Dorothy Karsten




Dorothy Karsten




Dorothy Karsten


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Steeleville, Illinois


Kim Greene


Note: Dorothy Karsten of Liberty Bell of the West Chapter NSDAR entered her quilt "A Tribute to Family Heritage in Patchwork Quilts" in the 118th Continental Congress, 2009 American Heritage Committee's fiber arts - hand quilt contest. The contest theme was "Our Heritage a Patchwork of Our Past." Dorothy placed third.

Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Dorothy Karsten. Dorothy is in Steeleville, Illinois and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is December 9, 2009, and it is now 10:08 in the morning. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Illinois State Society Daughters of the American Revolution and Dorothy is a member of the Liberty Bell of the West Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Tell me about your quilt "A Tribute to Family Heritage in Patchwork Quilt."

Dorothy Karsten (DK): Thank you Karen, I am honored to be able to do this. I decided to honor our heritage with making these quilts because it is something that is of our past and we need to continue on. This year I chose as my pattern for my quilt blocks the Dolly Madison Star because it reminded me of years ago when my mom used to make clothes for me and a lot of times, they were made out of feed sacks and all that. So, I like to kind of do things from the past and that's why I selected to do the Dolly Madison Star because she was our fourth presidential wife, and she was big in hospitality. The pattern was not made by Dolly Madison. It was made in her honor. It has--let me see there was 1,234 pieces just to do the top and one block is a star and then the next block is plain with a shield in it. Now this as far as the book that I got this pattern out of says that this is the authentic pattern. Now there are a lot of other patterns with Dolly Madison's name attached to them, but this is supposed to be the authentic one. It was always made in red, white and blue so that's why I did it in red, white and blue. The original pattern was a 9-inch square, but I increased it to a 12-inch square so that it would match the Martha Washington Star [quilt.] that I had made last year. Let me see, I cut--each piece is cut singlely. I have injury to my right arm so I cannot use the wheel [rotary cutter.] to cut the material so every piece was cut piece by piece.

KM: Did you use a template?

DK: Yes, ma'am I did. I had a plastic one that I used for cutting each one of these, but the quilt is pieced by machine, but it was hand quilted. It took me--I didn't keep track of the time on cutting my pieces or getting it sewed together, but it took me a month to quilt the quilt. When I tried to take pictures, the front shows up really good, but the back does not show up like I wanted it to. It changes colors and I have taken the pictures with two different cameras and taken it to two different places to have them developed and they just change colors on me.

KM: It looks pink but it's really red?

DK: Yes ma'am, it is American Beauty red.

KM: You did Prairie Points along the edge?

DK: Yes ma'am, I did.

KM: Is that typical for you?

DK: Yes, ma'am.

KM: Why do you like to have Prairie Points on your edge?

DK: To me it dresses it up a little bit more. I don't know, it's just something that I just really think needs to be there. I know that they didn't do it years ago, but I do put it on mine. There are 28 stars on the quilt and then there are 29 Nine Patches to make it [the entire quilt.] up.

KM: This quilt is 92 inches by 102 inches. Is that a typical size for you?

DK: Yes, it is. I like to make them about a queen size and in the book that I used that was the size that they had in there also for the blocks. I do most all of mine so that I've got them all about the same size.

KM: Tell me about entering it in the contest. What happened?

DK: I entered it in the contest, I got first place in the State of Illinois. I got first place in North Central, which was seven states and then it went on to National and I got third place nationally. I was quite pleased with that.

KM: How often have you entered?

DK: This was my third time.

KM: And how have you done?

DK: Well, I'm kind of proud of it. My first year, I did the Underground Railroad quilt. I got first place in the State of Illinois, first place in North Central, I tied second place nationally. Last year I entered the Martha Washington Star, I got first place in the State of Illinois, first place in North Central and it went for national judging, but I did not place last year.

KM: What are your plans for this year?

