Gwen Otte




Gwen Otte




Gwen Otte


SharonAnn Louden

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nine Patch Fabrics


Gordon, Nebraska


Carol Hudkins


SharonAnn Louden (SAL): [beginning of announcement not recorded.] …[March 13.] 2009 and at 1:30 p.m. I am conducting an interview with Gwen Otte in Gordon, Nebraska, for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Nebraska State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Gwen Otte is a quilter and member of the Lone Willow Chapter. Gwen, please tell us about your quilt that you brought today.

Gwen Otte (GO): The quilt that I have hanging today that we've looked at is from the Baltimore Album family of quilts. There are so many variations of this quilt but this is my interpretation of the blocks.

SAL: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

GO: It was probably my first experience in totally appliquéing a quilt and the colors, the fabrics, the designs were especially new to me and intriguing.

SAL: Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview today?

GO: It seemed the one that I wanted to show the most and I feel comfortable with it. I may never do it again but it was so much fun. I enjoy it the most.

SAL: What do you think someone viewing your quilt might conclude about you?

GO: Well, several of my friends have told me that I like pain. [laughs.] I like to do things that require a lot of patience and they think that I'm persistent in finishing things that I start. I don't know what else they might think. Some of them think I'm a little insane at times. [laughs.]

SAL: How do you use this quilt?

GO: I use this quilt as a throw on my bed, over my duvet cover. I probably would never use it on a quilt for warmth but it's strictly decorative.

SAL: Why would you never use it on a quilt for warmth?

GO: I'm sure it would be a warm quilt to snuggle under but it seems to me that it's a little fragile. I'm not sure all the colors--you would have to wash it sooner or later. I'm not sure all the colors would stay as vivid and clear as they are now.

SAL: What are your plans for this quilt?

GO: We have a son and four daughters. Someone will get it, whether they want it or not. They will get it.

SAL: And they'll be the lucky ones.

GO: Yes, I hope so. I hope they think that.

SAL: Tell me about your early interest in quilt making.

GO: I didn't start making quilts until about twenty years ago, which is, I was older but before that time I was making prom dresses, costumes, girls' clothes, baby clothes, everything. But I was intrigued with it because there was a little quilt shop in our town and one of the ladies offered classes. All my friends were signing up for these classes and I thought I didn't have time for classes. I didn't have that one night a week and night wasn't a great time to do it. So, I checked books from the library and taught myself to quilt.

SAL: Well, how did you know which book to choose?

GO: Well, my mother was librarian and she had great access to books and we could choose anything, but I picked a sampler book and I just thought I don't know if I will like to do this or not so I will use pieces of fabric that I have. They happened to be yellow. That was the most prevalent in my stash so I used yellow prints and checks and white in with it and I made twelve sampler blocks. When I finished I showed it to someone. That winter as I was quilting I would sit on the floor. It was the warmest winter I can remember because I was covered with that quilt all the time, but I showed it to a friend later and she said, 'Why did you use yellow? Nebraska women do not make yellow quilts.' And I said, 'Well, this one did,' and I took it to a family reunion auction and it brought a nice amount of money to finance the next reunion.

SAL: So, what age did you start quilt making?

GO: Well, that would have been probably the early '50s.

SAL: Now what is your first quilt memory then?

GO: Oh, the first quilts I remember are the ones that my grandmothers made. They were made from old suiting, discarded coats, you know, everyone's outgrown garments. It was the '30s, the Depression time, and all my family were agriculture people and there wasn't a great amount of money to use on anything so it would have been those heavy, heavy wool quilts that had flannel. Or, well, I remember the backing was usually flannel and I think they had batting. It might have been cotton or wool at that time but I mostly remember that they were tied and they were tied with red yarn, so they were covered with these red bows or red knots.

SAL: So, umm, how has the quilt making had an impact on your family?

GO: Oh, they are as excited as I am to see what I'm going to do next. They know that if we go to a city or a country town, any place that looks like it might have a little fabric, that's where I will be. And I will be searching the shelves for something that might go with the stash I already have. And they expect that I will be looking, searching for the new idea, the new quilt.

SAL: Do other members of your family quilt with you?

