Sharon Smaldone




Sharon Smaldone




Sharon Smaldone


Suzanne Sanger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Dorry Emmer


Naples, Florida


Suzanne Sanger


Suzanne Sanger (ss): This is Suzanne Sanger. Today's date is July tenth, 2003. It is 11:30 a.m., and I'm conducting an interview with Sharon Smaldone for the Quilters' Save Our Stories project and the Naples Quilters Guild at her home in Naples, Florida. Sharon, were you living in Naples when you learned to quilt?

Sharon Smaldone (SS): No.

ss: Where were you at that time?

SS: I was living in Tiverton, Rhode Island.

ss: Is that where you made the quilt that you selected today?

SS: Yes.

ss: Can you tell me a little bit more about that quilt? You made it, right?

SS: I made it. I learned how to quilt in 1980 when I was married and moved to Tiverton, RI, and when my son was born in 1982, Ryan, I decided to make a quilt for him. This quilt was started in '82 because it was marked, cut, pieced, all totally by hand, and then hand quilted, so everything was done by hand. It wasn't completed until September 1984.

ss: By which time he was big enough to use it. [laughter.] That was pretty good planning. Did you create this pattern, or I notice that it's little airplanes. You just thought that was cute for a little boy, or--

SS: I thought it was good for a little boy. I had seen the airplane pattern, made some alterations, and set it in my own way, with design and borders, and--

ss: So your very first quilt you were already designing.

SS: Yes. Well actually, it was my second quilt.

ss: Oh, Okay. I notice that the colors are pretty patriotic colors. I think I remember that your husband was in the Marine Corps, is that right?

SS: Yes.

ss: Did you choose the colors kind of thinking along those lines, or you just liked the colors?

SS: I just liked red and blue. I guess blue for a boy and the red kind of brought out the colors.

ss: Does this quilt have real special meaning for you other than the fact that it was your second?

SS: Yes, it does. I think probably because it was all hand done, and it was made for my first son, he was my firstborn, and he still uses it to this day. He has always used it on his bed.

ss: I'm very impressed that it isn't worn out.

SS: Well, it's faded, and a little bit worn, but it's holding up there. We've washed it a few times.

ss: Why did you select this particular quilt to bring to the interview?

SS: Probably because of the special meaning, and my first quilt which I did, which was a sampler quilt, I gave away, so I didn't have that one, but this had special meaning because it was for my firstborn, and now I'm making another one all totally hand done for my second son.

ss: Oh, so he didn't get one when he was born or even when he was two.

SS: He didn't get one when he was born. No.

ss: How old is he now?

SS: He's going to be seventeen.

ss: Oh, hang your head.

SS: [laughter.] I know. Well see, everything's done on the machine, so you know, people want to get quilts done fast, and he wanted a queen size, where this is a twin size, so that makes a difference.

ss: When you finish that one, will you be starting another one for this son?

SS: Probably a grandchild, right?

ss: There you go. Does this quilt go to college with your son?

SS: Yes, it does. He brings it to college; he brought it home. He's on summer break and he brought it home, naturally, to get washed, refurbished, and he'll bring it back in August. He'll bring it back and use it again.

ss: Very good. Tell me about your interest in quilting, Sharon. How did you get started?

SS: No one in my family quilts. Like I said when I got married in 1980 and a good friend of mine who lived in Tiverton, Rhode Island, opened up a quilt shop and she encouraged me to come down and take a class. And back then, in 1980, we learned everything by hand. They didn't teach us how to do rotary cutting.

ss: I don't think they had rotary cutters then.

SS: I don't think so in 1980. Probably not. The Stone Age. And actually, I'm glad because I love to hand piece. That's still, I think, my favorite even though I like to use the machine.

ss: Do you think that knowing how to do all those things by hand made you a better quilter once you started using the machine?

SS: I think so. I think it teaches you to be a little bit more precise, it teaches you that you can do things without a machine. If you need to repair--I had a quilt that I was just starting to machine quilt and I noticed I had a tear in it, and I didn't have to worry about putting it on the machine. I could do it by hand on the seams. I think it teaches you accuracy, it teaches you patience, and it's relaxing to hand piece, I think.

ss: So, you still hand piece from time to time?

