Diana Steinhouse




Diana Steinhouse




Diana Steinhouse


Suzanne Sanger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Naples, Florida


Suzanne Sanger


Suzanne Sanger (SS): This is Suzanne Sanger. Today's date is May 22, 2003. It's 3:00 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Diana Steinhouse for the Quilters' Save Our Stories project and the Naples Quilters Guild, at her home in Naples, Fl. Diana, tell me, how long have you lived in Naples?

Diana Steinhouse (DS): Ten years.

SS: Now you didn't learn to quilt here. You learned elsewhere, right?

DS: No, I learned to quilt in Hawaii.

SS: Wow, that's a wonderful place to learn to quilt. Your quilt that you selected to talk about today is a Hawaiian, and you did make it?

DS: I did make it. It was my very first quilt.

SS: It's just beautiful. And you were in Hawaii when you made it?

DS: I started it in Hawaii and then I finished it when I lived in Cleveland, Ohio.

SS: And how long did it take?

DS: Thirty years. Actually it was 30 years for two Hawaiian quilts and part of a third.

SS: Were you doing other quilts at the same time?

DS: I was doing other things in my life at that time. I returned to school. I went to undergraduate school. I went to graduate school. I went to post graduate school.

SS: My goodness!

DS: And I also worked.

SS: It's a wonder you got any quilting done. Did you design that pattern?

DS: No.

SS: Is it all cotton?

DS: The batting is not cotton. The batting is a synthetic. The top and back are 100% cotton.

SS: Thirty years ago it was hard to find cotton batting, wasn't it?

DS: Well, living in Hawaii, you take what you could get. It's when a ship brought in something, and they brought in this strange batting which was very difficult to use. But it worked.

SS: It must have because it's a beautiful quilt. What special meaning does that quilt have for you?

DS: That quilt is about the Silver Sword that grows in Haleakola on the island of Maui, and my husband and my son were in Indian Guides together, and they went across the crater and they also camped in the crater, so this is my son's quilt and it has special meaning for my son and my husband.

SS: And is that why you chose to bring the quilt for your interview?

DS: Because of the special meaning? No, I brought it because it was my first quilt and it surprised me that it turned out well. That it worked!

SS: Because that was your first quilt. You say this is your son's quilt but it's here at your house. How do you use it?

DS: It's here in my house because my husband won't let me give it to him. [laughter.] He wants to hold on to it; I've made three Hawaiian quilts and he wants to hold on to them. At some point in time, we have to give these quilts to the people that own them.

SS: [chuckles.] Well, you are fortunate that they are not taking them away from you so far. Let's talk a little bit about your interest in quilting. What made you suddenly--when you were living in Hawaii, decide to take your first quilting class?

DS: Well, I was doing everything Hawaiian. I loved living there. I did lahala weaving, and Japanese flower arranging, and quilting. I went to a community center, which was part of the park department, and the park department had a place on Tantalus Mountain, which is right next to the valley where Punch Bowl, the national cemetery is. So it was a beautiful spot and also a very interesting spot. And my teacher was a very well known Hawaiian woman, Mrs. Kalama. She and the other women would teach and help me to make this quilt. I also had a baby during this time and they would just take my baby away. I would go in the morning and I would pick up the baby at the end of the day. They loved babies. So it was a very nice way for me have the tutus, that's what they were called, like the grandmothers, take care of my baby, and I would quilt.

SS: Oh, how wonderful. Did they teach you about, in addition to the art of quilting and the specifics of quilting, did they teach you about some of the superstitions or the beliefs of Hawaiians about quilts?

DS: They certainly did. First of all, you never sit on a Hawaiian quilt. That's a taboo. But it's something very positive to sleep under one. And as far as patterns, they had ideas about patterns, too. The very first quilt was probably a breadfruit, which was their food at the time; so there was history and things that went on to know about the quilts.

SS: They encourage you to create your own designs or at least to modify designs, don't they?

DS: Yes, yes. They taught me how to fold the papers. It's like cutting out paper dolls or a snowflake, and yes, I did and they worked on it. I really wanted help because I knew that this was something I was going to sew for a long time, so I wanted it to be special, so I asked for some help.

SS: That was a 30-year process. After that, did you continue making more Hawaiian quilts or did you take classes and do something else?

DS: I did a lot of Hawaiian things while I was there. I made pillows and I made smaller quilts, and I was into Hawaiian. I did all things Hawaiian at the time.

SS: And then later on, you branched out.

DS: Later on, when I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, I started to do more traditional things. I decided I needed to learn how to piece, so I did a sampler quilt, which I've never done anything since like it. But the usual about getting some basics because I mostly do appliqué and because that's where I started to do things like that.

