Mildred Simpson




Mildred Simpson




Mildred Simpson


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Chautauqua, New York


Tomme Fent


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is May 18th, 2006. It is 10:15 a.m., and I'm conducting an interview with Mildred Simpson for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. And Millie drove up from Westfield, New York, and we are at the Brasted House Bed and Breakfast. And I want to thank Joyce and Scott Brasted for offering their inn as a place for our interview.

So, Millie, welcome. It's a pleasure to have you come and share your story with us. Tell me about the touchstone quilt that you've selected. Why did you choose this particular quilt?

Mildred Simpson (MS): It's the one that means the most to me. It's the story of my life, and most of my other quilts I've given away anyway. And I haven't made a tremendous amount of quilts but I like putting together things that I've created myself rather than following patterns.

LR: So, tell me about the quilt. What kind of a quilt is it and why did you decide to do it in this particular style?

MS: Well, I started--I don't know, I just wanted to try something, and I started out, my first block was probably the simplest block here and then I got a little crazy afterwards and embellished a lot more. [laughs.] But my first block was made for my husband. He was an iron worker and that was my first block. And I have no idea when I made them. I usually only quilt in the winter, and as I progressed, I didn't date them, because some years I would make one or two and then maybe for a year or so I wouldn't make any, and then I ended up finishing them. And I didn't date them, so I have no idea how long it took me to make it.

LR: When did you start, do you remember?

MS: I have no idea.

LR: Oh, you don't know?

MS: No, I have no idea.

LR: Okay. So, that was your first one?

MS: This was my first one.

LR: All right. What are some of your other most favorite blocks?

MS: Well, I'm not even sure that's my favorite. [laughs.] I like the one I did of my garden, and then the one of the maple syrup making, that was always a favorite time of the year. It was a happy time and we all helped making maple syrup and it was getting spring and everybody felt good, and we were out in the woods, which I like to be, too. And then the one, the double block is of the farm where I grew up.

LR: And where is that?

MS: It's in Arkwright [New York.], which is in this county.

LR: Talk a minute about the textiles, the fabrics that you used.

MS: It's all cotton, and most of it I had on hand. There were maybe a few pieces, the sashing and borders I bought extra, but most of them were things that I had had at home that I'd collected over the years.

LR: Were they from clothing or special pieces?

MS: No, they were--it was new--perhaps some of them were clothing, scraps, but most of them were just pieces that I'd collect, or somebody had given me, so the material doesn't mean that much to me other than I liked it.

LR: Talk a minute about the techniques, because you have many different techniques that you used to make these squares.

MS: Usually I just sat down with a pair of shears and started cutting [laughs.], and then I would put them on my square and then embroider as I felt necessary or felt like doing that day.

LR: Did you do it all by machine or--

MS: No, it's all hand done. It's put together by machine but everything else is done by hand.

LR: Is done by hand?

MS: Yes.

LR: How do you use this quilt?

MS: I've had it on my bed a few times, but it's usually--I usually just store it away. I'm living in a small home now and I don't have room to hang it on the wall or anything, so once in a while I get it out and put it on my bed and enjoy it, but otherwise, I put it away.

LR: I'm looking at this square here, the United Refining Company.

MS: For several years, my husband and I did a farmer's market in Warren [Pennsylvania.], and we always parked in a parking lot and right across the street was the United Refining Company offices, and so I put the van where it lined it up with United Refining Company. Usually, we took the same spot every week and we sold vegetables, baked goods, flowers, dried flowers.

LR: Were those all from your farm?

MS: Yes, uh-huh.

LR: What's the title of this quilt?

MS: “Pieces of My Life.” It's all things that happened to me while I was living my life.

LR: I noticed on the back; you have a pocket here. What is all of that?

MS: It was too much to write it all on my--

LR: On the pocket?

MS: On the pocket, so I made a list of the quilt blocks and what they depicted.

LR: Ah-hah.

MS: Some of them were vacations we took or events in my life.

