Emma Jean Smith




Emma Jean Smith




Emma Jean Smith


Ellen Hopkins

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Kathleen Schupner


The Dalles, Oregon


Ellen Hopkins


Note: Emma Jean Smith entered her quilt in the 115th Continental Congress, 2006 American Heritage Committee's fiber arts - quilt contest. The contest theme was, "Proud Heritage of Freedom - Hear the Bells of Patriotism." Emma Jean placed third with this quilt.

Ellen Hopkins (EH): My name is Ellen Hopkins and today's date is January 11, 2006, at 1:45 p.m. I'm conducting an interview with Emma Jean Smith in the Public Utilities Building Conference Room in The Dalles, OR for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Oregon State Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. Emma Jean (EJ) is a quilter and a member of the Celilo Chapter National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

EH: Emma Jean, do you make quilts?

Emma Jean (EJ): I started quite some time ago making for grand kids and have gradually come to where I enjoy putting them together. I particularly enjoy maybe making something and have donated several to the DAR to be auctioned off or chances to be sold. But I have also made them for family members. This one particular quilt that I have here is the only one that I have saved back that is particularly mine.

EH: Do you make wearable art?

EJ: Yes, I make coats. I make all kinds of things.

EH: Do you sleep under a quilt?

EJ: No, I don't. They are too heavy. [laughs.]

EH: Have you given quilts as gifts then?

EJ: Yes, I have given them mostly to the grandkids when they get married.

EH: What a nice gift. Are you self-taught?

EJ: Yes. Completely. I live out so far that I really never ever went to somewhere to learn. And never even belonged to a group except that I did go to the church and quilt with the ladies for a time to see how some of these professional gals that were quilting for hire, how tiny they made their stitches and that sort of thing.

EH: Do you have any quilters in your family?

EJ: My mother was a quilter. But my mother was 36 years old when I was born. I was the tail end of the family. And she just didn't have the time and I didn't have the time when she was there. So, that is how come I am self-taught. [laughs.]

EH: Do you belong to a guild?

EJ: Nope. Never, never had one in the area that I felt I would be really comfortable with.

EH: Do you teach quilting?

EJ: I teach it through 4-H. I've been a 4-H teacher for 53 years this year. And I used to teach strictly knitting and clothing. And then about, oh 15, maybe 18 years ago, the kids decided they wanted to learn to quilt. And so, we dropped the knitting end of it. It wasn't as popular at that time. And so, I now teach clothing and quilting. I have discovered that to teach a child to quilt first, and to sew the meticulous seams, makes a far better seamstress when she gets ready to put a garment together.

EH: You certainly have to keep within those quarter-inch seams.

EJ: That's right, especially the pattern that I made up for them because they have some vertical blocks that are seamed. They have some horizontal blocks that are seamed, and they put them together and they have to be within their quarter-inch element or they're not going sew together. And they learn this in a hurry.

EH: [laughs.] Have you ever won an award?

EJ: Only at the County Fair. That's all I have ever exhibited at.

EH: I asked if you teach quilting, do you travel outside your hometown to teach?

EJ: I travel, at the moment, I am teaching two little girls to quilt that are coming from Umatilla County. And I meet them at Arlington [Oregon.] every, once a month. And they are learning quilting and clothing as well. They used to be in my club and when they moved away, they couldn't find a leader that they were happy with. And so, this is, and besides that I have traveled to other areas and given classes on how to start 4-H'ers in quilting.

EH: Okay, so that other, other--

EJ: So that other clubs can get started. Our club at Grass Valley, my co-leader that I had for 50 years, Margaret Stark, and I were the first club in the state of Oregon to start quilting with children. And we more or less set up the rules for a few years and now people have kind of branched off and done their own thing. But at first, we had to have guidelines because nobody really knew quite where to start. And so, we had certain patterns that we felt they shouldn't go beyond for each step and each year. But as I say, we have kind of opened it up now. If the kids think they can do it, and if their leader thinks they can do it, they go on to harder patterns.

EH: Is this exclusively in the 4-H organization then?

EJ: Right.

