Roberta Bartley




Roberta Bartley




Roberta Bartley


Ronda Coleman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Carolyn Mazloomi


Elkhorn City, Kentucky


Ronda Coleman


NOTE: There is a bit of background talk as this interview was done during a Chicken Scratch quilt class. Roberta Bartley is one of the instructors of the class.

Ronda Coleman (RC): Mrs. Roberta, thank you for coming today and for allowing me to interview you. If you would, tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

Roberta Bartley (RB): This one is a star that I just sat down and drawed. I like to do some of my own patterns. Sometimes the Lord blesses me to do it and sometimes He don't. If it wasn't for Him, I couldn't do it. I enjoy doing this and some of the others when I make them like the big star that Eloise had, my husband wanted a big star so I just, the material is 45 inches wide so I said I'll make it 45 the other way and I just started drawing the star and I got the star made and I got the others to go around it and everybody like it so it went over well.

RC: It is--it is very pretty.

RC: What special meaning maybe would this quilt have for you?

RB: I hope that my grandchildren and my son, my son's already got some quilts but when I'm gone someone will take care of these and cherish them as much as I do.

RC: So, your son likes quilts too?

RB: I've gave them four, six about six.

RC: Oh, great. Do they live here, or do they live away?

RB: They live right in front of me.

RC: Oh, very good. How convenient. Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?

RB: The colors just come right out at you. [laughs.]

RC: They do. Very pretty. What do you think that someone seeing your quilt might conclude about you?

RB: That I like bright colors. [laughs.] That I'm a friendly type of person and this brings out the joy in you to accomplish something that you think somebody else will like. I like to do things that other people can do too, and they feel like they've accomplished.

RC: How do you use this quilt?

RB: Well, when I get ready to, I put it on my bed and use it and if I don't then my grandchildren can get the use of it. Hopefully they'll use it and think of me when they've got it on.

RC: And you said before that your plans for the quilt were to pass it on down to your son?

RB: Yeah.

RC: Do you have one child?

RB: I've got one child. He's adopted but I couldn't love him no more if I'd given birth to him.

RC: Right.

RB: And I've got two grandchildren, a granddaughter, 17 and a grandson that is 13 and soon be a great grandmother. She's 2-1/2 to 3 months pregnant.

RC: Oh, great.

RC: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

RB: Well, my mother started me when I was just a little girl. She had this old pedal sewing machine and she would take feed sacks and our old clothes we wore out and she would make strips and blocks and stuff, and she would sew them together and she would sit me on her lap and let me put the material under the sewing machine while she was pedaling it because I couldn't reach the pedals and she taught me the love of quilt making. We had to do it for warmth, which they didn't have much money to buy materials and stuff at that time to make these beautiful quilts like now, but they were beautiful then, but I guess back then they, people cherished them more because they had to make them for warmth for their beds for their children. And my mother taught me how to sew and I've never forgotten that, and I appreciate everything she did. She always let me help do anything I wanted to do, cook or whatever. She would sit me up in a chair and let me make biscuits and what I do today, I learned from my mother.

RC: At what age did you start quilt making?

RB: I started sewing when I was six-year-old.

RC: How many hours a week do you quilt?

RB: Sometimes it's--[laughs.] well on my quilts I just lay them back so I can quilt these quilts for these people but usually I try to work on my quilt about 2 or 3 hours a day. Hopefully I can. There's days I do and days I don't.

RC: And you probably alluded to this a little bit before about your first quilt memory?

RB: Well, the first quilt was the ones I helped my mother make. They were like I said ones made out of strips and squares and feed sacks and our old clothes and stuff and blue jeans and sometimes we tacked them and sometimes she sewed them on her hands on the heavy frame she pulled up to the loft to keep it out of the way of all of us running around. And she taught me how to hand quilt too. Used to I would quilt with my hand all the time but this sewing machine quilting lasts a long time because I've noticed some of the hand quilting comes loose before the sewing machine do but I guess the hand quilted ones makes it more authentic, you know, I can't get the word I want. Anyway, but the sewing machine it does a real good job and I've got different patterns I use so it's all not the same all the time.

