Kathleen Yaw




Kathleen Yaw




Kathleen Yaw


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Laura McDowell Hopper


Mayville, New York


Tomme Fent


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is May 18th, 2006. It's 1:49 p.m. in the afternoon, and I'm conducting an interview with Kathleen Yaw for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. And we are in the Brasted House Bed and Breakfast. The innkeepers, Joyce and Scott, have very kindly opened their inn for us to have our interview here. So, welcome, Kathy.

Kathleen Yaw (KY): Thank you.

LR: And thank you for coming from Jamestown for the interview. Tell me about the quilt that you've brought with you today as your touchstone piece.

KY: This quilt is just a small wall hanging. I don't make very many wall hangings, but I made it for a challenge. I belong to two guilds in Chautauqua County here, the Westfield Guild in the north county and the Chautauqua Region Quilt Guild in the south county. The Chautauqua Guild has a sister guild in Australia, and those two guilds had a joint challenge in 2003, which was to interpret one of the four ancient elements – earth, air, water, fire – in a small wall hanging, and there were size constraints. And there were two fabrics that had to be used, one chosen by each guild. I chose fire; I had to have fire. So, this is my fire quilt, and it's just the traditional Thousand Pyramids pattern. I call--I think I wrote on this page "Thousand Pyramids", but "Thousand Flames" is the name of the quilt.

LR: "Thousand Flames." We'll change it.

KY: "Thousand Flames."

LR: Okay. Okay.

KY: There were prizes awarded. All of the quilts were shown at shows here in New York State and in Australia, and then one of the Australian magazines did an article about them. I didn't win any prizes, but I made the magazine, so I was quite tickled about that.

LR: Excellent! I wanted to first ask you about your connection with this Australian guild. How did that come about?

KY: I believe it was because of 9-11. Someone from our guild had been in touch with someone there about using a pattern or something, and you know New York, people don't realize how big New York is, and they were concerned about us. And I think it came out of that somehow.

LR: Interesting.

KY: But we have--a lot of us have pen pals, and there's been some visiting back and forth.

LR: So, this was since the 9-11 happened?

KY: Um-hum.

LR: Okay. Anyway, back to your particular piece, you talked about--talk a little bit about the fabrics that you have used.

KY: Okay. The two that were chosen by the guilds, there's this one that looks like flames and then there's this kind of paisley with a lot of gold and rust in it. And then I just threw in fabrics that I had; I didn't buy anything special for it. I like scrappy, and I have a lot of scraps. And I did try to get the look of a fire, kind of, in a fireplace or a campfire.

LR: And your border fabric?

KY: The border, well, I use a lot of black, too. I like black. And I thought this looked kind of ashy. I really liked that I put some blue around the edges and no one else who made a fire quilt used any blue.

LR: What inspired the blue?

KY: Well, you see a little blue flickering around the edges, don't you?

LR: True. And the technique that you used to make it?

KY: Well, I hand pieced this one. I don't do much hand piecing anymore, but for this one, because it was going to be small and closely scrutinized, I wanted all the little points to be perfect, and I thought hand piecing was the way to do that. Well, I sewed the borders by machine. And then I put these little flanges in for a little narrow border, and it is hand quilted. I drew kind of a, like a sun, which you can see--you can't really see it on the front, but you can see it on the back, for the quilting.

LR: And that's your quilting pattern, with the sun on the back of the quilt?

KY: Yes.

LR: And your nice label. What do you plan to do with this quilt?

KY: It hangs in my sewing area.

LR: And so, you plan to keep it?

KY: Oh, yes.

LR: Okay, good. And all the fabrics are purchased fabrics? You didn't hand dye or--

KY: No, no.

LR: Okay, good. Tell me about your own interest in quiltmaking. What's your first memory of a quilt?

KY: Well, my grandmother was a quiltmaker, so we always had quilts in the house. I don't have any one first memory I can identify; they were just always there. Whenever we'd go to see Grandma, she showed us what she was working on. She did hand, everything by hand. She had first dibs on everybody's scraps. There were other quiltmakers in the family, but it seems to me Grandma got first dibs on the scraps. And, you know, when I was a child in the fifties, all our moms sewed, they made clothes, and it was cotton, so there were a lot of good scraps.

LR: Where was this?

KY: In Missouri.

LR: In Missouri, okay. Do you remember what kinds of quilts she was making?

KY: She made a lot of Dresden Plates. I don't remember anything real – any more elaborate than that. Simple, like Nine Patches and things like that.

LR: What did she do with them?

KY: She gave them to family members.

LR: Did you get one?

