Barbara Swinea




Barbara Swinea




Barbara Swinea


Alice Helms

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Fairview, NC


Alice Helms


Alice Helms (AH): My name is Alice Helms. Today is November 20, 2007. I'm conducting an interview with Barbara Swinea for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We're at Barbara's home in Fairview, North Carolina and it's 1:15. Barbara, tell me about the quilt you have here.

Barbara Swinea (BS): Okay. This is feathered star that I designed and it's important to me, I think, because it's the first quilt that won a national ribbon and I think really got me going in another direction with higher aspirations, I guess.

AH: And, what do you think someone who would look at the quilt might conclude about you?

BS: That I'm obsessive/compulsive to make all these little points [laughs.]--there are so many in here and that I'm probably dull, because it's brown. [laughs.]

AH: Why don't you describe it more, some of the other colors you used.

BS: There are all shades of brown with just a touch of turquoise here and there. And the background is all off-white and I like to use a lot of different fabrics so that you get a visually textured background, while the same could be said for the stars too. They're eight-pointed stars. They're the large feathered star. There are three feathers to a side of each segment.

AH: How do you use this quilt?

BS: It hangs on the wall.

AH: And what are your plans for it?

BS: It's just probably to pass down to my family.

AH: Tell me how you got interested in quilting.

BS: A very long time ago, my grandmother had given me a quilt top that she had made and it went up in my closet and one year we took a trip to (we lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) and we took a fall trip to, I believe it was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and there was a Southern Highland Handicraft Guild (that was the name at that time). They were having a fair over there in Gatlinburg so I went and found some quilt demonstrators and that I think was my turning point because on the whole trip home to Florida I started remaking my grandmother's quilt and thinking, 'okay what am I going to do with it' and I still have that quilt. I probably should be using that because it did get me started and I learned a lot of hard lessons on that and I thought I was so smart, I did. I took the--it was a double wedding ring and I took the segments apart, appliquéd it on to a sheet. Now remember this is mid-seventies, and then I was even smarter and used a sheet for the backing and proceeded to hand quilt it. Well, it's ghastly. [laughs.] Oh, and when my mother died--[machine turned off for BS to compose herself.] So, when my mother died, rather than putting flowers on her casket at the viewing, I draped this quilt because her mother had started it and I finished it. [fighting back tears.]

AH: So, Barbara, you were self-taught in quilting or did someone teach you?

BS: Yes. I had been a sewer for quite some time. I suppose maybe twenty years. I had been sewing and so I knew my way around a sewing machine and that sort of thing.

AH: But you actually were doing hand piecing when you started, right?

BS: No, I did machine piecing. But I started off hand appliquéing my grandmother's quilt [laughs]. And I felt like I had taken this new craft up in a vacuum because I knew nobody and in the mid-seventies or whenever it was, there were no, well, maybe two books out there that you could lay your hands on. Quilters Newsletter [Magazine.] just started about that time and I just gobbled those up so it was pretty much teach yourself. It was the only way to do it.

AH: Did you ever take a class?

BS: I eventually did when I moved to Asheville, North Carolina in 1979. Someone I knew here said, 'I'm going to take a class with this famous quilter Georgia Bonesteel. Do you want to go and take the class?' and I said, 'Okay, I'll do that.' I'd never heard of her. I didn't know she was famous. Well, now Georgia and I are good friends, [laughs.] so that was a real bonus.

AH: How many hours a week do you quilt?

BS: Oh, that's a tough question. It's many. It's every day, seven days a week and I guess the hours in a day vary with whether I have to go elsewhere or if I'm very motivated.

AH: Barbara, what is your first quilt memory?

BS: [long pause.] Well, this is a stupid answer, I don't have one. [laughs.] I guess it was when my grandmother gave me that quilt top.

AH: Were there other quilters in your family, friends, anyone you knew growing up?

BS: No. I think I probably knew that my grandmother quilted but I didn't, I wasn't involved in it.

AH: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

BS: They have to put up with a whole lot. Now I have two grown sons who don't live at home but Gary [Barbara's husband.] is probably a partner, would be a good way to say it, because he does everything he can to help me do what needs to be done. For instance, he's the cook, he's the grocery shopper. We have somebody come and clean and then he brags on me all the time which gets to be a bit much. [laughs.]

AH: Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time in your life?

BS: No, I don't think I can say that. I think I know where that question is coming from and a lot of people have used them for solace and so forth but I would say not.

