Selena Sullivan




Selena Sullivan




Selena Sullivan


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Durham, North Carolina


Tomme Fent


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell, and today's date is Saturday, February 9, 2008. It is 1:00 p.m., and I'm conducting an interview with Selena Sullivan for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. And we are in the Civic Hall in The Herald-Sun newspaper building here in Durham, North Carolina. So welcome, Selena. Tell me about the quilt that you brought today.

Selena Sullivan (SS): Well, this is a copy of a Baltimore Album style quilt that I worked on over a period of fifteen years, so it's one of my more ambitious projects, although I would work on it for a year or two and then put it aside and work on another project, and then I'd always pick it back up. And I always felt I wanted to finish this quilt and was happy that I was able to do so finally.

LR: So, what special meaning does it have for you?

SS: Well, I've always been fond of red-and-green, predominantly red-and-green quilts. And so, when I saw some of these quilts, particularly the Baltimore Album style quilts, in some quilt books, I was attached to them. I was drawn to them. And decided quite early on that I wanted to make one or reproduce one. And so, I really started when I decided to take a course under Elly Sienkiewicz, who came to Austin, Texas, when I lived there. I believe it was probably late eighties. I took my first appliqué course under her and just fell in love with appliqué and did not start a quilt at that point. It was a little later on, when I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and had the opportunity to take another course under Elly and did a different block. And at that point decided I would embark on this process of completing one.

LR: So, talk about the process, the technique, the fabrics.

SS: Okay. There was a local quilt shop in the Pittsburgh area who had an ongoing course teaching this process with a block a month. You could go in and you could kind of enter into this process. Some people would do two or three blocks and make a wall hanging and be happy with that. Some would stay on for a two-year period, roughly, which was the time it would take to actually piece twenty-five blocks. So, I decided that I wanted to complete a full quilt, and so started on that journey. I found that you had to try to keep up and do a block a month, and occasionally, I would get behind. And I think over that two-year period, I may have gotten behind two or three times and had to catch up, so it was very difficult to do that and still stay on task. But then after I finished piecing the twenty-five blocks in roughly a two-year period, I put them in a closet, I'm sorry to say, for maybe two or three years before I pulled them out again. I would occasionally take them out and look at them and think about putting the blocks together. I would show them to quilt friends and quilters and I would always be encouraged to finish the quilt. And I think when I ultimately came to North Carolina, and went to a North Carolina quilt symposium in Wilmington, North Carolina, pulled the blocks out to show them to some guild members of the Durham Orange Quilters Guild, and some of the members who are here now saw the blocks and encouraged me to finish it. And, in fact, one member made me promise to finish this quilt so that it could be entered into the Durham Orange Quilters Guild show. So, I eventually put these blocks together. But once I got all twenty-five blocks together, I didn't have a border idea, so it may have taken me another year or two to come up with a border design. Once I came up with that design, I was able to complete the border, put it on, and then there was the quilting which laid out in front of me. And I was determined I was going to hand-quilt it myself because I felt that's what I wanted to do for this particular quilt, and that was a one-year process, which I had planned to put it in the show in 2006, October 2006, and I'd started the October before, the year before, and hand-quilted this in one year in order to get it ready for that show. And it won Viewer's Choice in our Durham Orange quilt show. I was happy about that.

LR: Describe the border.

SS: Well, the border, at first, I thought I wanted to have a traditional swag border. And I thought perhaps a double or triple swag, but I was not totally pleased with that idea, but I didn't want to go into an elaborate piecing of flowers and that sort of thing because those were some options. I looked at one of the blocks in the quilt that has this floral or leaf swag in it, and I decided that I would--if I could find that for you, because that's very similar to it. It would be this one here [pointing to the block.]. And I felt that I could draft that onto freezer paper and then I could decide how big it needed to be to make the corners meet and come out right. And I drafted that onto freezer paper and then put it onto the quilt and it worked perfectly, and so I came up with my border.

LR: And the piecing and the appliqué was done how?

SS: By hand. I prefer hand appliqué and hand work in general. I don't particularly enjoy working with my machine. I will work with it, but it doesn't relax me as does hand appliqué and hand work. So, I was happy to do all of this by hand, including the quilting.

LR: The fabrics, talk about the fabrics and the selection and where you got them.

