Suzanne Botts




Suzanne Botts




Suzanne Botts


Misty Beatty

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Diana Cherryholmes


Kansas City, Missouri


Misty Beatty


Misty Beatty (MB): Okay. The function and meaning of quilts in American life. Nope, whoops! Okay. The performance involvement in quilting. [laughs.] Try again. Okay. Tell me about your interest in quilting.

Suzanne Botts (SB): I've been interested in quilting as long as I can remember. My first memory about quilts is my grandmother when I was five years old. My grandmother was sitting at our dining room table with a little two inch square of cardboard, drawing and cutting on fabric. And when I asked her what she was doing she told me she was making quilt blocks for me.

MB: For you?

SB: For me. I don't know if she intended me to make a quilt with them later or if she was making a quilt for me because she died not so long after that.

MB: So you never got them?

SB: I took the blocks and made my first quilt with them later on.

MB: What did you do with that quilt?

SB: Well, that quilt was one of those things you really when you learn what you're doing you hope no one ever sees, but I kept it and I still have it and for a long time it was on the foot of my bed folded up. The remnants of it were folded on the foot of my bed and the dog slept on it. [MB laughs.]

MB: At what age did you start quilting?

SB: I helped a little bit, at least I thought I helped a little bit, with the church quilting group when I was a teenager and my mother would go there to quilt sometimes, but that was really not very much and it was not until after I was married. I was about nineteen, I guess, and I got out those blocks that my grandmother had given me and decided to make a quilt. And I proceeded to make one as if I knew what I was doing, which I didn't. [MB laughs.] I sewed the blocks together in a nine patch. I got that part right. And set them into squares of lavender fabric and quilted it in big circles on my sewing machine [SB laughs.] and bound it with satin blanket binding so it was really a strange thing. But I made it.

MB: From whom did you learn to quilt?

SB: I really didn't learn from anyone. I just began to study it from magazine articles and whatever I could get my hands on.

MB: How many hours a week do you quilt now?

SB: Not enough.

MB: [laughing.] Not enough, okay. This question says, what is your first quilt memory, but is that the one, is that the same where you said with your [SB: Yes.] grandma with the quilt squares? Okay. Are there other quilters among your family or friends?

SB: All of my aunts quilted. I don't know whether any older relatives did or not, but I know that, that my mother quilted. She quilted in the twenties and early thirties and I have some of the remnants of her quilts, but after that she quit. I don't know why she didn't do it again, but my three aunts on my mother's side quilted their entire lives and then my husband's aunt always quilted and his cousin's wife quilts so there's interest on both sides of our family.

MB: How does quilting impact your family?

SB: [pause for 10 seconds.] I have no idea unless they wish I'd keep the mess out of the way. [MB laughs.] They'd probably rather have meals on time and a clean house, but I have to keep my priorities in order. [both laugh.]

MB: Okay, have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

SB: Not consciously, but I know if I don't have my quilting or cross-stitch or some kind of sewing fix, I get very restless. I think it's really comforting to the soul to do some kind of hand stitching.

MB: That kind of ties in to the next question because it says what doyou find pleasing about quilting.

SB: Oh, I love the colors. Just to work with the colors. The colors and the patterns, they're just, are just like satisfying a thirst.

MB: What aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

SB: Basting it together for quilting.

MB: Okay. This category is the function and meaning of quilts in American life. So why is quilting important to your life?

SB: [pause for10 seconds.] It's very satisfying in a way besides the pleasing colors and patterns I mentioned working with. It's so satisfying to do something with your hands that produces something useful. And I think the fact that quilts, unlike curtains or other furnishings around the house, quilts are used close to our bodies. We snuggle with them. We keep warm with them. They give us comfort and that's a good feeling.

MB: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or your region?

SB: I think that the quilting in this part of the country is much more traditional than the quilting done on the coasts. Quilting that I see in the magazines where they show quilts now are not really what I think of as quilts, per se, to be used as bedding, but they're works of art, fabric art, that mostly is meant to hang on the wall or display and there's not as much of that in this part of the country.

MB: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life overall?

