Charlene Hopkins




Charlene Hopkins




Charlene Hopkins


Ronda Coleman

Interview Date


Interview sponsor


Pikeville, Kentucky


Ronda Coleman


Ronda Coleman (RC): This is Ronda Coleman and I'm conducting an interview with Charlene Hopkins for the Alliance for American Quilts' Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories. The place of interview is the Pikeville Public Library at Pikeville, Kentucky. The date is April 22, 2008, and the time is 1:15 p.m. Thank you Mrs. Charlene for allowing me to interview you today. Would you tell me a little bit about the quilt you chose for the interview?

CH: The quilt I chose for the interview is a Chicken Scratch quilt done in a star pattern that is designed on the corners and it's actually not a quilt that I made. Of course, I have one just like it. It was the last quilt that my father made. Daddy got interested in quilting after he became disabled to work. Of course, I'm from a quilting family, my mother, my grandmother and so one day he just said, 'I can do that.' This happened to be the 76th quilt top that my dad had made so I'm very proud of that. I'm not the owner. My mother still owns it, but I have had it on display here at the library.

RC: Why did you choose this quilt for the interview?

CH: This quilt means a lot to me. It brings back memories of all the good things my dad had done quilting. I think of all the quilt tops that he had made, and he may have sold two. The rest it just brought him such pleasure in giving it to someone else. So, there's a lot of quilts floating around that was actually made by my dad.

RC: Did he ever sign any of them or is there any way that later on in life someone will know who quilted this quilt?

CH: Actually, he didn't and that's one of the things that I think it is very important to label them on the back, especially put the dates. Dad died in ninety-eight and he had been sewing probably six years prior to that, even right up till he died, he really like picking up that needle and doing it, so I see a lot of enjoyment that he got out of it. Everybody who has one of dad's quilt tops, [say.] it's priceless.

RC: So, did he do the quilt from start to finish or did someone else quilt it or?

CH: Well, we never could get him to actually start working on the sewing machine. My mom did most of that and the quilting. Dad just more or less designed the tops and did just the needlework.

RC: How do you use this quilt?

CH: Actually, this being his last quilt, it's never been used. I have one quilt, that it was the first one that he made me. I was lucky enough out of eight children to get two quilts dad made. The first one, I'd said I wasn't going to use and when he first came to the house he was like 'Well, didn't you like my quilt?' so I used one but then the second quilt I didn't. So, this quilt I don't think we'll ever want to actually use that unless it's a bedcover for just a short period of time. I think this one is more or less going to be preserved in memory of my dad.

RC: Tell me a little bit about the quilt we were talking about before, the four generational quilts.

CH: Well, actually I picked that up from, the pattern up from one of the Elkhorn City [Kentucky.] quilters. Roberta Bartley had designed it and so all the ladies up there liked it and they decided to call it the Roberta Star. I really liked the pattern, and it looked a lot more complicated. Most of theirs was designed in Chicken Scratch so I decided to do a starburst. As you can tell from the pictures it's a little bit different. And when I first started the quilt, my grandmother's ninety-one years old and my mother's seventy-two, they vowed if I continued doing that it would never get done so they decided it was a lovely pattern and they had never really worked with variegated thread, so mom wanted to do a couple of the medium size squares and my grandmother wanted to do some of the small. So, we were working on the quilt and my nephew, he's nine years old, and he's a cancer patient, he decided since it was with the three of us working on it that would be the three generation and if he did a square, it would be four. So, on the right-hand corner is Austin's square. So, we call it Austin's square on our Four Generation quilt. So, he's going to be real happy if he sees a picture of his [laughs.] quilt that he worked on, on the internet.

RC: What are your plans for that quilt?

CH: Right now, it's on display at the library and I have probably 25 or 30 quilts that are family made. We encourage patrons if they have quilts to come in and display them here. I don't really have plans on ever using that quilt. It more going to be a four generation and I am going to name and date it. It was made in 2007. We just finished it up this fall and we're real happy with it.

RC: Tell me a little bit about your interest in quilt making.

