Olive Wilson




Olive Wilson




Olive Wilson


Amy Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Paullina, Iowa


Amy Henderson


Amy Henderson (AH): Hello, my name is Amy Henderson. It is 4:00 p.m., today's date is May 25, 2003, and I am conducting an interview with Olive Wilson for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Paullina, Iowa. Thank you, Olive for meeting with me today.

Olive Wilson (OW): You're welcome.

AH: And we'll start simply with you telling me about the quilt you brought.

OW: I was once a school teacher many years ago and it wasn't uncommon for students to bring their teacher a handkerchief on Valentines Day or Christmas or what have you, and one day I got out my stack of handkerchiefs when my sons and their wives were there and showed them this stack probably four or five inches high of nice handkerchiefs. What do I do with these? And I didn't get any help, so they went back into the drawer. A few months later we had a quilt show at Mapleside [Friends' Quaker Monthly Meeting near Paullina, Iowa.] which we have done when we get requests for a day out for women's groups, so Eunice happened to be helping with the things that day and she happened to be within earshot when a lady from Archer, Iowa was telling about having made a quilt using handkerchiefs, and Eunice said, 'Mom, there's the answer for your handkerchiefs.' So there wasn't much to do but to get busy and make a handkerchief quilt. And this isn't exactly the directions that the lady sent me, but it's pretty close, it showed how to fold the handkerchiefs and stitch it on, and it's supposed to be uniform size and they weren't all uniform size so I kind of hedged on that. And then that winter when we were in Texas visiting our daughter and her family I was working on the butterflies and my granddaughter, Rachel, came to me with pictures she'd found in a--I don't remember the magazine but she said, 'Grandma, this is the kind of fashion you should put on your quilts,' and it was the nine patch with the two colors of the sashing, so that's what I did. And then when I got it done I asked Eunice to decide on what she wanted for the back, so we went to a quilt store in Sheldon, and she picked out the very pretty material on the back, which is a cheater quilt, and so it eventually found its way to their bed and it gets used, it's not put away for collecting dust. So that's kind of the story behind the handkerchief quilt.

AH: And what year did you make it in?

OW: What did I guess on that interview [sheet.]? '97?

AH: '97.

OW: Something like that.

AH: Okay. Do you remember who remember who gave you the individual handkerchiefs?

OW: Unfortunately I do not.

AH: You must have many more.

OW: I do have, and I have the other halves of each one. After I got them done I realized some of them have designs; you fold the handkerchief diagonally in half, well then the design showed through, so after I had them all stitched up I cut off the back half; I don't know what I'm going to do with them but I can't throw them away. [laughs.]

AH: And what decades were you teaching school? These handkerchiefs are from what decade?

OW: Some of them would be from the '40s and some of them from the '60s.

AH: And of your stash, why did you take these particular handkerchiefs? Was there a particular image or theme you were looking at?

OW: Not really, the ones that would fit, and the prettiest ones.

AH: They all seem to have a floral pattern.

OW: Which was probably typical of the time. One that I know I didn't use had tatting around it, and it would ruin the tatting to cut that, so I just chose the ones that I thought would fit together.

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

OW: Well memories of school-teaching days which I thoroughly enjoyed. And also the association with Eunice deciding I should make the quilt. And Eunice is the hostess where we were last night.

AH: Right, she's your daughter-in-law. Tell me about your interest in quilting; when did you begin to quilt?

OW: Well I grew up around quilts but I never took the time to learn until after I quit teaching school in '71 and I decided I was going to take time to learn to quilt, and I wish I had learned when my mother was still living because she faithfully went to quilt every Thursday. I'd come home from school sometimes and call, because we were on the same telephone exchange, and say 'What have you been doing today?' And she'd say, 'Well it's Thursday, I've been quilting, of course,' [laughs.] I would forget often that this was Thursday, and so I missed that opportunity but I thoroughly enjoy the—I still don't make as tiny stitches as some people but I still enjoy it. I kind of say this is my day of therapy, relaxing and enjoying the company and stitching along with the [inaudible.].

AH: Every Thursday when you go quilt at Mapleside?

OW: Right.

AH: Did you hang out when you were a child and watch the women quilting?

OW: Oh sure. At that time Sewing Bee involved more than quilting and for years I would, when the children were little, bring the play pen and stash the little one in there and we'd make garments, we must have had six or eight sewing machines in the community building, the school house is what I still want to call it, and the children would play and the quilt was surrounded by women who knew how to quilt, which I hadn't learned, and so I didn't sit around the quilt as much at that time as I did work in the other room sewing garments.

AH: Why do you think you didn't want to learn to quilt earlier?

OW: I tried it once in high school when I stayed over night with my aunt Bettina in Paullina and I knew I'd never learn that, I'd never used a thimble and Aunt Bettina said you won't quilt until you learn to use a thimble, and she was right, but I just didn't, and I thought I was too busy, and I was busy with other things, but when I quit teaching then in '71 I decided I was going to learn, and I'm glad I did.