LR: What are your plans for this quilt?

MS: I'll let my kids fight over it. [laughs.] No, I haven't decided to give it to anybody specifically. It's very personal.

LR: It's quite a wonderful work. Each square has a very special story involved. This one here--

MS: This was [when.] we vacationed in Mexico, or in South Texas, with a friend two different years. And then we always went to Progresso to shop and sight-see. And this was the street vendors and the shops in Progresso, the garlic salesman and the man who's selling lace tablecloths. And I wanted to have the corn salesman because that was--he had a cart with an old washtub in it that he had a little heater underneath and boiled the water for the corn. And I'm sure you would have had “Montezuma's Revenge” if you'd ever eaten that corn. [laughs.] You could have it either with hot sauce on it or plain, and he'd put sticks in them and then he was picking the sticks out of the gutter and scraping them off and then sticking them in the end of the corn. I had to have him in there. [laughs.] But we didn't eat any of the corn.

LR: This is quite a wonderful way to share pieces of your life, in a quilt instead of in a photo album, to have it in a quilt. Let's talk a minute about your own interest in quilt making. At what age did you start quilt making?

MS: I think the first one I made; I was probably about twenty-one. And I didn't know anything about quilt making. I didn't know to pull the knots through the back side because I had all these knots when I quilted. That was made out of all fabrics that we had had dresses of when we were growing up, and I gave that one to my mother. And afterwards it came back to me and one year, there was a kind of a tornado, and it blew away this friend's trailer, and she had a little girl, and I gave the quilt to her, so I think it's in the State of Washington now.

LR: Why did you make that quilt? Was it a class or something?

MS: No, I just made it because I've always been kind of interested in quilts. I remember sending away for patterns and looking at them--I did use one. It was just a tiny square with a butterfly embroidered on it, and then it had little squares of material around each butterfly piece. Those were all pieces of material from our childhood. I did attend a class. Let's see where was that? Oh, it was at Calico Cat, I think. There was a woman from Panama [New York.] that taught classes in quilting, and I took a class from her. And then I've taken one class about crazy quilts, after I'd already made one [laughs.]. I'm in the process of making another crazy quilt right now. I rather enjoy either pictorial pieces or crazy quilting because you don't have to have all the corners square and this sort of thing. [laughs.] I'm not a perfectionist when it comes to quilting. I've never taken any paper piecing. They're beautiful, I enjoy looking at them, but I don't want to do them.

LR: What is your first memory of a quilt?

MS: My grandmother used to make crazy quilts and she'd give them to my mother. You know, we were on a farm, and you used them for warmth, and it was just something that people did then because you didn't have money to buy special material for quilts. You used scraps and pieces and put them together. And I remember those quilts, they were on the beds, and they were quite colorful because they were from cottons from dresses and aprons. Those were the first, and then I remember a wool quilt that we had that my great-aunt made for my father because he was named for my great-uncle, and she gave him this wool quilt that had feather stitching all around it. That was quite interesting, but it was heavy.

LR: Was that a crazy quilt also?

MS: No, no. That was a pattern quilt. It was circles divided in quarters, and I don't remember all about it, but it was not a very colorful one because it was made out of dark--it was probably suiting and that sort of thing it was made from.

LR: What kind of a sewing machine did you have?

MS: I had a Pfaff that I got shortly after I was married. I still have the same one. And I only use it to put quilts together. I don't do piecing with it.

LR: How did you make your first quilt, was it by hand?

MS: Yes.

LR: All by hand?

MS: Yes.

LR: So, you had quiltmakers in your family?

MS: Well, my grandmother died when I was very young, so I didn't know how she made her quilts. She made the crazy quilts. But the rest of the family did not make quilts. I know my one sister started to make a Dresden Plate, but she was a perfectionist, and it didn't come together quite right so she never finished it. [laughs.] One sister never had a needle that fit her hand, and my other sister liked to--she did cross stitch and that sort of thing but did not quilt.

LR: How does quilt making impact your family life?

