Karen Henderson




Karen Henderson




Karen Henderson


Julie Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Hudson, Massachusetts


Julie Henderson


Julie Henderson (JH): This is Julie Henderson. I'm interviewing Karen Henderson today October 21st. It's 9:30 and it's for the Quilters' Save Our Stories project. Hi, Karen.

Karen Henderson (KH): Hi, Julie.

JH: Karen's my mother. [laughter.]

KH: Julie's my daughter.

JH: Okay. So tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

KH: Okay. This is the quilt I made for my mother, probably about, fifteen years ago when I first took a class back in '86. She's had it ever since. I gave it to her then as a Christmas present and she kept it on her bed all those years.

JH: Wow. I didn't know you made it that long ago.

KH: Yeah!

JH: That's nice. Let's see--how would you describe it?

KH: Well it's--let's see--it's a--pinks and blues and the pattern is the Ohio Star. It's got a nine-patch border in the corners. I think it's a double size--I'm not sure.

JH: Did you pick out the fabric yourself?

KH: Yes, it's all cotton and this was first attempt at matching patterns and colors, so it's kind of test pattern. Light colors, she liked light colors, like blues and pinks.

JH: Does this quilt have special meaning for you?

KH: Yes! Just knowing that she had it all those years and it's in real good condition and now I'm going to pass it on to Julie to keep.

JH: Thank you. [laughs.]

KH: It does have special meaning. [laughs.]

JH: And why--how--did you pick this one to bring today?

KH: I think because it was probably one of my first ones, besides the one that I made in class, which was kind of boring, and because she did have it all those years.

JH: And you brought another one that you made early too.

KH: Yeah, I brought my very first quilt that I made during class. I took like a six week class at a night school. That one, when I finished that one my five-year-old son, Mark, sort of took it over. The condition of it right now is kind of ratty looking. [laughter.]

JH: So that was like--that was about--

KH: That's sixteen, fifteen years old.

JH: Fifteen years old, wow.

KH: Yeah.

JH: And you've been--have you taken a lot of classes since then?

KH: No, that was the only class I ever took. [laughter.]

JH: How come you haven't taken any more classes?

KH: Well, I should, actually take more classes to keep up with the new quilting techniques. But I do like to hand quilt, and every once in a while I say I'm going to take a machine quilting class, but that's kind of like--that's not really quilting. [laughter.] That's cheating.

JH: You think machine quilting is not the same?

KH: No, it isn't.

JH: Do you use the machine for anything?

KH: I sew the pieces together by machine because I feel that'll hold better than hand stitching, but all my quilting is done by hand.

JH: Wow.

KH: Yeah. But I've got quite a stack of quilts sitting at the house that need to be quilted so I may learn how to--

JH: Right, you might change your mind. [laughter.]

KH: Yeah I might change my mind but, until then--

JH: Would you ever send it out--I guess people send their quilts out to be--

KH: I'm almost tempted to do that for a couple of them, just to get them done. There is a woman that I found up in Massachusetts who--for a double-sized quilt she only charges thirty-five dollars.

JH: Wow, that's amazing.

KH: Yeah, and she supplies the back fabric and the batting, so that --that's really tempting.

JH: Yeah. So you use the quilts you make? It's sounds like--

KH: Well, of all the quilts I've made, they've all been gifts. I don't have any quilts, of my own, that I use. I've made wall hangings, and they're in the house. But all the bigger quilts, they've all been given away as gifts. Baby quilts, shower presents, I've given quilts, for a wedding gift I gave a quilt, so.

JH: That's true; you make a lot of stuff for other people.

KH: Yeah, but that's okay because that's what I like to do. I make people cry when they open their gifts. [laughter.]

JH: That's true. [laughter.]

KH: Well, you know. [laughs.]

JH: In a good way.

KH: Yeah, in a good way. It's a good cry. [laughter.] And then they applaud, so it gets really embarrassing.

JH: So, what made you start getting interested in quilting?

