Catherine Litwinow




Catherine Litwinow




Catherine Noll Litwinow


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

National Quilting Association


Bettendorf, Iowa


Lori Miller


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. It is 4:25 p.m. Today's date is November 7, 2002. I am conducting an interview with Catherine Noll Litwinow for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, in her home in Bettendorf, Iowa. Thank you, Catherine, for meeting me today.

Catherine Litwinow (CL): You're welcome.

AH: Let's start off by you telling me about this quilt, when you made it, the fabric, describe it for me.

CL: The name of the quilt is called "Stars and Wishes." I was in between positions, and really didn't have a job. I was a family and consumer science--back then was a home economics teacher, and had just quit a job where I'd been for 12 years. I had an opportunity to attend a Judi Warren class, in Shell Lake, Wisconsin, and did a wonderful class where I designed a block in black and white and then did it in color. I enjoyed her technique, and I came home and made this quilt. There are some pieces of Jinny Beyer fabrics and then it was Gutcheon Museum VIP. You definitely see that in both the burgundies and the greens. At that time, Gutcheon was doing a wonderful Classic. I started out with the beautiful tulip, fabric, adding the greens and the pink. I make lots of green and pink quilts and that was just another way to use the pinks and greens. The star shapes, are how Judi would have cut the block into different shapes. I was supposed to add seven pieces in our block, and I really never stopped to count to see if I had the seven or not. I do a lot of hand work, and precision is one of those skills that I really don't care that much about. And one of the joys of Judi's method is that none of the points have to match. They do happen to meet, though, in the dark burgundy colors and in the green colors, and when making stars. So you see burgundy stars and green stars. All hand quilted, and as I said, hand pieced. I use the masking tape, with the quarter inch in some areas, and half inch in some of the other areas. I quilted predominantly in the colors that were in the block. My quilting stitches are okay, they will never be museum quality, but that's not my goal. My goal is to make a quilt. Quilting has kind of helped me get over the little rough spot there, and the stars are the stars in the quilts and the wishes that's I'll find a job that I enjoy doing which, of course, I finally have done. Which is good.

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

CL: Well, other than it was working through job hunting, the Quad City suffered great losses when the Caterpillar plant closed down, the Case plant closed down, the Farmall plant closed down, and schools were cutting back on the number of teachers so working through that grief, losing a job and finding another one that I wanted. It was a challenge, but working with beautiful reds and greens makes a difference.

AH: How do you use this quilt?

CL: It's definitely a Christmas quilt. It's on my banister or on a bed during the holiday season. And because pink and green quilts, you can put up the red and green from Christmas all the way to Valentines Day and often times as far as St. Patrick's Day, with the green. So it is used, it's washed, it's on the bed, it's on the banister. A little side bar, as big as it is, because that's as big as my quilting frames, and I had one extra row, so I cut it off as a small wall hanging that I take to school and show it to the students I work with.

AH: Do you have any future plans with it, other than to keep using it as you have been?

CL: I have lots and lots of quilts. One of the hardest things to do, I had a period in my life when I was really quite ill and I felt the need to write out a codicil for my will. I only have the one son, and as it stands right now, I'm hoping the quilts that I have made will stay with him and my family. I have been asked several times by Robert James if I would consider giving my collection to the International Quilt Study Group. It's a maybe. As I said, the ones that I have made particularly, I do want to save in family.

AH: So you're talking about quilts you've collected over the years as well as the ones you've made?

CL: Correct. At least the ones I've made. Later, I'm going to give you a tour, Amy, and you'll see that I could give some away. [laughs.]

AH: How many quilts do you think you've made?

CL: Approximately 50. That I don't think includes the wall hangings. To me, a quilt is one that goes on a bed, anywhere from a single to the queen size. In my case, getting them done is not important. But I do try to do at least two hand stitched, full sized quilts every year.

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

CL: As I tell my students, I'm hyperactive, attention deficit, with a learning disability, auditory learner with a hearing problem, and so I try to sit for 45 minutes a day. It's my time to meditate, and try to be still. But it's so hard.