MS: It's just something that I do. I'm a quilter in the wintertime; I don't do it in the summer because I'd rather be outdoors. I need something to make the winters go a little faster. [laughs.] You can only read so much so you do quilting in between.

LR: Have you ever used quilt making to get through a difficult time in your life?

MS: I don't think so. My difficult times usually happened in the better months, so I was out in my garden. It's therapeutic just to quilt.

LR: So, what do you find pleasing about quilting?

MS: Just seeing them grow and when you put it together and watching the progress, I guess.

LR: Do you like the designing?

MS: Yes, uh-huh.

LR: Do you do that before you start or how does the design come out?

MS: Sometimes I take a brown paper bag and kind of sketch something out and go from there, but I'm not one to do a lot of architectural things before I start. It just kind of grows.

LR: So, you have the idea and then sometimes you just put the fabrics together?

MS: Yes, uh-huh.

LR: Interesting. What aspects of quilt making do you not enjoy?

MS: Marking quilts to quilt.

LR: How do you do it? How do you mark your quilts?

MS: With chalk or pencil.

LR: You've done quite a bit of quilting on your touchstone piece.

MS: It was so long ago, I don't remember, but I think probably I just marked as I went along.

LR: I guess some of it is outlined, kind of outlined, you framed your squares.

MS: Yes, framed the squares, I usually do.

LR: You also mentioned that--talk a minute about the wearable art that you've made.

MS: I usually make that out of wool. I like to work with wool very much. It just makes you feel good to work with wool. I usually use the blanket stitch to put it on with and you don't have to turn the seams and all that jazz. [laughs.]

LR: And you give quilts as gifts?

MS: Oh, yes.

LR: Specifically?

MS: Right now, I have one ready to go for--I'm going to have a great granddaughter soon and the shower is Sunday, and I made it out of Zodiac prints. They were in a magazine, probably about twenty years ago, and I'd cut them, and I'd always wanted to, and a couple of years ago I made the Zodiac quilt. They're little children's designs, and I finished that, and I was waiting for somebody, so it'll be for my great granddaughter.

And then I gave my granddaughter and my granddaughter-in-law quilts for their showers, and then a niece that got married, I gave her one, and then I've given one to my son. That one had--what do you call that, each piece is different, one of those. A charm quilt. And the back of it was put together with--originally, they were salt bags that they used during the depression and the black never came out very well, the printing, and there was still printing on the back of it. And the person I got them for, she had made sheets out of them and then my sister had them, and when we were straightening up her house, I got the sheets, and I backed the quilt with that. And it was during the thirties when the NRA was then, and I told him, 'This is not the National Rifle Association.' [laughs.] Which my son is a member of. [laughs.]

LR: That's funny. Talk a minute about, also, your wearable art that you make. You said you use wool. What kind of garments?

MS: It's all recycled. I buy things at rummage sales and tear them apart and wash them and shrink them and then cut them up. That I have a stash of. I'm not a person to go out and buy material just to buy material but I have a trunk full of that because I have some things in my mind that I want to make out of that. And I did make a wool quilt for my grandson when he was going to college, but his room was so hot, they slept with their windows open all winter long, so I don't think he ever used it. [laughs.]

LR: The jacket that you brought today, is that one of the recycled pieces?

MS: Yes, it's all recycled.

LR: Well, we'll use that when we take your photograph with this quilt.

MS: I'll wear my quilt.

LR: You get to wear your quilted jacket along with it to show your many, many talents. So, you sleep under a quilt?

MS: Yes. That's one I made and kept for myself. It was the House quilt. Some people call it Schoolhouse but they have two chimneys so that wasn't Schoolhouse.

LR: So that's the one you sleep under?

MS: That's the one I sleep under. And then I have another interesting quilt that a friend of mine gave me. He was an antique dealer and bought quilts and things, and this was one that wasn't finished. It was almost put together but fortunately, whoever [made it.] had enough material left to finish putting it together, and I quilted it. And whoever it was, they at least--so many people did not mark their quilts, but she put her initials on and the year she put it together. It was in 1940. And it was fifty years later that I quilted it. And it has all the forties' material in it which is kind of interesting.

