Dorothy Palmer




Dorothy Palmer




Dorothy Palmer


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Grinnell, Iowa


Lori Miller


Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. It is 7:54 p.m., November 5, 2002. I am conducting an interview with Dorothy Palmer for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, in Grinnell, Iowa. Thank you, Dorothy, for meeting me today. Why don't we start off by you telling me about the quilt you've brought if it has a name? When you made it? What it's made of? Just generally describe it for me.

Dorothy Palmer (DP): The quilt is my most recently finished quilt. It is the first quilt that I made with my own pattern, designing the quilt as I went along. It rather had a life of its own. It started with a collection of fabrics, of course, the way every quilt does. As I started putting it together, it started to become more distinctive, and I discarded a great deal and chose a great deal. My original intent became something quite different. It went its own way, and it was the first time I'd had this experience with a quilt. I've named the quilt "Turning Point" because I consider it rather a turning point in my quilting experience. It's all batiks. I chose the colors with something that I already had in mind that I enjoyed and liked. It was kind of a color adventure for me too. I found out what I really like in color.

AH: And what is that?

DP: I think they're all complimentary colors, and they're mid-range jewel tones. The copper fabric changes the other fabrics. It takes very distinctively different fabrics and blends them together. It was a lot of fun doing.

AH: How does this quilt have special meaning for you?

DP: I think that after I did this quilt, I found that I attempted to make a couple other quilts and nothing I made, made me happy. I was very dissatisfied with a baby quilt I made this summer. Saturday was kind of the breaking point. I joined in a guild class, primarily to do it with my daughter, who is a quiltmaker. It was a very elementary design that we were doing, and I decided that I would use some hand dyes from a friend in this quilt. I put it together and I did not like it at all. I did not like the experience of doing it. I began to realize that the pattern was too simplistic, and it wasn't my own. I would much prefer to once again do something that came more from my own imagination or my own desire to make a quilt. I think that perhaps I'm moving to a stage where using someone else's pattern to make a quilt doesn't satisfy me in the same way.

AH: What is it about making your own pattern that is so fulfilling?

DP: I think it taps a creativity that's there, but that I've been very reluctant to pay attention to because I've been very uncertain about what I've been doing. Most of the quilts that I've made, all of the quilts that I've made, have just been designs that I found interesting or the desire to work with a color and then look for a design that would work well with that color. They're always somebody else's creations, but they're mine because of what I choose to make them out of. This one had more going than that. What I intended to do is not what I ended up doing, because the quilt told me that it had to be something else, or the elements of the quilt told me it had to be something else.

AH: And you're happy with the final product?

DP: Yes, I'm very happy with it.

AH: Tell me about the quilting.

DP: The quilting is machine quilting, and it was done by Jean Nolte, who is still a member of the Jewel Box Guild, although she has moved from Grinnell and is now living about three hours away in Storm Lake [Iowa.]. Jean began quilting through Judy Martin's encouragement I think more than anything and bought her first quilting machine. She [Jean Nolte.] really is an exceptional machine quilting artist. She has done all the machine quilting that I've had done by other people. Generally, I will hand quilt something of mine if it's a very special kind of a treasure or certainly if it's small. But for something as large as this, there's no way I could do this on my own sewing machine or attempt to hand quilt a batik quilt. The quilting is actually traditional feather design, but it's adapted to the design of this quilt, the squares, and then in the border. There is also a great deal of outlining just to give the quilt texture.

AH: Why did you decide to bring this quilt tonight?

DP: I think because at this point in time, it's the quilt I'm most happy with. It does tell me that I need to move on and do some things that I've been imagining, but I haven't known how to do. And I just need to do them.

AH: How do you use this quilt?

DP: It has been on our bed, in the master bedroom, for one week now. I intend that it last a long time if I can keep my cats away from it.

AH: Feel good to sleep under it?

DP: I'm still very reluctant to sleep under it. It gets folded up when we go to bed because I don't want anything to happen to this quilt. Generally, my husband gets up very early in the morning and leaves for work at 6:15 and that's when he wakes me, and I usually fall back to sleep. But he'll pull the quilt up over me just to keep me a little bit warmer. It has a very special significance already.

