Caitilin Embree




Caitilin Embree




Caitilin Embree


Kathryn Koos-Lee

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The National Quilting Association


Kailua, Hawaii


Kathryn Koos-Lee


Kathryn Koos-Lee (KKL): My name is Kathryn Koos-Lee and today's date is November 7, 2008, and the time is 10:00 o'clock. I am conducting an interview with Caitilin Embree in Kailua, Hawaii for the Quilters' S.O.S - Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American History [Heritage.] committee of the Hawaii State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Caitilin Embree is a quilter and is a member of the Aloha Chapter. [pause for 5 seconds.] So, we will now start with the questions. Tell me about the quilt that you brought in today.

Caitilin Embree (CE): Well. We had a friend who was a priest who came a couple of years ago and as we were sitting around the living room one evening, she said, 'Do you mind if I work on my quilt?' And she brought out these small squares. And I said, 'What are you doing?' And she showed me, and I said, 'That sounds interesting.' So, when she got back home to Michigan, she sent me the cathedral pattern instructions. And since it was something that you start out with a seven-inch square, and you stitch it around and then you put two of those squares together and by the time you get four squares you have an eight-inch square and as you can see put there're colors in the center when you put them together. It was a project I could do on the road, while sitting in the back room of the DAR house at Chapter meetings [laughs.] and keep busy while I was still being productive.

KKL: So, it is the cathedral pattern?

CE: It is a cathedral pattern, it's not an original. It is just what the colors are in it are original and there're all things left over from clothes that my daughter wore as a child and things my granddaughter is wearing, and this sort of deal. And I made it for our granddaughter who is now eight years old. It had has taken me almost two years to make it.

KKL: So, it certainly does have special meaning?

CE: Yes, yes [nods]. You can look at this and say oh, I remember that skirt, oh, I remember those curtains hanging in so and so's house. Yes.

KKL: And why did you choose this particular quilt to show me today?

CE: It is about the only thing I have around right now to show. [laughs.]

KKL: [laughs.] Okay. What do you think someone viewing this quilt would conclude about you?

CE: Well, I know that some people looked at it and said, 'My God! How long did it take?' It is all hand stitching, there is no machine stitching at all in it which is an advantage if you go to a meeting. I could put it together in strips and then pin the colors on and then sew them as I went. So, when my mother had to go have a doctor's appointment, I would take a roll a strip and sit there while she was having a test done and this and that. And people would come and stop and say, 'What are you doing? I would like to know how to do it.' So, I have shared the pattern with a couple of the nurses at the different medical facilities that I have been at the last couple of years. [laughs.]

KKL: And so you said your plan is to give it to your granddaughter?

CE: It goes to my granddaughter, Wren, yeah.

KKL: Her name was Wren?

CE: Her name is Wren - W, r, e, n. and her middle name is Josephine, and she is the seventh generation of Josephines on the female side.

KKL: So, let's talk about your interest in quilt making. So, tell me a little bit about that.

CE: Well, my first exposure to quilt making was back around 1945 and 46. I would go with my father, who was the Territorial Psychologist to Waimano Home. I don't know if you know what the Waimano Home is, but it is a home for the retarded and handicapped people. And one of the things that they did there was the girls or young women would do the Hawaiian quilting on a quilt that are already been appliquéd down. And if you don't know what a Hawaiian quilt is, it is not just an appliquéd quilt, they then do fine little stitches in line with whatever the pattern is, and the women would sit with the huge quilt sawhorses that took up I don't know as a child [pause.] Well, it was tremendous in my mind. And I being a person that was supposedly responsible, my job was to take the women out and get them get them across the street. And as a five- and six-year-old to me that was rather a big responsibility. I was never allowed to quilt because of course I couldn't make little, tiny stitches like they did. And that is when I first got to know it. And then my mother took a course from somebody at the Bishop Museum. She started a quilt which she's never finished. She did do the Hawaiian quilt patterns in pillows, and she must have made a good 25 or 30 of those. And we figured out over the years if she put them all together, she would have had a very big quilt. [laughs.] But it is easier to work on a small quilt pattern for a pillow than it for a quilt that goes on a bed.

KKL: So, who did you learn to quilt from?

