Mary Cantwell




Mary Cantwell




Mary Cantwell


Carolyn A. Kolzow

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy Bavor


Portland, Oregon


Carolyn A. Kolzow


Carolyn Kolzow (CK): My name is Carolyn Kolzow and today's date is October the 1st, 2004 at 10:55 a.m. I am conducting an interview with Karin Lightner in her home in Salem, Oregon, for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Oregon State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Karin is a quilter, and is a member of Anna Maria Pittman Chapter, NSDAR [National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.]. Karin, tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

Karin Lightner (KL): It's a quilt I made for our son. I had made a quilt initially before he went to college, and my husband said, 'Ah, no boy's gonna want a quilt on his bed,' so I just tucked that one away. Well, then he decided his sophomore year of college that he really wanted me to make him a quilt. And he picked the colors, and he picked the pattern, and he picked the way that he wanted it laid out. And it is the most complicated quilt I've ever made.

CK: Can you describe it to us a little bit?

KL: Well, it's made up of blocks called, North Wind, and they're diamonds, well, half triangles, I guess. They're like, you take a square and cut it in half diagonally and it makes the triangles, and you form it into blocks. But there are so many little pieces that you have to perfectly match. Well, I am kind of perfectionist that way, so, in that regard, it is really a lot of work to try to make it turn out well.

CK: Did your son see this done up some where or how did he choose this pattern?

KL: I had this book.

CL: Oh, I see.

KL: And he wanted me to do triangles. He was just intent that he wanted something out of triangles. And so, I showed him all the triangle patterns I knew, and he picked this one. And I wanted to lay it so that, because if you arrange these squares in different ways, you get flying stripes. But, nope, he wanted it just this way. So, that is what I did.

CK: So, because he got to choose it, I bet he used it a lot.

KL: Yes, and-- [pause.]

CK: How old would you say it is?

KL: It's just three years old. He was taking care of it at school, and then he decided he didn't want it at school because he didn't want to worry about people coming in and trying to sit on it, and I had trained him to during the day flip it, so that the back side was up so that sunlight wouldn't fade the fabrics and he was quite good about that, but he just decided he didn't want to have to worry about it, so he brought it home. And I have enough material that I bought, because he had given me ideas of colors. So, I went, and I bought on sale a yard of this, a yard of this, a yard, and I had ten different fabrics for him to pick, and he picked out the colors he wanted. And of course, I had enough material to make another quilt, which I have partly under construction, so that they'll be coordinating, but with a different pattern. So, they could simply be in the same room if you wanted.

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

KL: Because it's the most difficult quilt that I have ever done, and I was quite pleased with actually having done it.

CK: Have you made a lot of quilts?

KL: I have, and when you look back on some of them, it's very embarrassing. Kind of like, 'Oh, my.' I guess I really wasn't focused on the project. That was the goal of getting it done. So, I've come to appreciate with quilting that it isn't about getting it done, it's about the effort of making it, the journey, which is kind of like life. It's not how quickly you get to the end, but it's taking time to do it well. And I realize that these are the sorts of things that a hundred years from now or whenever, somebody can look at it and they'll know something about me because the way I did it. I have seen a number of quilts in museums and shows and things, that from a distance, gee, they look great. You get up to them, and they just were thrown together. Nobody took the time to line anything up or erase their marks. I mean, it's just, to me, a commentary on the person. And I am thinking, well, okay, art. As matter of fact, I taught a friend to quilt, and she said, 'Oh, you're so picky,' and I said, 'Well, if you were buying furniture, wouldn't you want everything to match up and look nice? I mean, you look at an antique and if it's slopped together, it has no value. The value comes from the precision and the artwork and the caring and love somebody has put into doing it.' Well, she reported that she was working on this quilt for her son, and by the time that she got to the end of the quilt, she was starting to understand what I meant, and she took it apart, the pieces she'd done at first that I was criticizing. She redid them. She said 'Oh, yeah, I really do need to redo those.'

CK: At what age did you start quilting?