LR: Do you belong to a guild?

MS: I belonged to the Westfield Guild up until this last year, but I wasn't quilting much, and I was doing other things, so I did not join this year.

LR: But you will be joining us this evening--

MS: Oh, yes.

LR: To do a demo interview to let them all know what our Quilters' S.O.S. - [Save Our Stories.] project is about?

MS: Yes.

LR: Terrific.

MS: That's wonderful.

LR: Let's talk a minute about the design aspects of quilt making and craftsmanship. What do you think makes a great quilt, in your view?

MS: The workmanship, for one thing, and the patterns. But then there's a lot of old quilters that probably didn't have material. They used recycled material, they used the feed bag material, and those quilts are lovely, too. But, of course, I think usually at a quilt show, the viewers' choice is always a Baltimore quilt that wins the viewers' choice, which are very beautiful, and they definitely have lots and lots of work and time put into them, but some of the ones that aren't quite square and have crazy colors in them are just as interesting.

LR: Yes. So, what would make a great quiltmaker?

MS: I think one of the ones who's coming for you to interview today, I think she's coming, she's devoted to quilting. I think she eats, sleeps, and dreams quilting, I think. [laughs.]

LR: Passion is certainly something.

MS: Yes, passion is something. And then I know there's another woman that does it. She is an artist, and she said she used to do artwork and then she does her art in quilts now. She uses lots of Japanese things which are very intriguing. I think it's your passion for quilting and keeping the quilting going. Everything goes in cycles, I think. Right now, everybody's knitting, but for years nobody picked up a pair of knitting needles, it seemed like. Well, there was a few of the old devotees. But a few years ago, you didn't have much--well, there wasn't a quilt shop on every corner. Now there is, and everybody's into quilting now, so it's a revitalization of the craft.

LR: So maybe the quilting influenced, do you think, the knitting, just the craft?

MS: I think perhaps, and they want to try something different, maybe. I don't know. Years ago, there was the china painters, all the young ladies painted china, and maybe that'll come back again, too.

LR: How do quiltmakers learn the art of, especially, how to design a pattern or choose fabrics? How do you learn that?

MS: Some people just have a sense of color and things. I'm not terribly good at that myself, but I know some people will just invariably pick the right things. And then, of course, with those little color things that you hold up, you can see what goes together, too, sometimes. And then, well, just like art, painting and that sort of thing, some people just have a knack for it where other people don't, and I think quilting is something that you learn a lot about but there are some people that are better at it than others. They just have that when you look at it, you think, 'Wow!' And then sometimes you think, 'Oh, my Lord!' [laughs.]

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

MS: It was one thing that they could--it was something that was essential, making a quilt that they could put their heart and soul into it and the other person didn't know about this. It was their kind of--a lot of things were secret in quilts, I think, their little things that they hid away.

LR: Like what? Can you think of something?

MS: Maybe I can't right now, but, well, for instance the Civil War quilts, a lot of those were made for the underground slaves that come through, they know what kind of quilt was hanging out, whether it was safe or not, and there were things that were hidden in those quilts that most people didn't know about.

LR: How do we encourage quilting in young people? How do we keep this tradition going?

MS: I think by working with young children. I don't know whether they do it now, but two years ago, the art classes in Ripley [New York.] School, I think it was the sixth grade, made a quilt every year, and some of the quilters from our guild helped the children with it. And they were keeping the quilt until they were seniors, and they had a drawing and one of them got to keep the quilt. I don't know whether they still do that or not, but they were doing it for a few years. And I think if you work with your children- they don't have to watch TV all day. They can learn to paste shapes and things and then they get interested in putting cloth together.

LR: So how do we preserve quilts?

MS: Well, most museums now have a quilt preservation--they have quilts in their museums and things.