AH: When you were a teenager, did the mothers and the grandmothers and the great aunts, did they encourage the younger women to learn how to quilt?

OW: I don't remember being encouraged particularly; you know you kind of had to want to weasel into the group maybe.

AH: [laughs.] At that point maybe it was more for the older women--

OW: That's right, that's right, and I wasn't that old yet [laughs.].

AH: [laughs.] And when did you start quilting with the Paullina quilters, or the Mapleside quilters?

OW: 1971.

AH: Okay so you learned everything, how to piece, how to quilt, all right here?

OW: Well, once upon a time when I was a girl I remember making a quilt, a nine patch, and I've got the remains of it, but it's pretty badly worn, and the Mapleside women quilted it, and I treasure that one but it was a pretty plain and ordinary nine patch, which there's nothing wrong with that, but it's about as simple as you can get.

AH: What was the first quilt you made in '71?

OW: The first one that I made, I didn't make one right away, the oldest granddaughter was born in '75 and she must have been three or four years old when I decided I was going to make her a quilt, and it was a fairly simple star pattern and last winter when I went along with my son's family out to visit in Colorado where she lives, I spent quite a while mending that quilt and replacing some of the fabrics which had worn out, and she uses it, it was on her bed, she did not take it to college because I made a jean quilt for her when she graduated from high school, but it's been much used, and all the quilts I've made I think have been very used. And they show it, they're not immaculate.

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

OW: Oh I usually am there by 8:15 and quilt until 3:00.

AH: That's on Thursday?

OW: That's on Thursday. And I haven't made a quilt for a while, it's probably been six or seven years at least since I've made a quilt. I've made one for each of the eight grandchildren when, and uh, so that the youngest grandchild is taken care of so, so it's jean quilts when they graduate from high school now.

AH: You think they are going to be more durable or?

OW: Well, I asked Shana when she graduated from high school, I didn't know what we wanted to do besides just give cash for graduation, and one day I said, 'Shana, have you decided what you want to put on your bed when you go to college?' No, she hadn't thought about it, hadn't figured out what she wanted, and I said, 'Would you like me to make you a jean quilt?' 'Oh, that would be just fine,' so that I did, and the center of her jean quilt has a history to it. When she was maybe a junior in high school she and a friend, she'd gone with a friend to eat out that night, and they were in a really bad auto accident and--pretty close call--the jeans she was wearing, I remember going to the hospital when she was there and then they helicopted her to Sioux City and so I took home her clothing and of course they cut that pair of jeans off, and when I went and stayed with the younger children I remember Molly saying, 'But that was her best pair of jeans' [laughs.], and indeed they were, so when I was going to make the jean quilt I asked Shana if she'd like me to use that in the quilt, so that's the centerpiece of it, and I overhead her mother say when it was done 'And I hoped that reminds her to keep her seatbelt on all the time,' because she did not have it on. It was a close call. I guess there was one other, Molly's, the younger sister, 'cause part of the, I guess it's the rear pocket part of the jean, so I think Molly wanted a similar to what her big sister, who she idolized, had on hers. The others have been pretty plain, pockets here and there, and then when I started to tie knots on that jean quilt Shana informed me that she didn't want knots on hers, so I kind of basted it together or stitched in the ditch, and I've done each one since then the same way because it's much simpler than trying to get a big, fat darning needle through denim, so I've got one to finish up and take along when we go to Bolivia, three weeks from today, it's going to keep me busy the next three weeks.

AH: And who is that one for?

OW: That's for Joshua Kaufmann, our daughter's oldest, who I wasn't sure that he wanted a jean quilt, because it's pretty warm in Bolivia, however it is chilly in the winter time, and I know I had heard that, uh, and I had given each of the grandkids a down comforter several years ago. Well, Joshua's down comforter is worn out and his mother even noted in a letter that grandma probably would be bringing him a jean quilt and that would keep him warm. So I think I had better get it done.

AH: Yep, yep [laughs.] he'll need it. Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time in your life?

OW: Not specifically. It's just a good, relaxing something to do. And I miss it if I don't get there on Thursdays, it's just, and when I've quilted at home, it's a relaxing thing to do, not as hard work as lots of other things farm-wise I get involved in.

AH: Tell me more about the Mapleside quilters and what the experience is like quilting with them on Thursdays.

OW: Well, it's continuing a tradition that has been a long standing one, they used to quilt in homes when the school was involved in what's now the community building, and went around from various homes, and the men would come for dinner and leave a little contribution for their dinner and that was used for materials apparently, and then I suppose it was after the school closed that then they gathered in the school house and quilted every month for awhile, the second Thursday of every month. And then they had so many quilts that I know it started every Thursday while my mom was still living, that's been thirty years ago anyway that it's been tradition every Thursday. And they no longer serve the community dinners because most of us that are involved are getting older and don't have the energy to extend for that too, but it brought in some income, too.