SS: Oh yes. [laughs.]

ss: And I know you do hand appliqué.

SS: Yes.

ss: Do you still hand quilt?

SS: Yes, I do. Not as much as I used to.

ss: So, you learned to quilt from that class basically. Beyond that, are you pretty much self-taught or did you continue to take classes?

SS: We would get together. We really wouldn't take classes after that. The group of us would just get together and quilt. And then I moved to Connecticut, which I was not active in their guild there, but I did continue to quilt.

ss: Did you belong to a guild in Tiverton?

SS: No, they didn't have one. They didn't have one back then, so I didn't belong to a guild there and not in Connecticut. It wasn't until I went to Massachusetts, to Dalton, and then I became active in a group there. Sometimes I took classes. I did teach.

ss: Oh, you did?

SS: Yes. I did teach when I was in Dalton. I taught two different groups of ladies.

ss: At a shop or--

SS: One was at a shop. I taught just a basic quilting class, and then every week I would teach a group of elderly ladies at a community center in downtown Pittsfield, and they would get together and I would teach them basics. None of these ladies had ever quilted, so they had machines, and they all learned how to do basic things, and then on another day in the same week I taught a group of ladies at a retirement condo community, I guess you could call it. They wanted to do a Baltimore Album quilt.

ss: Oh my. They were a few steps ahead of the others.

SS: Yes. Some of the ladies had quilted, so I went and guided them with that. I did that for about four or five years while I was there. And I would take classes periodically just to learn new techniques. I always think it's fun to learn new techniques, and then you combine them. You may take a class and only learn one thing that's very small, but that definitely helps you, I think, overall.

ss: I agree. I think every little thing you can add to your skill bank is useful.

SS: It is.

ss: Did you end up becoming friends with these ladies that you were teaching or through a guild, or anything like that?

SS: Yes, one of the ladies who was on the committee when I was in Massachusetts, she owned a quilt shop, and we still communicate now, and a couple of the other ladies, and they still have the Berkshire Quilt Festival, so periodically I'll hear from them. You stay in touch; you make friends in different places.

ss: Thank goodness for the Christmas card list.

SS: I know. And the email.

ss: Yes. What's your favorite class that you've taken regarding quilting?

SS: Oh, my favorite class.

ss: Or the one you felt benefited you the most. I suppose the first one really benefits you the most.

SS: I don't know. I would probably say David Walker.

ss: And why would you say that?

SS: Well, David has a very unique way of teaching. It was a very relaxing class. It was a very, a class that definitely opened my mind to creative quilting. I was very much a traditional quilter. You know, the traditional patterns, the traditional earth tone colors, and set certain ways and what have you. Over the years I've progressed, especially coming to Naples. You go into different fields. But David really opened my eyes and said, 'I can just totally let loose and have fun.' [laughter.]

ss: Now did you take the class with David the first time that he came? And then--

SS: Yes. I didn't take it the second time.

ss: So, it's been two or three years since you took that class. Have you noticed a big change in the quilts that you're producing?

SS: Oh yes. And Diane Hire I thought was great. I learned some things from her. It's the techniques, its little techniques or little tips or whatever that you bring to a class, but I always say overall, I would probably say David.

ss: Both of those teachers, I think, teach you a much more spontaneous way of quilting than the traditional.

SS: Yes. And I've stayed in touch with David, so maybe that makes a difference, too, because you keep that communication open, and it keeps your mind open, and you see his things. And I've taken Ricky Tims, who I think is good but definitely I've become more carefree. [laughter.]

ss: That's fun. I like that. About how many hours a week do you think you spend on quilting?

SS: Oh, it varies. Lately I've been doing more, so I could say I try to get in probably three hours in the evening, four hours. Sometimes, then some weeks I can sew two or three days totally, and sometimes I can go days without quilting. It depends what my schedule is.

ss: You have a lot going on in your life.

