch, you could add beads, feathers, glue, whatever. So there I'm asking you the question. What is it? Is it traditional or is it an art quilt after they've added all those things to that nine-patch?

BH: Well I guess part of the question is that those are quilts that are pretty much sort of a background or basic, would be a nine-patch with all these things added onto it. But art quilts also include these extraordinary compositions based entirely on the play of color. I'm trying to think of--there's a New Englander who quilts in that way, on whose work the patches are absolutely microscopic. It's the whole flow of color. It's not a nine-patch at all. It's really radiated bands of color. And that seems to be needle, thread and patchwork, and really within tradition. But it is always discussed as art quilts.

VTP: Her concept of color and use of color. Maybe I'm just not qualified to answer that question.

BH: Well, actually you are probably more qualified than anybody because you are a person who quilts.

VTP: I try anyway.

BH: I guess part of the reason the question comes up is that, in other interviews, is the distinction between town and gown in the quilting world. It has arisen sort of between art quilters. Many have come from academic programs and quilters who have learned either through guilds or through family or self-taught. And there does seem to be a kind of distinction or work.

VTP: Well we have found in going to shows--when we see the quote "art quilt" and find out who has done it, usually she has had some sort of art training, through college or what-have-you. As opposed to the other side. She's had a lot of training. And so she views things differently maybe than the one who has not had an education in that field.

BH: So how would you characterize the distinction? I'm asking you a tough question here.

VTP: Well, I'm floundering badly.

BH: Well, Ruth or Raelaine can help bail you out here.

Raelaine Swanner (RS): Well I think the artistically trained do view things differently, and they approach it differently. We like things more organized, even though it's an appliqué like this that's so diverse, but it's organized. It's a theme. And I think that's part of it. They may have a theme but we do not understand it. We don't go in that direction. I think that could be part of it. Does that help?

BH: Everything helps. [laughter.] Ruth, do you have anything to add to this?

Ruth Warren (RW): I think she's answered it the way I would answer it, too. I agree with what they say.

VTP: Because we all know when we go to an art gallery, and when we see the Horse Fair or something like that we understand that. But when we something by Picasso or something, 'What was he thinking?' And I suppose it's true with the use of fabrics and quilts, too.

BH: Well this gets us to a very different question. Do quilts belong in art museums?

VTP: I think some of them do, but I would almost say I don't think this [quilt.] should be. I think it should be an original design and I have copied a lot of this. Yet these are my fabrics, my choices in how I used them. It would be hard to say when that traditional quilt has six different names for the same block. So how can you say, 'This is Kansas Dugout,' when it has another name somewhere else? I think it should be something very original and unique in order to go into that museum. I realize that any quilt can take on a different personality by changing colors.

BH: That helps me.

HG: Some people say, or are saying, that the process and the design and the inspiration that goes into the quilt is as or almost as important as the final product. Do you have anything to say about that?

VTP: Well, I know how much joy I have derived from making this quilt. That's about the only way I can relate it.

HG: Certainly.

VTP: You know I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. I spent one whole week making that crab. [laughter.]

BH: We've almost used our time here. Is there anything that Heather or I haven't touched on?

VTP: No, I think you've explored it all. It's been a privilege to do this with you.

BH: The privilege has really been ours. We want to thank you very, very much for coming out this day.

VTP: It's our pleasure.

BH: I've learned a lot.

HG: It's a beautiful quilt. Thank you for being my first interview.

VTP: Thank you, thank you.



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