KH: Oh, I've sewn for a lot--a lot of years. You know, curtains and--I used to make you clothes when you were a baby. And my girlfriend and I decided, oh, let's try quilting, you know, it looks fun. We used to go to quilt shows and just love the quilts. So we figured, well, we can do that. But the quilts I make are very simple compared to some of the quilts that I've seen. So, I've got a lot to learn.

JH: Do you ever design your own quilts?

KH: I've done two--baby quilts--that I've designed my own little thing. Yeah. One for Tony and Lou [KH's second cousin and his wife.], it was all Noah's Ark stuff.

JH: Oh wow. That's neat.

KH: Yes it was cute.

JH: Oh, I didn't see that.

KH: I guess I should take pictures of all of these.

JH: Yes, you should document your quilts.

KH: Document--I know. [laughter.] Sorry.

JH: What kind of class was it that you took? Was it a local--

KH: It was up at Hudson High School. [in Massachusetts.] They used to offer night classes. You could take sewing, cooking, quilting, so we did that. We took it one year and you know they stopped. But every once in a while little quilts stores around have--you can learn machine quilting and you know, go in and do a one-day workshop-type thing. So I may do one of those.

JH: Are you--do you usually have a quilt going, that you're working on?

KH: Yes. Right now, at the house, I think I counted--I have eight quilt tops all made.

JH: How many--how long each week do you think you spend on quilting?

KH: I try to spend about--at least an hour every night, sit and quilt or go downstairs and sew. And when I bought my new sewing machine--this is funny, the lady at the shop says--what she does--she brings an alarm clock downstairs and she sets it for fifteen minutes, every night. And I thought, hmm. She goes, 'You'd be amazed at what you can get done in fifteen minutes.' So I started fifteen, then it went to a half hour. Now I'm at an hour. [laughter.] It's amazing what I can get done in an hour. [laughter.]

JH: Right! So you have a little--you have your little room downstairs.

KH: Yes, I do. I have my own little room sewing room. My getaway.

JH: What is your first quilt memory? Do you have one?

KH: My first quilt memory? Of making a quilt?

JH: Or anything to do with a quilt, where you saw one or anything?

KH: Well, probably the most terrifying memory I have is when I made Grandma, Dad's mom, a quilt. We went down to New Jersey to visit them for the weekend and she brought me the quilt and an entire corner of the corner of the quilt was chewed by a dog.

JH: Oh.

KH: So she asked me if I could repair it. So I had to rebuild a whole corner of the quilt, so that was like, do I want to give it back to her? [laughter.] So now the quilt is missing.

JH: Oh.

KH: Nobody knows where that quilt went.

JH: Oh. How long ago was that?

KH: That was probably--around the same time--I think when I first took the class I kind of went crazy and made both mothers a quilt. I think hers was like the third or fourth quilt. So that was the late '80s.

JH: That really sticks in your mind.

KH: Yes, it does. [laughter.]

JH: Did anyone quilt before that you know of in your family?

KH: No. No one ever--you know Grammy [KH's mother.] used to knit, crochet, sew. Her mother would knit. No, I was the first quilter.

JH: And I know I don't quilt.

KH: No, you don't quilt.

JH: But Elisa--

KH: She's learning. I'm teaching her. She's my daughter-in-law. About two weeks ago I taught her how to sew on a sewing machine. Now she wants to learn how to quilt.

JH: Oh, that's good.

KH: Yeah, so.

JH: So you mentioned that you--your quilting room is like a getaway.

KH: Yes.

JH: So, how does quilting affect your family?

KH: Oh, well they think it's cute.

JH: Oh. [laughter.]

KH: Mom's quilting, isn't that cute? But then when they see the finished products they-- Dad gets a little, 'Oh, are you quilting again.'

JH: But he likes it.

KH: He likes it. He's proud of me. He always says, 'Wow.' Because it's--unless you do it--during the process of making a quilt, you can't --other people can't see. Because when I get a top all made I'll go, 'Oh, this is beautiful.' And people look at it and all these threads are hanging out and they can't visualize it.

JH: Can't picture it.

KH: No, they need to see it done.

JH: Yes that's--will Dad go with you to quilt shows?