KL: In my late 20s.

CK: And that was just yesterday.

KL: It was. [both laugh.] Last week.

CK: Did you keep at it from your twenties right on through without stop or what?

KL: My degree is in home economics, and so I do all kinds of handwork things, and I go through sort of spurts. You know, like I will get into crewel work, and I do a crewel work project, or I do a cross stitch project or I do a wood working project, or I sew, or I am knitting or I'm crocheting. And I have to strike while the iron's hot. If I feel like quilting, by golly, I just keep going at it, [cuckoo clock striking in the background.] and then when the fire dies back, then it may sit away for a year.

CK: From whom did you learn to quilt?

KL: Books.

CK: Not from any people, just from books. You have a library of books.

KL: I have a lot of books, on sewing and quilting and--

CK: How many hours a week would you say that you quilt?

KL: I'm not that consistent. If I get into doing something, I will quilt six or eight hours a day and that could go on for a week, or it could go on for two weeks. And then I might not quilt for eight months. I might be, like over there, the knitting and the crocheting. I make these little blankets that I send up to the hospital in Portland for their Neonatal Loss Unit. And so, I'll get on a streak of knitting and crocheting. Then I get off of that, and I'll be off doing something else. It is not really an every week or everyday thing to do.

CK: Okay. What is your first quilt memory?

KL: There was a quilt. I decided, and it was sort of like saying I thought I'd take up jogging and I started with the Boston Marathon, you know? I decided I'd do one of those Grandmother's Garden, which are hexagonal deals that you form into, like, flowers. Oh, Lord. And I'm trying to hand piece it and hand cut it with scissors, and trace around this little plastic pattern that I've made. [sigh.] And with quilting, if you're off an eighth, it just multiplies out. So, I'm working these deals and I'm trying to get them together and the problem's getting bigger and bigger, and finally I just made them into placemats. It was just like I could never make it into a big quilt. It was just awful. And I don't even think I ever put them out. I mean, it was just kind of like your first outfit you made in 4H that you're so proud of, and then you looked at it a year later and you realized your gathered skirt was gathered, straight, gathered, straight. Oh, my, and I wore that in public? [laughs.]

CK: Maybe you chose the most advanced book?

KL: I just didn't know any better. I thought, 'Well, that looks pretty,' and it was. I had a lot of remnants. I'm very frugal by nature, so I don't like to throw things away that I might be able to use. So that's why I picked that pattern, so I could do a medallion of this piece of fabric and a medallion of that piece.

CK: Is there a reason that you chose that particular one? Had you seen it as a child or had been around that pattern?

KL: No. Nobody in my family that I knew quilted. I believe my father's mother probably did. She is the one that I am most like, but she and my grandfather were killed in a car accident when my I was seven months old. So, in doing my genealogy and researching through my dad and his sister, I found out that lot of things that I love do are things that my grandmother did. She was left-handed, I am left-handed. I had always wondered where my green eyes came from. They didn't know, but I found out on the Ellis Island [information web site.] that's where my green eyes came from. And it's a sorrow for me to think how much I could have shared with this woman, and I lost the opportunity. So, I think of her whenever I do anything: 'Gosh, wouldn't it have been fun to be able to sit with my grandmother and do knitting, or sit with my grandmother and do quilting? To talk about patterns.' I have no one in my family to do that with.

CK: What about friends? Do you have any friends who quilt?

KL: I do. I have several friends, and that is where I have that opportunity then to say, 'Oh, look what I'm working on. Look at this piece of fabric I found.' And they get as excited as I do.

CK: Do they like about the same type of thing that you do?

KL: Well, it's interesting. Some people are very precision-oriented, like I am, and some people are very free-flowing, and there is a great benefit in that as well. I mean, I'm kind of envious of just being able to let loose. I haven't been able to do that yet. I haven't had the nerve to try a crazy quilt. I just don't think I can be that relaxed. So, it's really fun for me to have people that are varieties of experiences that do the quilting that way. It challenges me to be a little less structured.

