Vivian McPherson




Vivian McPherson




Vivian McPherson


Tomme Fent

Interview sponsor

Karen Alexander


Sioux City, Iowa


Tomme Fent


Tomme Fent (TF): My name is Tomme Fent, and I'm conducting an interview with Vivian McPherson for the Quilters' [S.O.S-] Save Our Stories project of the Siouxland Samplers Quilt Guild. And it's Sunday, May 31st, 2009, at about five after 1:00 p.m., and we're in Vivian's lovely home in Hawarden, Iowa. So, Vivian, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for our Guild's project.

Vivian McPherson (VM): Sounds good to me.

TF: Why don't you tell me a little bit about this quilt that you've brought today?

VM: Well, this Bargello quilt is one that I saw the pattern for in a shop when my husband and I were on our way back from Minneapolis, and I thought, 'I've got to make that.' So, I bought the pattern and a year or so later, I started buying fabric. And I'd work on it for a while and I'd get really discouraged because it's so many little pieces and they just weren't going together right, so I'd stash it back in the box.

TF: Now how many pieces did you say it has?

VM: It has about 6,000 pieces in it.

TF: Oh, my word.

VM: Yes, some of them are pretty, pretty tiny, quarter of an inch wide by an inch-and-a-fourth long, so they're kind of small, and then the others get a little bigger. But there's seventy pieces in each row, and I don't know how many rows across there are now, a lot of them. Count them, if you want. I've lost track. But anyhow, I did finally get it out and got it all put together, and I hand quilted it while I sat with my husband when he was very ill. And when I got to the end, I didn't have enough piecing for a border all the way around, so it has four different borders. Each side has a different color border on it. They're still pieces from the quilt, but they're just different colors.

TF: The fabrics look like they're all sateens. They have such a nice sheen to them.

VM: It is, yes, it's all sateen fabric.

TF: Where did you buy the fabrics?

VM: Them, I happened to buy at In-Weave [Factory Outlet in Hawarden, Iowa.].

TF: Oh, all of it?

VM: Yes, and it was on little rolls, little different widths of rolls. Some of them were bigger than others. But I just picked up what I liked for colors and, like I say, I worked on it for a long time.

TF: About how long do you think it took you?

VM: Oh, off and on, about six, seven years, I guess. It was a long time.

TF: Do you remember when it was that you finished the quilt?

VM: I know exactly when I finished it, 1997, July.

TF: You must have a better memory than I do.

VM: Well, I finished it when my husband died.

TF: Oh, I see. So, the quilt has some special meaning for you.

VM: Yes. I quilted it on one of those little--big oval hoops, about three feet, something like that, around. That's when I sat, and hand quilted it.

TF: What are your plans for this quilt?

VM: I put it on the bed sometimes. For a long time, it just stayed in the closet.

TF: You are one of the most prolific quilters I have ever known or heard of. Do you have any estimate at all of how many quilts you may have made in your lifetime?

VM: Several hundred, I suppose.

TF: How much time do you spend quilting each week?

VM: That depends upon the week. If I'm at my daughter's shop downtown, I quilt most afternoons, stitch, piece mostly, because I don't hand quilt anymore. I just can't hand quilt. But down there, I finish two or three a week--or not a week, a month, two or three a month.

TF: Two or three tops a month?

VM: Yes.

TF: And then do you machine quilt them or do you have--

VM: No, I send them to be done.

TF: To a longarm quilter?

VM: Yes, Kristen Hoftyzer, lives at Boyden, and she does a lot of my machine quilting for me.

TF: You said when you're at your daughter's shop, what kind of shop does your daughter have?

VM: She has a children's clothing consignment shop.

TF: And she has a place there where you can quilt?

VM: Yes, I just sit at the desk and quilt. I take my little machine along and stitch and stitch and stitch. My husband used to say, 'She sews and sews, and I mows and mows.' [TF laughs.] We had an acreage then. He mowed most of it. He mowed five or six acres all the time, and I'd sew.