EH: Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

EJ: That one I saw in a picture. It had been in a contest. The lady was Amish, and she was from Ohio and she had taken a second prize in this contest. I was so pleased with her quilt and thought it was so beautiful. But although I had seen a similar pattern to it, it is different in that the dark is all narrower stripes than the light color in it. And so, it sets it off at different angles and makes it look, I think, very unique. And it is called an Amish Star within a Star. I wrote to the little town in Ohio where she lived. And the postmaster gave it to her because she had a quilt shop in Ohio. And I asked to buy her pattern. And she answered that she would sell me the pattern for $5.00, but she didn't like to take care of other people's mistakes. So, she would rather make the quilt herself than she would to have me make it. She did sell me the pattern. And when I started out to make the quilt, all of the stars that fit together vertically or as a star point and points together, all of them worked beautifully. But the one set of diamonds that go around, that the next ones fit into, and they set exactly at a horizontal from the others. That one set of diamonds, when I got them made, didn't fit. Got ready to put it together and it wouldn't go. So, I had to take the pattern, lay out the quilt on a sheet of blank paper, and redraw what I wanted to do, fit the outsides pieces up to it, redraw what I wanted to do in order to get the proper shape for the center diamond that you start on. The quilt is pieced as a Log Cabin going around this diamond, first with the dark colors and then the light. And you will notice if you count the stripes, they aren't even equal numbers in them. It was quite a challenge to get that one set of diamonds. And there were six of them. But I did not have enough material that I could just start out again. I had to tear that all apart and put that whole thing back together again. And I hated that part of it before it was over with. But it turned out beautifully. Sometimes I wonder if the pattern wasn't given to me wrong to begin with. But anyway, I never sent her a picture of what I did. I always wished afterwards that I had kept her address and sent it to her, but I didn't. But anyway, I did get the quilt made. And then from then on, it seemed like I was completely hooked on trying to put things that maybe didn't necessarily belong together. [laughs.]

EH: It was a real challenge for you.

EJ: A real challenge. This one was definitely a challenge. But it was my first big quilt.

EH: Well, I definitely will agree with you that it is absolutely beautiful. What kind of material did you make it with?

EJ: It's all cotton. And it was a challenge finding enough colors that blended because there's seven of one kind and six of another and they all had to blend because your background then is part of one of these stripes as well. So, they all had to be about the same shade of navy or this light pale blue. And it wasn't easy. I mean enough pieces that I felt blended together properly.

EH: So, this quilt does really have some special meaning to you.

EJ: Oh, yes. It has a lot of meaning. I did something that someone else thought I couldn't do. [laughs.]

EH: How do you use this quilt then?

EJ: It is used as a bedspread on my bed every day. My walls are pale blue and that's what I was aiming at is something that I could use in there with the pale blue walls and the pale blue draperies.

EH: What are your plans for this quilt?

EJ: Well, my granddaughter insists that is--my oldest one insists that is her quilt. But I have also had some other offers. [laughs.]

EH: I wonder who that might be. [laughs.] Tell me about your interest in quilting.

EJ: I take all kinds of books, magazines. And I'm forever coming up with something that is totally different than anything you've seen in a pattern. And that's what really challenges me. It's something that is completely different. I don't want to do the mundane thing that everybody else does.

EH: At what age did you start quilting?

EJ: Probably, about 1980 thereabouts ‘75 or ‘80.

EH: And that would have made you about?

EJ: Well, [laughs.] I would have been somewhere around 50 years old probably when I started.

EH: How many hours a week do you quilt?

EJ: It depends on what I'm, I might not quilt for several weeks, and then when I get ready to do one, I don't do anything else until it's done. I might quilt 8, 10 hours a day until that quilt is pieced and the same way. Because I actually quilted this quilt, hand quilting, in a little over three weeks. But that was day and night almost.

EH: So, you really concentrate on them.

EJ: When I get started on something I can't let it alone. And besides that, I didn't like all that mess in my living room [laughs.] of all the frames and everything.

EH: Sure. Right. How does quilting impact your family?