SS: Because Hawaiian quilts are appliquéd.

DS: Yes.

SS: About how many hours a week do you think you spend quilting now?

DS: Probably about 20 to 25 hours.

SS: That's pretty good. Do you have a first memory of quilts, predating your Hawaiian adventures?

DS: No, I only thought about quilts that were manufactured, that were put on beds. I never thought about a quilt before I started to work with the Hawaiian women.

SS: So you don't have family members who were quilters?

DS: No, I do not have family members that quilt.

SS: How does quilting impact your family?

DS: Well, just to back up, I did sew as a child, because my mother did not sew. When I was about three and a half years old, I needed a button sewed on a sun suit and she was busy or whatever it was, so I sewed a button on my sun suit, and then I decided, 'She doesn't know how to do anything. I've got to do everything for myself from now on.' It was a big decision day for me.

SS: My goodness. [laughter.r] Three and a half!

DS: So that's when I started to sew, and when I was young, I said, I once told you that I didn't do garments, but I did, I sewed my own clothes, and how I sewed them, I would cut things out and my brother would fit them, and then I would sew them up.

SS: Huh!

DS: So I was a couturier before I even knew how to do anything, but then it ended. No more clothes.

SS: Well you're wearing a quilted vest today.

DS: Well, it's the only garment I've made since I was a child.

SS: It's very pretty.

DS: Thank you.

SS: I think I asked you how quilting impacts your family now.

DS: Well, for one thing, my husband loves my quilts. He tries to keep me from giving any away, but I do give some quilts away. My children enjoy my quilts. They are waiting to get the quilts I've made for them. [laughs.] Other than that, I can't think of any way that they might be impacted.

SS: You have, I know you showed me a few minutes ago, a quilt that was a gift. Clearly your husband knows that quilts are important to you.

DS: Oh, I showed you the quilt that is "A Frog Might Wear Galoshes, But a Toad Would Never Wear a Toupee." This quilt was made by Katherine Anthony for the Dairy Barn, which had a show for the Dairy Barn and the Japanese government. There were some beautiful quilts in there, but this was one of my favorites. And Katherine Anthony is the mother of Libby Lehman, so it was very nice to have this special quilt by her. Actually, what happened was, I loved this quilt. It traveled around the country, and whenever I was someplace where this quilt was, I'd go to see it. And then, as I mentioned earlier, I was living in Cleveland, Ohio, and that was the last place that it was shown, and it was for sale. Well, I learned that the price of it was very, very high and I couldn't quite afford that, so I said to my husband, you know, I'm going to call the Dairy Barn and make an offer, you know, a decent offer with my own money. I called the Dairy Barn and she said, 'I'm sorry, the quilt has been sold.' I just knew the very moment she said that, that my husband bought it. And he did buy it for me, so I have this special quilt that he bought for me. So this is another way that impacts with my family. You asked earlier about other ways that it impacts my family. My family is very supportive. I buy fabrics in New York from this woman that sells Japanese fabrics, and I went in to buy fabrics from her and she told me you can pick out two hundred and fifty dollars worth of fabrics my children had purchased for me as a gift. So they certainly are very supportive. And then I'm making a little Hawaiian quilt for a baby and I'm using Hawaiian fabrics, and my son gave me the shirt off his back, his aloha shirt to put in the quilt. So they are very, very supportive.

SS: Yes, they are. Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time, Diana?

DS: Yes, I did. When I first moved to Naples and left the north and left my family and my friends, I was really at loose ends. I was really probably depressed and very sad and what really brightened my feelings was when I was in a fabric shop and somebody told me about a quilt group that meets in Golden Gate, and I went there, and the minute I walked in, the way they welcomed me, I knew I was home. One of the women made me a teddy bear, because every night I would almost cry myself to sleep, and I would hold onto this teddy bear.

SS: Oh, that's really nice.

DS: It was really very helpful. They were wonderful to me. So it's impacted me as a way to make friends.

SS: So many people can say that. I know it was that way for me, too. What do you find most pleasing about quilting?

DS: Well, it taps something that's creative in me, so that pleases me. I like looking at quilts. I purchase quilts whenever I can, and I collect quilts as well as my own, and they just give me pleasure when I look at them and I want to just keep looking at them, and I want them. That's what quilting does for me.

SS: Is there some part of the process that you go through as a quilter yourself that you particularly like?

DS: Well, I like material. Fabrics talk to me, and that's the way I quilt. The fabric tells me what to with it. So that's what I particularly like. I audition fabrics, I take lots of fabrics out and I look at them, and I put them together, and when I finally see something I really like, that's when I can start to work on a quilt, and I design from there. It's really the fabric's telling my how to design.