AH: What do you find most pleasing about quilting?

BS: I guess an expression of creativity, whatever direction that creativity is taking at the time. It could be something new, something old, it could be original, it could be to fill a need but you want to do it creatively. And it could be to win ribbons in shows which is what I really love to do.

AH: Are there any aspects of quilting that you don't enjoy?

BS: Basting a quilt. That's about it. [laughs.]

AH: Do you have any funny stories or amusing experiences to do with quilting that you can share?

BS: Well, yes. This particular quilt here, the feathered star. I had sent a couple quilts to Paducah, which is sort of the aim of everybody. Everybody wanted to have a quilt at Paducah because it's a juried show and sure enough this feathered star got in and we were there for the preview night and standing in line someone said something, in fact it was Trish Gabriel said, 'Weren't you at the awards reception? Your quilt won.' Well I couldn't believe it. There was no way my quilt could've won so we went in and sure enough my quilt had won as well as one I had worked on had won second place in the group category and mine had won first place and they wanted to interview me and take pictures and I was in a daze because I couldn't even stand right, I didn't know where to look, I couldn't answer questions coherently. It was just so thrilling. So that was pretty funny because I know anybody that was watching thought 'Oh my word, what's wrong with that woman?'

AH: Tell me about the quilt groups you belong to.

BS: I belong, well I've been juried into the Southern Highland Guild which I feel is coming full circle because going to one of their shows in the seventies is what got me started and then to have been able to be a part of that guild is maybe one of the best things, because it is full circle and they were, I guess, important in my beginning. So that's one group I belong to and the Asheville [North Carolina.] area has a quilt guild which I am considered one of the founding mothers and that pleases me and then I have a little group of friends and we're called the P.T.A. just so we sounded worthwhile, I guess, when we're going to a P.T.A. meeting [laughs.] it sounded like they're do-gooders but it's Piecers, Talkers and Appliquérs. That's what it stands for [laughs].

AH: Why did you feel there was a need for a quilt guild in this area?

BS: Well, I was teaching. I was teaching through the community [college.], through A.B. Tech [Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.], the adult education and I taught for about five years and I don't remember exactly, I mean I guess I always thought that I would start a guild and I knew that once I did my life was going to change and that I was going to have a lot of work to do, and so one night my good friend in quilting Linda Cantrell said, 'Let's start a quilt guild,'and I said, 'Okay.' That was just the right night to say that and that was the beginning. So we started the quilt guild and it's grown from the original 60 people to well over three hundred at this point.

AH: And that was what year? What year was it started?

BS: That was 1988.

AH: Have there been advances in technology that have influenced your work?

BS: Oh, when you're talking to a dinosaur like I am, yes. Goodness. I mean we used cardboard for templates back in the day and maybe had only one pair of scissors and never heard of a rotary cutter or a mat. We had just ordinary rulers. Machines were just Singers, just the home variety, and techniques, well there's just an unending variety out there that probably there's no end to--that would be unending, wouldn't it? [laughs.]

AH: Yes. Describe your studio.

BS: It's pretty good size, I think it's about twenty by twenty, it's got three exposures and a huge closet which is of course full and it does have a T.V. Four by eight cutting and working table in the middle of the room, two design walls that I can pin into or just press fabric against. It's got a little couch. It's got a sewing machine, a serger, and a brand new sewing machine in a box that I haven't opened yet that I won and don't have room for and then I have all kinds of boxes everyplace with stuff in them.

AH: Okay. What do you think makes a great quilt?

BS: [pause.] I'd have to think about that a lot. I don't know offhand.

AH: Do you have any ideas about what makes a great quilter?

BS: There are probably different types of great quilters. Some who do a lot of good, as far as giving away quilts, others who have capacity for designing and putting together fabrics and they could be technically very skilled. Probably one who wants to share what she knows. Notice I say 'she,' there are some male quilters out there too.

AH: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

BS: My two favorite quilters are probably Ruth McDowell and Nancy Halpern who are not on the popular circuit right now. They're sort of in the stratosphere. But I think their work; I guess I would aspire to. Nancy Halpern for design and Ruth McDowell for both design and technique. And she's proficient. But there are a lot of quilters whose work I admire. Many, many.

AH: Are there any artists who have influenced you?

BS: Right here's a problem. I'm stumbling over the word artist. Is your question someone who paints?

AH: Could be.

BS: Is it a quilt artist?

AH: Could be.