GO: I have a sister. She does not quilt with me. She quilts on her own and she does lovely quilts and she gives them to her children as gifts. She accomplishes a lot. Now, my, as I said, my great-grandmothers quilted but it was mostly of necessity. It wasn't because they had time to create something they wanted to do especially. And there is a, my cousin has a quilt which my great-grandmother made and it must have been the late '20s or early '30s. She happened to be a milliner by trade and had a millinery shop in Gordon at one time. And she has made this lovely pieced quilt, which of course, I think is wonderful. It's still in the family. I must say that I was so interested to find that Marie Webster had designed so many quilt blocks, quilt patterns in early time and I was excited because that was my great-grandmother's name. Then I remembered that she was Marie Webster Cady, so it was not my relative but it is the family name.

SAL: So you told me about your daughter encouraging you on one of your projects.

GO: Yes. We went to a little shop here in Gordon and the name of it is Trader's Corner. They go to a lot of auctions, home auctions, and I'm sure that they get a box of, buy a box of something that they don't know what's in it and I found this little bag of embroidered blocks. They were the Kewpie doll designs from the '30s. At that time, I didn't realize they were '30s vintage and she said, 'They were embroidered in red,' and I thought that is really not a good color but she said, 'Mom, you buy these blocks.' They're $2.50 for twelve and you take them home and you embellish them with more stitching and make a quilt. And I brought them home and probably had them for a year, or maybe longer and then one day I though these are no good this way so I did embellish the blocks and it became an obsession with me, to see what I could do with more embroidery to make them more appealing. So then I put them together with red batik type fabric and white, white on white, which has little tiny alphabet letters on it and I made a child's quilt with that. And the quilt, the blocks are set together with red and white stripes and red and white check blocks in the corners and I did hand quilt that.

SAL: Tell me, have you ever used quilts to get you through a difficult time?

GO: I have. The last year, about a year and a half ago, my very good friend, who had quilted with me for seven or eight years, came one day and said, 'I probably won't be able to be here next week to work because I have turned yellow and we were very concerned. She said, 'I will be seeing a specialist. She came back after two or three weeks' testing and said, 'They have discovered that I have pancreatic cancer.' And she was so brave. She was an inspiration to all the rest of us during that time. That started in June of 2008. During that time, if she was not away taking treatment, she was here and she was always cheery. She always picked up her needle, put her stitches in. She was so much fun because she would often say, 'Ah, this doesn't work. I cut it off twice and it's still too short.' And she often would say, 'Oh, this looks like I'm quilting a Drunkard's Path.' And we had many, many laughs, and of course, we had a lot of tears during that time but she was so very, very brave and especially her courage came through the day she said, 'They've told me I could take my treatment. I have decided not to.' And she came to my house, we met on Tuesday afternoons, she came the Tuesday after Christmas in 2008 and, oh, yes, and her husband brought her. She was not able to walk very well. And two weeks later she was gone, but that last day she sat and she wanted to make an embroidered Christmas wall hanging and her designs were darling. It was red work on white on white background. And the day she wanted to transfer those designs her hands were too shaky. So I said, 'Bring them to me. I will transfer those.' And she got all of those finished except down to the last block and that was the one she was working on that day. And her needle and thread are still resting in that last block. But it got us through a very difficult time because we could come together and do our stitching. We'd laugh. We'd cry, but we'd be joyful in being together and it was inspiration to us.

SAL: Tell me about an amusing experience that occurred from your teaching with your friends.

GO: The first time, one of our friends is an advanced math, algebra, trig teacher here in Gordon. And she could be my daughter. She's much younger. But we invited her to come and she hadn't known us very well but she came. We had a blue, almost navy blue and white, star quilt spread out and it was under construction. The blue, water-soluble pen was new at that time, that felt tip, and I had marked the quilting lines on the white with that. And she walked in. She sat down, brought her own thimble, brought her own needle. She sat down, didn't say anything, started chatting, was rather reserved but we didn't know her real well and after we had worked for an hour and a half or so, somebody said, 'Well, let's remove those blue lines from this white and see how it looks.' She said, 'You can take that out?' And we said, 'Well, yes, you use water.' And she said, 'Oh, I just thought you women had the worst sense of color in the world. That that would be in there forever.' And so she was so relieved when we removed the turquoise. Then another friend who was here that day went to a quilt shop and a few days later I got a cell phone call and the reception was terrible. I could barely make out what she was saying and she finally said, 'I am in a quilt shop in Rapid City and my husband has been looking for that green bottle that you used to remove that blue line.' And I said, 'I'm not sure what you mean.' And she said, 'Oh you know, that green bottle you always spray that with to take the blue line out.' You can imagine her laughter when I said, 'That's water in an old hairspray bottle.' [laughs.]

SAL: How do you think quilting in rural Nebraska differs from the urban setting quilters?