SS: When I started this class in Pittsburgh, the teacher, a gal by the name of Sheryl Robinson, warned us that we would be completing this quilt over a two, if not three-year period, and that fabrics change. You may not be able to get really dark greens the same colors and hues. And so, she thought it would be best to pull together a group of fabrics that you felt would last you over that two-year period, that were then available that you were pleased with. In fact, she told us that her first three blocks had been pieced--she had pieced her quilt over time--the first three blocks that she had appliquéd had to ultimately be redone because they didn't fit the color scheme of the quilt which she finished two-and-a-half years out. And I didn't want that. I didn't want to make that mistake. So, I pulled together a group of fabrics that I really loved right from the beginning. I went through my stash and put them all in one basket and then I filled it in with fabrics that were very similar, like a lot of greens, and as many greens as I could find, and many reds of different patterns and colors and hues. And I pulled them all together and I worked from that group of fabrics over that two to three-year period, so that when I finished, they all blended very well, and I didn't have to repeat any blocks.

LR: Some of the appliqué is unusual. For example, talk about this block [pointing to the block.].

SS: This block has three-dimensional roses and what is actually called ruching. And this is a technique that's used in older Baltimore Album blocks and, in fact, when I took Elly Sienkiewicz's appliqué class, I was taught this process. And I taught this to some of my African American Quilt Circle friends, quilters. And I like this. It's very simple. It looks more difficult than what it is, but really, it's a very simple technique in which you would take a circle, the center of this rosebud is a circle, [pointing.] and that you would have a running stitch around and put a cotton ball inside and pull it. These petals around here are simply circles that you will fold in half, gather the bottoms, and then sort of fit them around this center portion. So, it's a very simple technique and it's very effective as a two-dimensional type of addition.

LR: Which of the squares, if you can tell me, are your favorites?

SS: I've gotten a lot of comments about this one with the Milk Maid [pointing to the block.] And while I think I may have gotten the idea of the Milk Maid from some of the original Baltimore Album blocks, I added some other things into this block that were different. First of all, the cow was a brown [and.] white-spotted cow that we had. We had a cow, a milk cow, when I was a child. And we called her Mother Cow. So, I had to have that brown-and-white spotted cow because I had to milk her early mornings before I went to school and had to milk her when I came home in the evenings. So, it was very personal to me. And then the Milk Maid, I determined early on that any figures in my quilt were going to be black figures or African American. So, in the Angel block and this Milk Maid, they're African American figures. I also had to put sunflowers here because my grandmother grew lots of sunflowers. I can still see them out by her fence and around her house. So, I've loved sunflowers for just this reason, and as a nice flower, and I had to put them in here as well. But this block [indicating.] sort of was a design that I took from other blocks, the idea was adapted from the Goose Girl block, which is a Hannah Foote block, and I made the tree similar but less complicated. But that was one that I pretty much kind of designed pulling many aspects together with some personal details.

LR: What is your plan for this quilt?

SS: Well, that's a good question. I want to enjoy it as much as I can. I like to sometimes, put it out, lay it or drape it over a couch during the holidays and when I have special guests because I do like to show it. My daughter loves it, but my granddaughter, who's fourteen years old, has already expressed interest in it. And so, it's sort of a dilemma for me, whether or not it's something I want to pass down in the generations. I want it to be taken care of. So, I've tried to make the effort to talk to my two granddaughters, one fourteen and then one ten. I've made quilts for them, and I've tried to teach them to appreciate quilts. My daughter loves quilts, and I've made several for her, so I feel pretty sure that they will take care of this quilt as they will other quilts that I've made. And so, I will pass it down in the family.

LR: What is your first memory of a quilt?