CK: How would you say that quilting impacts your family?

KL: Besides the mess? [laugh.] It drives my husband nuts, I know that. [both laugh.] 'You have taken over the entire den.' 'Well, yes, yes I have, but they're in bins, it's tidy.' I've made quilts for my son, for my daughter, for friends, for people who are strangers. I don't know that it really has impacted them that they are aware of. I think if I were to die tomorrow, they'd probably be impacted. But, while you're here, I don't think that it really impacts anybody.

CK: Did it draw your son closer when you were working together on this and he was choosing, do you think, the things that he wanted?

KL: I think he really enjoyed it, yeah. We have always been close. And so, it was kind of funny. I had always thought it would be my daughter and I who would be sharing this. But my daughter has no interest. My son is very artistic. And so, for him, the colors and the patterns, he enjoyed talking about it. He didn't want to learn to sew or anything like that, but he enjoyed the art of taking the fabrics and deciding what would go with what, and how he wanted the blocks. So, it was a fun thing to share. You don't usually think of sharing that with a boy or a young man, I guess, but--

CK: No. That is true. That's super that it opened doors. Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

KL: Well, I don't think I've ever used that as a place to withdraw to, so, no, I guess I wouldn't say--

CK: Not necessarily.

KL: No.

CK: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

KL: I get to kind of recycle in a way. I take things that normally would have been thrown away and make it into something. It is an opportunity to do memories with some quilts. Like the quilt I initially made for my son to take to college was all out of flannels that I'd made him pajama bottoms and boxer shorts and things like that. So, for me, I can look at this quilt and say, 'Oh, that's fabric from the first dress that I made my daughter,' or 'Oh, these were the boxer shorts I made that Christmas that you thought were so fun.' So, to me those are fun. Now, whether it registers for anybody else [pause.] But for me, I really like putting things out again, and saving and making something out of nothing. So, I don't know if you call it recycling as much as reclaiming.

CK: Making the best use of things?

KL: That's right.

CK: What aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

KL: Hand quilting.

CK: Tell me about piecing. Do you do the piecing by hand?

KL: Well, generally, I do it by machine. I know that there are people who are totally puristic and do everything by hand: 'Oh, no, you must do it by hand.' Well, I loved in this book by Rose Wilder Lane, [she.] is talking about when her mother, Laura Ingalls, and her mother, Carolyn Ingalls, I can't remember what her maiden name was, but anyway, when they started quilting of course they did it by hand because there weren't sewing machines. But Rose says when her mother and her grandmother had access to a machine; they just thought that was slick. So, I figured if it was good enough for people who had a choice, it was good enough for me. [laughs.]

CL: So, you pieced this by machine, did you?

KL: Yeah, I stitched all the pieces by machine. And then, since I don't like to put the hours into hand quilting, I'd never let anyone sit on it if I did that, I'd never let anyone use it because of the number of hours that go into hand quilting, I just couldn't do it, so I take it to a friend who has a quilting machine, and she quilts the top.

CK: Tell me about the quilting machine, what's it like?

KL: Well, there are different kinds. Some you can get these frames and put your own sewing machine on, and then you quilt the tops. She has an actual special quilting machine, and she does this as a sort of side business, where you can put different patterns. So, you just sort of pick the one you like. The one that I picked for my daughter when she went to college, I think we did ivy leaves on. I know that there are a lot of hours in making the pieces, but that does not bother me as much as the hours that go into hand quilting.

CK: That's why you don't choose to do that.

KL: Yeah, I've got other things to do with my life than that, I guess! Plus, you have to have a frame up, and you have to--

CK: What would you say makes a great quilt?

KL: Well, of course, for being the anal-retentive person I am, precision, for one thing. I think good colors.

CK: So, what would you say what makes it artistically powerful?

KL: Well, it's different for every person, but I think for me the colors are going on, the combination of colors. Sometimes the balance is going on. Even in asymmetrical there's still a rhythm, a balance that goes on. So, I guess, being balanced. It's a reflection of the person, so I guess that's one thing I look at, too, is how does this reflect the person who did it? Because usually, a lot of times, on the old quilts you don't have a name or anything, so you don't necessarily know anything about the person. You can determine a lot, I think, through the work.