RC: Right. Are there other quiltmakers among your family?

RB: Oh yes, my sisters and my sister in laws. I've got one sister-in-law; she makes patterns up by herself and she's real sick right now and she don't get to do much, but she is a real good quilter on her hands. And my sister-in-law, Jackie, she's a good hand quilter. I taught her how to do this and she's quilting a basket now, the one I made from a flower vase in chicken scratch, she's quilting it on her hands. She's real proud of it because it's the first one she's made.

RC: Does she come to the class here?

RB: No, she's eighty-year-old and she don't drive.

RC: Okay. How does quilt making impact your family?

RB: [2 second pause.] That's a hard one to answer. [3 second pause] I guess it just gives them a pleasure in doing stuff and then you needed to have quilts because you couldn't afford to buy blankets and all that, so you had to have those quilts, so I guess it made an impact on us where we had to have the quilt [inaudible.].

RC: Have you ever used quilts to get, help you get through a difficult time?

RB: I sold two to--when my husband got hurt so we could have money to make from that day on before I started to work.

RC: Have you ever had an amusing experience occur while you've been teaching or quilting?

RB: Yeah, a lot of these women come up and 'I can't do that.' I say, 'Don't never say I can't.' Always say I'll try, and the Lord will bless you and you can do whatever you want to do, if you ask Him to help you.

RC: That's right. What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

RB: You get the satisfaction of accomplishing something you thought you couldn't do and after you get this done you stand by and say, 'Did I do all that?' These women that's done this, some will say 'I never thought I could do that,' and their eyes shine, and you can see the joy. That makes me feel good.

RC: That's true. What aspects of quilt making do you enjoy most?

RB: All of it. [laughs.] I like the quilting and I like the making of it and putting them together and seeing how they are going to look when I get them together. [both talk at the same time.]

RB: Then the finished product.

RC: Is there anything you don't like about it?

RB: No,

RC: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

RB: This quilting class here at the library.

RC: Have advances in technology influenced your quilt, your quilt work?

RB: No, not really.

RC: Other than the fact that you do use a machine?

RB: Yeah, other than that, yeah.

RC: Do you use a regular sewing machine, or do you have a quilting machine?

RB: No, it's a quilting machine with the big table and it's got the patterns and the little thing you follow the patterns with.

RC: Great. What are your favorite techniques and materials?

RB: Something I sit down and create myself.

RC: What type of materials do you use, what type of fabric mainly?

RB: Mostly cotton, good for quilts and I've got into this chicken scratch. [laughs.] I like it too. I've got a Tree of Life I've got to get out and fix.

RC: Is that a Chicken Scratch Tree of Life?

RB: No, it's appliqué.

RC: Appliqué, yeah that should be very pretty.

RC: Describe the place where you create.

RB: In my living room [laughs.] and at my kitchen table. [laughs.]

RC: How do you balance your time?

RB: My husband is real good to help when I'm busy quilting. He'll cook and I can have the time to do what I need to do and he's awfully good to help me. He helps out a whole lot.

RC: here do you set up your quilts to decide how you are going to put them together?

RB: Usually on my table. [laughs.]

RC: How do you make your layers stay together for quilting?

RB: I've got, on my sewing machine I've got three rollers. You put the lining on the back and roll it up. Then you put the quilt top on the middle one and you roll it up and then you put your cotton behind and bring all three to the front then you pin them on. I've got this machine that's got this pattern here in the front and it's got this little thing that comes down and you follow that pattern with it. I take my hand and smooth it out while I work with this hand.

RC: So, you don't have to pin or baste?

RB: No. I pin them on. You've got this material you've got to pin these on.

RC: Onto the roller.

RB: You pin it on the back and pin the top on the middle and then you pin all three of them together at the front. That way they'll stay smooth. You've got to make sure that it's all lined up, so the quilt won't. Sometimes you see them kind of puckered on the back. They don't get their lining and stuff straight. I try my best when I'm quilting for people to do it like I want mine to be done and I take my time to make sure that it's right.

RC: And I imagine that's why there are a lot of people that say they take their quilts to Roberta to quilt it.

RB: I hope. I try, with the Lord's help.