AH: Are you still quilting?

CL: Yes, I'm still quilting. At school I have a chair that has rollers and rocks. It helps for me to sit in that chair. Also, my students want my chair some days so if my students need to wiggle, that's just fine.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quilting.

CL: As I said, home economics was my major, and in either 1979 or 80 another home economic teacher said, 'Hey, the bicentennial has just passed, we're teachers, and I don't know anything about quilts. So lets you and I go take a class together.' So the two of us went and took a class. I chose the simplest pattern in the Aunt Martha Pattern Folders, and that was Attic Windows, and she chose the same thing. So all we had was three pieces. For six weeks we sat there and stitched three pieces of Attic Windows. The seventh week was the last week, and I brought my top, because I did do some machine work. And she goes, 'Oh, no other students have gotten that far.' And, 'What?' She says, 'Well no one has ever gotten that far. And I don't know what you're supposed to do next.' Self taught, and then I finally discovered there was a master quilter here in the Quad Cities, and took a class from here. I can still remember her saying, 'You measure the bed first.' And I'd been doing this for about four years, and that thought had never dawned on me. I had made this many blocks, and that's how many I use.

AH: You were a student at that point, when you did this first quilt? Or were you already a teacher.

CL: Already teaching. My son was born in 76 so, as I said, I started quilting then in 79 or 80. He was four years old, and I was busy making my Attic Window. I did a Marty Michelle Log Cabin kit quilt that came out of Women's Day magazine, and he was saying, 'Well, where's my quilt, Mom?' So I hand pieced him a Rail Fence. We went to Northwest Fabric and he picked out bird fabrics because he was very interested in birds. It also gave me a chance to do some color studies. Each individual rail of blocks stood by itself. He does have that with him now. It's his wedding quilt. I quilted birds all over the quilt and at the top they're fighting, and at the bottom of the quilt it shows the birds back together. He's unmarried, not dating, and one of these days he'll use it as a real wedding quilt. [laughs.]

AH: Did you hope to introduce your quilting to the students that you were teaching?

CL: Unfortunately I haven't had a lot of chance. The last couple years that I taught in a high school for 12 years, they have a big annual fund raiser, and the students would make a block and we'd put it together and tie it. I definitely did do embroidery with them that was the project we did versus clothing, or in addition to clothing. I taught quilting at the Community College until crafts were eliminated.

AH: Where there any quilters in your family?

CL: I come from many, many generations of quilters. Very specifically, I hope we will have a chance to go back and see the quilt my great-grandmother made, pre 1900, which was then made into a quilt by my grandmother. That's on my paternal side. On my maternal side, we're aware of at least five generations.

AH: And yet 1979 was the first time you made a quilt?

CL: Exactly, mother lived on a farm and we had tied comforts. I had the northwest bedroom and I can remember taking the ties out of this big wool, heavy quilt, so heavy I couldn't roll over. I was aware of the quilts. Mother would get her high school graduation quilt that was made by her grandmother out on special occasions, so there were quilts. And of course the very simple, sewn together, 30's and 40's and 50's that Mother had sewn together.

AH: Were those quilted or where those tied, all the ones that she made.

CL: Grandma's were mostly tied, and the same with my mother. She had her graduation quilt hand quilted. She had a bird quilt that was embroidered that she did when she was in high school. We sat on it and rubbed the embroidery off it. [laughs.] That one was hand quilted. She later took it all apart, redid the embroidery, and then gave it to my son as his college graduation gift. He thought for a while he was going to be an ornithologist. He's a chemical engineer, but that's okay.

AH: How does quilting impact your family?

CL: It overwhelms them. Supposedly the only room that doesn't have quilting stuff in it is the dining room. So if special guests show up, at least keep one room that has a place to sit. Looking around here, you'll notice in this great room, here's the quilt frame. There's the TV. It's just been such a part of my life and they've been very, very accepting. My bookshelf, I don't think that I've given my husband even a shelf. Most of these are quilt books. They've been very gracious. My son can't imagine not having a couple quilts on his bed. Of course, there are always quilts on my bed. They don't always fit, but there's a quilt on my bed.

