Beth Wilson




Beth Wilson




Beth Wilson


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Paullina, Iowa


Amy Henderson


Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson, it is 3:20, today's date is May 25, 2003, and I am conducting an interview with Beth Wilson for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Paullina, Iowa. Thank you, Beth, for meeting with me today. Let's start off with you telling me about the quilt you brought.

Beth Wilson (BW): Alright, this was one that I had seen the individual block in a quilters' magazine of some kind, I don't remember the source now, and it treated tumbling block in several different ways, the basic tumbling block pattern, and the particular pattern that I chose appealed to me because I like the challenge of putting the dark, medium, and light in such a way that you got the block look. And I had part of the fabrics, and I can't remember which ones, I think it was the little red and white floral, I had that on hand, and I had a good piece of blue paisley, and I knew where I could go and get some more, so I purchased more of that and started piecing individual blocks. And I knew I wasn't going to have enough to do a whole quilt, so then I worked out the border pattern from a center medallion, and of course ran out, so the corner blocks are a different red and white print. I like scrap quilts, but it is a challenge to have enough on hand that all go together and you can make something. This was probably one of the first ones that was more of a color-coordinated quilt, most of the rest of them have just been scrap quilts where I used a lot of different colors.

AH: And how long ago did you make this one?

BW: 1992.

AH: And how do you use this quilt?

BW: Well, it's put away because my mother was a quilter and when she died she had enough finished quilts for every one of her grandchildren to have a completed quilt, and I decided that was going to be my goal as well, and with sixteen grandchildren [laughs.] it's taken me a little while, but, so this will be somebody's.

AH: So this will go to a grandchild.

BW: This will go to a grandchild. If not, why one of the daughters-in-law or my daughter may choose it, but the grandchildren get first pick.

AH: So you'll let each one pick their quilt once you have sixteen?

BW: Yes. As they get into their own homes. Mother said when they got married they got their quilt and she saved it for a wedding gift, but I think Philip's three boys, none of them were married when she died, so she just gave them three quilts and they got to choose. And I decided that when they are ready to set up housekeeping for themselves they can choose a quilt. So my oldest granddaughter has chosen her quilt.

AH: How many other quilts to you have reserved already?

BW: Oh, I haven't really counted up. I think I only need to make one or two more and I'll have all sixteen made for them to choose from.

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

BW: Probably because it was one of the early ones that I sort of designed from a basic pattern, before that I would take the pattern and copy it completely from the magazine, but this one I worked out the design on my own.

AH: So why did you choose this quilt for the Q.S.O.S. interview?

BW: Well, for that same reason. [laughs.] I like to go through and choose something and put my own colors in, but I'm not very good at making up a pattern out of my imagination, I don't design quilt blocks, I use the old, and I like the old-fashioned blocks, so I gravitate toward them, the geometric figures.

AH: Tell me about your interest in quilting. When did you begin quilting? Who taught you?

BW: Well coming from a family of quilters, both maternal and paternal grandmothers quilted, my mother quilted, aunts all quilted and were part of a sewing group, the quilting group that I'm now a part of, I learned as a child to quilt. I didn't really do fine quilting until after I was married and we had come back into the Quaker community, so that would have been early '60s, my children were independent enough that I could sit over at the community building and quilt with the women over there. For a long time I said mother could design the quilt tops, she could put the quilt tops together, and I'd help her quilt them, because I always didn't think I was into piecing, and then I finally did get piecing, and of course now I love the construction of the top, probably more than the hand quilting, but I like hand quilted quilts, the traditional quilts.

AH: Tell me more about the quilting circle at the Quaker meeting.

BW: Well this has been going since the Quaker meeting was first established; the women started out, it was a tradition to piece quilt tops to make bedding for your family--

AH: This is the late 1800s?

BW: The late 1800s, right, and originally the sewing bee met together and made garments for relief services and an orphanage out in the east. Most of the women made their own quilts and they'd have quilting bees within their own home to finish off their quilts. And I'm not real sure, a date, when they started quilting for hire over here at Mapleside, probably, well I'm sure they did some maybe in the late '30s, but then after the second world war in the '50s probably it became a tradition to meet once a month and feed the men, make a dinner at noon and feed the men, it was a way of bringing in some funds to support some of the work that the women wanted to support. And then it got so, well hand quilting just about died out in the '70s, and we thought we were going to be the last group that did hand quilting, and then people got interested in quilts again as an art form as well as a historical interest and wanted traditional hand quilting on their quilt tops that they found in grandmother's things when they closed out her house and so forth, so we started really getting a demand for our services, and when our list got sort of long, why we decided we better meet more than once a month or we never were going to get them all done, so now we meet every week.