TF: This particular quilt is the very vibrant solid colors. Do you usually like to use solid colors, or do you use all kinds of fabric?

VM: I use everything. I think this is probably the only one that I've--well, maybe I've done a few that are solids, but not too many. I like rainbows. I like to work in rainbow colors, and I've done quite a few in rainbow colors.

TF: What's your fabric type of quilting? Piecing? Appliquéing? Combination?

VM: I just like to piece.

TF: You like to piece?

VM: Yes. Piece them together. Cut a big piece of material apart and sew it back together in little pieces.

TF: [laughs.] Which my husband thinks is just totally crazy.

VM: Yes, yes.

TF: What is your quilting space like when you're quilting at home?

VM: I have a very nice room that I quilt and sew in at home. I'll show it to you after a bit, if you want to see it.

TF: Okay.

VM: And this house had four bedrooms when we bought it, and we turned one into a sewing room. My husband put cabinets up on the wall for me so it's very handy, nice to sew in.

TF: How do you organize your fabric?

VM: [whispers and rolls eyes.] Don't ask. [both laugh.]

TF: You say, 'Don't ask,' so you don't organize your fabric?

VM: You might say it's organized, yes, it's mostly organized by color.

TF: When you're out shopping--

VM: Most of that's downstairs, where there's another sewing room.

TF: Oh, you have a separate sewing room?

VM: Another one.

TF: Is there a sewing machine in each of the rooms?

VM: Oh, yes.

TF: So just at your whim, you can decide where you want to sew that day?

VM: I don't sew much in the basement. I really don't.

TF: When you're out shopping and you see a piece of fabric you like, how much of it do you buy?

VM: All that I can afford. [laughs.]

TF: Even if that's like ten yards, you'll just buy it?

VM: At least six, at least six.

TF: Do you also buy fat quarters, or do you prefer yardage?

VM: Oh, yes, I buy everything. I buy a lot of kits. I like kits that I've seen made up, because I know what it's going to look like. Sometimes I've bought a kit that is not the way it was represented to be. It's very disappointing.

TF: What do you do then?

VM: Well, if it's sewed up, I give it away.

TF: Oh, I see, when it gets finished, it doesn't look like you thought it was going to look?

VM: Yes, it's just sometimes the kit does not have the fabric in it that the sample quilt had.

TF: Oh, I see.

VM: So, then it's not so nice. But I give away probably twenty quilts a year.

TF: Who do you give them to?

VM: I give them to churches and to my children.

TF: So, some of them you donate for charitable purposes?

VM: Yes.

TF: And how many children do you have?

VM: Five.

TF: So, they're each going to get plenty of quilts, I guess.

VM: Oh, they're to the point now that they really don't need any more quilts, but they'll get some more anyway.

TF: Do you think they'll fight over this quilt?

VM: No, I don't think so. I don't think they'll fight over any of them. At Christmastime, I generally put out about--there's usually four of them here, and I put out about fifteen or sixteen quilts and let them take a number from one to four, and whoever gets number one gets first choice, and two gets second choice, and then we go put them all back in the bag, shake them up, and do it again until they're gone.

TF: So, they each get to take home three or four quilts each Christmas?

VM: Oh, yes.

TF: That's wonderful.

VM: Yes, and they kind of get--sometimes one takes one that somebody else really liked, but they got first choice. But they're pretty amiable with what they choose.

TF: How long have you been quilting?

VM: Forever! [laughs.]

TF: When did you start? How old were you when you learned?

VM: Probably maybe in my teens.

TF: Who taught you?

VM: My grandmother and my mother.

TF: So, they were both quilters?

VM: Not really. They were more sewers. I'll show you a quilt that my grandmother had me help on, that I have.

TF: So, they taught you to sew in your teens, and then what led you to quilting?