EJ: My husband knows by now that he had better put up with my hobbies because that's what makes me happy out there on the ranch so away, away from everything else. We live 10 ½ miles from Grass Valley, [Oregon.]. And Grass Valley is where I meet for my 4-H group. But I'm 50 miles from The Dalles, [Oregon.] And other than coming into town about a month every week to 10 days for groceries, I stick out there. That's where I live. And that's my home and I love it.

EH: So, you are out on a ranch.

EJ: We are out on wheat ranch, wheat and cattle. And I was born in the house that my son lives in which is 900 feet from where I live. Part of the ranch that we own was my Grandfather Eakins's homestead.

EH: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

EJ: Oh, it is the artistic, being able to see something develop out of fabric that you like. You have an eye. And it may be, ever quilter sees things differently. And no two people can take the same pattern and make them look exactly alike because they wouldn't be looking for exactly the same colors. And I think quilting is something especially that, it takes an artistic eye to see these things. I couldn't draw anything but give me a piece of fabric and I can make it.

EH: Well, what do you think makes a great quilt?

EJ: Putting colors together that are just, that. You start out with something that you really like. Maybe it may be your background color. Or it may be something that you really like to go into a pieced block. You have one particular color is just, ‘that's it, I just love that piece‘. Then you pick out whatever many numbers of colors you need to go with it. And as I say, when I'm picking out something, sometimes you will see clerks' kind of give you the eye. I don't know if that's going to go together or not. And maybe you won't like it when you get home and start putting it together. But most times, if I have picked it out, that's the way I know that I want it to be. When I am working with kids, they often times bring me colors that sometimes, you really have to grit your teeth and let them go ahead and make them up, knowing that they really don't go together. But this is how they learn.

EH: Sure. It's the process.

EJ: It's the process of learning. And you don't want to discourage them. Sometimes I will say to them, 'Now I think such and such a color might improve this quilt.' And sometimes they will go that way. Or quite often if my children are shopping for making quilts, I will take them as a group and have them pick out something and then we will start from there. And we'll usually each have a pattern picked out that they are going to make ahead of time. And then they are supposed to start and show me what they want to put together and we'll kind of get approval if we think it will go that way. But most times it's amazing. Kids have a good eye. I think a lot of older people do not have as good as an eye for what goes together because they've never allowed it to develop. But kids just seem to sense what goes with what.

EH: I think they're not afraid of making mistakes too.

EJ: Right. Right.

EH: While we've sometimes have been criticized and then we're more cautious.
What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

EJ: You need a lot of contrast in a quilt. Somewhere you can have colors that blend very closely but somewhere you need some real powerful contrast in order to make it to show up. Like this quilt, it has the light aqua blues, and it has the navies. And they are a powerful contrast in this diamond within diamonds.

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

EJ: [10 second pause.] I think many of the quilts that are put in there, they may be made, well they are generally made strictly trying to catch someone's eye and for a purpose like this museum thing. And it may not even be something the maker could live with if they had to, if they had to. But you have to make, probably you would have to know what the situation of where the quilt would be put. What kind of, I have dealt with a quilt at Moro a few years back that denotes the history of Sherman County. And each lady took one or two blocks home with a pattern. And one of the blocks that I made that I enjoyed the most was an embroidered block of a covered wagon going through Sherman County was the idea. And this quilt hangs in the museum. But you see that's part of the Oregon Trail in that area. So, they were depicting different stops as far as along the way that were known as well-known stops. And the pictures that went with what it must have been like in these early times.

EH: I see.

EJ: And I think that is, it tells a story in other words, and I think that is a very powerful story as far as I am concerned.

EH: So, it really depicts a part of history and preserves it.

EJ: A lot of the life of the life of Sherman County in the early days.

EH: I see. Well, how do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

EJ: Well, I've had a number of quilts machine quilted. Because I simply just did not have the time to do the hand quilting done on them. At first, I didn't like it at all. But I have come to realize that if whoever is going to machine quilt it is careful enough about the pattern to tie it into the quilt, then it is beautiful. I think it can be done and can be used very nicely.

EH: How do you feel about long arm quilting?