AH: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

CL: The people. Quilters are so eclectic, each one of us is so very, very different. It's not like going to a family consumer science meeting who are all family consumer scientists. It's not quite the same as my church circle at church. We do have that connection. But with the quilters, we seem to be all different ages, and ideas, and interests, and colors, and what we do and how we do it. The people. For us meeting at AQSG [American Quilt Study Group.] I have gotten such wonderful friendships from that group. I have a small sit and sew group that are my sisters that I can call on. They're giving, they're caring. They're the most wonderful women in the world and a few men of course. [laughs.] And then of course the next is the fabric. I love to quote Nancy Kirk, who says 'If you're going to think about it, there's very little time in our life that we're not touching fabric. Even when we're in the shower we have a washcloth. And there's just something about you have to touch fabric.' And the fabric colors. I am definitely obsessive compulsive that it's really hard for me to stop making and buying. So people first, and then we'll worry about the quilts and the designs and colors. Today I had an opportunity to share with two of my classes, I teach in an alternative program, and we had an opportunity to request book sets and I requested that we get the book The Quiltmakers Gift. An English class and a History class sat in and I did a little presentation on quilts, and I had also entered a quilt in our local guild with the quiltmaker fabric. Quilting is a really good icebreaker. I had a chance, going to Williamsburg, I got stuck at O'Hare [airport in Chicago.] for seven hours. I always request to be given handicap room, and it was really quite friendly, sitting beside these others and 'Do you have pictures of your children?' and I said, 'Well I have pictures of my quilts.' And it was really quite amazing how quickly seven hours went by sharing.

AH: What aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

CL: Bindings. Making straight edges straight. I'm not going to embarrass another quilter who designs fabric out in California, but she came up to me at AQSG and said, 'How can you make such beautiful quilts with such terrible borders?' [laughs.] Having them lay straight doesn't bother me. When they're hung, they ripple and perfection is one of those rules that I wish we would just throw out the window. I don't really hate it. Quilting contests bother me somewhat because we're competing rather than loving. I've lost that race more than one time. To share the quilts. I love the studies where what you do is appreciate it, and one isn't better than the other.

AH: In 79, 80 when you made that first quilt, what was the quilting industry like?

CL: We were finally getting rid of our avocado green and our browns and our golds. My first quilt was a gold, it was what I could find. For my son, we made his about four years later, so that would have been about 84. We found lots and lots of 100% cottons. It was amazing how quickly after that 1977 that we finally got fabrics in the stores to buy. A mountain of fabrics. There were six bird fabrics at Northwestern that my son chose from. Definitely different from the three golds or four golds that I used in my first one.

AH: You continue to teach home economics.

CL: Family consumer science, yes.

AH: Family consumer science. But you are also a quilting teacher.

CL: I was a quilting teacher. When the master quilter retired from Scott Community College, she specifically asked that I be asked to teach her class, to follow in her footsteps. Then there was a change in philosophy saying that quilt making is not a vocational subject, and it was no longer offered. The community school, Davenport Community School, has a wonderful quilting program that's all machine. 'Let's see if we can get a top made a quickly as possible in three weeks' type of situation. And that's not my philosophy. I like the old fashioned, sit and hand sew. As far as teaching, I do give lectures to guilds. Most of my lectures are process quilts rather than product quilts. Not as much teaching as I would like to in the quilt industry.

AH: What do you think makes a great quilt?

CL: Any piece of fabric that somebody loves is a great quilt.

AH: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

CL: I love it when you can find more than one thing in a quilt. This quilt is one of my more boring quilts in that you see the block you see the block, because the fabrics are very controlled. It's always great fun to look at the fabric and wonder why that color went there, and how come her points don't match, or why did she make the quilt, particularly the old one. They're a wonderful tangible, representation that I was here, that goes back to little Aunt Jane, whatever her name is, 'Hey I was here and we do this with love.' I don't know if that answers the question, but it's an answer.