SS: I think my first memory, as a child my mother made what I would consider utility quilts, you know, old, discarded clothing, old pants or whatever. Usually, if she could get woolen fabrics or heavier fabrics, she would make utility quilts because we lived on a farm, a drafty house, so you really had to have lots of quilts here in North Carolina, Rowland, North Carolina. You had to have quilts to keep warm. And some of her quilts would be so heavy, you know, you couldn't move once you got under them in the bed. But I remember her making these quilts and she would get friends or cousins or neighbors to help quilt them and they would have the old frames that were suspended from the ceiling. And my earliest memories would be to play underneath that frame as my mother would quilt. And she always made these utility quilts, so she really never made like Eight-Pointed Star or those type of quilts. But my grandmother did, as I recall, was able to do that, my grandmother on my father's side. And I didn't find out till much later on that my mother had always wanted to make what she considered those pretty type of quilts. I mean, none of the utility quilts she made survived. They were all used up. And so later on, I think it was in the late mid-eighties, I taught my mother to make those pretty quilts, like Eight-Pointed Stars, Broken Dishes, just simple things like even a Nine Patch. And then also I think she ended up making three quilts, almost finishing the third one before her death, and that third one was a Bear's Paw. She really liked that pattern. And she was amazed that she could do these types of quilts and that I was able to teach her to do that and she would finish one quilt and then ask me to start her on another one. And she always criticized me for starting a quilt and not finishing it before starting another quilt and not finishing it. But I think I'm more of a process quilter. I just love the process. And if I finish the quilt, that's fine. And unless I have a deadline, like a show or something that I've set a goal for myself, I am not that particular about finishing things before starting other things.

LR: When did you make your first quilt?

SS: I think, if I think back, I tried to make a quilt and I must have been in my early twenties, before I had any training. Could have been right out of high school. And I think what happened, someone gave me some squares of fabric that I think were discarded from fabric samples or that sort of thing. And I saw that I could put those squares together, because I had taken Home Economics in high school and so I knew a little bit about sewing things together on a machine. I remember putting those squares together but didn't know anything about batting or a backing. And so, it really was not a true quilt, I remember. And it was not until, I think it was the early eighties, when my family moved to Texas, and my husband took a position at University of Texas. And I was approached by the faculty wives so that they could find out what my hobbies were so that they could put me in contact with people in Austin that had similar hobbies and interests. And I remember saying, 'I love needlework,' because then I did some needlepoint but never any quilting, so to speak. So, I think when I said, 'I love needlework,' their minds totally went to quilting because there were some of the wives that were quilters. So, I was put in contact with that group, and I found out there was a group sort of like a quilt bee, called Sunday Friends, and they met every Sunday afternoon and quilted. They took me in and taught me to quilt and I knew right away that it was something I wanted to do, because I love working with my hands. I knew that. And then I signed up for quilt classes at a local quilt shop and as I recall, there was a Connie Hufnagel in Austin, Texas, who was my first formal quilt teacher. And, of course, we did the sampler, you know, maybe a twenty-five or thirty block sampler so that you could learn the piecing techniques. And some were done by hand, and some were done by machine. And I found at that point that I really liked the hand work better. But I did finish that quilt in that class, and I obviously have done other machine-pieced quilts, but it was not until I took this appliqué class that I knew that that was the technique for me.

LR: How has quilt making impacted your family?

SS: Well, I have had requests for quilts from family members. And any time there's a new baby in our family, I mean, they have to have a quilt from Aunt Selena, my nieces. And so, I think my sisters and all of my family members, and I'm really the only one that--you know, not many of my sisters or nieces, or not even my daughter, she's cut up more fabric, and indeed my grandchildren have, too, probably the fabrics I don't want them to cut up. But it appears I've not convinced anyone to become a quilter, so they adore my quilts. They want me to leave them in my will, to them, but I think in my immediate family, my children always knew that it was a hobby for me. As a nutritionist, I felt like this was an artistic expression that was personal to me and that I really enjoy doing, so I had my quilt room, I had my quilt space and my work areas, and I was always respected for this, and children didn't bother with my things so much. And I was always allowed to go to shows and take as many courses, buy as many fabrics as I wanted, and people--and really, my family always loved my quilts, and they respect me.

LR: Talk a minute about guilds. You said you've belonged to a number of guilds.