VM: Just saw things I wanted to do. I think I probably started making baby quilts because I had friends that were having babies when I was first married, and just made them.

TF: So that, when would that have been, in the 1950s?

VM: The '50s, late '40s, early '50s.

TF: Where did you get your patterns, your quilting patterns at that time?

VM: I think the name of the company was Aunt Martha's and they put out just printed patterns. I probably still have some of them. And I used to buy blocks to embroider and then I'd put those together with Nine Patch blocks or other kind of pieced blocks.

TF: Were they embroidered in colors or were they like redwork?

VM: No, colored embroidery, children's animals and figures and alphabets and things like that.

TF: And I guess at that time, you had to make your own templates?

VM: Oh, yes.

TF: What did you cut your templates from?

VM: Cardboard. There wasn't anything else.

TF: Like shirt cardboard?

VM: Yes, any kind of cardboard you could find. Cereal boxes.

TF: When was the first time you ever used a rotary cutter?

VM: When they first came out, about twenty-five years ago. I think they just had a silver anniversary one, twenty-fifth anniversary. We had a variety store, and the man that brought us things to buy for our store brought them and said, 'This is the newest thing. It's a rotary cutter and a mat.'

TF: Oh, when you say, 'you had,' you mean you and your husband owned a variety store?

VM: Yes, and we sold fabric and notions, and he brought us that rotary cutter and mat. And I started right away with it because I'd been sewing a lot of quilts before that, cutting by hand.

TF: Now did they have an acrylic ruler or how did you use the rotary cutter?

VM: I don't remember if there was a ruler. I really don't remember the rulers that we used. I think we just used like a yardstick to cut along.

TF: Yes, there would have had to be some kind of straightedge.

VM: Yes, and I think it was just yardsticks that we used at first.

TF: I bet you really liked that rotary cutter!

VM: Oh, yes! And now they've got these new -- what the heck are they called?

TF: The die cut, to cut the pieces?

VM: Yes, yes. I don't think I'll buy one of those. They're a little spendy for home use.

TF: Yes, unless you have unlimited funds, they're a little expensive. So, what other innovations besides the rotary cutter and mat have come along during your quilting that have made it easier for you?

VM: Strip piecing, I'm sure. That's made a big difference. Eleanor Burns, I think, started most of the strip piecing, and I have used a lot of her stuff through the years. And there again, I think that's about twenty-five years ago that she really got started on that.

TF: What kind of sewing machine do you have? [VM laughs.] Or should I say 'machines'?

VM: I have my old Singer sewing machine that my husband bought with me or for me, let me stop and think, about 1956, '57. My mother had an old Singer sewing machine that I grew up with and I bought her a new--I bought myself a new White sewing machine when I was seventeen. And at eighteen, I went into the military, and I let her keep that and I bought a portable sewing machine, because I couldn't haul that one around with me. It was in a cabinet. And after we were married, my husband bought me a White sewing machine and I used it for about two years, and I just hated it. And I said, 'I want a Singer.' So, we went, and we bought a really nice Singer sewing machine in a beautiful cabinet, a desk, walnut desk cabinet, $300.

TF: Oh, my.

VM: For the sewing machine, and that was a lot of money back in 1957. We bought a brand-new car for $2,000, so $300 was a lot for a sewing machine. Now you couldn't even buy the cabinet. And I really, really liked that machine and I sewed on that up until about, let's see, I have to think. I must have used that until after he passed away in '97. '98, '97 or '98, I bought a Janome embroidery machine.

TF: So, you used the Singer for forty years?

VM: At least, yes. And it still sews like a champ. It'll sew through stuff that the new machines won't even, they just go 'Pfffft.' [both laugh.] 'I don't like this. Something is stuck in the machine,' it says. The Singer just went, 'Pop, pop, pop,' right through whatever it was. And I still dig it out once in a while. I have my grandmother's old treadle machine. I have a Bernina embroidery machine. I have a Janome serger. I have a Bernina serger. I have a lot of sewing machines.