AH: That's great. Tell me about your interest in quilting.

DP: I've been sewing since I was a small child. I started by running a treadle sewing machine and punching paper around designs. If you've ever run a treadle sewing machine, that's not very easy to do unless the designs are very straight lines. I remember doing that as a child just for fun. I actually started sewing because I wanted doll clothes. I wanted my mother to make me doll clothes and she never had time; she was a very hard-working woman. So, I decided that I would make my own doll clothes. Soon I was making my own clothes. By the time I was about 14 I was making a great deal of my own wardrobe. Then I got into knitting and needlework of various kinds. I continued to make garments for my children, for myself. Working with fabric and sewing has always been a very fulfilling outlet for my creative urge. I did a great deal of drawing as a child, before I sewed, and once I started sewing, I did a great deal more sewing. I made my first quilt in 1980 and it was merely to create something that was appropriate for a period. We built a cottage and furnished it with antiques, and I decided that I wanted to have a quilt for my bed at the cottage. There were a lot of quilt makers in this part of northeast Iowa. I was totally unfamiliar with quilting. There were no quilters my family. My mother was an immigrant and there was no time, nor was there a history of quilting. I was just curious about what it would be like to make a quilt and I turned to the local women in the community to ask them how to do various stages of this. But every time I would ask them how to do something they would say, 'Well, how do you want to do it?' and send me off to do it on my own. It was a process of exploration, choosing the pattern, something that was doable and yet interesting and then choosing the fabric and putting it together, in the days when we did templates, cutting all those little templates with cardboard. Then, after putting it together, I decided of course I would quilt it. I left the quilt frame at the cottage, and every time we would go, I would spend some time quilting. It took me almost a full year to quilt the quilt. I loved the process. Then I had no more time for quilting, for many years, when I was busily involved working at the college. I traveled a great deal in my work, so I generally took with me things like knitting that were satisfying but portable. I never thought of quilting as being something that I would pursue. Gradually, I think I started reading about quilt history and Iowa's a wonderful place to feel the influence of quilts. After the mid-70's, and the bicentennial when quilting became more popular, there was much more exposure to quilting, and it fascinated me. I did a few small projects in those years after 1980, pillows and wall hangings and hand quilting. But when I quit my work at the college in 1994, someone asked me, 'What are you going to do?' and I said, 'I'm going to make quilts.' It was just like I had been waiting to do this. I had a quilt top finished at that time; it took me about a year to put it together. It was a Triple Irish Chain, the pattern that I shared with you many years ago. I wanted it to be hand quilted. There was a group of women in Grinnell, who met at one of the churches, a group of about six elderly women. I asked if they would quilt my quilt. They said yes, I could be on their list. And I said, 'But I would like to quilt with you.' They rather looked at me skeptically but agreed. I really enjoyed the companionship of working with those women, as peculiarly as I did my quilting, which all had to be in straight lines, right to left, because I didn't know how to go up and down or on any angle. What I loved was the conversation around the quilt frame. They were Iowa women, for the most part. They had different politics. They had a different concept of almost everything, from me. But I learned so much from them. I think that I became kind of hooked on the comradery of quilting. When I quit my work at the college, in 1994, I was leaving an intensely people-oriented job. I was constantly in touch with people, interviewing people, meeting with people, traveling to see people, new students coming in every year, the current students, the parents. I loved that, and I thrived on that. I was terrible concerned about what I was going to do when I was no longer with people. Because of my love of quilting and getting involved with classes and traveling and meeting other quilters, that transition was, in fact, quite comfortable. And quite exciting because I had the opportunity to spend time with other women in a way that I had not since my days in the dormitory at Grinnell College. It fulfilled a really important need that I had. Since 1994, I've been pretty involved.

AH: Did you ever start a quilting bee of your own, after working with the ladies at the church?