CK: Do you identify your quilts in a certain way? Do you have a way of putting your name on them?

KL: I usually do. I was looking at that today. The lady that quilted this one, the top, stuck a label on, so I never [did.]. Usually, I just put my initials and the year, and I didn't do that because she'd put the label on. And my son didn't like the label; he took the label off. So, I realized 'I need to go back and put my initials on and the year.' Usually, I just embroider it on the bottom corner. Low-key.

CK: What would you say makes a good quilter?

KL: Persistence. You've got to be willing to follow through on the project. A lot of times people start something and then; I can't tell you how many ladies I've met that 'Oh, look at the box of these blocks I got at some garage sale,' or bins of fabrics that people get for an idea, and they start cutting it out and never get anywhere. So, you have to be able to be persistent enough to kind of follow through. Other than that, I think there are as many things interesting about quilters as there are about women in general.

CK: You see it as a wide variety of people?

KL: It is. There are so many, and certain people say 'I'm not a quilter. A quilter is such-and-such.' If you stick pieces of fabric together, you're quilting. Whether you're gonna be somebody like this poor woman [referring to a quilt in a book.] who did 87,000 pieces to make one quilt. I guess I always look at it as if you're comparing yourself to other people, you're always going to find somebody who does whatever it is you do better, faster, whatever. So, I've always tried to remember, and instill in my children as well, just do the best you can do, and it's going to reflect you in your own way. It's not 'Oh, I really liked what you did; I wish I'd done that.' Well, this is what I did, and I really enjoyed what you did. It's different and it's something I wouldn't maybe have ever conceived of trying.

CK: You mentioned that you're a home ec [economics.] major, did you get involved in quilting when you were studying home economics?

KL: No. I had to take beginning sewing, I remember that. And I'd started sewing in 4H, so it was rather a redundant class. I had to sit through beginning sewing. I'd transferred to Oregon State [University.] midway through my college. And I'd transferred mid-year, from a semester school to a quarter school, so that totally messed up my graduation Because now, suddenly, even though we'd covered it in a semester, they did it in three quarters, and so now I had to retake a quarter, even though I'd already [completed the class before.] [sigh.] So, I had to miss doing a lot of neat classes that I wanted to take, like flat pattern and draping and tailoring and a lot of things like that, because I had to take these things like beginning sewing, and stuff that I already had taken, I had to take again. So, I didn't get to explore a lot of the things I wanted to. If I'd started as a freshman, I would have had that chance.

CK: I can see, yeah. How do great quilters learn the art of quilting, would you say?

KL: Trial and error.

CK: Rather than learning it from someone, it's hands-on?

KL: I think it's a hands-on thing. You can only learn so much by observing, and a lot of times you don't understand until you start to do it, I don't think. And you suddenly go, 'Oh, now I see why she does this,' 'Oh, now I see why that's cut like that.' You don't get it a lot of times until you get in and do it yourself. I don't think you appreciate the shortcut or appreciate the logic behind what went into whatever until you do it.

CK: How would you say that a great quilter learns to design a pattern, or to choose fabrics, or colors?

KL: Well, you can observe other people's choices. You can determine, 'Oh yeah, I really like that,' 'Wow, I wouldn't have put that in there in a hundred years,' or observation, trial and error, studying, reading, seeing, hands-on, other people's quilts. It's like any art, you don't just one day sit down and have this original thought that pops in. I think you learn, and you take an idea, and you build on it. It's sort of like cooking. It's an original recipe if you change two or three different ingredients than the recipe you started from. It's now considered an 'original.' I think it's kind of the same thing with any of the craft things -- you change it a little bit to make it yours.

CK: In looking at a quilt, what would you say would make a quilt perfect for a museum collection?