TF: Which one do you use the most, do you think?

VM: I think probably the Janome embroidery machine, although I don't use it much for embroidery.

TF: I was just going to ask you if you do much machine embroidery.

VM: No, not much. I don't know why I bought a second one. It was really dumb.

TF: [laughs.]

VM: I had a really nice Bernina sewing machine. I guess I had that while Don was alive, when I think about it, just the Bernina machine. And I traded it for the embroidery machine, and I shouldn't have. I should have just stayed with the sewing machine. I didn't need two embroidery machines. [laughs.] And I have my little Janome Gem that I take with me for classes. It's just a little lightweight one. And I wore the first one of those out.

TF: Oh, really?

VM: Yes, ten years, I wore it out.

TF: So do you enjoy taking classes?

VM: Oh, yes. I like to take classes. You always learn something new.

TF: Have you ever taught any classes?

VM: A few.

TF: What kinds of things did you teach?

VM: I taught--what was the first one? It was a Shadow Box, which was a strip-piecing quilt. And then I taught a Kaleidoscope. And I had the same ladies in the first class and then in the second class. And they said, 'You think we can do this? A Kaleidoscope after the first one?' 'Oh, yeah, you can do it.' And they did, and they all got them done. And then I've taught that class a couple of times again, both of them, the Shadow Box and the Kaleidoscope. And I've taught some individuals. Just fun to do.

TF: Have you ever designed your own quilts, or do you usually use patterns?

VM: No, I can't really say I've designed anything, other than maybe the first baby ones where I embroidered and then designed whatever I put -- but a Nine Patch isn't my design. It's just what I put between them.

TF: So, do you use a computer or other technology in your quilting?

VM: Not really. I bought the programs. Don't know how to use them. [laughs.]

TF: Are you in any Internet groups of quilters?

VM: No.

TF: Nothing like that?

VM: No. Just the Guild.

TF: What's been your involvement with our Guild?

VM: I have been with the [Siouxland Samplers Quilt.] Guild for about twelve years. I first got started with it with the OlfaFest [quilt retreat.], when it was down at the airport, and I did that for a couple of years and then I found out that I could join the Guild, which was wonderful. I took friends with me to the OlfaFest and they really enjoyed it and they also joined the Guild.

TF: That was my introduction to the Guild, as well, OlfaFest down at the Air Guard Base.

VM: Yes, it was fun down there. It really was.

TF: Have you put any of your quilts into quilt shows?

VM: Just with the Guild. And then there's a quilt show here in Hawarden, in the fall. They have a--what do they call it now? Big Sioux River Days, they have in the fall, and they always have a quilt show out at Calliope Village, which is old buildings that have been restored and put together into a little village on the north end of town called Calliope Village. And we have a quilt show there in the little chapel every year, and I help with that and take quilts to it. We solicit quilts from anywhere. People that come to visit the quilt show, we'll take down names and addresses and phone numbers and call them for the next year, to see if they'd like to just display a quilt. We don't offer any prizes or anything and there's no charge. Just let people come and see.

TF: To expose the community to quiltmaking?

VM: Yes.

TF: What's your very earliest memory of a quilt?

VM: One that I made?

TF: No, just any quilt?

VM: I don't know if I can even go back to remember that far back. I think the first real hand quilting that I got into was after I was married and my mother-in-law hand quilted quilts, and she sent my husband and I one for Christmas one year. And she came to visit us and she said if I would piece a quilt and send it to her, she'd hand quilt it for me, and I do still have that one.

TF: Oh, that's wonderful.

VM: That's from the '50s.

TF: Did you sleep under quilts when you were a child?

VM: Nope, didn't do that. Just blankets. [laughs.]

TF: When your husband was alive and you had your children at home and things, how did quiltmaking impact your family life?

VM: Well, I sewed a lot of clothing for the children, and I used a lot of the leftovers to piece quilts. Pretty much what it was. There wasn't a lot of time for quilting then.