DP: I think one of the things I'm most pleased about, sitting here this evening and hearing you talk about the Jewel Box Guild and the show and all of that, is the fact that when I started quilting after I left the college, I did that entirely on my own. I'd hear about another class, in another town, and I would go, or a retreat someplace else and I would go. I went to a class, and I saw 13 people from Grinnell, and I thought, 'Couldn't we start a guild?' So, four of us got together and talked about it. We had an organizational meeting and 50 people showed up. That was six years ago. And there we were, on road with the guild. Within a year, we had our first quilt show. We've had two more since then. To think about talking about an entity called the Jewel Box Quilt Guild and to think about all the personalities involved in that. It's really exciting because it didn't exist in 1994. Now we have beginner's classes and new people coming into the guild and people like Lisa, who took a beginner's class and now she's president of guild and she's turning out quilts all the time. It's very exciting. Is that what your question was?

AH: That certainly is part of your experience. I was wondering if you have a bee with whom you quilt because you enjoyed sitting around the frame with the women at the church.

DP: I'm involved in a club in Grinnell. There are lots of women's clubs in Grinnell. One year, after I came back into the club after I quit my job, of course immediately, because it's a small club, you're asked to take an office as soon as you come back in. Within two years I was vice president and program chair. We made the theme of that year quilts. I decided that we would make a friendship quilt. These were non-sewers. I chose a pattern, a simple Courthouse Steps. I got the material. I cut all the pieces. I put them in little packets. I wrote directions and I gave one to everybody. Of course, some women said, 'Well I don't sew, I can't possibly do this.' And I said, 'This is a friendship quilt. If you don't sew, what you're to do is call up a friend who sews and bring some sweet rolls and sit and have coffee, let her sit and have coffee with you, or you sit with her, and enjoy that experience while she sews your block. Then you've reached across to one another and made the block together.' It was amazing because the quilt did get made and everybody signed their blocks. Then I put it together, and I never said what we would do with it after it was put together. They, on their own came up with the idea, 'Well now it needs to be quilted.' They decided they wanted to do it. We set up the quilt frame in my family room, and they came for quilting sessions. At that quilt frame, with people sitting around who had never quilted before, I heard the same kind of recognition that I remember having sat in my first quilting bee. 'Isn't this interesting? We never really sit and talk about these things any other time.' And it's so satisfying to be with women. It was like when you love something you want to give it away. A few of those women, who had that experience, ended up feeling the same way about it and some of them continue to make quilts. That was my only attempt at a bee.

AH: That's a great story. How many hours a week do you quilt?

DP: Well, we built a house two years ago and I did all of the painting and staining. That was my quilt for the last two years. Probably, on average when I'm really quilting, about 20 hours per week. Unless I'm really into something and I go whole hog and I do it around the clock.

[tape turned off for a quick break.]

AH: We stopped the tape so Dorothy could take a momentary break and we're back. What is your first quilt memory?

DP: I don't think I have a first quilt memory. I did inherit two comforters from my grandmother. One was made of wool pieces, and one was of something fancy. I remember one of them being on a bed at one point in time. I don't have anything that I would recognize as a first quilt memory.

AH: Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time in your life?

DP: I think my transition from a very busy life and involvement with the college is probably the best example of getting through a difficult transition. When you work for Grinnell College, doing the kind of work I did, you have to love what you're doing, and losing that is very difficult. I would say that was a difficult transition. It wasn't like an illness, or a death in the family, but it certainly was an important transition.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

DP: Color. And I've always loved fabrics. I can go in a men's store, with all of those bland looking suits, suit jackets and pants on the rack, and I find myself just touching and touching. I've always loved the feel of fabrics, and cotton, even though it isn't like a worsted or a silk or a satin, has a wonderful feel to it. It's the only thing I've made quilts out of up to this point, although I can imagine that I would like to put other things in my quilts, other than cotton.

AH: What is your least favorite aspect of quilting?

DP: Cutting. I hate cutting. Rotary cutting speeds the process and that's the best part of it, you don't have to endure it very long.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

DP: That's a really interesting question. I think that's really personal. For me, it often has something to do with a color effect, and how that combination of colors speaks to me. But I think everybody has a different concept of that, I don't think there is a great quilt that appeals to everybody. Sometimes at our guild, someone will show something that they've done that just absolutely wows me. It may not mean anything to the person sitting next to me. A great quilt also, with people you know, is something that has pushed them farther than they have done before. It's great for that individual and you recognize that and so it's a great quilt for me too.