GO: I would imagine that in earlier times at least, quilting was based on need for warm covers and saving fabric, creating and probably it filled a need for something to stay busy, because you wouldn't have activity as you would in a city, or, it filled a need to be useful and create useful things.

SAL: How do you think they got their fabric?

GO: I just remember from my own family, that they saved everything. And if a garment was used, but not abused, they saved the pieces that were good. I can remember--I think everyone referred to their rag bag, [laughs.] that was, that was actually a muslin bag that held all the used things, that could be dust rags, grease rags, whatever. But there were also wonderful pieces to be used in a creation.

SAL: How far do you travel to get to your favorite fabric shop?

GO: Well, it's at least 70 to 80 miles usually, once in a while, 60, but usually it's far.

SAL: Does that depend on a specific need or quilt?

GO: Yes, sometimes we go especially for that. Now, when my friends and I plan our design for our church quilt which we do every year, we usually go to shop at Hemingford or some place that's in the area, but it's a half day and we spend all day if we can because it's such a, such a wide rainbow to choose from. Sometimes we choose our design, we study our books for weeks to choose our design and we say, 'This one would be perfect in blues.' But when we get there, it becomes green or it becomes burgundy or whatever, because each of us has a special liking for something different. And one time we went to a shop and there were four of us. Each of us chose four fabrics, four bolts. Then we brought them all together and we voted informally. We reject this one but we love this one but we don't like what we picked with it so we go back and search further and it became a great game. We really spent a lot of time picking that.

SAL: How do you determine what fabrics that you like to work with?

GO: I really like cottons, but I sometimes don't like the front so I use the back. I buy both sides so I think sometimes the back has a subtle design or no design but the background color is exactly what I need. And I don't want a print so I turn it over and use the back. I really like cottons. I have, since I do American primitive wool rugs, I collect wool. I have a stash of wool that is comparable to my stash of quilt fabrics and I also save my gently used silk shirts and I've washed them and pressed them and they are waiting in the wings for an idea.

SAL: What is the first thing that you do when you walk into a fabric shop?

GO: Color. Color is what--there are such wonderful colors and wonderful prints, and I tend to go toward burgundies, roses, pinks, but I have worked on blues, greens, everything, and it comes together, whatever, whatever I choose, but color is what I look at.

SAL: Tell me one of your favorite travel stories about finding quilts.

GO: Well, we were in Rapid City and I rescue quilt tops, as we said about the little blocks that I rescued. I went to a used furniture store or something and there was a box there with two pieced quilt tops in it. Rapid City is about 120 miles. I looked at those and I thought, 'Someone worked so hard because everything was hand stitched.' It was a Double Wedding Ring quilt and an eight-pointed star quilt. And they were very nicely done but here they were, folded in a cardboard box. They had a little bit of cardboard box stain on them and we went away and I just felt so sad about that. They were'30s fabrics and I thought what an effort that was. I mentioned to my husband that it really bothers me to see those in that box. He said, 'If you want to finish them, I'll go buy them.' So we paid $50 for the two, which I don't know if that was good or bad, but I did bring them home and put muslin, batting and muslin and hand quilted and I feel that the same person or same group of people made them because many of the same prints are used in both quilts. I think a lot of them were feed sacks, flour sacks, that kind of thing that was available to rural people.

SAL: How do you repair or take care of an old quilt that you've rescued?

GO: I haven't had to repair any. I have some that need some repair. I'm hesitant to get into it. Some of them are so fragile and I treasure them but I don't know that I can do it right. So at the present time they're just waiting. I do like to remove stains, marks that are from stitching or whatever, whatever is left, I like to take that out. Otherwise I haven't tried to really repair anything.

SAL: What have you found successful in removing stains?

GO: A product called Zout. I can't think of the name of it, it's a commercial product that you get from quilting suppliers and it's a certain soap [Orvis.] I haven't used it so I can't say that I've been successful with it. Also, I had a wonderful friend who said, 'Soak anything in Biz and it'll come out like new.' So, I have done that a time or two and it did, so I believe her.

SAL: So how many do you think you have in your quilt collection?