KL: Wow. It could be so many things. I think something that's very unique, like the one crazy quilt in here [looking in a quilting book.] that is spectacular, not only a beautiful base quilt, but then the embroidery on it is astronomical. Or that woman's 87,000 pieces meticulously put together, that was a phenomenal work of art. I think anything that's going to be in a museum could be something like a quilt that was made on the journey west that would be of interest. If it were made at a time when finding fabric was really difficult, I think that would be really interesting. Historical significance. But as far as if none of that's there, then I think it's the art. It could be just the spontaneous picture that was done in fabric, it could be patterns. I guess it's as varied as you want, but I think it definitely would be a form of art as opposed to just--

CK: Right and that would put it in the category of museum quality or being in a special collection.

KL: Yes.

CK: Let's back up a little bit. We talked about machine quilting. I don't know a lot about it myself. Long arm quilting. Is that different, is that something that is the same as what you are talking about with a machine? Do you know about long [arm.]?

KL: I think [with.] a long arm you can get more fabric under to do machine quilting. I'm not familiar with it either.

CK: Why would you say quilting is important to your life?

KL: It gives me a way to be creative. It teaches me patience. It teaches me to be kinder to myself. I tend to be really hard on myself, very demanding. It helps me see it's okay to make a mistake, and a lot of times, when I'm taking something apart for the third time 'Okay, so how anal-retentive am I? Apparently very, 'cuz I'm doing it again.' [laughs.] But sometimes I'll say, 'Hey, you know, this is good enough, and if somebody wants to find it, it's there for you to find.' So that's a big change from 'It has to be perfect, or I can't put it out,' which is how I was for a while. Everything had to be perfect or nothing. And that's a horrible way to live your life. So, quilting's taught me to be a little more flexible, a little more able to laugh at myself. I have a long way to go [laugh.], but it's helping.

CK: Were you raised in this area? Have you always lived in Salem?

KL: No. We moved back. Well, my husband was born and raised here. And we moved back in the 70's.

CK: So, you have quilted in several different locations then.

KL: Well, I started in Bend. We lived in Bend, that was when our daughter was little, so '76.

CK: Would you say that your quilting reflects the region that you live in, the community that you live in?

KL: No.

CK: Even though you have lived in several different places, your quilting does not reflect the area?

KL: I don't think it did. I've lived all over the country, so I don't know that I've really-- I don't do Amish quilts, specifically, quilts like that.

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

KL: I think they're very important. I think it reflects a lot about American women: the frugality, making something out of nothing, the chance to be artistic while being utilitarian. It's a chance to be creative without being so selfish that you're not doing something productive. It gives you a chance to combine that, because I think women have that drilled into their brains, or have had, that 'Your job is that everybody else comes first.' And so, this gives you an opportunity to get yourself into the picture, too. You're doing something for your enjoyment, but it's also utilitarian. It's a blanket somebody can use on the bed; it's a jacket they can put on. It's not necessarily just something you throw on the wall, and it isn't useful other than this little piece of art. So, I think it's a way to be useful. In American history I think women have been strong and independent and resourceful and creative combined, and I think quilts reflect that. When we were in England, they were asking people, 'What does it mean to be British?' And yet one of the things this fellow said was, 'Well, you know what it is to be an American is dah-dah-dah-dah-dah,' and was rattling all these things off, and one of them was the idea of being fiercely independent, and I think those get reflected in the quilts. Because you're independent enough to create your own design while doing something that needs to get done, you're finding a way to find enjoyment in the doing of it.

CK: Do you make other things besides quilts?

KL: Yes.

CK: Things you wear?

KL: Yes.

CK: Wearable art-type things?

KL: Jackets and shirts.

CK: Are they kin to quilting? Do you piece vests, etc?

KL: I have. And I do things like that on the wall over there. I did the cross stitch, I cut the paper, I made the frame, I cut the angel, painted her, and everything on that I did, except make the glass. [laughs.]

CK: I remember that well. Do you sleep under a quilt?

KL: I do.

CK: In all kinds of weather?

