Shirley Elliott




Shirley Elliott




Shirley Elliott


Susie Krage

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Gwen Westerman


Oxen Hill, Maryland


Kim Greene


Susie Krage (SK): My name is Susie Krage. Today's date is December 8, 2005. I am conducting an interview with Shirley Elliott for the Quilters' Save Our projects, Save Our Stories project [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] in Shirley's home. It's 1:45 in the afternoon. Shirley, you showed me your quilt, it's on a bed, but can you tell me something about it? What is it called? How big it is?

Shirley Elliott (SE): It's called "The Grape Basket", and it's--

SK: Oh, it's bed size?

SE: Bed size, yes, double bed size.

SK: I think its seventy-one by eighty? I will look it up for you. Sorry, we put, eighty-one by one hundred. And the colors?

SE: The colors are scrap. Well different colors in the "Grape Basket" and the border was made from the same fabrics as the grape baskets.

SK: And they are strip pieced and put together in [both talk at the same time.]

SE: Strip pieced.

SK: And lined up?

SE: Yes, they are strip pieced and put together all around the four sides of the quilt. And on the colored border, there is some quilting. Leaf design. And, and then the binding.

SK: The baskets are set in and in an off white, is that a muslin?

SE: Yes, it's, it's an off-white muslin. They used to have a name for it.

SK: And I noticed that you have both tulip quilting in one area, in the muslin, as well as Lilly's of the Valley.

SE: Yes.

SK: And some of the quilting is done in a darker thread.

SE: Right.

SK: And your stitches are so even and perfect, they would be the envy of everyone.

SE: [SE laughs.] Now, you said before that you weren't sure why you made this quilt. Was it a pattern that you liked? Or can you remember anything about that?

SE: Actually, the reason I made the quilt is the same reason I made all my other quilts. Just for something to do. To use my, I have plenty of spare time. And I used to do most of my quilting on the frame in front of the T.V., so I sort of did my quilting and listened to what was going on there, but it was just to take up time in the evening so it's not so boring as just watching T.V.

SK: And you use this quilt on your own bed?

SE: No, I don't. I have another quilt underneath that that I use all the time. And the same thing with the other room. I have another quilt underneath that one too.

SK: So, do, do you have this quilt just put aside, or what do you do with it?

SE: I finish my quilts and I fold it up and I pile it one on top of the other. And that's where they stay, because I have no place else. I used to put them on the beds. I used to pile one quilt, lay it out, each one on top of the bed. But now, we are using the other bed. So, I have no place else to put it. I wish I did, but I just have them folded and stacked one on top of the other.

SK: Well, I saw that stack, and that, and those are, I think are your bed quilts? But you also do wall hangings. Do you have any idea how many quilts you have made over the years?

SE: Gosh, 30 or 40, something like that.

SK: Thirty or forty bed quilts?

SE: I would say so, yeah, because I have given some as gifts. And I sold one or two. I sold one to a judge at the court. Our quilts were displayed at the courthouse, that little courthouse there. And I guess he saw one of them and liked it.

SK: That's great, that's great.

SE: Yeah.

SK: So, tell me--tell me about your interest in quilting. Can you remember when you started quilting?

SE: Oh, I can remember all right. It was about 1974, which is a long time ago. There was a sign up in the library, the Oxen Hill Library, saying that if anybody is interested in quilting, please call this number. There was a club. And since I had a lot of fabric from clothing I used to make, lots of scrapes I thought I would have a good beginning. However, they wanted mostly one hundred percent cotton. I wanted mostly fabric that I could wash and not have to iron. So, what do you do, what I do is of course buy fabric for my quilts. And they used to have--I think it was a Joann's close to us that closed. Now there is no quilt shop. There is no sewing shop that close and since I don't drive, somebody has to take me to where I can get some fabric.

SK: And you buy just what you need?

SE: Yes, but I've got more fabric than I will ever use. My husband will take me any place I want to go at any time I want to go. He is very good at that.

SK: So, he is a good quilt supporter?

SE: Oh, is he ever. He made the, what is it called? The étagère where I have the wall hangings, and he helped make the quilt frame. He built me that thing on the wall for the thread. And, he made the plastic, Plexiglas front on the sewing machine, because I had to put the sewing machine in this cabinet that I had, and it didn't fit exactly, so we had to make that Plexiglas form.

SK: Shirley is pointing to her new sewing machine. Her new Bernina Aurora 440, and it sits in a sewing cabinet, but it's smaller than the opening, so she is describing the Plexiglas that seals that opening so that she can run her fabric through the machine. And, above her machine is a wonderful pegboard for her threads that her husband made. And I wish that you all could see her studio, it is fabulous with a huge quilt frame right down the middle. And tell us, tell the people that are going to be reading this about the group that comes and quilts with you.