DK: I have another quilt in the works. This one is another presidential wife's quilt. This is Mrs. Grover Cleveland. This is a lot more detail and work than my other quilts have ever been. It has three different kinds of material in it and it will also be machine pieced, but it will be hand quilted and I'm getting ready to put it into the frame now. Let me see, I can't remember, oh there were 32 - 12-inch blocks and there are 31 plain blocks in the one that's coming up. Mrs. Cleveland was a 21-year-old bride when she became First Lady. Going back to the Dolly Madison Star, Dolly was very big in hospitality so in the four corners I did my best to quilt in a pineapple which is hospitality. In all four corners, there's the pineapple. Now a lot of people think this shield that is in the Dolly Madison Star was put there for a purpose. Some of them thought that maybe I had a son in military or something that is a tribute to him. It is not. That was in the actual pattern and so I did it just like the pattern said.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

DK: At the present time, I have been asked to go around different places and show these quilts, but my plans for it, it [and all of my quilts.] will eventually go to one of my two granddaughters. They will have to split them up and they will go to them. Hopefully they will take care of them and keep them for generations to come.

KM: What does your family think of your quilt making?

DK: They are pretty proud of me. Yes, I'm, it is something that I didn't really intend to get into it that much and the honors have really been shocking because I had no idea that my work was that good or anything. I do give credit to 29 years in the garment factory, and I didn't start quilting until I was in my early 20s because I had no one to teach me and then I met up with two German ladies here in town and both of them between them taught me a little bit about quilting and let me quilt on theirs to get some experience. Then unfortunately both of them have passed and so I've had to go on and learn on my own. I have learned a lot by listening to other quilters and going to quilt shows and I collect a lot of quilt books and do a lot of reading on quilts and that's where I've learned a lot of my education on them.

KM: Do you belong to any quilt groups?

DK: Yes, I do belong to a couple. One is here in town. We meet twice a year and just kind of show our projects. Now there is another part of us that every month we meet, and we make baby quilt tops and quilts for the preemie center in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, St. Francis Hospital. I alone have made 81 quilt tops for them and then another lady tacks them. Then I've just joined a quilting group down at Chester. There isn't too much going on there. They just sit around and show what they've done and just talk and that's about the extent of it. I just gotten into that so maybe they'll get going before long.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

DK: I usually start about 8:00 in the morning or even earlier and I'll quilt up to 11:00 at night, because I'm by myself so I can just sit there and quilt all day.

KM: Do you always quilt your quilts in a frame?

DK: Yes ma'am, I have a real big room and I can just put it in the big frame and that's just where it stays. I've asked different ones about the circles and some of them like them and some of them don't, but I have just always done them in these big frames, and I get along just really well with that.

KM: Tell me about the place that--your sewing room or the place that you sew.

DK: [laughs.] It's 20 [feet.] by 20 [feet.] and I don't have too much in there because it's just strictly my quilting room and I've just turned that side of my house--I live in a 10-room house and so half of it is dedicated just strictly to all my sewing. I do take in sewing for other people. My main thing is I just quilt in the wintertime because I have yard work and garden in the summertime, so I just quilt in the wintertime. I usually try to get out at least four quilts in the winter. I do quilt a couple of quilts for other people. I try to make sure I don't overdo that because I want more quilts for my own grandchildren and so I'm just kind of a little stingy on that.

KM: Is there any aspects of quilt making that you don't enjoy?

DK: No, there's not. I love sewing. There is a needle in my hand all the time. [laughs.] I really enjoy it and I just like the challenge of coming up with something new, hunting different patterns and all that to see what I can put together and the challenge of going around hunting the material. I don't go to one certain place; I look around and I shop around different places for my material.

KM: What are your favorite materials?

DK: Just strictly all cotton. Well really my biggest place I guess that I do go to is Nashville. It's Lee's Variety Store at Nashville because they have more material, but some of these smaller places it just seems like they also have the material that I want, and I just walk in and start looking around and try to find something that strikes my eye and then I work from there with what will go with it and then try to put things together. Sometimes I already have a pattern selected and sometimes I come home and look for something that I think would go with that material.