RC: How do you do the binding of the quilts?

RB: I take and sew it on the back first and then I turn it over and I zigzag some of it. I don't like to zigzag that well so now I'm starting to just take a straight stitch right to the edge of that and it's so much better.

RC: So, you do a separate binding or do you pull the backing over.

RB: On that quilting machine you can't have that excess to pin up here. It's too hard for the pins to go through so I cut it even, then I take a piece of material and cut it and then I turn it, sew it on the back first and then I turn it over to the front and I'll sew it on again and see you can't tell.

RC: That's good. What do you think makes a great quilt?

RB: By taking your time and making sure that it is done right, and you can see what you've accomplished, and you have joy and pride in it that way. If you just haphazardly, do it there's not as much, it don't mean as much. If you take your time, put all your love and your joy and your pride in it, then you've got something you'll treasure for the rest of your life.

RC: Good. What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

RB: The design, I think, the design.

RC: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

RB: That's a hard one. [four second pause.] That one I really don't know. [laughs.] They've all got some kind of, I can't think what, artistic something about them. But some, the museums don't want some of them. They've got a preference of what they want. But some of ours that I've, --that we've done here that I've seen at Cumberland Gap, these would put them to shame. Don't, don't, don't write that down. [laughs.]

RC: [laughs.] What do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

RB: It's like I say you've got to have pride in anything you do and what you're doing and loving what you do and getting joy out of it.

RC: How do you feel about machine quilting vs. hand quilting?

RB: Well, I guess the hand quilting is more authentic. But the quilt machine lasts longer than the hand. If you use them a whole lot the quilting machine, their closer together, the stitches, and they last longer. As I said the hand quilting is probably more authentic than quilting by machine is.

RC: Why is quilt making important to your life?

RB: I was brought up with it. It just grew in me as I grew up so I still enjoy it because my mother taught it to me and she always said, 'If you'll learn how to sew, you will never go naked,' [laughs.] and you'll have clothes. I used to make all my clothes and my son's overalls and everything. I taught school, Head Start for 23 years and I got out of sewing a whole lot but then I took it back up. I really enjoy sewing and quilt making.

RC: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or the region you live in?

RB: Well like some of them like UK [University of Kentucky.], it represents that school and then we had this lady that came in here and wanted me to make her a T for Tennessee University, so I sit down, and I did it. Lot of them represents the schools for the region.

RC: What do you think about the importance of quilts in America's life?

RB: I think that all the people should know how to make quilts and keep it alive because our ancestors did this. I think it should keep going with the younger generation. Some of our younger generation, I don't know if they will ever want to learn to do anything like that or not, because they don't have the stamina we had when we was growing up. We had to do things and this younger generation they don't think they have to do nothing much at all that's for--what do I want to say, that makes progress.

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

RB: It shows what women can do and their ability to do things that makes their life more enjoyable the same as what their men does to make their life enjoyable. They've got to have sewing or something in their life to make it worthwhile, you know. I think quilt making is one of the most joyful things a woman can do besides taking care of her family.

RC: How do you think quilts can be used?

RB: Well, they can use them for wraps, for bedding, for your warmth for that, and pass on from generation to generation to keep things alive and go on and they'll have that pattern to go by if they want to make some more if that quilt wears out, they've got that pattern that they can go ahead, and do it if they want to.

RC: How do you think they can be preserved for the future?

RB: [four second pause.] Well, they'll probably have to be taken care of and like I say, passed on down and make more patterns off of them to keep for the future.

RC: What has happened to the quilts that you have made?

RB: Well, I've given a lot of them away. I've sold two or, two, three. I've sold three and I've got most of them in my closet and on beds. [laughs.]

RC: [laughs.] What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

RB: It's having the want to and not saying I can't and to try to do it. Now they can accomplish it and if more people would not, would have more confidence in their selves and try different things then they can always accomplish what they want to. When I taught Head Start, I would tell my children don't never say you can't. Say I'll try and you can always do anything you want to with the Lord's help.

RC: Well, this is the end of our interview and again I thank you very much for participating in this.

RB: [laughs.] Whew.


“Roberta Bartley,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,