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

DP: I think it has to speak to a lot of people. It has to have an impact, probably emotional impact, if it's contemporary. If it's antique, it can be the designer or just the craftsmanship of the maker.

AH: What makes a great quilter?

DP: I think someone who's willing to keep growing and who takes risks to do things their own way. The people who I've heard talk about their quilting who are well known quilters often end up doing something spectacular because they don't know any other way to do it. They find their own way to do something. People like Karen Stone, who does fantastic things with paper foundation, can admit that she did that because she didn't know how to do it any other way and have it come out right. When you start hearing their stories, you find out these things.

AH: Why is this originality, or doing something your own way, so important?

DP: I think it's a matter of fulfillment. Probably that I'm often handicapped by thinking about what other people will think of something I do. It's the same little spark that was in me when I was ten years old and would spend hours and hours drawing dancing ballerinas on yards and yards of butcher paper. It's there and it has to find a way out.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

DP: I don't know, it's just terribly satisfying. It's more satisfying than anything I've done, and it does fulfill that creative urge. I can look at anything and see a quilt in it, I'm finding that happening and I think other quilters do that too. You look at a tile floor and you think, 'Oh, I can see a pattern in this.' It's just a way of looking at the world. I think quilting is so interesting and women are so interesting. Because it's a women's art, I think I'm especially interested in it.

AH: In what ways to do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

DP: I think at the present time, we are able to create quilts quickly. We could do a quilt a month if we wanted to. Even a working woman can whip out a quilt and bring comfort to someone in the family and do something that's satisfying for themselves personally. We have all the tools and the resources to be able to make quilts. I look back at our grandmothers, who had scrap bags and limited resources, and they could only do what was available to them at that time. Quilts were utilitarian. They tell stories about women's roles through history. The more I read about the history of quilting, the more that that is intriguing. I think women have always expressed themselves through their quilt making. Even the most utilitarian of quilts have been beautiful quilts.

AH: What do you think this quilt says about you, or your process?

DP: I really don't know. I think somebody else would have to figure that out.

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

DP: I do think all quilts should be documented. I think it's important that they be labeled. Are you talking about quilts or quilting?

AH: Quilts. No, let's say both.

DP: Quilting, by giving away your love of quilting to children, particularly, I think you have the opportunity to encourage them and help them appreciate quilts and perhaps make quilts. One of my favorite things to do is to work with my grandchildren, to make quilts and let them know that they can do it. They're so uninhibited and they love to create something that's tangible. Seeing young people involved in quilting I think is really exciting. People with families who have very busy lives but still have time to make quilts I think that's really exciting.

AH: What has happened to the quilts that you have made and given to friends and family?

DP: I haven't made too many that I've given to friends. I've found that a couple attempts to give away baby quilts resulted in very little appreciation of the quilt, sometimes not even a thank you. You put so much effort into a quilt that they should only be given to people who appreciate them. The quilts that have gone to grandchildren have been very much appreciated and used. When I see a quilt that's not used, then I suspect that maybe it isn't appreciate. If you really love a quilt, you're going to wrap up in it.

AH: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think I should have?

DP: I think I've talked long enough.

AH: Do you have any advice to future quilters that are going to read this interview?

DP: Just do your own thing, anything goes. I think back at those ladies who I would approach and ask the question, 'How do I do this?' and they'd say, 'How do you think you would do it?' And I didn't know whether they didn't like me, they didn't trust me because I wasn't part of their circle, or why they didn't answer the question. I think back on that, and I think that basically what they were telling me is that there is no one way. I constantly feel that is the case. There is no one way to do anything. It's very difficult to teach a quilting class, you can only put it in perspective of, 'This is the way I do it.' I would think that the more people do their own thing their own way, the more wonderful quilts we'll have.

AH: I'd like to thank Dorothy Palmer for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, in Grinnell, Iowa. Our interview concluded at 8:28 pm, November 5, 2002. And this has been a demonstration interview in front of the Jewel Box Quilt Guild. Thank you, Dorothy.

DP: You're welcome. Thank you.



“Dorothy Palmer,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024,