SS: What don't you like about quilting?

DS: Machine work. [laughter.] I do it but I don't like machines. And I have six machines, so you would think I would. I keep trying for a machine that will do better for me. But it's me. I'm not great with machines, but I use them.

SS: What do you think makes a great quilt?

DS: As I said before, when I look at a quilt and I just want to keep looking at it because it has just special qualities. There are particular quilters that I like.

SS: Is it the way they use color, or--

DS: It's color, it's design, its--and they're contemporary quilts. I like contemporary quilts, art quilts. They just excite me. That's what I feel about them. I just like certain artists. Do you want me to tell you about the artists I like or does that come at another time?

SS: Let's talk about it now.

DS: Okay. I like Caryl Breyer Fallert's work. I'm just amazed about what she can produce. She's a little woman and does all this big wonderful stuff. David Walker introduced me to my first art quilt. I didn't even know he made it. I didn't know a man made it, but I purchased it in Cleveland at the theater there. There was an exhibit. Deborah Banyus lives in Oberlin, which is not far from Cleveland, and I've always enjoyed her work and I have quite a few things of hers. And then I lived in Amish country, so I collected Amish quilts for a long time.

SS: Do you still have all of the quilts you've collected?

DS: No, I've been giving them away. I've been giving my daughter Amish quilts because she has a more country kind of lifestyle. And I have some art quilts from Fran Soika, who does southwest kinds of things and some beautiful southwest pieces.

SS: So those are your favorite quilters that you collect?

DS: That and I have another favorite quilter who I don't collect. I wish I did when I first saw her because then it might have been a possibility to get her, but I couldn't possibly get her now, and that's--she's the lady that does African quilts, Hollis Chatelain.

SS: I noticed that some of the quilts that you've collected seem to have a sense of humor about them. Is that something that you treasure?

DS: Yes, that's true about Deborah Banyus's work. Her things are very humorous and I enjoy that. Yes, I have a cat collection--cats are doing extraordinary things. They are fishing. They are going to church. [laughs.] They're just fun.

SS: Well then, your frog quilt is humorous too.

DS: Yes it is.

SS: With their galoshes.

DS: And there is a pair of galoshes on a rock. There's a pair parked on the rock.

SS: So we can wonder where it's frog is. What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

DS: Color, design.

SS: Let me ask you what you think would make a quilt appropriate for a museum.

DS: Each one that I've looked at that is an art quilt, I feel is appropriate for a museum. I think art quilts usually are, art quilts that are done well.

SS: What about traditional quilts?

DS: I don't love--I like them, but I don't love traditional quilts. I can admire the work, the workmanship.

SS: Well now, Hawaiian quilts are very traditional.

DS: They are about as traditional as I get.

SS: What do you think makes a great quilter?

DS: Somebody who is serious about their work, who spends lots of time quilting, probably who has an art background.

SS: Do you have an art background?

DS: No. [laughs.] In fact, the only way I paint is with fabric.

SS: You are an artist with your fabric for sure. How do you think great quilters learn the art of quilting?

DS: I think they work at it. I think they have something in them that turns them on.

SS: What does quilting teach you?

DS: It teaches me to focus. It teaches me to share. I've done charitable things with quilts. When I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, I worked with a group of women, and people would bring us their tops, and we would sandwich them and quilt them, and the money we charged them we would give to the hunger task force. So I've always done something charitable around quilts.

SS: Has quilting taught you to do things that you thought you couldn't do?

DS: Always! When I start, I think I could never do it. [laughs.] Each quilt is an adventure and it's like I think it's never going to happen, but it does.

SS: It does. You've already mentioned that you really don't like machine quilting. What kind of hand quilting do you like best?

DS: Well, I do hand appliqué, and I like to do sashiko, I'm never sure how to pronounce it. I like to do Japanese stitching.

SS: I've noticed that many of your quilts have Asian themes--fabrics with a very Asian feel to them.

DS: Well, I lived in Hawaii and there is a strong Japanese influence there. In fact, the haoles, or the white people, the Caucasians, are the minority. The Japanese are the major portion of the people that live there. It was the first time that I ever lived anyplace that I was a minority, and I took to the Japanese culture. Well, I do ikebana and I think that's probably why I do so many Japanese things, through my flower arranging, which I combine with my quilting at times.

SS: Why is quilting important to your life?