BS: Yeah. A lot of people influence me. Georgia Bonesteel has been a big influence on me. She's a very gracious, giving teacher and I'm just impressed with what she's done both as probably the first TV quilting star and just the person that she is. I already knew how to quilt, I had completed quilts when I met her but that was, she was influential. In fact she got me my first teaching job now that I think about it. Yeah.

AH: Do you want to talk a little bit more about teaching?

BS: Yes, as I said I taught on a local basis and really enjoyed it and I had students who would, they were just so hungry for anything, they would keep coming back year after year and I'd have to keep trying to figure out something new to teach them and just scrambling to stay ahead of their skills. But, I'm friends with some of those students now and at some point, I think after--I don't know how many years I taught but I found myself burned out, that I wasn't having time to be creative on a level that I wanted to do. So I had to stop working more toward beginner and intermediate levels. So I dropped out of [teaching.] quilting and am friends with a lot of traveling teachers, they travel to guilds and conferences all over the country if not the world, and I don't envy their life at all, they are just so, so busy and I guess they're more generous than I am. I just guard my time more. I don't want to sort of give it away, so I made a decision at one point that that was not the world for me, that teaching world. Not that that world wanted me but, [laughs.] I didn't even try. But teachers? Oh, so important. We've brought along a lot of good quilters and you hope you gave them good basics. I would like to see basics really paid attention to.

AH: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting and maybe even long-arm machine quilting?

BS: Well, I'm primarily a hand quilter and being the dinosaur I am, I know that I need to learn machine quilting and I have done some, but I don't feel like I'm doing it as good as I should be. I need to be better at it and you do have to practice to reach that end and I don't spend enough time practicing it but I think there is definitely a place for it. There's also a place for the hired long-arm quilter. I probably won't use one's services but I think there are a lot of people who really just want to make a quilt top and then have a finished product. So there's a place for all of it and I think it takes a real, real skill and talent to be a good machine quilter and I really am envious of that skill. I wish I had it
AH: So, the quilt that we're looking at, now, today, this is all hand quilted?

BS: This is all hand quilted. Yes.

AH: And, what kind of rack do you use to hand quilt?

BS: I use a hoop in my lap.

AH: How big?

BS: About 14 inches. I do have a basting frame and that works pretty well, but I get really particular about the basting. I think the reason I have so much trouble with the basting is because I am so particular and I like to keep it absolutely square, the grainlines all perpendicular and parallel and I just get hung up on having each step as good as it can be because in the end, you will probably make less mistakes and have a better product. So I have this big basting frame. I sure would like to make smaller quilts but to get into the shows I think I have a better chance by making big quilts. I do make a lot of quilts to give away to my family and to the community, but I do really enjoy entering shows.

AH: Okay. The next question I was going to ask is why is quiltmaking important to you, but maybe you just told me.

BS: Probably yes. Probably an ego thing. And you just really get your ego fed when you win a ribbon at a show. Like, wow, look at me. [laughs.]

AH: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community or the region you live in?

BS: I live in the mountains of North Carolina and I've lived in two log houses and probably my favorite pattern is a log cabin. And I've made many, many of them.

AH: What do you think about the importance of quilting in American life?

BS: Well, I think they've been used to document a lot of events in lives like weddings and birthdays, and graduations and so forth.

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

BS: We don't have a history, until recently except for a lot of quilts. I think probably that is our history because it's not written but in thread, needle and thread. I wish I had time to think about these. I could give some profound answers. [laughs.] But just off the cuff like this, these are some good questions.

AH: What has happened to the quilts that you've made for friends and family?

BS: I hope they still have them. Some have been passed around a little bit but as far as I know they still have them.

AH: Are there any particular ones you want to talk about, that come to mind, that you made for someone?

BS: No, not off hand.

AH: Do you sleep under a quilt?

BS: No. [laughs.] Isn't that awful? I have. But, no.

AH: Do you have any quilts that you use?

BS: Yes, I definitely use them, I keep an extra one on the bed and we have extra ones here and there and we do have quilts on the guest room beds and on the walls. So, they're very evident in my house. Yes.

AH: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

BS: Oh. Another deep question. Say that again.

AH: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

BS: Probably time. Making a quilt is a long term investment and we all have more quilts in our heads than we're going to be able to make.

AH: Is there anything else to add to this interview Barbara?

BS: No. Been fun working with Alice.

AH: Okay. Then this concludes our interview. It is now 1:45 p.m. Thank you.


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