SS: Yes. I work part time, so that makes a difference, and with the boys.

ss: What's your first quilt memory?

SS: My first quilt memory. I would probably say my very first quilt that I made and the patterns that I picked for the sampler. And one of the samplers, one of the blocks, had something like forty pieces in it that I had to hand piece, which was mind boggling to me to think that I was going to take all these pieces in a twelve-inch block and put them together and they were going to make something. [laughter.] But then it all came together.

ss: So, your first quilt memory was basically your first quilt. You don't have, you don't remember a quilt in somebody's home, or a grandmother's.

SS: No one in my family has a quilt. It's amazing. No one quilted; no one has a quilt. I've asked relatives, 'Do you have some old quilts stored that you've forgotten about?' and I have not come across anything. And that was my first quilting experience was working on this first quilt. And I didn't start with a small-you know how some people start small and maybe take a square. I went into a double size sampler quilt all totally hand done.

ss: Now had you been seeing quilt in magazines and admiring them?

SS: No.

ss: It was totally your friend twisting your arm and saying, 'Come down here and learn this.'

SS: Yes.

ss: That is just a marvelous thing that she did for you!

SS: I know! It's true. That's really what it is. She just wanted to get her business going and she did. She stayed in business. And then she moved, so she closed, but that's really what it was. 'You've got to do this. It's the best thing.' I've sewed clothes, but nothing else.

ss: That's just amazing. Sharon, how does quilting impact your family?

SS: Sometimes good, sometimes bad. [laughter.]

ss: How can it be bad?

SS: Well, when it becomes all consuming, when you're in a rush to get a project done for a quilt show, or something to do for the guild, then yes it does impact. They'll say, 'Oh that's enough. I don't want to hear any more about quilting.'

ss: Do you forget to cook because you're working? [laughter.]

SS: Sometimes. Sometimes. But no, I would say on the whole it's a good thing. My husband and boys are positive about it. They always like to see something finished or whatever. They get excited.

ss: Oh, that's wonderful.

SS: It is.

ss: Especially since they're boys.

SS: I know. It is. You know, they kind of roll their eyes and moan and groan, but I think deep inside--

ss: You don't think you're going to turn them into quilters?

SS: No, I don't think so.

ss: Well, it's good that they're supportive? Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

SS: Yes, definitely.

ss: It kind of helps, doesn't it?

SS: It does. It relaxes your mind, but also a lot of times you put what you're going through into a design or fabric or whatever. I did that in one of my pieces.

ss: That's nice that it's been able to help you. What do you find most pleasing about quilting? Or at all pleasing?

SS: I love to look at fabrics. I love to buy fabrics. And then I love to take those fabrics and make something totally creative with it, something in my own design. It's [inaudible.] or even a pattern, but I think that's the pleasing part is to take all those beautiful fabrics and create something great that I can enjoy.

ss: Do you consider yourself an innovative quilter now rather than a traditional quilter?

SS: Yes. I would say yes. I still like the traditional. I still do some. But I would say I'm probably more an innovative quilter now than I was.

ss: Your heart has kind of moved there.

SS: I know.

ss: What aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

SS: Tearing out. [laughter.] I think that's probably the worst part. I don't know. I don't enjoy probably cutting out the pieces too much. That can be tedious. I love sewing them. I love making the tops. That to me is pleasing. If I could make all the tops and have someone else quilt them and put them together, that would be ideal. But I think I enjoy making the tops.

ss: So, you don't particularly enjoy the quilting process?

SS: On some pieces. The smaller pieces, the wall hangings and those things I enjoy. It's the larger quilts. So actually, I've tended to move away from making large quilts anymore. I will just basically do wall hangings. Then I enjoy doing the quilting on those and I've become more creative with that, too, other than just straight lines you do free motion which I've improved on.

ss: When you were still doing more hand quilting, did you enjoy the quilting more or less?

SS: I enjoyed it then. Probably more.

ss: It was more a relaxation for you then.

SS: I enjoy hand quilting, but you need the time, and when you want to make a few pieces or you're making something for someone or whatever, you just don't have the time.

ss: Is machine quilting more like work to you? Less relaxing?