EJ: Well to me the long arm quilting is more what I was talking about now. Because they can follow stencils with the laser, and they can put in designs. Another form of machine quilting is actually to follow the design. That is very difficult with a normal sewing machine because it's hard to roll the quilt up and to keep it smooth. Your quilt has to be put in a frame, basted very thoroughly and then machine quilted. And I have done several this way. And you can even do stippling and that sort of thing with your machine if you have that much control on your machine. Not everybody can do it, but some people can.

EH: What do you think about the importance of quilts in the American life?

EJ: Quilts were great in the early American life because in the first place they were warmth for people to sleep under. As a child, mother made all of her quilts with a wool batting. We had sheep and she had the battings made. They were particularly wonderful because they were very lightweight and yet they were very, very warm. The only real drawback to those was, it was very difficult to wash them because of the wool would mat if you weren't extremely careful. But they certainly were serviceable. My aunt who had been a DAR member at Hillsboro, [Oregon.] and Justina Thomas and just passed away this last year had in her possession up until her death and I presume one of her daughters has it now, a quilt that my great grandmother made coming across the plains. And it was postage sized stamp quilt pieces. Like a postage stamp, that size of quilt pieces all hand sewn together. And that had been made while they were riding across the Plains. And I loved that quilt. I would have given anything to have had it.

EH: What were they riding in?

EJ: In a covered wagon.

EH: From?

EJ: The Newton family came from Iowa to Oregon. They left Iowa in April of 1847, and they were in the Willamette Valley by September of 1847.

EH: Wow. What do you think will happen to that quilt?

EJ: That one? I am sure that her daughter has it. I didn't ask because it would sound as though I was greedy if I did. You know. But because my grandfather had settled several estates she had ended up with several old, old, old quilts that were just gorgeous.

EH: I just wondered if they would be in a museum.

EJ: Some of those things may have been put in the museum at Philomath that was at one time the EUB [Evangelical United Brethren.] College. And I know that my aunt was donating a numerous thing to go into that museum. But now what all went, I don't know.

EH: That's in Philomath, Oregon?

EJ: At Philomath, Oregon. It's the Evangelical United Brethren College that was later sold or was closed and Oregon State College was formed at Corvallis, Oregon.

EH: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

EJ: I would hope that the family that inherits them would take care of them.

EH: To be respectful. How do you think quilts can be used?

EJ: Well as I say, I have them all over my house on beds. I have a beautiful quilt in my guest room that was made by my dad's last living cousin. She was an L.D.S. [Latter Day Saints.] lady. And the quilt has particular meaning for me. She made it for me and put it in the frame and her husband helped her quilt it. And it is a beautiful quilt. I know now after making quilts there are things that they did that they shouldn't have done; that they marked some of the markings were done too dark and they will never come out of the quilting lines. But who am I to say that their aged eyes could see anything less? And we've come up with new marking techniques anymore that they didn't used to have either. And I've had that quilt for probably 30 or 35 years. It's beautiful.

EH: What's happened to the quilts that you have made for your friends and family?

EJ: Well, my grandson and his wife I made the Kaleidoscope in red, white and blues for them. They are both service personnel in the Air Force and I gave them this quilt. I knew they would be because she had been in ROTC, and he had completed and was an officer already at the time they were married. And so, this was why I had picked these colors. She takes care of it just like I would. She's very, very careful, very meticulous little lady. And she has a beautiful quilt rack and when it isn't in use why it is on the quilt rack to show. I have made quilts for Melanie, and she has always taken care of hers quite well. I have been happy with those.

EH: Is Melanie your granddaughter?

EJ: Melanie is my oldest granddaughter and Jason is the oldest grandson.

EH: And they still have quilts that you have made?

EJ: They still have quilts that I have made.

EH: Do they have quilts that you made for them as children?

EJ: Yes.

EH: Even though they are married and are parents now?

EJ: Yes, the little great grandson, Jason's baby, is using quilts that I had made for Melanie and Jason. They are used even more.

EH: Well, I would like to thank Emma Jean Smith for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories Project. Our interview concluded at 2:10 p.m. PST [Pacific Standard Time.] on January 11, 2006.


“Emma Jean Smith,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1948.