CE: I just sort of followed what other people were doing and in the case of this one, this is just stitching and needle and thread. There is no machine involvement at all.

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

CE: I did it in spurts so I really couldn't give you a set time. One of the advantages of doing this traveling is that I could take it on an airplane and make the small squares. Unfortunately, when they told us we couldn't take scissors on board, I had to get one of those round discs that cut thread. They allowed me to take a needle but wouldn't allow [scissors.], so I could take a thimble and a needle and a bunch of material that was already cut, and then just sew the squares together.

KKL: And what is your first quilt memory?

CE: Other than Waimano Home, you mean my quilt memory? It's seeing them or? I don't know I guess it was in 1949 or 50 when my mother started cutting out Hawaiian quilts. You know they take up the whole floor and you have to keep the cats off the material as you pin it all down.

KKL: You mentioned your mother, are there other quiltmakers in your family or friends that quilt?

CE: Our daughter is a commercial artist, and she has decided that quilt making is more of she wants to do is than graphic arts, so she has been making quilts now for about 10 or 12 years. She has won a couple of awards at the Pina County Fair in Tucson. [Arizona.]

KKL: Okay. How would you say quilt making impacted your family?

CE: Well, it has always given me something to do when my husband is watching a football game. [laughs.]

KKL: [laughs.] Okay. [laughs.] 7Have you ever used quilts to get you through a difficult time?

CE: Yeah, getting through a football game. [both laugh.] No, it is a relaxation and feeling like you're doing something, you have something, you finished a product, and it is done. And it is useful.

KKL: You also mentioned that it helped you wait for medical appointments?

CE: Yes, yeah.

KKL: Do you have an amusing experience that occurred while quilt making?

CE: No, not really, other than people just asking me what it is and trying to explain it to people who have no idea what you're talking about.

KKL: And what do you find pleasing about quilt making?

CE: That you have done something that you have left something behind. The other thing I do is cross stitch. And again, it is something that is there, it's for the next generation.

KKL: Are there aspects of quilt making that do you not enjoy?

CE: Working under quilts in the summertime in Hawaii. It is very hot and sweaty.

KKL: What advances in technology influenced your work?

CE: I don't do much in machine work so I really couldn't answer that question. I know J.R. has a great advantage when she does her quilts because of all the fancy things machines do now. They do all that stitching, and she does a lot of appliquéing.

KKL: And you call your daughter, J.R.?

CE: Yes, she's Josephine Ruth. [laughs.]

KKL: Okay. [CE laughs] So describe some of your favorite techniques and your favorite materials?

CE: I work mostly with cotton and the Hawaiian quilts have always been an appliquéd down on another cotton, the batting is rather thin. And then this one was all done is muslin. Unfortunately, they recommend that you buy all the muslin at the same time. But since I didn't know quite know how motivated I was going to be, I bought it in stages, so it is not always exactly the same muslin in different parts of the quilt. But that's, you're talking about 12, 15 yards of material in storage for a while.

KKL: And so, you primarily make this here at home, but take parts of it with you to do different places?

CE: Yes, since you start out with a small seven inch square, you can make the small squares together, then I would do it in a long strip that would be 12 - 14 squares long and then roll that up and then, if you notice where the center of this color of the circle, it folds over in four spaces, so you have to sew around each one of those squares and I would do those bit by bit.

KKL: How do you do your design? Do you use a design wall or some special technique to decide what goes where?

CE: Not with this. This one, this pattern you can sort of put anything you want. I did do two types of material. I have one as a color and one in a block, it's the same pattern and it runs in a strip all the way down through the quilt. That's the only thing I did in it.

KKL: So, we'll talk about some things about quilt making in general, so what do you think makes a great quilt?

CE: One that tells a story about either the person or the area.

KKL: What you think makes it artistically powerful?

CE: Again, that the story it tells, and certain people are very, very creative in how they put their blocks together and make their points match. This one doesn't have all those fancy points and lines and whatever, so. I don't know, you look at the designing and how someone can get something so precise.

KKL: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

CE: Age, quality, technique, how well it was a designed, how well it stood up over time. Some of them I know are over two hundred years old. Now the tradition on the Hawaiian quilt is that one never sits on a quilt. I know that's not quite true with a New England quilt so people will sit on a bed when a quilt is on it. But if you see a Hawaiian quilt on a bed, you never put anything on the quilt, you never sit on the quilt which I think has made some of them last longer.