SS: No. I think once I get into it I'm fine.

ss: Do you think you can be more or less creative with your quilting when you're doing it on the machine versus by hand?

SS: Oh, I think you can be more creative on the machine.

ss: Tell me more about that.

SS: [laughter.] I think the possibilities are endless with the designs you can do. Sometimes I'll sit there, and the ideas just go through my mind. You know, you could do words and animals and flowers and leaves and circles. It's endless, and then it's so quick, whereas hand quilting, you know, you don't.

ss: Have you noticed a difference in the kinds of threads that you use and the affects you can get since you left the hand quilting?

SS: Oh yes. When I did hand quilting, it was just hand quilting thread, and now I use metallics and just all kinds of things, and you combine them. You use one color on the back in the bobbin, one on the top. The possibilities are endless now. I mean quilting has come so far. It's such an art form.

ss: I learned to quilt just a few years before you did, and back then, if you quilted with anything other than white or off-white thread it was just tacky.

SS: That's right. You weren't supposed to use a contrasting color on your quilt or anything that wasn't in your quilt or your fabrics. Whatever you used in one part you should use everywhere else.

ss: Now I noticed in the quilt you brought you used red thread to quilt. That was quite innovative for that day.

SS: Probably. I know.

ss: Good for you. So even then it was always within you.

SS: [laughter] That's right. I didn't want to use the blue. And that was another thing. I think probably because they told me you weren't supposed to use two colors on a quilt, so the thing was, do you do everything in blue because the quilt is blue and red, or do you do everything in red. And I thought the red stood out better, but that's another thing they used to say, you know. You definitely don't use two colors.

ss: What a change!

SS: What a change! And you were always supposed to use muslin on the back or basic fabric. Now, actually, two sided quilts.

ss: Have you ever entered your quilts in a show?

SS: Yes.

ss: Here in Naples?

SS: Yes.

ss: And other places also?

SS: Yes. I entered when I lived in Massachusetts at the Berkshire Quilt Festival, I entered them. That was a non-judged show. And then I entered them every year here in Naples since I've been a member.

ss: What do you think you've learned from the experience of entering quilts in a show?

SS: It's an exhilarating experience to see your quilt hanging. I think it's exciting to see it. It's nice to be in a judged show because you have the judges critique your work, which I think is important, and that has helped me with the tips about certain things you can improve on or whatever. I think that's a big plus. It's fun to enter in a non-judged, but you don't learn anything because no one critiques you, so I would definitely always enter in a judged show now for that reason.

ss: If no one was ever going to see your quilts, would you still make them?

SS: Yes.

ss: Why?

SS: Because I love them. [laughter.] I make them for me. I make them for me. Or for family, but I quilt for me. That is something that I do for myself, and if someone else benefits from my quilt, that's great.

ss: When you say that you do it for you, what is it that you get out of it?

SS: Satisfaction and I like to be active, and I like to create, and I like to work with colors and fabrics. So, it's just satisfying my own needs, emotionally and what have you.

ss: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SS: I think every quilt is great that someone does. Whether you're a novice or experienced or whatever, I think if someone takes the time to put their heart and soul, which I think quilters do, into a quilt, then I think every quilt is wonderful.

ss: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful. Why is it that a certain quilt stops you in your tracks when you see it in a show, for example?

SS: Why certain quilts stop me are the colors combined with the design. I love powerful colors. I could see a quilt that is traditional and very subdued, and the work is exquisite and right next to it I could see a quilt that just jumps out at me with these great wild colors and design, and that one will hit me more than the traditional now. But I still appreciate the other work.

ss: Do you think that some of this change in color sense that you have has to do with living in Florida?