AH: Do you have any younger quilters amongst the group.

OW: There was some who learned, both my daughters-in-law know how very well, but they're busy with other things, and the one who really got into quilting and didn't care whether we were old or young and took time for it was Jill Mitchner, and it has really become a real hobby for her. Have you interviewed her?

AH: No.

OW: You must.

AH: So she still comes every Thursday?

OW: No, then she moved to Colorado, and the one, the younger one who was an avid quilter we miss [laughs.] but you can't fault them for moving when income and good business is there. Now our oldest grandson is working for Doug out there and Mitchell, who was at the reception last evening, is working there this summer for Doug, so one never know when, he spent several summers and I think he lived with us for a year and a half. You never know what kind of repercussions are going to come from family times.

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

OW: Color, for one thing, and then the design of the quilting. And especially Beth [Wilson.] and Mary Ellen [Tjossem.] have real talents in designing what goes into both, the color and the quilting. The ones I've made have been pretty simple, but they work, too.

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

OW: Age, for one thing, and I suppose detail, some of the pictures of quilts that I see in quilting magazines I'm in awe of making that kind of design with material, it's got to take a lot of patience and a lot of time. It's indication, in pioneer times quilts were a part of frugality and making use of what one had, and now elaborately designed quilts certainly are not made with materials--leftover materials--they are brand new out of the quilt shop. I remember Helen Faucett saying 'This isn't the way my mother used to make quilts, going to the store and buying all the new materials.' It's an evidence of affluence in the way we have in general have both the time and finances to make and create that kind of quilt.

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

OW: Oh, I think hand quilting is worth the time, but what is frustrating is you get ten feet away and you can't tell the difference, but if you're a hand quilter you know the difference and it's worth the time. I remember several years ago there was a substitute home-economics teacher in Primghar while the regular one took the year off to have a baby and she was inquiring about what it would take, how much it would cost to have a quilt made or quilted, I gave her an estimate and she said 'But I could get it machine quilted for that' [laughs.]. I kind of thought she did know the value of hand quilting.

AH: Why is quilting important to you life?

OW: The association with the people that I quilt with and just that it's keeping on the tradition.

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

OW: Because they were a part of pioneer life especially, and part of family times, and an outlet for pioneer women to use their creativity and their artistic abilities where it would have been unthinkable to paint pictures like we enjoy now viewing, but it was an opportunity that was appropriate to the time and was enjoyed by the people involved.

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

OW: Well, there's the kind of thing you're doing, museums do that, and just kind of taking care of them in our homes, and probably something I don't do is putting a little written history maybe attached to the quilt. I've put who made it, but that's about the extent of it.

AH: Tell me about the two antique quilts that you brought today.

OW: Ok, the blue one I'm sure was made by my grandmother Tjossem, and I'm sure I slept under that when I was a kid--too warm, Grandma wasn't going to have anyone get cold [laughs.], and that one some how ended up in my older brother's things, and when I was helping him get settled in the house he had bought in Paullina, I think that was intended to go as a mattress pad, or else under the mattress on the spring; I asked him if I might have that, so that's kind of the nostalgia for it.

AH: Does the pattern have a name?

OW: I don't know.

AH: And when do you think she made it, roughly what decade?

OW: I would guess it was in the teens or twenties. It's older than the thirties so I would guess in the twenties.

AH: And she was an avid quiltmaker?

OW: Yeah, she made quite a few I think. I don't remember her having a quilt to be quilted at home, but she quilted at Mapleside and had a lot of quilts that I presume she made, and I suppose it's the old cotton batting which is harder the quilt, we think, than the newer polyester ones, and that's about all I know about it, it's that it's a grandma quilt.

AH: And how about the other one?

OW: The other one was a wedding gift when Warren and I were married, made by my great aunt.

AH: And what was her name?

OW: Lily Thompson. And it's a pineapple design, and it was on our guest bed for probably the first forty years of our marriage, and so what used to be blue has kind of faded to a pinkish-purple, and it's very pretty, but it's impractical because it slides right off the bed.

AH: And what's the material?

OW: Taffeta, but it's a very pretty design.

AH: It's great. How do you think quilts tell stories?