CH: Well, I'm from a long history of quilters and I had recently written an article called "Stack of Quilts" so this began when I was probably five or six years old. I'd always seen quilts that my great grandmother had made, and everybody was always making over this stack of quilts, and I thought it was just rags cut up and sewn into something. Then I realized as I got older that that tradition passed from my great grandmother to my grandmother and Granny's ninety-one and bless her heart, she's still sewing. And then my mother sews, and it was just natural for me to follow into that pattern. Now, I have one sister, she's really not interested in making quilts because she knows [laughs.] we'll always make one for her. But it's just something that has been carried down through the generations. I can never remember not being around people who sew.

RC: How did you mother and your grandmother used to, did they always do hand quilting, or did they do machine quilting?

CH: When I was growing up there was no such thing as machine quilt. I grew up with a pedal machine that you would have to sit there and pedal and sew at the same time. I kind of miss those times but with the new technology everything is so much easier and so much simpler that probably the new generation coming up would never imagine using what we had back as late as the sixties so no one ever machine quilted. I've often thought about that. I teach quilting class and I've had several people express their opinions on hand quilting versus machine quilting. If you can recall back through the years quilts were [a.] much [heavier.] weight. Back years ago, people lived in smaller houses and the heat was not as distributed throughout the house so the back rooms would get really cold especially the bedroom. They required a heavier quilt as [times changed, and homes were better heated.] they went with a lighter weight quilt. It's hard right now to find anyone who actually sets up quilting frames and does the hand quilting. I have quilting frames and I have several quilts that are hand quilted. There's several quilts that I think mean a little bit more and they deserve hand quilting whereas, you know I like to do scrappy quilts or pieced quilts and those can be thrown around on the couch. They have no meaning. But when a quilt has meaning, then I think it deserves the best.

RC: What type of frames do you have at home?

CH: You know, I've seen a lot of frames and I don't talk a whole lot about-- I have forty-two quilters who come here. Well one of, well I would put him in the top five quilters, and he is a coach for the local high schools here and he and his wife come to the quilting class. They traveled with me to Elkhorn City. Now Elkhorn City has the space where they can actually put a quilt up and just quilt on it whereas Pikeville Library, we're a little bit more cramped for space and we do not have the space to set one up all the time. So, Coach saw these quilting frames and he said 'I think we can make a set of these', so in no time at all, I think he got with one of his relatives who worked in Shop and they made me the most beautiful set of quilt frames that are just my size, they're regular size, they stained them and I said, 'Coach, I'll have to move furniture out but these are not leaving my house.' I was really surprised that someone could actually look at the old quilt frames, cause now when you go out, they're PVC or metal or something you can take apart. Not too many has the old, I call them the old sawhorse frames. So, I was real happy to get those.

RC: At what age did you start quilt making?

CH: As I looked back through some of the interviews, I knew you were going to ask me that. Like I said, I can't ever remember not [sewing.]. [I remember.] just as a baby getting into my mother's and my grandmother's sewing stuff. But actually, my first quilt that I quilted on with help from my grandmother was a nine patch. I had not turned teenage so I'm thinking 11 or 12 years old. That was when I felt really big to get at that old pedal type sewing machine when my legs would hardly reach that. To this day, I still have that my first quilt and it hangs over the balcony over my living room.

RC: Who do you think taught you to quilt?

CH: I would like to think that I was self-taught [laughs.] Because I'm one that will look at what someone is doing and I kind of come up with my own designs for a particular quilt, but I guess I was most influenced by my grandmother. Mother always had a lot of kids, raising kids so she didn't have as much time to work individually [with me.] but going to Grandma's house was always a treat. And that's when you really felt important when you had that one on one so I would probably say that she encouraged me more to pick up the needle and sew.

RC: About how many hours a week do think you quilt?

CH: Well, working forty hours you don't get as much time as you want to but I at least do an hour in the evening after I get home regardless. It's just such a relaxing part of my evening to sit down with my needle and sew or go to my sewing machine. I not only quilt, I like to do sewing. I make drapes for my house, and I make pillows for my house. I do little lap quilts to take to the Seniors Citizens, to older people. Right now, I'm finishing up a project that our quilters started in crocheting bibs that are going to be given to the hospital for babies.

RC: Great. What is your first quilt memory? I think you may have alluded to that with the stacked quilts.