KH: No. No, he'll go, but he'll sit out in the hall or--you know--[laughter.] we usually bring another couple so that the two guys can go--

JH: Go do something?

KH: Yes. [laughter.]

JH: Has quilting ever helped you get through a difficult time?

KH: Well it--I guess it does sometimes in a way. It takes my mind off of things, because I'm so busy concentrating on the--yeah, it's relaxing. It is.

JH: Is that what you like about it?

KH: Yes. I like to see them done, too.

JH: Is there something about quilting you don't like--any part of it?

KH: I guess it--the one part of --if I could have somebody come and do for me, it would be cutting the fabric.

JH: Oh, really? KH: Oh, yes. You buy this big piece of fabric and you know you've got to make these little strips, two-inch strips. Then out of the strips you're going to make three hundred little squares, and I think, 'Uh.'

JH: What do use to cut them?

KH: I use my rotary cutter?

JH: You use the rotary cutter?

KH: I like--the kind of quilts I like to make are the strip-piecing ones rather than using templates and cutting particular sized things. I make strips and then out of the strips I make the squares or the triangles. I guess I'm sort of a short-cut quilter. [laughter.]

JH: Whatever works--

KH: Whatever works, they come out okay.

JH: So what do you think makes a great quilt great? What do you look for?

KH: What makes it great? I don't know, it's--I guess when you give it to somebody and they really like it. Then you feel good. You say, 'Oh, okay, all that work, it was worth it?' And plus it--all the work that goes into it, no matter if it's a big quilt or you know, little quilts, or--anything that's handmade I think is special.

JH: Yes. And if you're looking at a quilt, what usually strikes your eye about the--

KH: Patterns--with color. I think some of them--you know, first I look at a pattern--I see a quilt hanging and the pattern jumps out and then the colors. Then of course, we get picky, Kathy and I, we go up and we'll start checking out the quilting--whether it's machine quilting or hand quilting. [laughter.] It's awful.

JH: So Kathy does hand quilting too?

KH: Yes, my girlfriend Kathy, she does quilting too. We took the class together.

JH: The first one?

KH: Yes. She makes quilts too.

JH: Wow.

KH: Actually, we belong to a quilt guild--in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

JH: Oh, you do?

KH: The Wayside Quilters.

JH: When did you join that?

KH: I've been a member since, oh, I would say the late--maybe like '98. We go to a meeting every month. You can bring in stuff that you've made. I never have, because I get kind of shy about--It's like show and tell, you go up and show your quilt.

JH: What stuff do they do there?

KH: Every year they've made quilts for babies with AIDS or people with AIDS, breast cancer, you know, cancer patients, homeless shelters. Every year they average--I think, one year they made a hundred and fifty quilts.

JH: Wow, do you--

KH: Instead of quilting them, they tie them--you know, so there's no quilting. So you make your top on the machine, put your pieces together, and tie them. That way there, you can get them made faster.

JH: It's faster?

KH: Yes.

JH: Do you do that with them?

KH: I did it one year.

JH: Do they have classes there?

KH: No. There are a couple of women that teach classes on their own at their--they have shops. But I've never--I guess I don't take the time because some of the classes are like a whole Saturday.

JH: Uh-huh, too much quilting?

KH: Yes. [laughter.] I get too hyper. I can't sit there that whole--

JH: Have you--have you seen quilts in museums?

KH: Yes.

JH: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum?

KH: Age.

JH: Age? It has to be an old quilt?

KH: Yes. Because, people make new quilts and try to make them look like they're old. But I'm more impressed with old quilts.

JH: Really old quilts.

KH: Oh, yeah. That's--this is--the new quilting is nothing like the old, vintage quilts, and the fabrics.

JH: You like - what do you like about the old quilts?

KH: I like the old prints. Remember we saw the one yesterday, the Civil War?

JH: Oh, yeah.

KH: Even that other on--was the forties, the 1940's, we saw that quilt. I just like the old look of the quilts.

JH: The way the age--makes them--

KH: But you think about the way they did it back then, they didn't have sewing machines, everything was pieced together by hand. So that's more impressive than--

JH: So you like how much work had to go into it?