SB: Quilts have been a mainstay of the home as long as we've been a settled country. At first they were made out of necessity and often from old clothing, but they were the only way to make bedcovers to keep warm. But it's such a satisfying process that it's continued even when we can buy something warmer from the store.

MB: And cheaper in some ways?

SB: Mm-hmm.

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

SB: Well, women put so much of themselves into a quilt when they make a quilt. Something about you is going to come out in any original quilt that you make. Not necessarily if you copy a pattern that's already chosen, the colors and the pattern maybe, but if you do your own your personality is going to be reflected in it. And that will reflect in your home, but you know there are a lot of men quilters now too. It's become important to men as well as women.

MB: How do you think quilts can be used?

SB: First of all for comfort. Even more than warmth. There's nothing quite like snuggling down with a quilt, especially a patchwork one and just studying endlessly the colors and patterns that never seem the same. And then secondly, you know for warmth. It was their original intention, but now they're used for decoration, wall quilts, and wall hangings, even in office buildings.

MB: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

SB: [pause for10 seconds.] I've been very interested to study about the new department that was added in the last ten or twelve years at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. They have a whole wing that was built to house a quilt collection donated by a woman who donated her collection and apparently most of the funding for this wing just to preserve quilts and their history. And now they have a graduate course there in the preservation of quilts and textiles. And I think this kind of thing will probably expand.

MB: So did they think about how to preserve quilts that are really old? To make them last longer?

SB: Yes. They have. This is a temperature-controlled building, this building at the university that's been funded by this lady. It's temperature controlled and there are special, I don't know if they're called racks or files, where each quilt is individually stored and it will not be exposed to light and extremes of temperature or humidity. And then they can be studied by students or just people who are interested in the [MB: Just appreciated.] history of. And a few of them will be out from time to time on display.

MB: What has happened to the quilts that you have made or those that your friends or family made?

SB: I've made and given away more baby quilts than I can count. I think I only have one full-size quilt that I made still here in my closet and that was the second quilt I made. And I laugh when I look at it because I bravely quilted a white background with red thread and used stab stitches and for you quilters out there I need not say more. It's awful, but it was my second quilt. And it's pretty worn out now. I think that's really the only one I've made that we still have around.

MB: So you've given away all the rest as presents or--

SB: Yes.

MB: What about the ones that were your aunts' or your mom's?

SB: Well the scraps of two of my mother's I still have and they are just that - scraps. They were just worn to rags by use before I got them. [tape stopped here and restarted to allow for further answering the question about what has happened to the quilts.] I guess you could say that I quilted professionally since I have been paid for my work and quilted several tops for other people.

MB: With those quilts, did you, you say? Okay so you got paid to quilt full pieces for other people?

SB: Yes. They had made the tops and just wanted them assembled and quilted.

MB: So like they did the art part, but they didn't want, like they did the design but they didn't want to do the actual work of the quilting?

SB: Right. Right.

MB: For something like that, did they pay you for how much time it took you or was it kind of a flat rate?

SB: I was paid a flat rate.

MB: Probably wasn't very good hourly wages, huh? [laughs.]

SB: Very minimal. [laughs.]

MB: Okay - the aesthetics, craftsmanship and design aspects of quiltmaking. What do you think make s a great quilt?

SB: One that makes you feel good just to look at it.

MB: And when you're making a quilt do you do it because you think it's going to make you feel good to look at it or do you usually make it with somebody else in mind because you think it will make them feel good to look at it?

SB: If I was making it as gift, I would hope to make them feel good to look at it or touch it. It it's for me, you know then, it's something I like.

MB: And sometimes, well, the next question is what makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SB: When it really conveys a message. When it really says something.

MB: Do you think that every quilt that you've made has a message like that or are some of them more just pretty or remind you of something?

SB: Some of them were just very ordinary.

MB: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or for some kind of special collection?