CH: Probably the stack of quilts and seeing a stack of quilts that meant absolutely nothing to me and it's seems like everybody who would come in 'Let's go and show this stack of quilts' and they would get out these quilts and I'm thinking I've seen them before; you know [laughs.] don't show me those again. But it was a sense of pride that they had in showing these quilts. Then my grandmother to this day when she moved in with my mother three years ago and all her stacks of quilts got put in plastic tubs and they're all at my house now and I saw that and then I go to mom's and mom gets into her closet and 'Let me show you my latest quilt'. So, Christmas before last I told my husband, I said, 'I don't have a closet. I want a stack of quilts.' So now I have a nice closet just for my stack of quilts. So, I saw it as a tradition passed down when quilts meant nothing to me and then as I got older, I realized the pride that my great grandmother had when she was showing her stack of quilts.

RC: Have you ever used quilts or quilting to get you through a difficult time?

CH: Actually, I have. As I mentioned before my nephew is- I never had children of my own and my husband, when my brother got married, his wife asked my husband to give her away at the wedding. We were just honored to do that. They were married seven years when Zachary was born, and she called to say we were going to be called Nana and Papaw. That took such pride and then along came Austin and when Austin was six years old, we found out he had cancer and he's battled it for three years and he's doing well. But I think I started doing more because that occupies time. I know anytime we go or we're up at night I think that fills in a lot of--not that it's going to ever--the worry is still there but there's a sense in relief when you're sewing. I think it does pull up through a lot of difficult times.

RC: And you can look back on those quilts too and remember the times that you made those quilts, what was going on at that time period.

CH: Right and that's especially true of our four-generation quilt because we were at the hospital when he said, 'We'll make it four.' So, right while we were waiting, he gets the needle and he starts sewing and I'm like 'I didn't know you could do, this Austin'. He says, 'Mamaw teaches me everything.' Anyway, he's a super, super person. In view of that, that quilt will always be with my family.

RC: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

CH: The finished product of course. I think everybody can--you know we work on it, and we work on it and you have your design wall and you put it up. It's never a--it's just material until you get that finished product and then you can look back and say, 'Was this worth all the hours that I spent on it?' I had mentioned before that my dad said that he sold a quilt and he'd never sell a quilt, he'd always give them away. He called me up and he said, 'You know I really decided that I'll just sell her that quilt top.' Well, we got figuring up by the time you do the cost of the material, and you do all this, and my dad averaged seven cents an hour so [laughs.] so I think the good thing about it is the finished product when you can look and say hey, you know, I made these. I made these quilts, so that's the satisfaction I get in knowing that I have completed a job.

RC: Is there any aspect about quilt making that you don't enjoy?

CH: Now, I would have to think about that. It depends on the quilt top. [laughs.] I'm working on now a quilt, and I enjoyed it to start but then toward the end it's sort of dragging out. It's the chicken scratch in the Dutch Boy and Girl. I said after I get this, I never want to see a Dutch Boy and Girl again. That is true with a lot of chicken scratch because you'll have all the blocks just alike and some of the patterns are a little bit more difficult and you would just like to move on to something else. But really, an aspect I don't like, [there's nothing I don't like.]. If it's a needle and thread or sewing machine, I enjoy it to some extent.

RC: So, what does your husband think about your quilting?

CH: It's great. Last year I got a new sewing room and I'm real happy with that. My husband works with the Pike County school system and his job keeps him pretty busy and he's working on his third book, he is an author. So, he has his little own thing and I have my little own thing. The good thing we have in common is we both can entertain our own self doing what we like to do. I work as a special collections librarian with the Pike County Public Library District and we both enjoy genealogy so when we get spare time we run out. But he just thinks it's great because I take such great interest in that. More and more he likes to frequent the sewing shops, too. [laughs.]

RC: That is good. That's the ideal situation, isn't it?

CH: So, I've kind of lured him into instead of the bookstore we'll go to the sewing store. We kind of do both.

RC: What's your favorite techniques in quilting?

CH: Actually, I really enjoy the chicken scratch. It's amazing that you can go strictly by a pattern, or you can play with color and I think I really like the idea of doing something that's really different, something that's unique or taking a pattern and creating your own just by using your own mind and talent to come up with something different.

RC: Do you use a design wall?