KH: As long as I don't have to do it. [laughter.]

JH: Now you've bought some old quilts too.

KH: Yes, I've bought three old quilts so far. At bargain prices. I've found people who haven't realized the value of the old quilts. I took advantage of them.

JH: Where did you find them?

KH: In Hudson.

JH: In Hudson, oh. [laughter.] Your townspeople.

KH: Yes. When you buy a quilt, a big huge quilt, an old for fifty dollars, you can't get too excited over it. You have to pretend like it's a big deal, 'Oh. Fifty dollars. Okay.' Then when you walk out of the store, it's like, 'Who.'

JH: How old was that quilt?

KH: The lady told me that, well, she said she found out it was about a hundred years old.

JH: Wow. That's pretty old.

KH: Yeah, but I don't know if it is.

JH: Oh, so maybe she's tricking you.

KH: She's tricking me. It was probably made last week and they aged it somehow. [laughter.] But it's nice.

JH: What do you--what qualities do you think makes a quilter great?

KH: I think a great quilter is a person who can see something without a pattern - to be able to sit down and design a quilt. That's incredible. I think that's just amazing. Yeah. To be able to pick out not only the pattern but the right fabrics too.

JH: When you do that, do you find it hard to design them?

KH: Yes. It takes a while. I have to lay everything out on the floor, and kind of play with it. Then I'll ask--I think Scott was home one day so I brought him downstairs. That's my son. Being an architect, he had a whole different outlook on the quilt.

JH: That's funny.

KH: But it's a personal thing, you know.

JH: How do you think great quilters learn all that? Design, and colors, and--

KH: I'm not sure if it just comes with doing them year after--you know, after a while. I know I feel more confident when I go in and pick out fabrics now. Before I would, oh, it would take hours and hours, just to pick out fabric. But now I can go in with something in my mind and go to a specific color and I know this color will go with this.

JH: Oh, that's great.

KH: Yes, it just comes with experience, I guess, after a while. I think after a while you're not so nervous about it, you know, like 'Oh, is this going to match or that'. Or like a flower with a stripe or a print, you know, and then it does. You can have ugly, ugly fabric and make a patchwork quilt and it's just so beautiful that --

JH: That's good. It's a learning--

KH: Before, you know, you worry about, 'Oh this pink won't go with this green' or-- After a while you go, 'Yeah it will.' Just throw it together, and it looks great.

JH: Well, we've heard that you prefer hand quilting over machine quilting--

KH: Yes, I do but--

JH: It says here--what about long-arm quilting? What do you think about that?

KH: I'm not sure. I think when you send quilts out to be--that's what they're advertising, that they have a long-arm quilting machine. I have no clue what that is.

JH: Is it a sewing machine that's very long so that they can put the big--

KH: It must be where they can put the whole thing out and--

JH: And do that--

KH: Yeah, I'm not sure. But I've got to investigate that. I'm just getting into the machine quilting stage of my life. [laughter.] It's a big step. So we'll see.

JH: What do you think makes quilting important to you in your life?

KH: I guess--I don't know if it would be important, but I like to make quilts--it's important to me to give them to people. I really like that.

JH: Do you have any stories related to quilts, or making quilts?

KH: Any stories? Like when I gave them away or when I gave them to somebody or making the quilt?

JH: Even if somebody gave you a quilt or--

KH: Oh, yes. For my birthday, my girlfriend, with every invitation that she sent out she sent a little piece of fabric and the person had to draw a picture or write a little thing about me and she made a memory quilt for me. And that was special. But I'm still waiting for one more square, to be done. [directed at JH's boyfriend, who had entered the room. He exits.] [laughter.] But that was special. That's a very special gift.

JH: So how many people put their squares in?

KH: Oh, there had to have been--I'll bet you there's seventy--seventy squares from people that signed or wrote little poems or drew pictures.

JH: Wow--and what did they use to do that? Was it a fabric marker?