OW: By knowing the--it's kind of the people who made them would be the story for the quilt, and preserving them and their heritage is important, and I'm glad you're doing it and as we're talking about this it reminds me of another quilt that I was involved in doing, we have an active Peace Links [Women Against Nuclear War.] group here, and we had done a variety of kind of little things to make our peaceful desires known, and it was the wife of then-Representative Berkeley Bedel that introduced us to Peace Links, and several women from the Primghar area have been--every two weeks we meet to be kind of a support group or study group—one day the banker's wife who is no longer able to be doing much of anything, she's got Parkinson's disease, but one day Jean Charlton said, 'You know, we've got to do something that's more visible, like make a quilt or something, to get attention.' So we got busy and created a peace quilt and Emma Henderson made the center block with the Peace Links' logo on it, and then I think it was fourteen other blocks, or it, maybe it's twelve blocks that were four by three anyway I guess, and gave it to different people to create a block. And then it was one of the Catholic nuns who was then working at the Catholic Church made one, and several women around town who wouldn't be quilters but were--Lois Tjossem made a couple of blocks and I ended up making two, some from the United Church—but anyway, we ended up with the blocks, and I think we put it together with the same color of blue as this and put it on at my house, and that must have been in the early '80s, because I remember one day little Molly, who was there last night, just graduated from college, and she came and she helped grandma quilt, and I think she used every color thread that was in my sewing machine, basting stitches you know, and when I went to the kitchen to get dinner ready, she called and said 'Hurry up Grandma, come back and quilt some more,' [laughs.] I'm not sure but a few of her stitches stayed in that quilt for a long time, most of them got removed, and it was a very simple pattern, but there were various pieces, eight different languages, and their Beyond War logo was one. So then when we got it done it was Jean Charlton again who said 'I think we ought to invite the governor to sleep under it.' So it was the year of the moratorium ribbon moving around the Pentagon I think that three or four women from Primghar went to, and they must have driven to Des Moines and then gone on a bus from there, but in going to Des Moines they took it to the governor and asked him to sleep beneath it and then record his thoughts and several of the state officers slept under it, then our representative and senators and the local superintendents, and editors of the paper, and it ended up quite a thick and interesting collection of ideas of what it felt like to sleep under that peace quilt. Then it hung for several years at the Peace Institute in Grinnell [Iowa.], and then when the national Peace Links was going to have a big bash--gosh, what did they call it--anyway, we sent it to Washington [DC] to the national Peace Links, and it wasn't our choice what they did with it because they sold raffle tickets, but I think it made a fair amount of money for the group, and so it still is in Washington as far as I know, but it had a message that a number of people who slept beneath it got the message. [the following individuals slept under the quilt: Governor Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Robert Anderson, Attorney General Tom Miller, Sen. Tom Harkin, Sen. Charles Grassley, Rep. Berkley Bedel, and Rep. Fred Grandy.]

AH: Do you remember the types of things they recorded in the journal?

OW: Their thoughts about war and about the risks of nuclear war, and memories--the mayor of Primghar, I remember, included on his page a tiny little piece of the Berlin Wall that he found sleeping under the quilt a reminder of the peace that had been thought about. There were only one or two who felt that peace was a personal religious salvation kind of thing, the rest pretty much seemed to feel the urgency of individual, ordinary people working for doing away with violence.

AH: That's a wonderful story.

OW: If I'd thought about it I could have gotten a copy here for you; I might be able to get a few pages of that journal.

AH: I'd like to see that someday. Do you think any of your quilts that you've made reflect a Quaker testimony or reflect your community in any way?

OW: Oh, I doubt that.

AH: So this quilt was very special--

OW: This quilt was very special--

AH: And it had a specific purpose?

OW: And the thing that was most rewarding--personally rewarding--was that it got Mary Ellen Tjossem involved in Peace Links; before that she had come to the first meeting when Eleanor Bedel had a bb demonstration, have you ever heard of that? Was it 5,000 nuclear weapons that we had at that time I think, and she had a big canning kettle and 5,000 bbs and poured them very, very slowly into the kettle and said, 'Now each of these represents the fire power of one nuclear weapon,' and we all shut our eyes of course, and it just felt like won't she ever stop, and at that time we had teams of people that spoke to various, when invited, to various groups, and we always took that bb demonstration along, and I think it made it real in ways that just talking about it doesn't. When you come next summer to the Henderson reunion I will try and get the original is in the library at Primghar, of the journal.

AH: I'll try and track down the quilt in Washington. [laughs.]

OW: I don't know where it is now, because Peace Links has disbanded there, and I wrote and asked once and I've never gotten a reply, but it's got to be around there somewhere.

AH: Maybe I can do some digging when I'm back home in Washington.

OW: That sounds like a good idea [laughs.].

AH: I need to get a picture of that quilt. [laughs.] Is there anything I haven't asked you today that you would like to share with us?

OW: Oh, I think you've asked some pretty perceptive questions, so I just think it's wonderful you're interested in this and doing what you're doing.

AH: Well, it's a wonderful project, I've been happy to be a part of it. Well with that, I'd like to thank Olive Wilson for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S.- Save Our Stories Project in Paullina, Iowa, our interview concluded at 4:34 p.m. on May 25th 2003. Thank you.



“Olive Wilson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1692.