AH: You mentioned that you used this quilt to help you get through the transition in your career. Have you ever used quilts to get through other difficult times in your life?

CL: Yes. It's called my 'Cancer Quilt.' I am a colon cancer survivor, officially in remission come March.

AH: Congratulations.

CL: [inaudible.] --Giving that first presentation at clubs was kind of tough because I thought they were very gentile ladies, like my mother. And that quilt was very, very important. It was a strippy quilt. It has spool blocks on it which stood for the spools of chemotherapy, the yards and yards of chemotherapy tubing. It had four patches for the doctors and nurses that helped patch me back together. It had stars for my friends and prayers that were on that. And I'm missing a row right now, I can not think of it. Liberty Quilts had a fabric range of golds and reds and I used it, instead of 'Cancer Quilt' it was called 'Blood and Guts' and of course my mother thought that was just horrendous. And so I said, 'Alright, we're going to call it "Intestinal Fortitude"' I did lots of cables to represent intestines. It was set together with Gan "green". The cancer was the easy part. But the chemo and the radiation destroyed my immune system. My immune system is attacking my muscles. I never know if I'm going to be able to walk, or move my arms and legs in the morning. It was wonderful sitting down with my membership lists and saying, 'Hey, I need someone to come sit with me in case I would fall or I need help getting dressed.' Everyone I called, from the quilters to my church sisters to my retired teachers, said 'What time and how long?' That was a very tough time. I have given that quilt away to one of my dearest assistants, who was there. I wasn't going to do that but it did.

AH: That's wonderful. The quilt itself is filled with symbols. How did the quilting process, the sewing, help you?

CL: Part of the situation is that I had to get it done before I started my chemotherapy, because any additional quilting would inject foreign substances was there. The best part about quilting is the meditation you do. I don't have to worry about the stitches. It's just sitting and letting my mind, 'I can make this quilt. I'm going to beat this.' I'm too ornery.

AH: What makes a great quilter?

CL: Anyone who's willing to take a chance and sew two pieces of fabric together is a great quilter.

AH: How do great quilters learn the art of quilting? Especially how to design a pattern or choose fabrics and colors.

CL: Serendipity. You either do or you don't. And a lot of our great quilters are anonymous. They put this beautiful piece of fabric together and we don't know who she is. I have a piece of rags that my grandmother, who I never met, made of her Sunday dresses and Grandpa's chambray work shirts. It's not a great quilt, but it is a great quilt.

AH: How you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

CL: As long as it doesn't look like a mattress pad it's just fine. There are some quilts that don't warrant the time for hand quilting. There are some women that are so worried about getting a product done and so do machine quilt. Many of the last few quilts that my mother had made, she asked me to choose a machine quilter for her. It does require that special quilter rather than doing the long arm, follow the laser light. Heirloom type quilters. As of yet, I haven't put one under the needle yet. Well, that's a lie. My niece was getting married and my mother and I quickly sewed one up to get it finished in time and asked the quilter to put hearts all over it. If something would happen, it's not going to happen to that marriage, but if something would, it isn't the hours of love that is put into it.

AH: Is your mother still quilting?

CL: My mother is still quilting to this day. She is a glorious 84 year old queen mum. Last weekend, I got to spend all weekend with her, from Thursday until Sunday. Her stroke has bothered her a great deal. I told her that I'm hoping that her goal is to get at least one block machine stitched, that bothers her greatly, done a month. She's been really good about trying to get her block done. She's working on a beautiful blue and yellow star. No one's made to look too closely at the points, or how even the stitches are. It gives her meaning. She didn't start quilting until she retired.

AH: Tell me about the quilts you collect, when you began to collect.