SE: Well, we have several, maybe five or six gals that come Monday night, whenever they are free of course, and this has been going on for quite a while. And they stay here from about 7:00 to 9:00, and then about 8:00 or so we stop to have coffee and cake and schmooze. [laughs.] Yeah, I have a very nice group. They are all friendly. They are all helpful. We help each other. And, especially Shoko, she will help anybody, anytime you ask. She is very, very helpful. And she is a lovely person. And she is from Japan, of course. She just became an American citizen a couple of weeks ago.

SK: That is terrific.

SE: And we had a little party for her to celebrate.

SK: As, as we are talking about this, we are sitting in Shirley's studio at her quilting frame, and there is a quilt that this group is working on, and can you tell us just a little bit about this quilt, because it is just stunning?

SE: It's called, "Butterflies in Annie's Garden", and mostly one of the gal's did a lot of the appliqué, because I don't like to appliqué. I'm a piecer. And the fabrics are mostly thirties fabrics. And, it has taken us a tremendously long time to finish this because [laughs.], we do a lot of other things besides working on the quilt.

SK: The schmoozing, you were saying?

SE: The schmoozing. Also, I have a quilt that I am doing. Well, it is a large wall hanging called, "The Bird of Paradise". I happened to see the pattern at La Plata, and I figured since it was paper pieced, it would be easy. Not so. So, Shoko is helping me with that. She is doing a lot of, the cutting, the putting together, and just sewing in everything. She has done a lot to help me with that. Right now, she has it at her house.

SK: Tell me how your group decides what quilt they plan to do.

SE: Right. Well, we talked about it, and we decided that one of the gals has a quilt that she likes us to finish, and I think she wants it to be tied. I think she decided to have it tied. So, she will bring it over, and we will work on that.

SK: That won't take as long.

SE: Probably not.

SK: As tying is faster.

SE: Yes, but somebody has always got a project going. Most of them are large quilts, and if they don't have a frame, they are quilting in their laps.

SK: Right. You help each other finish them, but this quilt was done by the group?

SE: This quilt was done by six of us, everybody put in a block.

SK: Or several perhaps?

SE: Or several, yes.

SK: Because it has been.

SE: Yeah, and some of the gals did a lot more work than others, because they like to appliqué, so there is a lot of work on this.

SK: And, then what will happen to this quilt?

SE: We have decided that Sandy is going to get it. One of our quilt members. I can't remember the reason, but she never got a quilt from the Oxon Hill Group. She never got a quilt from there, and she did a lot of work on her own on the quilt. So, we decided that this is Sandy's quilt. And, when it is finished, she plans on taking it home and giving it a good once over. And washing it and making sure that all of the pencil marks are out, and anything else, you know, will come clean. Paper piecing now. Since I started paper piecing, I like to do mostly paper piecing.

SK: And, as I said before, your quilting stitch is really beautiful and even and tiny. Do you enjoy that, or is that just a necessity?

SE: Well, I do enjoy quilting. But I don't think my quilting is half as good as some of the other gals, really. When I look at mine, when I compare mine to theirs, it's not that even. [laughs.] But I will say that my stitches have become smaller since I have started.

SK: I guess practice makes perfect.

SE: So, they say.

SK: And, you said your husband is supportive of your quilting.

SE: Oh, yeah.

SK: And helps you get your fabric, but do you find it difficult to balance the amount of time you want to put into your quilting with your family responsibilities?

SE: No, because I don't have any responsibilities. Just my two dogs and my husband, who is the best husband in the world. Helps me in every way he can. So, he lets me quilt whenever I want. And he's got his own shop in the back.

SK: Oh. And does he help with the cooking and the cleaning?

SE: No. He, he sets the table, and he puts the dishes in the dishwasher. You know. He makes the beds in the morning.

SK: So, you have some responsibilities then with your cooking and cleaning, and then you can get a lot of help from him.

SE: Exactly.

SK: That is a good partnership.

SE: It's a terrific partnership. We have been married thirty-eight years.

SK: Thirty-eight years.

SE: Yeah. And, well both of us will say, this is the happiest times of our lives.

SK: That is great.

SE: Yeah.

SK: Any writing or teaching about quilting?

SE: I used to teach. I taught for a very short time at Harmony Hall, which is a building where they have concerts and they have plays, and they have art collections, and people show their art. You know, they work and show it over there. So, it is in a room of the building. For a very short time I did, I taught quilting.