LR: In your family, for example, you said your children were going to have to fight over this, your touchstone quilt.

MS: Oh, right. [laughs.]

LR: And you've given a lot of yours away but the quilts that you have, for example, how would you preserve them?

MS: I don't know. Hopefully, you have family that will enjoy the quilts and give them to the people who will enjoy them. I have a quilt that was, I think it was my grandmother's, but unfortunately, I wasn't listening. They don't write on it, that's one thing that people are more aware of now to mark their quilts when they finish them, and in those days, they just made them and that was it. Sometimes like a friendship quilt would be dated or something but unfortunately, a lot of quilts, the history of them is lost.

LR: Yes, which is why our project--

MS: Yes, I think that's a great thing, to have your project because you are constantly trying to keep the history, I think.

LR: Yes, and of the makers. If you have a quilt, but you don't have a maker, that's why we want and need the stories of our quiltmakers. It's a valuable resource.

MS: Yes.

LR: So, what do you see as the future of quilting in America?

MS: I think it's going to be a lasting thing. The styles will, I think, like architecture, if you go out into a village, you can tell at just about what time the house was built and I think this will be true of quilts. You can tell by the material and the pieces they like, the style it's quilted in and the design, you can kind of think, 'Well, that came from such an era.' Although some people will still be traditional quilters that will use the old patterns, which is great to keep them going, but there will be new ones coming up all the time and different techniques because there's so many new techniques now that were not available a few years ago.

LR: What trends do you see? Do you see certain trends in quilt making?

MS: Yes. I think people are into paper piecing and the little, intricate designs now to make wall hangings. I think people are more interested now in wall hangings than they are in bed-sized quilts, although there's a lot of people use them in their decoration for beds and things now, but it used to be that a quilt was something that you had on your bed to keep warm with.

LR: How do you feel about hand quilting versus machine quilting, and now this longarm quilting?

MS: They all have their purpose; they all have their purpose. In fact, I guess at the Paducah [Kentucky.] Show, they gave the Best of Show to a machine quilted one, I guess.

LR: How did you feel about that?

MS: It didn't bother me. I mean, like you said, it's a new thing, and I think there will still be the traditional quilters and there are some that don't want to quilt, they just like to piece. I really enjoy quilting. It's very therapeutic and relaxing.

LR: But you actually enjoy more the actual quilting of a piece or the putting it together?

MS: They both have their ups and downs. [laughs.] But I think designing a quilt is more fun.

LR: It's just the marking part you don't like?

MS: Yes, the marking. If I could get somebody to mark, I'd just be happy.

LR: So, what do you have in mind for future quilts?

MS: Right now, I'm working on a crazy quilt, and I would like to do a wool quilt, but I don't look too far in the future. When you get to be eighty-one, you don't think too far ahead. [laughs.]

LR: You are amazing. You are simply amazing. So, is there anything else that you would like to add about quilt making and your quilts, your story, your life?

MS: I'd like to do another one of my life, too. There's pieces that I haven't got in here that would be kind of fun to do.

LR: So, you have that--

MS: Yes, in the back of your subconscious.

LR: And it would be a large piece?

MS: I don't know. I haven't gotten that far yet.

LR: So, this is up to 1996, is that right?

MS: Yes.

LR: But you probably still have memories--

MS: Oh, yes, there's other ones that--I was thinking of one the other day, but I don't remember what it was right now, but I thought that would make a nice block.

LR: Okay. I think we are just about coming to the end of our time, and we will have another opportunity this evening to do a demo, just a short interview to show people and you can share your touchstone also with them.

MS: They've all seen it, I think, because this was in one of our quilt shows.

LR: Okay. But they don't have the story, really, of the different pieces that you have of your life that you have put into this quilt.

So, okay, Millie, thank you very much for allowing me to interview you as part of our Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project.

MS: It was my pleasure.

LR: Well, it was certainly my pleasure, and our interview was concluded at 10:53 a.m. on May 18th, 2006.



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