KM: This quilt is basically solid fabrics.

DK: Yes.

KM: Is that typical for you?

DK: Yes ma'am. I don't like real gaudy stuff, so I try to--I want it to look nice, but I don't want anything real gaudy. I try to stick kind of plain.

KM: Is your typical palette red, white and blue?

DK: No ma'am. This was the colors that the book--when I did the Dolly Madison Star that was the colors that it said it was typically made in. Now Mrs. Grover Cleveland is altogether different. Martha Washington Star [quilt.] at I made last year, it also said that it should be in red, white and blue. The upcoming one will be in different colors. I already have a pattern a pattern selected for next year's quilt contest, and it is all plain material for that one also. The one that I'm going to be entering this coming year is a flowered material for part of it and that is a little different than what I've been using but that is what it recommends so that is what I try to follow because not only do I want the pattern to be the way the pattern is supposed to be, but I also want it to kind of follow what they have selected in the patterns were intended to be.

KM: What do you find is the most pleasing part of quilt making for you?

DK: Getting it out of the frame and seeing the finished product. It is just a challenge. I think that's what makes me quilt more hours in the day and so forth. It's just the challenge. When I get started, yes, I can see what it's going to look like, but it's just the honor of getting it finished and being able to see the finished product and being able to show it to other people because this isn't the typical patterns that are used around here. That is the reason that I have chosen to kind of follow through this line and bring to the attention of every one of the patterns that were used years ago and now the one that I'll be entering in the contest this coming year, she is supposed to be the last presidential wife that there was a pattern made in her honor. They said from then on, they were just made and given to them. Like I said, the patterns are different than what they're using around here, like the Double Wedding Ring and all of those and this is more historical. It goes back telling the story of our presidential wives and bringing up their attention also in their honor.

KM: What does your community think of your quilts?

DK: They are excited about them because they all want to see what the next project is going to be, and I've got a lot of attention over the quilts. I mean there's been a lot of newspaper write ups and like I said I've had church groups and genealogical groups; I've had other DAR places call me. Let me see, there are a number of different places that have called me and asked me to come and show the quilts and tell a story and history of the quilts. Then they've asked me to enter a couple of quilt contests locally, which I have shown my quilts for them also. Everybody is wanting to know, well what's the story about it and why this and why that. I try to take my time to share all this with them so that they'll know what it's all about.

KM: So, you like going around and talking about your quilts?

DK: Well, [laughs.] I'm not a person to do this, but I just kind of gotten into it and well like I said, I don't mind sharing the story on them. If it helps and people are interested, as long as they're interested, I'm willing to do it because otherwise this is a hidden thing that isn't around here and so it just is something that they are getting a little bit of education on and I'm willing to share what I have and what I've done with them. I've had several different ones that have asked me if I will help them get started on learning to quilt and all that, which of course anything with sewing that's right down my alley and I'm ready to help.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

DK: My advice which I have [laughs.] had problems with, they want to get this project done overnight. I have pulled the reins in on that, and I don't let them do that. I always make them start out, get an embroidery block and then we put it in the frame. I teach them how to quilt. Quilt one block to let them see what it really is and then they can make up their mind. 'Oh, maybe this isn't what I wanted to do after all,' because I don't want to see people go out and spend a lot of money on this kind of stuff and then they find out they don't want to do it and then they throw it in the corner and that's where it stays. I've had that happen so that's the reason I don't let them just go out and spend a lot of money until they know what they're doing and know that's really what they want to do with it. Then when we get one block quilted then we can make a pillow out of it and so forth and that's not near as much money involved as it is to go out and buy a lot of material and then they decided they don't like to do it because what's happen then is they bring it to me, 'Dorothy, I don't want to do this. How about you finish it up?' Well, they don't learn anything that way.