SB: First of all, it would need to be representative of the period or type that the museum or collection wanted to represent. Could be a, say fifties, or the thirties is a good example of time because the prints and colors of fabric that were available in the thirties are very specific to that period and looking at a quilt you can say oh, that's made from fabric from the thirties. There are reproduction fabrics of the thirties now that might make it hard to tell, but until they came out with that when you looked at someone's quilt you knew instantly if it was made of fabrics from the thirties. So it might be a quilt that is to represent a time period. Or it might, they might be collecting, maybe they want just Baltimore album quilts in a collection and then it would be the type of pattern rather than the fabric or you know it depends on the purpose of the collection.
[whispers.] What was the question?

MB: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

SB: So first of all it needs to be appropriate for the collection and then I would say the quality of the workmanship.

MB: Anything else?

SB: And the, well probably equal to the quality of the workmanship is the choice of color and pattern.

MB: Have you ever been to a museum or collection of quilts?

SB: Oh yes. Most recently was the quilt museum at Paducah.

MB: What do you think makes a great quilter?

SB: A great quilter? Someone who loves to quilt.

MB: So how do great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern or choose fabrics and colors?

SB: Trial and error. [laughs.] Unless they have an opportunity to study and that's becoming easier and easier. I subscribe to Quilter's Newsletter Magazine and have since it began. I record now two quilt shows a day, so I watch an hour of quilt instruction or information every day. [pause for 7 seconds.] I just read and study everything I can get my hands on about designing and color and--but beyond that I think, you know, trial and error is the best teacher. [laughs.]

MB: Well, quilting is considered an art, so I'm wondering do you think that being a great quilter is something that anybody can learn? That it's only a learned thing or is it something that requires talent like any other type of art? Like a natural kind of talent.

SB: Well, as far as, in so far as the colors, the patterns and colors really making the quilt sing, it's probably a talent. It's just like dressing. You could be dressed immaculately in a color combination that does not clash, but simply doesn't do a thing for each other. They're just sitting there next to each other bored to death. Or you can dress a little sloppily in colors that sing and make each other happy and [laughs.] that would be the better.

MB: So you frequently design your own patterns when you make quilts or sometimes you'll follow a pattern from a magazine or a book?

SB: Usually I do a pattern from a magazine, but my [laughs.], I have a pattern that I dreamed about. I dreamed in vivid color and I dreamed this so many nights in a row that it became annoying [MB laughs.], extremely annoying and I got up one Saturday morning and drafted the pattern onto graph paper, colored it in in the colors that were present in my dream, titled it as I had dreamt, “Moose and Easter Eggs,” [MB laughs.] and haven't been bothered by it since. [laughing.] I do plan to make it someday.

MB: Okay, and I know that you, even when you use patterns from a magazine or from a book, that you often will replace their fabric colors or recommendations [SB: Always.] with your own [SB: Always.] choices.

SB: Always.

MB: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

SB: When machine quilting first became common, I thought how awful. It looks just like something you buy in the store and the whole pieced top is covered all over with the same loopy quilting and it just kills it. I wouldn't have that done for anything. But now long arm quilting has become an art in itself. And at the quilt shows and museums I've seen beautiful, beautiful work done on the quilting machines. So, I think it's just a personal choice, what you enjoy most. I don't think that learning to operate a machine would ever be as satisfying to me as the hand quilting, but then I don't have a quilting machine, so maybe I just don't know.

MB: Do you think it still takes some of that natural talent to be able to make the machine make the quilt beautiful?

SB: With the long-arm machine quilting, I'd say you've still got to have a feel for your design. Yes.

MB: Okay. And you picked a particular quilt to talk about, one of yours. So tell me about that quilt, like who made it, its origin, its age, describe it, the pattern, the materials, and so on.