GO: Oh, do you think I have 20 right now, or maybe 25 and I have given a full-size quilt to each of my five children and when each grandchild graduates from high school I give them a quilt. Now, those I plan for the particular person. The boys get a quilt that has actual pieced flying geese on it, and it is mostly oxford cloth and cotton, fall, boyish-looking prints. The girls, one has is a rainbow quilt that was all shades of colors from light to dark and all the colors of the rainbow with black blocks between the pieces. Another one I made twelve miniature doll dresses and appliquéd them to the blocks. And many of those were made from prints that I had used for her when she was a little girl, so they had special meaning for her. Another granddaughter had a quilt that was, I used the design like open books. And it showed the spine and then the front and back cover and some pages that, like an open book and I embroidered names of some favorite subjects that she had taken on those books. Then I had made two quilts for each of my two youngest grandchildren. One is a book and of course for that boy it was baseball and all those things. I also made another one with the miniature doll dresses for her. I also made her an embroidered sunbonnet girl quilt and oh, the little boy I made a quilt with trains. I used yo-yos for the wheels, and I was able to use a lot of interesting techniques on that.

SAL: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

GO: Oh, it is so relaxing. It's so relaxing. I can hardly wait to finish a quilt. I love to start it and cut the pieces, get it put together, get it ready to do the stitching. Then, when the stitching is partially finished, I would say halfway, I'm already thinking of that next one and I'm thinking of the design and the colors and I can say, I'm never doing this color again, but I will love to do this in another color.

SAL: What is your least favorite part of quilting?

GO: Pinning it, doing the sandwich. I smooth and press and pull and ask help and often times then still I get some little ripples and have to redo.

SAL: Where do you get your quilt ideas?

GO: Some from magazines, from quilts I've seen earlier. Some, I just think, this is a nice fabric. What could I do with it and I just start cutting or whatever, cutting. I do some drawing and painting on my own, although I don't do much painting anymore. But I have done a lot of drawing. I've taken art classes and so I just start out with the fabric, and it tells me what it needs. And sometimes I make mistakes and those are still in the quarter. They may or may not get used sometime.

SAL: Describe your work area for me.

GO: I have an enclosed sewing area with shelves above the countertop and my sewing machine fits there. I also have a backup sewing machine, which is an aged machine, but in a pinch it is wonderful. I think I paid $25 for it a long time ago. And whenever anything goes wrong with the new electronic, it's a lifesaver. I also have a serger in that room which I seldom use in quilting, but it is useful at certain times. My ironing board is right there. I have an area where I can do cutting. I can put my mats and do my rotary cutting and use all those things.

SAL: Has advanced technology influenced your quilting?

GO: Oh, yes. When I think of the grandmothers and great-grandmothers who cut one little piece at a time with a pair of probably dull scissors, maybe using brown paper for a pattern or a piece of sandpaper if they were lucky enough to have it, I think how easy it is for me. I can cut twenty-five blocks in two minutes if I want. I can press it so easily. My machine, I hardly have to guide it to make the seams and then when I'm through, I can toss it in the washer if it needs it, toss it in the dryer if I choose. So, it is so easy. Our mats, our rotary cutters, our gauges, designs, and I use my printer and my copier to copy a lot of designs or enlarge or decrease.

SAL: What do you think makes a great quilt?

GO: I think just the effort that someone has put into it. I always appreciate, sometimes they don't work. Sometimes mine don't work. Sometimes I'm really disappointed in it. Although I finished it and that's the one, I don't mind giving to someone, but I think the effort people put into it, their thought, and just the stitching that makes a quilt great.

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

GO: Oh, I think it has to be the one that you walk in, and you just know by looking at it. It's the design, the color, the pattern, the stitching, all those things, but I think you know immediately when you see that particular quilt.

SAL: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

GO: I think that, for me, hand stitching is in the quilting and the finishing, is what shows the power. Now a lot of people do machine quilting and it's wonderful and longarm quilting is certainly an art form in itself. I know people, who do that, I have seen fabulous quilts done with longarm and even with the regular sewing machine, but I like hand stitching and quilting.

SAL: What quilt art has influenced your quilt making?

GO: I think probably appliqué is the one that I would always think of as the ultimate for me. Recently, my friend who quilts, my church quilting friend, told me that she had inherited dozens of hand pieced pieces, patches from her mother who has been gone several years and she said, 'Before my mother died of cancer, she left me, or she quilted all these different blocks, but she never had time to put them together.' She said, 'I really would like to put those together for my sisters who did not get quilts.' But she said, 'I just hate appliqué.' So, I said, 'You bring them to me. I am so intense about finishing something that's hand done.' So, she brought me thirty-six, eight-pointed star pieces that her mother had stitched and I appliquéd those to a background for her. And this week she brought me the finished quilt. She put it together and hand quilted. And she also brought a label, which was an extra eight-pointed star. She had had it printed on the computer with everyone who had helped with that quilt, and she had me appliqué that to the back. She said, 'Now, I'm putting this in a box tomorrow and I'm folding it so that label is on top, and my sister won't know I'm sending it.' So, I would love to have been there when her sister opened the box.