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

DK: The biggest challenged is--well a lot of them don't have the time. A lot of them--now I do not like anything machine quilted so I think that is one of the bigger things. A lot of them, oh yeah, they want to make the quilts but then they shove it off on somebody else to machine quilt them or some people do get them hand quilted. Some people get them hand quilted. I think that is the biggest challenge is the fact that it takes so much time. If you want to do a good job when your hand quilting, it does take time and there is a lot of sore fingers but it's all worth it, I think.

KM: Do you use a thimble?

DK: Yes ma'am, I do. I have [laughs.] a lot of trouble finding thimbles that suit me and the problem is they are hard to find, the kind that I like. I want them with the rounded top and a lot of them have that little round ledge on them. I don't like those and then I just bought a new one here a short time ago. It's the metal on the end and then it's plastic. Some kind of rubberish plastic that goes down over your finger. It fits really nice and everything, but I don't always stick my needle in through that end of that point or end and sometimes I'm in a place where I'll just shove it in with the side of my fingers. Well, those plastic things, your needle goes right through and so it just doesn't work for me. I don't recommend that for anybody. Some others might like it, but I don't. Then on my left hand I always put Super Glue on my fingers first and then that kind of puts a coat on the finger until you get them really callused and then I put a little piece of tape over the top of that Super Glue and that works really good because you want to make sure you can feel the needle going through and coming back up. If you have anything else on your fingers you don't feel that and then the needle doesn't go all the way through so you're not quilting all the way through.

KM: Why is quilt making important to you?

DK: It gives me something to do in the winter and like I said I'm proud of the product when I get it done and then I can share it with others. So, I think that's my most important thing is just having pretty quilts. I didn't have those kinds of quilts growing up. My mom did not quilt and so we just had blankets and well we had a few hands me down quilts that probably my grandma had made, but they were old and didn't last. I just really wanted something to hand down to my own grandchildren. At the present time my oldest granddaughter is interested, but with time and school she just absolutely isn't able to do any of that and so I want them to be able to have something as a keepsake that Grandma Dot made for them.

KM: How many grandkids do you have?

DK: I have two. My oldest is 22. She has rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's Disease so she's a very sick young lady and she is a nurse, and she is going on for more education. My youngest one is a sophomore in high school, and she too is involved in a lot, so I don't get to teach them too much, but they sure do like Grandma's things that she makes for them.

KM: Very nice.

DK: I have made, I have made some quilts that I've already let them have so that they could be enjoying them. But I do have like these contest quilts and so forth I have not let them have yet because I just don't want anything to happen to them yet and I know that my oldest granddaughter would definitely take care of them. I used to make a lot of the embroidery quilts and then she was at my house, and I was making quilt tops for the church, and she says, 'Grandma, I like those pieced quilts.' And so, I said, 'Would you like to have some?' And she said, 'Yeah.' They really are happy to know that Grandma is making them another quilt. [laughs.]

KM: Why did you stop making embroidery quilts?

DK: Just because of the girls requesting the pieced quilts. They thought they were pretty and so I've just--I do still do some embroidery work, mainly when, I take another lady to the doctor and things like that. I sit and embroider while I'm sitting there, so I do some embroidery work, but they have got quite a few quilts already made that I had embroidered.

KM: What kind of embroidery work do you do?

DK: My main thing is just strictly embroidery. Some of them I've got--well they each got a quilt that is put away for them when they get married. There are 30 blocks in each quilt, and they are just solid embroidery. I do not do the counted cross stitch or anything like that.

KM: Is it red work, or is it?

DK: No, it's not red work.

KM: Okay.

DK: There is just all kinds of them.

KM: What are the motifs? What are you embroidering? Are they flowers? Are they?