SK: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

SE: The first thing you look at is the color, and the design, if it is intricate or just, you know, plain design for intermediates and experts, I guess you call them. But I would like to see some, I like to see the colors stand out against the background so you can see the quilting.

SK: So, you like, you told me when we were looking at your quilt upstairs that you like to see plain blocks interspersed with the colored ones.

SE: I do. So, the quilting shows up. I like to see a lot of background, so that the design shows up, whatever it is. It could be, even if it's a black background, you know, so you can see the quilting. I know something that is easy to look at, something that attracts your attention right away, the color and the design. And the amount of quilting in there, which I think is important because when I look at all of my old quilts, I have plenty of time in the evening while I was watching T.V., I did a lot of quilting. Oh, what's that word, arthritis. I'm fortunate I don't have arthritis in my fingers.

SK: Is there any aspect that you don't like?

SE: I don't like to appliqué.

SK: Do you ever machine quilt?

SE: Yes

SK: You do?

SE: I need to learn more about machine quilting because I have very little practice. And the problem is since I don't drive, I can't go to class, which I really need. You know, that's the way to learn.

SK: What makes a great quilter?

SE: I don't know. But whatever, they have to know which colors go together, and know what makes it a good picture when you look at it. [moves away from the recorder to get a book from her bookcase.]

SK: Shirley is showing me a book called, "Blue Ribbon Miniature Quilts," and on the cover is a quilt by Shoko Ferguson.

SE: I don't have half of her, I would say knowledge, but what is that word I want. Actually, she was born with a needle in her hand. Her appliqué is terrific, and she knows. And I don't think she started quilting until she came here to the states. I could never match her skill.

SK: You had said that you thought quilters should have some background in art and color. Do you have that?

SE: No, not really. I just know what I like, and I think everybody has their own taste, and so what I like might not be what somebody else likes. When I was in school, high school, that was one hundred years ago, I saw what the other kids can do and said, 'Forget it!'

SK: What you have are beautiful and colorful, I can't image that people see [malfunction of tape.] traditional quilts, the bed quilts.

SE: Yes, mostly, but as I say, if I look in a magazine or a book and I like something I saw, I just want to do it. Because I just like it. For instance, that cats and dogs, calico cats and the dogs over there, somebody gave me a book and it had it in there, so. No, I know what happened. This was the block of the month. Our guild has the block of the month, Shoko is in charge of it now. But every month they will give you a pattern and you make a block. When you make the block, you put your name in the hat and somebody will pick a name and you will get all of the blocks that were done. Well, that's what happened with the calico cats and dogs, and I did one of them, I think. [malfunction of tape.] I know what I like. I don't like certain colors together, I don't like that, but I do like certain other colors that go together. I just know what I like. And I hope whatever I do somebody else will like it too.

SK: I'm sure they will. I certainly like what you've done. Why is quilting important in your life?

SE: Because it gives me something to do, and not only that, it gives me something that is worthwhile. It is not as though you like to play bridge, or you like to go bowling, what have you got to show for it.

SK: So, you like to have something to show for your efforts?

SE: Exactly. Because I spend a lot of time with it. But I do it to just take up time, I've got free time.

SK: It sounds like quilting has brought you a group of friends that perhaps you wouldn't have had otherwise as well.

SE: Absolutely. I have many, many friends, we have quilt workshops at Oxon Hill, because we use to meet down here when I was president for a couple of years, and I met a lot of gals. Unfortunately, most of them have moved away.

SK: But others have come and replaced those who moved away?

SE: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

SK: So, quilting has afforded you a way to socialize, since you can't get out people come to you?

SE: Exactly.

SK: That's wonderful.

SE: And the best part about it is that since I don't drive, they are willing to come here. And since we needed a frame, my husband said, you know, put up whatever you want. You feel good. This is my workshop and that's his in the back.

SK: And she is referring to the quilting frame, which is how long, did you say?

SE: About eight feet.

SK: Eight feet.

SE: Eight or nine feet, I think. I'm not sure.

SK: Are there ways that your quilts reflect your community or the region or the country you live in?

SE: No. Actually, I if I like the subject, if I like the pictures I see, I want to do it.

SK: More recently you are doing paper piecing and that is mostly in your wall hangings?

SE: Oh, yeah, mostly that and that. Many, many years ago when I was doing appliqué, I made those three in the hoop. I will show you my white-on-white upstairs. I did one in a hoop; one block, that is.

SK: I look forward to seeing that. In what ways do you think quilts are important in American life? Not just for you, but for-

SE: Quilts are very useful, and since so long-ago people have been using quilts on their beds for covers or for spreads. And quilts are something that you could make as gifts and they mean an awful lot to a person if they know that you did it, took the time. Now I have made a couple of baby quilts. When my sister passed it was given it to her daughter, and I have made some for my niece. A couple of times people have asked me to do the quilting for them, and so there was a book [moves to bookcase.] I wanted. Anyway, this is the book.