TF: What's your favorite part of quilting?

VM: Piecing, sewing pieces together and watching the patterns evolve.

TF: What's your least favorite part?

VM: Binding. [laughs.] I like to sew it on by hand but sometimes I get in a hurry, and I just stitch it all down by machine. Depends upon how much time and effort I've put into the quilt. If it's one that's special, then I'll hand stitch the binding down. Otherwise, I just machine stitch it down.

TF: Now, when you do machine stitch your binding on, tell me the technique you use?

VM: I do a double French fold; I think they call it. Stitch that to the front and turn it to the back and stitch it down.

TF: So, you actually turn it to the back and stitch it down?

VM: Yes.

TF: And then the line of stitching--

VM: Pretty much goes in the ditch on the front. So, it's okay; it's not real pretty, but it's okay. And like I say, it depends upon how special the quilt is to me. If it's one that I've put a lot of time and effort into, then I will hand-stitch the back.

TF: Where do you lay out your quilts? Do you have a design wall?

VM: King-size bed.

TF: That's plenty of room, isn't it?

VM: Yes. Don't sleep in it anymore, so I can lay things on it for a long time. It usually isn't a long time, but it's not like you have to take it off at night so you can sleep in that bed.

TF: How do you store your quilts? You have several hundred quilts. Do you do anything special to store them?

VM: A lot of them are in big totes that have air holes in them, because you don't want them airtight. A lot of them are just piled up in a pile. A lot of them are scattered around throughout the house on chairs and quilt racks and of course, I give a lot of them away.

TF: So, you use a lot of them, I see just here in the room, you use them for decorative purposes, bringing color into the room?

VM: Yes.

TF: What do you think makes a great quilt?

VM: Color, and the piecing techniques, and especially the hand quilting.

TF: So you really prefer hand quilting?

VM: Yes, I just can't do it anymore. And I gave away so many that I hand quilted. I wonder if these people really appreciate what they got. Some do.

TF: What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

VM: Patience.

TF: That's a good one.

VM: I think patience, more than anything. You do something wrong, and you rip it out and it takes patience to take it out, put it back together right. But I think it takes an awful lot of patience to be able to put them together right. That's why I got frustrated with this Bargello because it wouldn't go together right and then I'd just chuck it all back in the box, stick it under the sewing machine or under a cabinet. [laughs.]

TF: So, did quilting this quilt actually help you through the difficult time of your husband's illness.

VM: Oh, yes, it sure did. I spent a lot of quiet time stitching away with that. I saw a Hinterberg quilting rack, I guess you would call it. I don't know what else to call it. And I said to him, 'Yes, I'd really like to have one.' Frame, that's what it is. 'I'd really like to have one of these nice quilting frames instead of using this hoop.' And he said, 'Well, you go ahead and order it. I don't know if I'll get it put together for you or not.' And I did order it. It was my last birthday present [from him.]. And the neighbor across the street put it together for me, and I did quite a few quilts on it. But it just got so I can't hand quilt anymore. A friend of mine has it now. She's still hand quilting.

TF: What do you think is the place that quilts play in today's world?

VM: Well, I think it's a great craft project that a lot of people enjoy working on.

TF: How do you think we can preserve quiltmaking and keep it going forward?

VM: By teaching our children and our grandchildren.

TF: Do you have grandchildren that you're teaching to make quilts?

VM: Not yet. [laughs.]

TF: But you're waiting?

VM: Well, the youngest lives here in town that I think will probably take to it more than the others. The older two just don't have the patience for it. One doesn't live close enough. But the one who's nine years old, I bought her a sewing machine a couple of years ago, and she was very disappointed with it. It was a child's Janome. A piece of junk. [whispered.] She sewed with it for a little bit and said, 'Grandma, this is too slow. I like your machines better.' So, I took it back to the store. I said, 'This is just not to her liking at all.' It just wasn't. And it just chugged along. It was electric. 'Clunk, clunk, clunk.' Just chugged, and she was very disappointed with it. So, she sews on my big machines, and she loves them.