DK: No, the one that I am embroidering right now is a big star in the middle of each block and then around on the outside then there are small squares around each of the blocks and then I'm only going to put 12 blocks into this quilt, and I have, well I've got one started, I'm just ready to put it together. It's got six blocks in it, and it is flowered and that one will be for my second granddaughter who will be graduating from high school in a couple of years, but I wanted to go ahead and get hers done because the other one has one like that when she graduated from high school. It just depends. I put different number of blocks in the different quilts. Some of them are six. Some are 9. Some of them are 12. It just depends on how I decide that I want to set the quilt up as to how many blocks I put in it. Some of them, like I said are just the star. Others have a lot of flowers and things like that in them. It just depends.

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

DK: The color and the selection of the materials that you use. I don't know, like I said, you've got to find your coordinating colors is my main thing, but I don't want too many colors in some of them because to me it just doesn't go together and the same way with the embroidery work. I like embroidery work, but I don't get carried away with too many colors. I don't know what to say.

KM: What kind of quilt are you drawn to and why?

DK: My main thing right now is the pieced quilts because it's a challenge and I just love to get the blocks put together to see what they're going to look like and then getting them set together and get it to a quilt top and then get ready to quilt them.

KM: What do you think, let me start that over again. In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history? You talk a lot about recreating presidential lady's quilts.

DK: Yes ma'am. It's a way to still honor them and bring to attention of our ladies of the past. Just in general conversation, you don't hear any talk about them, at least I don't, so that's the reason I chose to do some of this because it brings up their name and gets more information for them to remember, hey we did have first presidential wives and the presidents are always mentioned but not their wife. I tell you what Martha Washington and Dolly Madison were big in helping with our country and so forth. In fact, well Dolly Madison had been married before and she had two sons and then her husband died, along with their baby with Yellow Fever. Now Dolly Madison then she married President Madison, and she was given credit for saving the George Washington portrait when the British set fire to the White House. Things like that, people don't know and when you get started telling them about all of this, then it educates them, and it makes things more interesting. You can walk up to a quilt and admire it and you can see a lot in it and so forth, but when it's also telling a story, I think that brings more attention to it and is more educational.

KM: Do you do a lot of research on your quilts before you make them?

DK: Yes, I kind of read up on the ones that I'm going to be doing so that I can know a little bit more about them. To me, it makes the quilt a little bit more interesting then when you know something. When somebody comes here to the house, and they see me quilting on a quilt. 'What pattern is that' and so forth. Well, then I can tell them about this person and everything and it educates them and that way you're able to share a little bit more about your quilts and the history at the same time. I think it's more interesting. You can sit down and read all of this and so forth but then when you put the quilt pattern and the story together it doesn't seem like a history lesson, I guess you would say. It's more interesting. Well, okay that quilt was so and so pattern, and it don't seem like a regular history lesson.

KM: Do you document your quilts?

DK: To a certain extent yes. I need to do more than what I do, but I just don't slow down and take the time to do it.

KM: How do you document them?

DK: I have books that I keep with each one of the quilts and the story that goes with them and a write up with them.

KM: Do you label your quilts?

DK: Yes ma'am, I do.

KM: What do you put on your labels?

DK: I put my name, the title of the quilt, and of course with DAR when I'm entering them in the contest, I also have to have on there the Liberty Bell of the West Chapter of NSDAR, along with our chapter name and my name has to be put on them along with my national number. Now then I want to go back, which I haven't done yet, but I've got to go back, and I want to put another label on each quilt to state what the honors were with those quilts so that in case that the books and the quilt would get separated in time, it is still on the quilt what the honors were and all that.

KM: You said you placed first in Illinois and first in the North Central Division, what do you receive when you get those honors?

DK: I receive certificates from each division and it's the honor that you can go to Washington, D.C., which I did do two years ago and received the certificates during Continental Congress in Washington, D.C. There is no money involved, except my expense of going to Washington, D.C., and buying the material and making the quilts. There is no money as far as any winning or anything like that. It's just certificates and the honor and I feel like--well, I had one lady that told me [laughs.] this year, she thought I ought to drop out. [KM laughs.] But I'm sorry I am not. I said, 'As long as I can do this, it is bringing recognition to the State of Illinois, our district, our chapter.'