SAL: Why is quilt making important to your life?

GO: Oh, I guess that the most I can think of is, I had such talented ancestors, and I don't have anything they made, either grandmother or even my mother who does beautiful embroidery. So, every time I finish a quilt I think, someday, maybe someone will remember that I left that quilt and maybe it will last so that it becomes a treasure to someone.

SAL: In what ways do you believe that your quilts reflect your community or a rural area?

GO: I think people in this area have just come back to quilting in the last, oh, five to ten years, maybe. It was such a common thing when everyone had such need for warmth and comfort and use of materials on hand. And now it's become more or less the frill. It's a thing that you do because you need a hobby, an art form. I do not call it a craft as some people do. I call it an art form and I believe it is.

SAL: How do you think quilts can be used?

GO: Well, of course, for covers, but I think decorative is the greatest use, whether it's a twin, full, queen, king, -sized quilt or whether it's a little table runner or table quilt or a wall hanging. Everyone is a treasure because it reflects someone's ingenuity and their effort to preserve their design.

SAL: In what ways to you think quilts have a special meaning to women's history in America?

GO: Well, you know, we, we all heard the stories of the Underground Railroad and what was that book? It was called "Hidden in Plain Sight." And in studying my family genealogy just a few weeks ago, I found that in my family, Randolph Lawson Reno owned the Reno House Hotel in Greenville, Kentucky. And that was a well-known hotel, which was a branch of the Underground Railroad. Now I don't know more than that, but I do know that he, we've heard of all those quilts and how they put them on the line to show that they could escape that way. Now they've, they've debunked that. They say that isn't true. But wasn't it a wonderful story and that was handed down through generations and generations and too bad, it made great entertainment. Maybe it wasn't true, but it was great entertainment. And we do know the Underground Railroad existed.

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

GO: I think time is the biggest challenge. People are so busy in their lives. They have so many things going on but my friends and I have decided that we need to get our projects to such a point that even if we can only spend ten or fifteen minutes a day, it's amazing what you can do. If you know that project is ready and your needle and thread and everything is there, it's surprising what you can accomplish in that short time. And then if you have a whole afternoon, it's heaven. You just get so much done, but I think time is the thing. And I think that's why a lot of people don't go ahead and do it. They all say, 'Oh, I don't have the time.'

SAL: How do you manage your time daily?

GO: Well, this really isn't a problem for me. I have, of course, my children and grandchildren are grown. And they, when they reach a certain age, they are not running in, 'Grandma, do you have cookies?' Things like that so much anymore. And my husband loves to garden, and he is a great helper around the house and if I say, 'Oh, today I want to sit and look at these quilt books all day.' He'll say, 'Oh, that's okay. We don't need to do anything else.' My mother is 97 years old and I'm very fortunate that she still lives in her own home, plays bridge three or four times a week, takes care of her own business. All she needs is a trip to the hairdresser once a week and so I'm almost free. Finding time is not really a problem for me.

SAL: Gwen, is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview?

GO: We, I should say that some people have been very big influences on my life, and one of them is Paulette Peters. I haven't met Paulette myself, but I happened to grow up in the neighborhood where her husband did. So, I've known her mother-in-law very well and she was a fabulous quilter. She's not able to do that anymore but people like her and I used to get up early in the morning and watch Alex Anderson on "Simply Quilts" on TV. I think it came on at 5:30 here but I don't do that anymore. I guess I think I learned everything she had to teach me or else it just got so 5:30 was too early. I think I've told you that I made quilts for all five of our children and those who have graduated. I've said before, I consider quilting to be an art. I have taken art classes at the college at Chadron and locally and I love doing that, but somehow, I think my family didn't want any more of my paintings. They didn't think I was one of those famous painters or artists so in quilting, they loved the quilts and what I produced that way.

SAL: Your quilting has become your creativity?

GO: Yes, it has. I do still do the American primitive wool hooking and I do some crochet. I have made a few quilted garments, vests and a few jackets and I have given those as gifts, too.

SAL: I'd like to thank Gwen Otte for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview has concluded. It is now 2:25 on March 13, 2009.

GO: The pleasure has been mine.


“Gwen Otte,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,