TF: And how old was she?

VM: She's nine now. She was about seven, I think, then. And she's made a dress or two for herself and she's made pillowcases, and she's done quite a few little projects that she really enjoys sewing on. Of course, they keep kids so busy now with sports and everything else that they don't have much time for anything. It's kind of sad.

TF: Why is quilting important to you in your life?

VM: Keeps me busy. Something I enjoy doing. I spend a lot of hours alone, and so it just keeps me busy, keeps me involved with doing something.

TF: What's next for you in quilting? What's the next thing you want to learn or do?

VM: I'm taking an appliqué class. I've never really done well with appliqué and it's not my favorite thing, but I want to learn to do better appliqué.

TF: Machine or hand or both?

VM: Machine.

TF: Just machine?

VM: Yes.

TF: I notice you had the other quilt that you showed me before we started that was all a beautiful appliqué quilt with the Ellie Sienkiewicz blocks. [the quilt actually was an Eleanor Burns Appliqué-in-a-Day pattern.]

VM: Yes, that's all machine appliqué.

TF: Oh, is it really?

VM: Yes.

TF: Well, it's beautiful. You don't look like you need a lot of instruction.

VM: [laughs.] Well, there are better ways to do machine appliqué, I'm sure, than that.

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

VM: Probably money, right now. The fabrics have gotten more and more expensive and lack of time and lack of money, both, I would say are the biggest challenges. You know, quiltmaking started out using up scraps, using up leftovers and stuff, and we didn't buy great quantities of fabric to cut apart and make a quilt. Mostly used up what we had. Maybe bought a little for a background or a back or something like that. In fact, most of the first ones used a sheet on the back, and batting was almost nonexistent except for cotton batting, and you really had to stitch that close to keep it from lumping up. I think my mother-in-law probably used more sheet blankets, they used to call them, they're kind of like a flannel blanket, in between because they didn't lump up like the batting did. I think she used more of that than anything in the middles of her quilts.

TF: Did that make the quilts heavy?

VM: Well, there again, they were meant to be warm. They weren't just a decorative item like so many are now. Wall quilts, we didn't know what a wall quilt was. You'd put a quilt on the bed to stay warm. My mother-in-law had twelve children. She used quilts to keep them warm. And she did beautiful hand quilting.

TF: So, the quilts that you have given away to friends and family, do you know what's happened to most of those?

VM: I think they're using some. I think my girls keep theirs pretty much on quilt racks. They use them as bedspreads more than to keep them warm, fold them back when they go to bed, don't sleep under them as a blanket.

TF: How do you think we can preserve the quilts that we make today for future generations to enjoy?

VM: Well, I think some special ones will be saved, but those that are utility will just be used and worn out like we used to do. I know some of the first ones that I made for my children are worn out to shreds and gone. You just use them up. But things like this Bargello, it won't be used as a warmth kind of thing. There's one hanging on the wall there [indicating.] that's a Bicentennial quilt that my mother-in-law hand quilted. It will never be used on a bed, I don't think.

TF: Is there anything that we haven't talked about, about quilting, that you can think of that you'd like to talk about?

VM: Nothing really, I can think of.

TF: Well, I certainly always enjoy seeing what Vivian's going to bring to the Guild meeting because you always have several new projects to show us every month.

VM: [laughs.] Oh, about two a month, I try to bring, and I won't try to bring any more than that because I don't want to hog the show.

TF: [laughs.] We don't mind. We love to look at quilts.

VM: Sometimes I think, 'Well, I'll give somebody else a chance.'

TF: Well, I want to thank you, Vivian, for allowing me to interview you for our Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project.

VM: It's been a pleasure and fun.

TF: Our interview concluded at 1:40 p.m.


“Vivian McPherson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,