SK: Shirley is showing me the 1989 Great American Quilts and on page 134, is a picture of her white-on-white quilt.

SE: I did one of the blocks.

SK: For this quilt?

SE: Yes.

SK: So, you are accredited in there too, I see your name. So, she [Shirley.] made one of the blocks for the quilt that is in this particular book, and it says, "Anniversary"?

SE: Yes.

SK: And it was made in 1983. And it says, 'The devoted hands of twenty-eight quilters supplied over three thousand five hundred quilt making hours to make the quilt.', so Shirley's work is right there.

SE: That is me over there. [refers to a picture of the quilters in the book.] But not only that, but everybody has embroidered their name on the white on white. You can't see it unless you look very closely, because they didn't want the names to stand out, but they are on there. This is another quilt that was made, [Shirley is referring to another quilt in the same book.] she was in our group, Cindy, and she did the top and asked me to do the quilting.

SK: And, this is a book, "Great American Quilts 1991," and on page 44 is an appliqué quilt that Cindy made? Cindy?

SE: Yeah. Cindy.

SK: H-r-e-b-a-r

SE: Hrebar.

SK: It is her last name, Hrebar. And it shows a quilt, and it has a great deal of quilting on it. That's beautiful. You have a stack of quilts upstairs. How do you think that we can preserve quilts for future generations?

SE: Well, there are many ways that you can do it if you have the right material, and they say acid free paper should be put in-between them, and they should be refolded, so they don't get crease marks in them. It would be very nice if you could do that. But it would take a lot of paper. And, you have a place to hang them all, which I don't. Who does, you know. We should have these quilts insured. I said to have them insured, you have to have them appraised first. The "Anniversary Quilt" was appraised by Hazel Carter in 1983 or 1984 for ten thousand. Later, I had it appraised by another appraiser, and she appraised it for six thousand. But I understand it's the market value has a lot to do with it.

SK: And the market value probably fluctuates.

SE: Yes, and they said you should have a quilt reappraised every five years, which

SK: So, how long has it been since you had this one done?

SE: 1981, we began it in '81, so it's almost twenty years. I say.

SK: So, it has been twenty years since it was appraised and at that time it was ten thousand dollars?

SE: Right, yeah.

SK: You are very proud of that quilt, aren't you?

SE: Oh yeah, I am. I think it's almost a museum piece. Because the way we did it, the husband of one of the gals made some drawings, that we copied, he made some for us, you know. And we did the stitch from the back. We embroidered on it. We did all these French knots in the middle and embroidered around there, so it has a lot of value to me, because so many of our friends worked on it.

SK: And you were telling me that since this was a group quilt, you had done the most amount of work, which is the reason you were allowed to keep the quilt.

SE: Yes. Every time we finish a quilt in our group, we see who did the most work on it, that's including the appliqué, the piecing, the whatever, and the quilting.

SK: So, what will happen to your quilts?

SE: Some time ago, if I'm not mistaken, if I can remember, I put it in the will that my quilts would go to the Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. I'm not sure they will want them though.

SK: I don't know about that, Shirley. You are very modest.

SE: When I compare my work to some of the other gals, I can be modest because some of them are much better.

SK: In your group, are most of the people your age or are there young people?

SE: A couple of them are around my age, but some of them are much, much younger. And they have to like to use their hands. There were so many different types of needlework, and if you could convince the people that these are [malfunction of tape.] I think quilting is one of the most useful of the handy crafts. Doing crocheting and knitting and candle making and flower making, is what I used to do. And all the girls would say, if only they had time, you know.

SK: How do we encourage the children to learn to sew so they can quilt?

SE: Well, they need to know that they are useful. I think the most important thing is that they make lovely pieces. They make quilts, potholders, etcetera. People make clothes, sew a button on, and some would never do sewing because they just don't like it. Others like to do. It shows that they can be useful. I mean you could go to a game, and you can enjoy the game, but what good are you getting out of it. It's fun for a short time. [with quilting.] You have something to show for it. And I think that is one reason why you should.

SK: Anything else you would like to say to the people who will be reading your interview, any encouragement or any special words of wisdom?

SE: Don't judge me too harshly. [laughs.] Because I don't think I'm that good.

SK: I think when people see your quilt, they won't be judging you harshly.

SE: Well.

SK: So, it is 2:21 and I would like to thank Shirley for allowing me to interview her today and sit in her lovely studio.



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