SB: I wanted to tell about the one I'm currently working on, which is for my oldest son who retired from a twenty-year career in the Army last fall. The main body of the quilt is a tan fabric that has a pattern in it that looks sort of like a cracked glaze on pottery. The cracks are an indeterminate color - gray, navy, olive. In the center of that top I appliquéd the head of an eagle from the 101st Airborne's patch. I didn't want to put a stark white head on the eagle because I wanted the colors to be somewhat muted in this quilt. And I was lucky enough to find a soft gray fabric that sort of looks like a batik and the pattern in it resembled the grain of feathers so I used that for the eagle's head. And then his beak of course is a dark gold and his tongue is red as in the patch, the army patch. And I enlarged this and put it in the center of the quilt on an olive-green shield. The top part of the 101st patch that says Airborne, I did the letters for the Airborne out of felted wool. I felted the wool myself and appliquéd those letters on. Down in the center of the eagle's neck, I put in, in reverse appliqué, a cross-stitched Army emblem. I set this 101st Airborne patch in the center of an oval, which is meant to represent a tree. The tree stands in my front yard and has born any number of yellow ribbons for my sons who were in Desert Storm and then Chris in Iraq. I couldn't afford $75 a yard brown linen, so I used a linen tablecloth and cut an oval to surround the eagle. And on the top of that oval, around the top third of that oval, in felted wool letters it reads, 'We are a band of brothers.' Around the lower third of that brown oval the letters read, “A rendezvous with destiny,” which is a famous statement made about the destiny of the 101st Airborne. Up the sides of the oval I am in the process of appliquéing leaves, the pattern for which came from that same tree that carried the yellow ribbon. And segments of the yellow ribbon that was on that tree for the year while my son was in Iraq are being woven into those leaves and will be tied at the bottom of the oval right over a cross-stitch replica of the bronze star that he earned, was awarded for his service in Iraq. It will have his name and service dates. Then I have a collection of patches from all the units in which he served - about twelve of those. And I am cross-stitching labels to identify those patches with the location, for instance Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, the dates he served there, the name of the unit that he was in, and the motto of the unit - Screaming Eagles or whatever. [pause for 6 seconds.] The cracked glaze fabric that makes up the center of the quilt is bordered with a two-inch wide navy blue band. Three eight-inch borders outside of that are striped with muslin alternated with red and blue striped fabric that has stars in it, representative of the flag. The top right and the lower left corners of the quilt borders are fabric that has the Pledge of Allegiance printed on it. The top left square of the border has a photo of my son, his flag picture, from basic training when he first went in the Army. The lower right hand square of the border has a photo transfer of my son in desert camouflage being greeted by his two daughters at the airport when he came home from Iraq. The caption under that picture will read, 'Home is the warrior, Home from the fields.' On the back of the quilt, I am going to put wording from the--[the tape stops and is restarted. this part of the interview is continued at the end of the recording.*] The top was presented to him at Christmas. I had not had time since his retirement to complete the whole quilt. I'm still working on it, but the top was intact and we presented it to him at Christmas when the entire family could be present.

MB: So you designed everything on that one yourself?

SB: I did.

MB: The colors, and the materials, and the pattern and everything.

SB: I did.

MB: [inaudible.] It might seem kind of obvious, but the next question is what special meaning does this quilt have for you?

SB: I think it has a very special meaning to everybody in the family. How proud we are of him.

MB: It's related to the next question. Why did you choose that quilt to talk about today?

SB: Because it's unique and the quilt itself preserves the, preserves a soldier's career in the defense of his country. And this is the type of thing that the Daughters [referring to the Daughters of the American Revolution.] want to preserve and carry on a tradition and heritage. I also plan to make another quilt of the same type but totally different pattern for my second son who will be retiring from the Marine Corps this year.

MB: So you plan to use both of those quilts for gifts. How do you anticipate or hope that they will use the quilts?

SB: I know that Chris is planning to use his as a wall hanging near where he displays his pictures and awards and other mementos of his career.

MB: That's all the questions that I have. Is there anything else that you want to say about quilting or your experience as a quilter or what quilts have meant for you?

SB: Well quilting is really all I want to do. I would like to just be left alone in a big studio with unlimited fabric and just have somebody bring in my meals and let me quilt. [both laugh.]

[*continued from the restarting of the tape earlier. ]

SB: On a back corner of the quilt near where I will sign my name and date as the maker of the quilt, I plan to put in some form this quote from a WestPoint manual: 'It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag who allows the protestor to burn the flag.'

[the following question was part of the interview but were not included on the tape recording.]

MB: Do you have a collection of quilting or sewing memorabilia?

SB: I have the original Star patterns from the twenties and thirties - just a few. An almost complete collection of Quilter's Newsletter Magazines and several tops made by a friend.


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