SS: Austin Area Quilt Guild, in the beginning when I started in Austin, Texas. But also, a member of the quilting bee which, as I recall, that was nine years, I was one of the Night Owls that met on Wednesday nights, almost every week in fact, or it could have been once a month. This is going back, during the eighties. When I moved to Texas, the Austin Area Quilt Guild was a pretty big guild, maybe 200, 300 people, but there may have been three African American quilters in it. So, it was not until I moved to Pittsburgh that I was able to join two guilds there, one of those being an African American work group. So it was in the early nineties that I started working with this work group and became interested in African American quilts, and was able to see that, in fact, the techniques used were quite different. The fabric choices were different. The designs were different. And that's when I started to seek out African American professional quilters, and I think Michael Cummings was one of the quilters that I had gone to a talk and a presentation by Michael Cummings. I think it was in the early nineties. Carolyn Mazloomi, Faith Ringgold, and their books and their works, and [I.] have such an appreciation, so I think you may see those influences, perhaps, in some of my quilts. Then, of course, when I moved to North Carolina here in the African American Quilt Circle, and I find that being in several guilds gives me an appreciation for different types of work, and I can work in different venues and learn different techniques. And also, too, I was convinced to join an art quilt group, Professional Art Quilt Alliance South, which they have usually two exhibitions a year, and they are juried exhibitions. And I have submitted quilts to that and got in. I guess it was maybe in 2002, I had two quilts selected. One of them was Best of Show. So, I probably will submit another quilt to the upcoming spring show and see what happens. But I enjoy many guilds, working with many different types of quilters, and I think that can expand your mind and your techniques and it's a lot of fun.

LR: You mentioned that, in the African American [quilts.], the different process, different fabrics. Can you elaborate on that?

SS: Yes. I find that I have really expanded my African quilts, fabrics, and working with that, and I will admit that initially, I found it difficult to work with some of the fabrics because initially, I felt they were busy, and I wasn't quite sure how to pull them together in an effective manner. But working with this group and seeing their quilts and learning to appreciate their use of design and color, I find that I'm drawn to a big variety of fabrics, strong, bold colors and bold designs. And I find that I can, in this African American quilt group, and it's not rigid, necessarily, patterns. All of the quilts are different. They'll take a traditional quilt and put their own spin to it, kind of a free-flowing design. And when I work with this group, I find that I have that freedom to do that without restrictions and not even restrictions in fabrics and colors. And I find that I like silks, wools, African fabrics, traditional fabrics, plaids, and just whatever that quilt calls for. I like to start a project and with an idea and then let that quilt tell me what it needs, tell me to take the fabrics and where to take that design, and that's pretty much when I work with this African American quilt group, that's how it's done. And most of the time, I prefer doing it by hand, not machine.

LR: Do you collect quilts?

SS: Initially, I started collecting quilt tops, because primarily I could afford antique quilt tops, perhaps from the 1940s, '50s. I have a couple that are predominantly red and green. They're early. And so, I was drawn to those, but I don't any more collect. I feel like if I see a quilt that I really like, I have the skills to reproduce that or to design my own top that would give me an idea, that same feel from those early quilts. That was something I did early on and I think I've moved past that phase, and I may be now in the more designing my own art quilts, smaller quilts, sort of executing a design that I may have in my mind that I got from either a book or from nature or a quilt show, if I see something and then I can come up with my own design of it, and something different, usually from my head.

LR: What do you think makes a great quilt?

SS: I think it's probably important to develop a certain standard of technical skill, understanding what a quilt is and perhaps developing consistency in your stitches, and I think that's important. I've found that that's something I could always improve on and I have to always remember the attention to some of the details because I think having some technical skill and expertise in making quilts is what every quilter should start with, and is the basis of good quilt making and then you can take those skills and take them to where you want them to go with your own quilt making and your own ideas. But I also recognize that I still have work I could do to improve the consistency of my hand stitching and all the small details that I think you just never stop working on that and improving on that. I think it's important.

LR: You mentioned you have a collection of quilting or sewing memorabilia. Can you talk about that?

SS: Well, believe it or not, although I don't always like a lot of machine work, I have a couple, two Singer Featherweights that I plan to teach my grandchildren to quilt on, machine quilt, and I've already started with the ten-year-old, starting her to machine piece on that. And that's something I told them that I want to leave these machines to them but that they have to allow me to teach them how to use them, and they want to use those machines so in that way, I think I can teach them to quilt and to appreciate and love quilts. I do also love embellishing some of my art quilts with buttons, so I have a collection of buttons and beads that I typically will use on my quilts. I don't have a lot of memorabilia other than a few antique machines, a treadle machine. I remember my mother having a treadle machine, so I was kind of drawn to one of those and have it. I think that's about it.

LR: What is the importance of quilts to women's history in America?