KM: Why did she think you shouldn't enter again?

DK: Jealousy.

KM: Hum, that's sad.

DK: Ah, ha. [laughs.] I told the lady--we were at a DAR meeting and when she told me this and I said, 'Well I'm sorry, I've already got my material bought. I've got my pattern and I am going to go ahead with it.' When I came back and told some of them in our chapter, well they just had a fit because they knew the lady also and they said, 'No, we are not quitting.'

KM: Was she a quiltmaker?

DK: Not that I know of no.

KM: Well, that is even stranger.

DK: Yes, it is. It is, but she just thought that I ought to drop out this year. I think it is just strictly the fact that I've entered, I've already entered three and I've got all these honors with them. But it's all done fair and square. I do not know who any of the judges are in any of the levels. Last year I did know Sharon Frizzell who was in charge of the state, but I have no idea who her judges were. I knew Areta Joines, who is North Central. I have no idea who her judges are and Mary Ann Hughes, I have never met that lady even. Nobody can say that there is anything twisted or anything like that.

KM: Tell me about going to Continental Congress and getting the award. How was that?

DK: It was quite an honor. I went on the DAR bus and then we were out there all through Continental Congress and then we did--my name was called several times with the honor and so forth and then it was presented to me by Sally Crider and Billy Brock from Jacksonville, Florida. The day that they were handed out on the stage our bus had taken a trip down to Jamestown and I went along so they made Ann and Billy made arrangements to be together and they asked me to meet with them and they presented me with my certificates at that time.

KM: Very nice.

DK: I was asked to go back this year again, but I had just been to Florida and I'm just not ready to go so I didn't go back out this year. I might just go anyway regardless of what happens next year I may go anyway. It was an honor and a thrill to know that a [one of mine.] quilt had gone that far. When I made the quilt, I made it as an offer to the chapter. We were needing to make some money to do our projects through the chapter and so I opened my mouth and I said, 'Well if the chapter would buy the material, I would make the quilt and then they can be raffled off, as a means to make money. I had no idea. It wasn't until after the quilt was made and our chapter regent saw it, she said, 'There has to be something more with just doing this.' She got a hold of--I can't remember the lady's name up north and told her about the quilt and she said, 'Oh, that's got to be entered in the American Heritage Quilt Contest.' So, then they come back, and they asked me [laughs.] after they already got everything lined up, they ask me, 'Would you mind letting this happen?' And I said, 'Well yes, please don't embarrass me because I didn't think my work was that good.' It was quite an honor. When they called me first and told me I had first place in the State of Illinois I laughed. I thought it was a joke. The same way when it went North Central and when it went National, I just could not believe it. When it went for National last year and I won again this year, it is quite an honor and quite a shock.

KM: Did they raffle the quilt off?

DK: Yes, they did.

KM: How much money did you raise?

DK: We made over $2,000.

KM: Very good.

DK: Yes, we were real happy and we guarded the money quite well and we just use it for special projects and everything. I did make another quilt like that to keep for myself. That was the Underground Railroad quilt, so there were two of them made.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

DK: I guess with the pretty quilts because that's my thing and, like I said. I love to sew and that's one thing that I can do now, but I do have to give credit with 29 years in the garment factory--is where my sewing all got started. That's my biggest passion and I guess it's a bad habit because I can always find my way to the sewing machine to do some more sewing.

KM: Is there anything that you would like to share that you haven't touched upon before we conclude?

DK: I would like to say I think it's been an honor to receive all of these awards. I think it's an honor to share the stories of the quilts and I think it's something that is very educational. It's a lot of hard work. Some of your material is quite expensive, but you've got a nice quilt. You do a good job of it and it's going to last forever and it's going to be something that is definitely a keeper to hand down to other generations and maybe will be something of educational value down the line.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and doing this interview with me. We are going to conclude our Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview at 10:54.


“Dorothy Karsten,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,