CL: I live an hour and a half from Kalona, Iowa. Woodin Wheel Antiques Store. I think I've sent her children to college. The very first one I purchased was a Mennonite Amish quilt made by Gertrude Hoffstetler. It was an all white quilt, except for one side was burgundy and the other side was pink. Beautiful roses, just an absolute gorgeous one. After paying that amount of money, I walked into the store and there was this wonderful Fleur-de-Lis. It was pink and I had to have it.

AH: When was that?

CL: Probably about 85, 86.

AH: After you'd begun to make the quilts.

CL: After I'd begun to make the quilts. I didn't even have a job. I was working at part time and the money would be saved. I'd chip in as much as I could for the house and save the rest for fabric and quilts. My major collections are my Sunbonnet Sues, which I call "Calico Cathys," and I have a great many of those. I absolutely adore basket quilts. Most of them happen to be double pink basket quilts. I then discovered kit quilts, so I've been buying kit quilts. I also have a huge, I would say it's a huge collection of double pink; most of them are tops rather than quilts. Last year in Williamsburg, I was asked to replace Bev Dunivent for her Depression Era quilts, so I had to get some depression era quilts. So that's the collection I'm working on now. I guess others you can see underneath the sofa. I'm trying to do some of the reproduction fabrics on those, right now. Yeah, that's about it. It's more than enough. Got enough to go around.

AH: How do you use your collection?

CL: I wish I had correct storage, but I share them with anyone who asks me to share quilts. I took about ten to school today so the kids could look at quilts for a History class on the Depression Era.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

CL: Inner peace. It's one of the few times I'm calm. I have something to show with my addiction when I'm finished. So I don't drink it up. I don't smoke it up. It's here. There is something to show for what I've done.

AH: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

CL: I am blessed with fabric stores. I don't think we quite have the old, lets say Amish community, or the Pennsylvania Dutch quilts, or the Baltimore Album quilts. A quilt show was about four weekends ago, and I think rather than being similar, we're becoming more diverse and we're becoming more like the whole United States. The Thimbleberries Club or the Wonderful Fons and Porter prints that more and more of our quilts are looking more similar because we have the fabric stores. And of course Hancock sends out a catalogue, and Quilts and Other Comforts, and Keepsake. That I think we're losing regionalism, and that's okay for me.

AH: Do you think there in the antique quilts you collect, do you ever see an Iowa trend?

CL: I haven't noticed. Marylin, deals throughout the United States, and she knows what I like and what's on the market. She's only been wrong twice. She'll call and say, 'I have a piece I think you might be interested in.' I really don't notice that. Iowa is a little slower in getting some of the appliqué done but we're catching up quite quickly. That's not a technique that I'm particularly fond of. You saw Rosie's [Baker.] beautiful appliqué. I'll stick to my piecing.

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

CL: I don't know if you have seen this week's Time or not. It will make every quilter in the world cringe. Last week Newsweek had an article that scrap making is the new quilting bee. It bothers me tremendously when I walk into WalMart and see $20 quilts, or at Wards and Sears. Penny's gets a little bit higher upscale, and of course when I want to find it it's not in here. On the bottom it shows low, medium, and high cost. The Chinese quilts coming in and then we go to Land's End or Ralph Lauren, and then we have the wonderful, wonderful hand done ones that you've been interviewing. It bothers me that our work is being degraded by the poor quality of some of the things that people are buying and calling quilts. I'll be very honest, out on my sun porch I've got a Chinese quilt, that I loved the Christmas design and it was $70 and I didn't have time to make. If you don't buy the Chinese quilt are those people going to starve? The quilters don't want that to happen either. You've probably heard that answer, stated in a different way maybe.

AH: No, you're the first person in my interviews that has brought that up that we buy them and don't feel good about it. In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

CL: In some cases that's all that's left.

AH: What do you mean?