AH: How many women are quilting?

BW: There are six of us that are regular quilters right now, and that's down considerably, I remember when the younger women tied the comforts and sewed garments and it was just the older women who were the fine quilters that were allowed to work on the quilt [laughs.] and as the older women either became frail or couldn't do that or were concerned that the skill wasn't going to be passed on, then they started teaching, encouraging those of us that were younger to work on the quilts.

AH: And did your mother also quilt with the group?

BW: Yes she did, and as well as several aunts.

AH: The quilters raised money for the charities the women wanted to donate to?

BW: Yes, for specific projects that they wanted to donate to, including the American Friends Service Committee and Scattergood Friends School and we had a whole, at one time we had quite a long list of different charities that we supported. We had to shorten our list since we don't serve the monthly dinners anymore because we took in quite a bit of money with that project as well.

AH: How many hours a week do you quilt?

BW: I don't quilt in the summer time, I usually put a quilt on, oh, not very often before Thanksgiving, although if I'm getting behind I'll often put one on when the weather gets cooler in the fall when the garden and flower beds are pretty well on the wane, don't demand so much of my time, so I usually piece a top and quilt a top each winter, so I've always got one quilt top waiting on me for the next winter's project. The last two years I haven't finished the quilting so I've had some carry over, so I'm getting a little behind every year.

AH: What is your first quilt memory?

BW: A Sunbonnet Sue quilt that was on my bed as a child. And for a long time--my mother went blind the last few years of her life--and I suddenly realized that I didn't know the history of some of the older quilts that I do have. So I was trying to describe to her this Sunbonnet Sue quilt that I remembered, and she could not remember who had made it, whether it was her mother or whether it was my father's mother, and I was mentioning this one time at a quilt show, at an exhibit we were having, that one of the first cousins, Ruth Pingrey, was attending, and she said, 'I know who made that,' [laughs.] 'that was grandma Henderson,' that she made either the Scottish Dog pattern or the Sunbonnet Sues for every one of the granddaughters, and so she recognized it, so I quickly wrote that down and sewed it onto the back of the quilt so I would remember. So that was my first memory, it's pretty warm.

AH: You still have that quilt?

BW: I still have it.

AH: How does quilting impact your family?

BW: Well, I've given baby quilts or single bed quilts to all the grandchildren, except the last one, I'm working on the last one now, and the children--the mothers all appreciate it--and I think the children as they get a little older appreciate it too. I know that one of my daughter-in-laws wouldn't let her daughter have her baby quilt because she wanted it to stay nice, so she hung it on the wall [laughs.] most of the rest of them have let them use them. I would hate to speak for--I think the girls especially appreciate the hand work, I have two granddaughters that are interested in making quilts, so that's nice to think that the tradition will go on. I know of two of the grandsons that are especially attached to theirs. It's recognized as the gift of love, which is what quilts are.

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

BW: No, I don't think so specifically, I can't think of any time in particular that I turned to quilting, I'm more apt to turn to art work or gardening if it's the right time of year. I like to quilt, but it just isn't something I would think of to do if I was feeling especially down, it's just part of one of the winter tasks. [laughs.]

AH: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

BW: Putting the colors together in a pattern.

AH: And what aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

BW: The actually stitching, getting the layers all put together is a little more of a task rather than a creative process for me. If I had my druthers, if I could have somebody just do all the quilting for me I'd just piece tops.

AH: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

BW: The combination of colors, I'm especially attracted to strong colors, strong color combinations. I have a story that I like to tell of one quilt that got almost too bright even for me. When we have a quilt show and show them we tried to give some background to each quilt, and mother often chose pastel colors, she was a pastel person herself, she liked to wear pastels and the softer colors, and this one quilt had a bright blue, a bright gold, which was I think what made it seem quite, almost startling, and then a red pattern, and then the joining was white and blue. And I took it--she was sitting there when we were putting the quilts out for display, and when I took it out of the sack and shoot it out, she said 'Oh, mercy,' [laughs.] so that's my "Mercy" quilt. [laughs.]