DS: It brings friendship to me. It brings pleasure. It's a way I like to spend a lot of my time, and it's opened up other areas of sewing to me too. I work on purses and different things since I started to quilt. It's just very important. I don't think I would ever stop doing it unless I absolutely had to. I couldn't see anymore perhaps. Other than that, I would always sew I think.

SS: I know many of your quilts are Hawaiian, or at least were when you started living in Hawaii. How do you think your quilts now reflect your region or your community?

DS: Well, only once, when I first moved here, I made a Naples quilts. But that was the one and only one that I did that related to Florida.

SS: So really, you don't feel that your quilts reflect your region. You could be anywhere.

DS: Not right now. I could be anywhere doing what I'm doing.

SS: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

DS: I'm not much of a historian, so I can't go back into the history of quilts, but what I have seen is that many, many American women are making quilts, and I think it broadens them to relate to women and their work in other countries, too, because we're getting in touch with Japanese people and German people, and people from around the world. So I think it's a very peaceful way of being with people. It's like make quilts, not wars.

SS: Are there ways that you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America? I know you say you're not terribly interested in history.

DS: Well, I think when you look at quilts from the past they're different, different periods of time, different fabrics. That's my only awareness of women and history and quilts.

SS: How do you think quilts can be used today?

DS: On the walls, on the beds, for babies. That's where I'm going. I'm hoping to have two new grandbabies one of these days so I'm at this time thinking about making baby quilts.

SS: That would be fun. How about preserving quilts for the future?

DS: Well, I certainly like to see them live on. They should be taken care of. I don't like seeing quilts abused, but I guess people can do what they want. I see people at picnics sitting on their quilts, eating on their quilts, and they're probably their grandmother's quilts and they just don't realize what they're doing.

SS: That's kind of sad isn't it?

DS: I would hope that people would take care of them.

SS: Do you think that people are more aware today, or more people are becoming more aware of the amount of work and love and effort that's gone into quilts, that they're more likely to try to preserve quilts that are handed down in their family?

DS: I think they would have had to have seen somebody working on one to know that. I know the Hawaiian quilts take something from two to three thousand hours to make.

SS: That's a lot of hours.

DS: [chuckles] As you look forward to it, to doing one.

SS: Yes, I'm in the early stages of one. [laughing.] What's happened to the quilts you've made for family or friends--other than the one's that you won't give them?

DS: [laughter.] The people that I've given my quilts to have hung them.

SS: Ah, very good. And they're taking good care of them?

DS: Yes. In fact, I gave one to a neighbor friend who was wearing a shirt, and I said to her, 'Oh, when you get tired of that shirt, I would like it to put it into a quilt.' And she said, 'Pour moi, for me?' I said, 'Ok, I'll make you a quilt.' And I made her a quilt. And then my husband's sister, who lives in Hawaii, has always been crocheting blankets and things for us, and I decided to make a quilt for her, and she has hung my quilt. My brother, who has made me a clock, I have a big clock that he's made for me, he said, 'When are you going to make me a quilt?' And I did make him a quilt. So I guess it's a combination of people reminding me they want one, because I don't think people want my quilts. So when they say something, I guess it gets me interested in making one for them.

SS: I think it's hard for us to recognize that people might want our things and not want to ask for it. Have you found that?

DS: Well, I realize that, yes. I think there is a woman that would have liked me to make her a quilt. She never asked me to do that, so I almost felt like she wasn't interested in my quilts.

SS: And then eventually you realized--

DS: Yes, I think, yes, I realized that she probably wanted one.

SS: What haven't we talked about that you'd like to, Diana?

DS: Earlier you asked if I did any teaching and I didn't remember at the time, but in Naples we have, as in the nation, a National Quilt Day, and I did a presentation on Hawaiian quilts. I showed my Hawaiian quilts, I did some teaching about how to make a Hawaiian quilt, and I also gave a lecture about the history of Hawaiian quilts and how quilts came to the islands, how the missionaries brought them. The first Hawaiian quilt was designed when a woman saw the reflection of the breadfruit on a sheet hanging on a line to dry. Speaking about the Hawaiian quilts also, is part of, you asked how it affected my family. I made one of my Hawaiian quilts for my daughter Jane, and it was a pink on pink quilt, which are the happy colors of Hawaii, and I thought she would be so pleased as a child to watch me, making that, and once I took her to a quilt show in Hawaii and she liked all the yellows and the golds and the greens and hated that pink quilt. [laughter.] She was here when I entered that quilt in the Naples quilt show, and it was like the first quilt when you walk in there, taking first place, and it was also evaluated for $5000, and I asked her, 'Do you like it any better now?'

SS: And does she?

DS: Well, she's kind of thrilled that her quilt was so honored, but it still is not her favorite colors.