CH: I do have a design wall. But most of the time, it always looks better if you lay it on the bed. [laughs.] That way you know exactly how it's going to come out and you're going to know how big you need it. And then you have to take into consideration would someone ever want to use this quilt as a spread? Yeah, I use my design wall to come up with things that I want.

RC: What do you think makes a great quilt?

CH: What makes a great quilt? That's a question I've never really thought about, but I think what makes a great quilt is the people who are making it. What's involved and the amount of time and the amount of pride that you put into doing this work. You can thrown a quilt together but it may not be as meaningful as someone who sits down and says hey look, what I'm doing and why am I doing this, why did I choose such a pattern? Does this pattern mean something? I have a few things that maybe in a throw that they mean a lot to me. I can look and I can see swatches of material that my mother may of had in a shirt or my grandmother may have had because you know they had just scraps of quilts, scrap pieces and they used about anything. I can see a lot of that in quilts. I like a lot of the old scrap quilts that you can just sit down and sew and the fact that they can actually mean something if you want them to.

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

CH: I like to play a lot with color and one of the things that I am attracted mostly to- -I like the bright colors, I like soft hues, pinks and greens. I like--even bed sheets I want to be in, I call it a warm color. Now a lot of the dark, they're beautiful. To me because of problems that I have seeing, I think the darker colors are a lot harder to work with and that's especially true as our eyesight gets worse, we want something lighter and so I think what makes a quilt, would be the brighter the color and the fact that you can play with colors. I've seen some really odd combination of quilts that I probably wouldn't have put together that are absolutely stunning to see. I think color has a lot to do with it, [both talk at the same time.] what makes a great quilt.

RC: What do you think would make a quilt worthy of a museum or special collection?

CH: I work in special collections, and I've seen a lot and been to a lot of places that actually display quilts and I think the quilts that [are.] being made today eventually will be of historical significance. Quilts now that are of significance and worthy of museums are quilts that have been passed down to us through generations. I think age makes that quilt. When you go back, I can lay out a couple quilts that my grandmother had versus quilts my mother had, I see a world of difference. [Through age.] there's a change of material, the change in the color, the vintage. It has to have that vintage look. And you can tell by the quality in that quilt. You can tell by the weight of that quilt even the cotton. Some of the old vintage quilts I had one that we were looking at that happened to be passed down through my husband's family. It wasn't even stuffed with cotton. You find blankets so you can tell by looking even in a ten-year period that material shows a difference, it shows a difference. Now down the line, someone is going to look at our quilts and say now that's vintage because we do not know or cannot predict what it's going to be twenty years from now. These younger children may decide not to quilt and that's one of the reasons why when I have my quilting classes that it really, really makes me happy to see children getting interested in this and a lot of my students are bringing their grandchildren and those little ones are really interested. But you've got to get them before that pre-teen. Got to get that eight- and nine-year-old and get that needle out because these pre-teens would rather be at the movie. They'd rather be somewhere else. So, if you can get that little kid and you can start them now, you'll see a quilter eventually.

RC: Have advances in technology influenced the way you quilt?

CH: Absolutely. I think the now generation and I say now, I'm a little bit older than that [laughs.] but most of them are reliant on something that is electronic that is and now you get the new machines and they're digitized, and you just push a button whereas before people hand quilted. I can remember that pencil [tied.] on [strings.] with little knots and those people would make those [fan designs.] I've seen that little fan [on many vintage quilts.]. Back then they didn't have [anything electronic.] and now everything is going to electronic. [In previous years you would put a quilt up on frames.] and it would take a long time to do a quilt by hand. [Today you can complete a quilt on a machine in maybe one day. Making a quilt top is much easier because many quilts can be sewn on a machine as well.]

RC: Do you think the traditional methods of quilting will disappear?

CH: I don't think it will ever go the way of the dinosaur, no. I think they'll always be someone out there, like myself that's going to try our best to make a difference in someone else and say listen this was passed on through generations and generations and I see the importance in that and you better believe I'm going to try to get my nieces and stuff involved so they can say hey, I did it and keep that tradition going? But I don't think it will ever, it will ever leave us.

RC: Well, this concludes our interview Mrs. Charlene and I thank you for your time.

CH: Thank you.

RC: It is now 1:45 [p.m.].


“Charlene Hopkins,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024,