SS: I think so. People say no, but I think it does. And I think you see it when you travel around, you go to certain places, [inaudible.] you're in the country, in the mountains, their fabrics reflect that. Their designs reflect that. So yes, I think here with being the warm weather all the time and outdoors that you just think bright colors, tropical.

ss: Yes, our leaves are very green, and our skies are very blue, and our flowers are very colorful. I kind of feel that same way, but I think it's always interesting. What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

SS: I think the quality. I think the design. I think a lot has to do with the person who makes the quilt. I think the story behind the quilt. Sometimes a quilt may not be perfect in a judge's standards, but the story behind it may be worth more than the quality could ever be, so I think that makes a difference too.

ss: Do you personally collect quilts, other than your own?

SS: No. The only thing I do is at our yearly mini auction, I always buy one of those. But otherwise, I don't. I'm never fortunate enough to be somewhere to see a great quilt that I want to pick up. I always look in antique shops, but--. [dog barks.]

ss: Do you sell any of your quilts.

SS: No.

ss: What do you think makes a great quilter?

SS: Do you mean personality or their quilts?

ss: Either. What is it you think makes one person a great--you indicated for example in speaking about museum collections that sometimes it's the individual that makes it worthy of a collection. What is it that makes an individual a great quilter?

SS: Well, if you look back in history, you have some of your quilters--you have your Underground Railroad quilts. You have those ladies who made those, which I think is fascinating story to read about, and they were never really taught to make quilts or to be judged, so they didn't improve on their skills really. They just made quilts because they had a special meaning. Then you have your modern-day quilters, and I find that quilters are artists, I think. It's your technique, your thought process, your design work; I think all that goes into making a great quilter. And I think your love. I think if you really are passionate about what you are doing, you are going to produce a great piece.

ss: How do you think great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern and choose fabrics and colors and stuff?

SS: Well, some quilters, I think it's just natural with them. It's just inbred in them. It's something they just have. They just know how to put these colors and patterns together. They don't need to necessarily see a pattern. They could just have a thought and be able to put it into a fabric and then take the fabric and make it into a quilted piece. But some quilters need a pattern or just a basis to go off on. I sometimes mostly need a basis. I try to get away from that where I can think of an idea and the step is to take that idea and put it onto fabric.

ss: Do you think that you could start even from a pattern and then take it from there?

SS: Oh yes, definitely.

ss: Why is quilting important to your life?

SS: Quilting gives me an opportunity to learn things to better my own self and techniques, and then being [phone rings. tape is stopped briefly.]

ss: The phone just rang so we shut down for a little bit. Let me ask this question again, Sharon. Why is quilting important to your life?

SS: I know what I was saying. It gives me satisfaction, it gives me comfort, it gives me the ability to create, to better my skills, and also, being active in the Guild gives me that opportunity to do things. I like to volunteer, so that gives me a great opportunity to do that, and also to learn from other quilters, and to hopefully pass along to them some techniques that they wouldn't otherwise know. I think all around, it's a hobby, but maybe it's not a business for me. I don't sell them or whatever, it's just a relaxing part of my life that I do.

ss: What does quilting teach you?

SS: Patience. It has brought me many friendships. It teaches me techniques. It teaches me to be caring about other people and their quilts, their art. There's a lot of things to quilting, I think. People are a very important part of quilting. It's more than just making a quilt. It goes beyond that. It's the friendships, the companionship. It all goes together.

ss: We talked a little bit about your color sense having changed down here. Are there other ways in which you think your quilts reflect your community or your region?

SS: I think so. I like flowers, to do flowers. It's more the art quilt, more the freeform quilting rather than a specific pattern, so that definitely has changed being here. Or you may see the water and you want to do a beach scene, which otherwise you wouldn't do.

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

SS: Oh, I think quilts are important. I think we should always have quilts in American life. I think quilts are family. Quilts are friendship. Quilts portray so many things other than just something hanging on a wall. I think there's a meaning behind every quilt.

ss: Do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

SS: Yes. You know, if you look back in the history books and reading. I do collect a lot of books on quilting, and I like the books on the young quilters, the quilters coming across the prairie, the pioneers, all that. They have started it all. They started with nothing. They would use whatever they had on hand, and they have brought us to where we are now, I think.

ss: You mentioned earlier the Underground Railroad quilts. [Sharon's dog, which had been confined during our interview has started to make himself heard. The tape is stopped so he could be liberated from his temporary prison.] Sharon, how do you think quilts can be used? How are they used in your life, and how do you think other people can use quilts?