SS: Have you won other awards besides? You took a first and best of show on that quilt?

DS: I can't remember if it was Best of Show. It seemed like it was. It was definitely a blue ribbon for appliqué at that time. I have won awards, but I don't remember exactly. I know I have one on one of my quilts, because my daughter wants that quilt and she wants the ribbon on it. I kind of put away the other ribbons and I don't remember what I got and what for. I stopped wanting to be interested in ribbons. I wanted to quilt how I wanted to quilt because I lived in an environment here in Naples at the time I was doing art quilts, that it was an unacceptable thing to do an art quilt. They didn't even want an art quilt entered in the show. And they didn't know how to take care of my art quilts. It was not a quilt that was going to go in a washing machine. It had things on it and it needed to be cared for. And somebody pulled their finger across a couple of them, and I stopped being interested in entering shows and getting ribbons. It was something I didn't want to do any more.

SS: Have you noticed any kind of change in that attitude?

DS: Oh yes, big time. We are finally being recognized as art quilters and being accepted. But the traditional quilt is the only one that made it for a long time. For a while I thought that I wasn't prolific, that I didn't make a lot of quilts, and when I thought about my quilts, and I realized I'd made three huge queen size Hawaiian quilts, and I've made five Japanese type quilts, and early on I made a sampler, and then I made a very special quilt for, about my quilting friends in Cleveland. This was the most wonderful experience. I belonged to a group of women who were fantastic, intelligent, older women. And I mean old. One of them died at 105. When she was 99, she couldn't crawl on the floor with us when we were putting quilts together. She could thread the needles.

SS: At 99?

DS: At 99, she could thread a needle without glasses.

SS: Ah, I can't do that today.

DS: I know, I know, that's one of my problems today. And we would have lunches together. We would all maybe bring half a sandwich and a treat. And we had the most amazing lunches. And Marge and Irm were two women that lived together. They would make corned beef and rye bread, homemade, every year. That was one of their contributions. And Marge loved candy so I always brought candy for Marge. And we would just bring all kinds of things to go with their lunch. One day here in Naples, I made a decision I was going to make a quilt for Marge and Irm. And what it was, was a table spread with food, and actually, I used doilies and things that came from Marge's family, and I took pictures of food, and it was a table set with everything including all the foods that we would eat at these luncheons. It's a quilt that I gave to my daughter in law, because she knew these women. In fact, I really loved these women so much that one day I had high tea for them in my home, and my daughter in law did it. And that's why I gave her that quilt. The quilt was called "Lunch with Marge and Irm."

SS: That sounds like a wonderful experience. Clearly your friendship association with quilting goes way back.

DS: Yes, to those women and also to the Hawaiian women. That was an amazing kind of relationship, too. So yes, I've had wonderful relationships from quilting. Oh, I have another story.

SS: Oh good! [laughter.]

DS: My, I have two grandsons, and my young grandson was into space. I talked with him and said we'll make a space quilt. And this was a big mistake, discussing it with him, because every fabric I showed him, 'That's babyish. That isn't real. That isn't this, that isn't that'. And I sent away for all these fabrics, and I did everything to make him a quilt that I thought he would like. And after he tells me all about these babyish things, we went to NASA, which is in Cleveland, and he purchased little toys to put on this quilt that he said everything was too babyish about. And actually, I ended up designing a quilt with Robin Ray. Robin is an engineer and he worked on space. We designed a quilt that is an astronaut walking in space, and the trajectory is precise by this engineer. He told me exactly how to have this guy walking on the moon, out in space. So I bought the quilt to Nicky, and he loved the quilt and he put it down on the floor. He had his whole room with baseball. 'I didn't know how to tell me if he wanted a baseball quilt.' [laughter.]

SS: So did you teach him the mathematics of the trajectory?

'DS: Well, I told him about it. I had told him about the engineer who did that. It is one of the quilter's husbands. Arlene Ray.

SS: Oh, from your group.

DS: From the guild.

SS: Up there.

DS: Here.

SS: Oh, down here?

DS: Down here. I made the quilt down here in Naples.

SS: Oh, I didn't know we had someone who's husband was in the--

DS: In the space program. Yes, we do.

SS: How interesting. Are there any others of your quilts that you want to talk about, Diana?

DS: I would just say that the one I made for my other grandchild was a music quilt because he's really into music. He's a very fine musician. I would also like to add that I organized the first art quilt group in Naples, Florida.

SS: I'd like to thank Diana Steinhouse for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Q.S.O.S. project. Our interview concluded at 4:00 pm on May 22, 2003.


“Diana Steinhouse,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1641.