KKL: What makes a great quiltmaker?

CE: That's hard to say, it would just be somebody who wants something to stand up to the test of time, I guess.

KKL: Are there any certain works or quilts are you drawn to and why?

CE: No.

KKL: Any certain artists have influenced you?

CE: Nope.

KKL: And you have already discussed how you feel about hand quilting. Have you ever done any machine quilting? Do you plan to stick with your hand quilting?

CE: I have done only machine quilting in the sense that there in pillows not in huge quilts. I am just not that good on matching everything together that way. [laughs.]

KKL: What about long-arm quilting? Have you ever attempted that?

CE: I don't know what that is. Do you know what that is?

KKL: No, I don't know either.

CE: I was going to look that up on the internet when I saw that. [laughs.]

KKL: Let's talk a little bit about quilt making in American life. Why do you think quilt making is important to your life?

CE: Well, it is something to hand down to my granddaughter and it is something that shows bits and pieces of our life.

KKL: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community or region?

CE: I don't think this quilt reflects my region because Hawaii is more known for the Hawaiian quilt, but this reflects our life because it has aspects of our life in it.

KKL: I think you must also be drawn to the cathedral design.

CE: It was interesting when I saw the photograph of it even though it was in black and white and the idea that it could be done in pieces. And it didn't have to be all one big thing and have it on a sawhorse that took up half of your living room [pause.] which my mother's did. [laughs.]

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

CE: I think some of the quilts tell stories and I've seen some about what they've told. There were quilts that told stories about how slaves got out of the South, what were safe routes to take. It's just if you really know how to read a quilt, some of them have really interesting stories to tell you.

KKL: So, you definitely think quilts have special meaning for women's history?

CE: I think so. I think that was a way for women could tell their story. Since most, a lot of women were not literate in the sense that they could write well or were allowed to write, this was a way that they could record their family history.

KKL: How do you think quilts can be used?

CE: They can be used for a lot of ways. They can be used for partitions between rooms, for keeping drafts out. Of course, they can be on a bed to keep you warm in the wintertime. We used some of the smaller quilts that we used that J.R. makes. She makes baby quilts and it's what we throw on the floor when a child comes to visit. An infant, they have an area they can be on that is safe and you know is clean. And that's typical for Hawaii because you don't want to put a child on a bed in case they can roll off. You just put them on the floor on a quilt.

KKL: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

CE: Well, since some of them have stayed around for two hundred years, something must have been done. I really don't know how, what the quality of some of the newer materials are that people are using, whether that will affect how long they can be preserved. [pause.] [unidentified tapping sound.] And I know stitches do wear out in some of the quilts, so some people patch them, so some people leave them the way they are.

KKL: What has happened to some of the quilts you have made or that your friends and family have made?

CE: Most of them have been given way to other people. Right now, I have three in, well two more plus this one, in the chest in the bedroom.

KKL: Are those ones you made or ones that? [both talk at the same time.]

CE: No, those were both made by our daughter, J.R.

KKL: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

CE: Finding a generation who has the time and the interest to want to do this. I see a lot of the younger kids or younger women; I don't know many men that are interested into it. I know men that have done needle work, but not quilt making, but there are some. I don't they have that; they just don't have the interest or desire to do it. And since you can buy a machine made one, off the wall, that comes from wherever, I won't mention the store, made overseas, that solves what they're problem is. [pause.] Or they're need for getting a quilt.

KKL: Is there anything that you would like to add to the interview today or anything we haven't covered?

CE: No. I just know the ladies that are doing the recording of the Hawaiian quilts, question they asked me did I know anything about The Alliance for American Quilts, and I said, 'Well, that is part of what this project is all about. ' They were surprised to know DAR was working with their organization so [unidentified tapping sound.] maybe through all of us we will get something recorded for posterity.

KKL: I'd certainly like to thank you, Caitilin, for allowing me to interview you today as part of the project, the project of Save Our Stories [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.]. Our interview concluded at 10:22 on the 8th of November, 7th of November.

CE: 7th, 7th of November, please don't rush anymore. [laughs.]

[tape ends.]


“Caitilin Embree,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,