AH: She hadn't seen you working on it.

BW: [laughs.] She hadn't seen me working on that one.

AH: Oh, that's great. [laughs.]

BW: I am attracted to bright colors.

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

BW: Oh, I wouldn't have anything machine quilted. I like to hand piece, so I think it should be hand quilted. Primarily I like to hand piece because then I can sit in the evening and do it, I don't have to sit at the sewing machine, so I prefer hand piecing.

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

BW: Well, I would think a combination of originality or for the historic quilts the age and condition that would be the things that come to mind immediately, I suppose if I thought about it longer I could come up with some other ideas, but I think that would be it.

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

BW: It's hard to decide whether--quilts were originally made to be utilitarian, they were to keep the family warm, and while their historic value is important to families, it's a tough decision to know whether to use it and enjoy it or to put it away and then save it for future generation, who will be afraid to use it and enjoy it. I feel that quilts should be enjoyed--displayed and enjoyed--and the ones that are going to mean the most to families, because they are not all going to be beautiful works of art, but they are all going to be stitched with love for the individual.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

BW: It fulfills a creative love that I have for fabrics and colors. It's the creativity, I think.

AH: You're also a painter and pastel artist, how would you compare quiltmaking to those other two media?

BW: There's a lot of correlation; because I'm a scrap quilter there's a lot of correlation in working with color. Piecing quilts is more relaxing than doing artwork [laughs.] I think, you know, just putting the pieces together is kind of soothing and relaxing. You know I'm not real sure that I make a clear difference, comparison.

AH: They fulfill different needs for you?

BW: Yeah, I guess working with pastels and watercolor has to be more deliberate with me, I have to set time aside to do that, and my hand piecing I can do when I'm riding or sitting at home in the evening watching TV, or something like that, so it's a little more of relaxation, I don't have to set a block of time, and when I have a quilt up on the frame to quilt I can quilt for fifteen minutes while I'm waiting for something to cook on the stove, or waiting for Ernie to come home from some errands, or I just need to get off my feet and sit for a while, it's more that type, it's not as deliberate.

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

BW: I'm not sure. I think most of us are very traditional quilters, we like the old-fashioned patterns, those of us that make quilts in the group. My granddaughter is more of a creative artist with her quilts, she just starts in and starts putting things together and sees where it takes her, and I have to have it all mapped out pretty well in my head where I'm going to go, so I suppose because they are mostly traditional patterns, I really don't know what other way to explain that.

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

BW: Well, I've read quite a bit about women, pioneer women and women in isolated, rural areas, and the quilting circles were a great deal of importance to socialization of the early frontier communities and gave the women an artistic outlet that was utilitarian, that they could justify because it was utilitarian, whether they needed to or not, you know, in their own minds they could think they were not wasting time sitting putting these colors together because it was something the family needed. And from my reading and from my own experience, just the chance to be with other women, especially during your life when you have small children and your lives are pretty much focused on just your own family and it gave for a chance for a broader outlet, for exchange of ideas with other women, and I would think that for frontier women that were much more isolated that it would be very important to their own mental health because it helped them survive and gave them the support that they needed for their really tough lives.

AH: How do quilts tell stories?

BW: Well some are deliberate story quilts, I'll not forget in a quilt show that I saw, I think it was in Texas one winter when we were down there, there was some Hmong women who had entered their quilts and they were beautifully appliquéd, just the most intricate appliqués, but it all told stories of their family life. And the fabrics themselves can tell a history of when the quilt was made, there's certain colors of the '30s that you recognize immediately, well this quilt had to be made sometime in the '30s because that's when this green and peach were especially popular. Were you thinking more of our own personal history or history in general?

AH: Both.

BW: Both. The quilt that I have of my maternal grandmothers, she was one that wanted to make really fine stitches, so her quilts either had just a sheet blanket or nothing in between, they were more like a coverlet, so in that respect it's been interesting to compare those with the kind of quilts we do today with the polyester filling that you can get very fine stitches and it's still a puffy, soft quality to it. I guess [inaudible.].

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

BW: Oh, I can't think of what that would be, your questions are pretty penetrating. [laughs.]

AH: Well with that I would like to thank Beth Wilson for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in her home in Paullina, Iowa. Our interview concluded at 3:45 p.m. on May 25, 2003. Thank you.



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