KH: Yes--she gave--actually--she included a marker with each piece of fabric. So, there was a lot of work that she put into that. That's special, a special quilt. And actually, that's the first quilt that someone gave me.

JH: Oh, wow, so that's very special.

KH: Yes, it is--very, very special.

JH: How do you think quilts are important to American life?

KH: Well, it keeps a tradition going, you know. It's amazing, since I've been quilting; it's so incredible to find people that are quilters. You think, nobody does this, but it's so popular. All across the United States, there's clubs, and you can email one another. I get a newsletter from Ohio. It's just a--yeah, it keeps it going. I hope it continues, too.

JH: Do you think they have special meaning for women's history and their experience?

KH: Yes. They--well there's a big quilting museum up in Lowell, Massachusetts. I think it just brings women together. Yeah, I don't--

JH: You think quilts should be used when you give them away--

KH: Yes.

JH: Or do you think people should keep them nice?

KH: Well, I think they should be used. That's what they're given as gifts for. It's up to; the person, but you know, use them. [laughter.]

JH: Do you have any stories about quilts that you gave to people?

KH: Well, just the one about Grandma where the dog chewed the quilt. [laughter.] I guess the special one was to my cousin Lisa. She--as a matter of fact, she's probably having a baby this weekend--and she's forty years old. Her and her husband have been trying so long to have a baby, so as they were in the middle of adopting a little baby, she became pregnant. So, she's very high-risk pregnancy so I made her a special little quilt and once again when she opened it, she cried, and I got the applause, and it was embarrassing. But I think that's special--that she--just knowing that this special little baby will probably be wrapped up in this quilt.

JH: That was pretty recently, a couple of weekends ago. Do you think quilts should be saved--you now, certain quilts should be preserved for the future?

KH: Yes, I think if you want to--if you like a quilt and you want to just keep making sure it gets passed down, you should probably pack it, preserve it. You know if you find a special--but like, everyday bed quilts and stuff you should be--but they last. You know, ff you take care of them it'll last, then you can still pass it on.

JH: When you go to buy fabric is there something special you look for?

KH: Um--

JH: Oop--here--I'm going to stop the tape. [tape stops briefly because JH's cat has attacked KH's arm.]

JH: Okay, we're back. Now what do you think about these modern quilts, like the art quilts, or things like wearable art?

KH: Wearable art. Well, some of the jackets I've seen are really nice. Yeah, it--there's some nice stuff out there. I wouldn't wear it. But I've seen dresses and jackets, vests--a lot of work goes into them. The new quilts--a lot of people are getting into these Crazy Quilts, they're called. And they'll just make--fabrics, different fabrics, and they'll make them different shapes and throw them together. Sometimes they'll edge the fabrics with sequins and stuff. I'm not into that stuff, no.

JH: You don't like things added to the quilts, really?

KH: No, yes. Sequins--they just--you know, they'll line this whole thing with a row of sequins--it's just too much. The old Crazy Quilts--some of those are really pretty. I'd like--I like to just stick with the basic cotton quilts. I've made a flannel quilt. I want to make some more. I like the flannel fabrics. They've really come a long way with flannel. It's really pretty now, so. One thing that I do want to try is making a landscape quilt, like a watercolor. They're just so pretty.

JH: Oh, wow.

KH: Yes, you can do, like, pictures with the quilts. Flowers. I'd like to try one of those. But not now--I've got to finish what I have.

JH: Right, the tops you have.

KH: Yes, I've got to get those finished up. Some of them have been down there for two years.

JH: Wow.

KH: Yes, just sitting around, waiting to be done. Yeah, so--

JH: Do you have a lot of friends that quilt or is it--there's Kathy--

KH: Yes, I know probably about five or six women that quilt. One girl--I helped her. Her daughter was having a baby and she had no clue--she wanted to make a quilt, but she didn't have any idea of what to do. Her name is Ellen. So, I went over and gave her a quick little lesson, helped her buy the fabric, showed her how to sew everything--the pieces together. She made a really cute little patchwork, greens and yellows and blues and whites for her daughter. It came out really cute.

JH: So, you've taught quilting.