SS: Well, I think they're used in a lot of ways. They're used as wall hangings, which portray conversation pieces, or to enhance a room or someone's life. They're used sometimes as a gift to thank someone or to cheer someone or to bring someone comfort. They're used as bed quilts, I think, which give great comfort to someone. They're endless. I think quilts are used--in the past they were used, you know, for the Underground Railroad quilts, they were used to, for the slaves, to warn people. I think the possibility is endless how they are used. If someone wants to make one, they're going to find a reason for why they want to use it. [laughter.] And I think everybody has their own special reason for making quilts, you know, whether it's for someone they love, or for their own personal use, or people make them to have them judged to learn.

ss: How do you think the art of quilting can be preserved for the future?

SS: I would hope that by doing what we're doing now, just by doing this, and by the museums that they have all over the country, I think that's very important, to maintain these quilts, to document the quilts. When I learned how to quilt, it wasn't emphasized to document your quilt, so I think we need to preserve the quilts, and I think that's happening over time. I think the quilters are becoming more conscious of that. They're taking more care to document them, to preserve them. The museums or even when they pass them on to someone, they tell them how to care for them. I think it's very important that we continue and improve on maintaining the quality of our quilts and our histories.

ss: What do you think can be done to bring new quilters and young quilters into the fold, as it were? Or do you think that just sort of comes?

SS: Well, I think it comes, but I think it's also good to encourage them. I think sometimes someone will see you working on a quilt, and they'll say, 'Oh my, that's interesting,' or whatever. If you take the time to explain to them or to ask them to come a meeting or if they don't live in the same area you do, to tell them to go to a local guild meeting, but I think it's important to take the time with other quilters. Whether they are a non-quilter or a present quilter, I think that's important. It doesn't take much time to do it, and that's the way to keep it going.

ss: What's happened to the quilts that you've made for friends or family or yourself? Do you know?

SS: Well, some of them I know. Some of them you keep in contact, and sometimes you make quilts whether it's a baby gift or a graduation gift, and you hope that they're preserving those quilts. But on the whole, I know where they are and that they're being taken care of.

ss: When you give a quilt, do you tell them a little bit about how to take care for it?

SS: I do. I tell them how to wash it if it's a bed quilt or whatever, and I do tell them that, and I always tell them to use it. I think that's important. If it's a quilt to be used, whether it's for a bed or a sofa or whatever, I always say, please use it.

ss: Have you found it difficult? Do people sometimes think it's so special that they don't want to use it?

SS: They do! I made a baby quilt once. I took extra care. It was for my stepson's new little daughter, so it was a granddaughter, and the mom said, 'Oh my god, I'm going to hang this on the wall.' And I said, 'No, no, no. It's made for the baby to use.' And they do.

ss: Does she let the baby use it?

SS: Yes, reluctantly, but they do, sometimes they feel that it isn't something to use. And I think that if you take the time to make it, you like to see them used.

ss: I do, too. I think part of the pleasure of a quilt is being able to wrap yourself up in it.

SS: Yes. To know that person is sitting on a sofa and is wrapped in your quilt that you made for them, I think that's important, so I do hope they use them.

ss: Sharon, we're pretty much coming to the end of our questions here. Is there anything you'd like to add, anything we didn't discuss that you'd like to include, or anything you'd like to go back to?

SS: No. I just, I enjoy quilting. I'm glad I learned how to quilt. That was very special. I'm glad I was able to teach quilting at some point. That was a learning experience because you have to be up on your skills, and you learn new techniques that way. I will continue to take classes. I think you learn from classes. I go on retreat once a year with a group of ladies. I belong to a quilting bee, with Suzanne and some other ladies. And it's great. I hope women and men continue to learn to quilt and to continue passing their stories and their skills on to others. I think that's important.

ss: Thank you, Sharon, for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Q.S.O.S. project. Our interview concluded at 12:10, July 10, 2003.


“Sharon Smaldone,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,