SS: When I think back, certainly I think quilts have been important, I think from a necessity in many families, at least in my family. I have to wonder how my grandmother's quilts survived, and in fact we have one of her quilts which surprised me because I feel like it may not have been used, an Eight-Pointed Star quilt that she made with really nice fabrics. And it's survived in good condition. It was in a cedar chest that she had. And so, I think it was one of those prized quilts of hers that was just not used every day as a utility quilt, as many of us used. I think it's a way many people have taken old clothing that were important in the family and included that in the quilts, and I think it's a way of documenting that sort of thing. And maybe it was a way to quilt through hard times, a death in the family, sadness and unhappiness, and I've seen people quilt through it or work through problems, difficulties in life. So, it takes on many meanings. Quilts for weddings, for marriage, new births or new children, deaths in the family, so I think it's an integral part of living and feeling and growing, and I find that I love quilting so much, so I can almost think of any occasion that I could make a quilt or document family history. In fact, one of my goals is to, and I decided this at the last family reunion, is to document my family's history in quilts. I was born in Robeson County, North Carolina, on a little farm that has been in my family's name since 1889, and I have the original handwritten deed. We still own that little farm, and I want to somehow incorporate this into our family history in quilts, and I've been gathering information about our family history. I have a picture of my great-great-grandmother on my father's side, who apparently, we didn't know this. We knew she was from the islands, and we weren't sure about where.

LR: Which islands?

SS: I think they said the French Caribbean. And she apparently married a runaway slave, and we finally figured it out as somebody did some searches and genealogical studies. A runaway slave named Alfred Townsend, she married him, and I presume moved to the States or came to the States, and that was the beginning of the family on my father's side. There is one person in Rowland still, she's eighty-nine years old, that is the oldest living member of the Anderson [family.], which was my maiden name, clan there. And she has a lot of the documented history and we've gone down and documented as much as we can and gathering pictures. So, I also know that my great-grandfather, who owned this land that I spoke of was a freeman. We got that information in the 1882 census data, that we documented. He was an educated man, and he did the “figuring” or bookkeeping for many people in the general area, so we have some information on him, and this land came down from him through my mother's mother, and I promised my mother that we would hold onto the land and not sell it. So, I won't do that on my watch. I don't know what will happen afterwards, but it does take quite a bit of attention to maintain and the taxes and so forth on it, and keeping it cut under, so it's not overgrown and this kind of thing. But I need to document some of the family history that's related to that and so that our children and our children's children will know the history, the family history, and I want to do that in quilts. That's one of my plans.

LR: What do you think is the biggest challenge for quiltmakers today?

SS: For me, it is having too many ideas that I will not live long enough to execute them all. [laughs.] When you go to a quilt show, and I've gone to many and I love going to quilt shows, you can see 101 ideas that you would like to put into a quilt or use as a spinoff for a new project. And there's just so many fabrics and you think you've seen all the new fabrics and you can't imagine they can come out with designs any better next year than they have this year, but each time you'll see a new group of fabrics that hit the market and then we all go crazy over it. I think there's just such an explosion of design and ideas and quilts and patterns that it's hard to kind of narrow it down and stay on course, finish some of these ideas. And I have the weakness of starting many of them and some I should finish before I start others.

LR: We have just a few minutes left. Is there anything else that you would like to share?

SS: Well, I'd like to say that I'm within about two years of retirement. I'm a nutritionist currently with the Durham County Health Department, and I've started thinking about what I want to do with my time that can help make a contribution to quilts, particularly family quilts and African American quilts. But now I see that we've got a lot of work cut out for us if we're going to document the stories within our quilt circle here. And maybe then I can put some time into making sure we work through that process and get that done and submit those stories and get them documented. But I also want to finish a lot of the ideas that I have in my mind to do, like documenting my family history. I want to focus on that, make sure I get that done and well-documented and completed, including pictures of some of our ancestors that I want to include with that. Gather more family history, I think that's important. Those types of things.

LR: You have a wonderful challenge ahead of you. I did want to add that this interview is taking place during a Q.S.O.S. [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] training workshop here in Durham, North Carolina, and I'd like to thank you, Selena, for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Q.S.O.S. Project. Our interview was concluded at 1:45 p.m., and it is February 9, 2008. So thank you very much.

SS: You're welcome.



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