KH: Yes, I've taught a little bit, just one on one. It's easier. I could never get up in front of a class. Yeah. But it's fun. I like doing it to give as gifts. I could never sell them or--

JH: Even after being in Amish country and seeing--

KH: No, yes, I don't know. That'd be kind of weird. No, I don't want to. I like just giving them to special people. Just giving them as gifts. I don't want to get into that whole marketing thing there. Then it's not special. Then you're just pumping out quilts. I don't want to do that. Unless I get desperate for money, then I would do it. [laughter.] Unless Dad and lose our jobs and stuff.

JH: Do you think quilts are more of a craft, or more of an art?

KH: Uh, both. You have to have a little bit of artsiness in you to pick the patterns and the fabrics, but then it's sort of a craft to do it. Pick certain patterns for certain people, and then to put it together. It's one thing to sew a straight line--or sewing. But this is different angles, you now. And the artsy part is design it, put it together, come up with the colors and the matching and--

JH: Are you picky about craftsmanship, like being neat?

KH: Yes. That's where my Virgo comes in. Everything - everything has to be--if my corners don't match, or if my seams are off, everything gets ripped out and I have to start over again. I remember the teacher that we had in our class. She said, 'Now, quilts should be perfect. To get your seams lined up, it's almost a perfectionist-type craft, but it's okay to make mistakes. It's okay. Then it becomes personal. It's your quilt.' But it's like, 'Uh.' If they're little, teeny, teeny errors I can cover up by quilting, then I'll let it go, but otherwise, there's been many quilts that I've put together a whole top and I'll look at it and I'll go, 'Oh, that square in the middle is upside-down or sideways.' So, you have to go in and pull all the threads out. Yeah, I had a couple of those where I've--thrown in the trash--

JH: Wow! [laughter.]

KH: Yes. Or they're probably sitting in the drawer downstairs. Those are the ones that, you know, on a cold winter night you have nothing else to do you'll go rip out threads. [laughter.] I haven't got there yet.

JH: Now, let's see. That's funny. [laughter.]

KH: See all these things you didn't know about me.

JH: Yes. [laughter.] Now we just went to Amish--we looked at some Amish quilts yesterday--what do you think about those?

KH: I think they're very pretty, but very, very expensive. I guess I didn't look hard enough at whether they were hand quilted, or machine quilted. I didn't notice. I guess the bad thing that I do when I look at a quilt is I look at the pattern, and went, 'Oh, these are really pretty,' and then I went right for the price tag. I guess you shouldn't do that if you're really looking for a quilt. You know, it's the art that you're looking for. But my logic is, why should I spend that kind of money when I can make them? So, who knows, maybe I will get into selling quilts. [laughter.] Never know. But they are--they're very talented and they're gorgeous quilts. And they're well known. For years and years that's what you come to Amish country looking for is quilts. But more and more areas are getting into quilting, so you don't have to come all this distance to--you can buy quilts--I've been to a shop up in New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. A lot of places have consignment quilts, where people will ship them in and then they sell them for them.

JH: Do you think that you can tell if a quilt is from a certain area, like New Hampshire?

KH: Well, some you can, because the quilts from out West tend to be brighter. Where, in the New England area they're more of the calico, small prints, country-looking quilts. Where California--I've seen quilts that have been, like modern-looking quilts. So, I think yeah, I think it does. Like the Amish stick with the blacks, the dark colors, your typical Amish quilt. It's usually black with reds and blues and greens in it. But they do other--but if you say I want to--even booklets, you want to make an Amish quilt, it's black.

JH: Oh, that's interesting.

KH: Yes.

JH: Well, we're almost out of time. Do you have anything you want to add that I didn't really cover?

KH: No, I think that just about says it all.

JH: Yes. Well, thank you for talking to us.

KH: Well, thank you for having me. This was fun.

JH: Yes. This is a really pretty quilt, thank you.

KH: You're welcome. It's yours.

JH: Okay, this is Julie Henderson with Karen Henderson. It's 10:15, and this has been an interview for Quilters' Save Our Stories project. Thank you.



“Karen Henderson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1788.