KL: I have a lighter weight one and a flannel one that I always use that's one of my favorites, it's all blues and I love blues, so it makes me smile each time I look at it.

CK: Besides sleeping and keeping your warm, what are other ways that you could use quilts?

KL: I keep one in the trunk that you can take if you want to throw it down on the ground and have a picnic. I have one that I wrap up in when I meditate and pray. It's sort of like a comforter in the spiritual aspect of The Comforter. I literally wrap myself in The Comforter.

CK: You believe in using quilts, not just in making them and hanging them.

KL: I want to use them. I hopefully use fabrics that don't just fade out. The first one I made my son, he picked out reds and blues, and his room faces to the north, so there was no direct sunlight, but there was enough ultraviolet that it faded it right out.

CK: You shared with us a bit about what you told your son when he took the quilt to college.

KL: That's why, because the other one-- [laughs.]

CK: Tell us some more of the instructions. If you were giving us instructions about how to take care of it, we had taken it to college; you suggested that he turn it?

KL: Yes, during the night he could flip it so that the flannel side, it's backed with flannel, could be toward him, but then during the day to flip it so that the flannel side's up so that fabrics don't fade, in case there's one or more that would.

CK: Did you give him any more instructions?

KL: Yes. I said if you're going to wash it, take it to a Laundromat and use one of those tumbler washers as opposed to the spinning washers. Do it on gentle.

CK: Anything about the water, hot or cold?

KL: Cold. Try not to spill on it. [laughs.]

CK: So that's the care of the quilt. What about preserving it? Suppose somebody wanted to preserve one, how would they do that?

KL: Well, you can get acid-free containers, papers, boxes. You have to take it out regularly and refold it in different positions so that you don't wear the fabric, break the fibers down, and increase the lifetime. You want to keep it out of the sunlight, you don't store it in a cedar chest because of the fumes, it can affect the colors.

CK: Do you ever have any that you preserve, any special quilt that has been in your family for years?

KL: The one I showed you earlier, my great-grandmother's quilt. Actually, I have two of her quilts, and I just keep them in the linen closet, and I take them out periodically and refold them into different directions and I put them back. And I only take them out to look at them on special occasions because I don't want them in the sunlight, and I don't really know how well they would hold up to sunlight.

CK: So, you have that in your collection. What about any other sewing or quilting memorabilia?

KL: I have some old sewing machines. I have one old sewing machine from 1921 that my grandmother got from a friend of hers who used to sew, which is just fun to have. And I have an old treadle table that, whenever my daughter finally moves all her things out of what will be my sewing room [laughs.], I will set that up on display in there. I have two old Singer Featherweights, one of which I made my wedding dress on, that I use for quilting. That's about it.

CK: Do you belong to a sewing group or a sewing bee?

KL: Yes. I work with younger women at the church. Age is relative in that group. I'm the old lady in the group.

CK: Do they meet very often?

KL: Every month. And we do a quilt block every month and then everybody brings a block and they're assembled and given to shelters or sent to missionaries, or whatever they've opted to do. One month we did one for an older lady in our church who'd been very ill. We all made hearts, since our heart block, and made a quilt for her. And one month they took all the blocks and made them into small quilts to take to the shelter for small children who had been traumatized.

CK: What has happened to the quilts that you've made for your own family? Have you followed any of those?

KL: Well, this one's back here. [ laughs.]

CK: How did this one come back home?

KL: Well, our son decided to stop school for a while, so he came home for a year, and he brought it home with his things. And when he went back to college, he didn't want to risk taking it back. So, it's here, for whenever he goes and gets settled. But the one I took for my daughter; I don't know where it is. I'm assuming she's still got it, but she's in [England.].

CK: Didn't she just marry recently?

KL: Yes.

CK: That's what I thought. Okay. Can you think of anything you would like to add to this interview?

KL: I'm just dreading reading how I speak. [laughs.] I do so much better with writing than with speaking. I think it's a great thing to get information from people that otherwise is just lost.

CK: Thank you for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded it 11:30 [a.m.] on October the 1st, 2004.


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