CL: What we do is so transient; I can't show all the dozens of cookies I've made, all the jars that I helped my mother can tomatoes and beans. It's gone. Yes, I have some jars. It's something that I have touched, and maybe in the future someone will wonder, 'Who was that woman?' and hope there's enough history on the labels that they can figure it out. [inaudible.] as a woman so many great artists, we had to change our names to our husband's, so our wonderful art, whether it be folk art or fine art, could be remembered. Of course, the one part I wish we could change in Quiltmakers Gift is to make her not gray haired, because that's what the public thinks. We see a grandmother quilting and so many of us are still young and started young.

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

CL: Supposedly, you know that colors are supposed to fade within ten hours of direct light, of sunlight. I do think that one or two quilts by a maker could be preserved, to be wrapped up in the cotton, rolled properly, or stored flat on a bed. A couple of my pieces I do feel are very important. And this one does happen to be one that is extra special to me. The ones that I wore out when I was growing up, that kept me warm and I knew that grandma and great-grandma had made them, but yet I still have one piece. Some of the scraps aren't very big but I have a piece of them. There aren't a whole lot of men in my family, it's kind of fun to have a son. I have the family quilt that is to go to a girl fortunately I do have a niece. I think the best way of doing it is treasuring. If they're just coming to Sunday dinner, that's the time you use the quilt. I wish I had a 15 room house so I could have all my quilts on beds, laid flat that way. Instead I keep them in the dark cupboards, try to keep the blinds closed so the light doesn't damage them anymore than it's going to.

AH: It sounds to me like you have a very lovely relationship with your son and he clearly appreciates your quiltmaking. I think a lot of women share that relationship with daughters or granddaughters. Your son ever tempted to pick up needle and thread and try to quilt himself?

CL: I married an engineer. And I have an engineer as a son. I sometimes don't think they have a right side to their brain. They poke fun and laugh and giggle at Mom's expensive hobby. Try it himself? I don't know. Seventh grade he had to make a patchwork pillow. He says, 'That's easy. Mom has all the stuff at home I don't have to buy anything.' Not yet. He's just not a needle and thread guy. My husband sat down once at the sewing machine and fixed a hunting vest. That was about it for sewing. I don't know. I am quite sure that there will be some fabric, and if there's a family we might share it and say, 'This is what your grandmother used to do. You can but you don't have to.'

AH: How do quilts tell stories?

CL: First off, you've got to tell someone else the story. If you don't, it'll be lost. We are now doing better job of putting our stories on the backs of those quilts. Here it is almost 20 years after this one was made. The typed label has faded so greatly that I'm not even able to read it. It is important to share those stories whether it be in written form or an oral form. And that's what's so wonderful about this project.

AH: When you made the label for this quilt, did you express how it was during your job search? Is that part of the story you've saved with this quilt?

CL: Yes, I'm going to definitely redo it and get my magnifying glass out and my light and try to recreate the label that is on that quilt.

AH: It is an important part of your story. Is there any advice or tips that you have for future quilters?

CL: Don't get serious about points matching and 12 stitches in an inch, worrying if the colors are coordinated. Enjoy what you're doing. Have some fun with it. It's great to be silly. I think some of the things we make, as far as clothing, looks a little square dancing. Be an individual because I can give you the fabric that I'm using and our quilts will be totally different. It's just so much fun. And of course I have the great honor of being one of Rosie Baker's first quilt teachers. And seeing what my student can do, coming from a profession artist viewpoint, I'm like, 'Oh, wow!' I don't want to say those that can do and can't teach. You put some of my work beside hers and 'Oh my goodness gracious.'

AH: Is there anything else I haven't asked you that you'd like to say?

CL: I wouldn't be here if it weren't for my husband. You met him briefly. He is my life. We had a fire drill today and I locked the keys in my classroom. As the janitor was walking down the hall, and he says "Well what's more important?" and I said, 'Oh, my students, of course.' 'But', he said, 'you've got your quilts in there.' And I go, 'No, it's the students.'

AH: On that note, I'd like to thank Cathy Noll Litwinow for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, in her home in Bettendorf, Iowa. Our interview concluded at five o'clock p.m., November 7, 2002. Thank you.



“Catherine Litwinow,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024,