KY: I got a quilt from her as a wedding gift that she didn't actually piece the top. She said we didn't give her near enough notice. She bought the top from a friend of hers and then her church quilting group quilted it. It's a Nine Patch, a variation of Nine Patch, where you take the corners and it's called Improved Nine Patch, I think, and you--

LR: A what kind?

KY: Improved Nine Patch?

LR: Oh, improved, uh-huh.

KY: So, you get kind of circles. And then my children got quilts from her, too, when they were little. No, my son got one. I think he got the last one that she did [inaudible.].

LR: Was your mother a quiltmaker?

KY: No, it seems to have skipped a generation. Actually, this was my father's mother that I'm talking about. My mother now is getting interested in it, but she says she's afraid to start because she already buys too much fabric. [laughs.]

LR: So, at what age did you start quilting?

KY: I started when I was twenty-eight, when I was expecting my first child. I thought, 'Oh, I should make a baby quilt.' Of course, I was living in New York then; I wasn't near my grandma anymore. I just had the Ruby McKim book in the Dover reprint. I made cardboard templates, all that traditional stuff, and I made a few blocks. Then the baby was born, and I got nothing done for years. And then when my daughter was on the way, three years later, I thought, 'Well, I should finish that quilt and I should probably make it bed sized.' [laughs.] So, I did, and actually was basting it together when I went into labor with her. And then I got nothing else done for many years. I finished that quilt when my son was twelve. [laughs.] But by then, I knew I was a quilter. I had a stash.

LR: How has your quiltmaking affected your family?

KY: Hmm. [laughs.] That could be a loaded question. I don't know, they're all very supportive.

LR: They get their meals and everything on time?

KY: Pretty much, yes. I tend to want to take over the house with all the stuff.

LR: Has quiltmaking ever taken you through a difficult time in your life?

KY: When my father was sick, I was going with him to see his doctor and waiting for him for treatments and stuff, and I had some hand piecing with me because – normally, I would take a book, but in those situations you're a little nervous and maybe there's other people; you don't want to have your nose in a book. So, it was nice to have something to do, so hand piecing was great. And then I didn't pick that project--after he died, I didn't pick that project back up for years. I just--it occurred to me later, 'Hmm, maybe there was an association there that I didn't do it.'

LR: Did you pick it up later?

KY: I did, finally.

LR: And finished it?

KY: Yes.

LR: And what did you do with it?

KY: It's hanging in my kitchen.

LR: What do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?

KY: That's an interesting question. I have often thought about why we get so obsessive about it, and I think it's the combination of art and craft; that we can all--every quiltmaker in the country can make a red Log Cabin and they would all be different. Choosing the fabric -- I like almost everything about it.

LR: What do you like least?

KY: Marking! Marking, I hate marking.

LR: And how do you feel about hand quilting versus machine quilting, longarm quilting?

KY: I think they're all valid. I think hand quilting is lovely. It's soft. It's maybe the easiest, actually, to do, although it's obviously incredibly time-consuming. I've done machine quilting on my home machine, and to do a nice job is not easy. I'm working at it. And I've seen some amazing longarm quilting. In fact, our guild, our Westfield Guild, has a raffle quilt that we're just starting to sell tickets for that we had longarm quilted and it's astonishing.

LR: Is it a free-form type of quilting or is it a definite pattern?

KY: It's all custom and she did--she followed the patchwork lines in the pieced blocks, and she did little feathered wreaths in the plain blocks, and the centers of the wreaths are different. And she did like a McTavishing in the--

LR: What is that?

KY: Oh, it's a--

LR: McTavishing?

KY: Um-hum. A woman named McTavish started it, I believe, and it's just a style. She did a lot of that in the appliqué border. We'll get to see it tonight.

LR: Oh, I'll get to see it tonight? Yes, great, at the meeting. [laughs.] So, talk a minute about some of your quilt-related activities, any groups or guilds or bees that you're in.

KY: Oh, you know, there's all sorts of things. I already mentioned I'm in two guilds. I'm also in two sew groups.

LR: Are they quilt groups or--

KY: Yes, yes. One is small; there's just four of us. We started out with six but two have moved so now there's just four. And we meet monthly. And then the other one has thirteen members. We also meet monthly. And it's a lot of fun. With the larger group, we occasionally will do group projects where we might do a strip exchange and then all make quilts out of the strips, something like that, or the last couple of years we've done block exchanges for our Christmas gifts to each other. The smaller group, we do occasionally a challenge.

I also belong to an Internet group called "TreadleOn" [www.treadleon.net.], which is people who collect and use people-powered sewing machines, treadles and hand cranks. And I was recently at a little get-together of those people [inaudible.].

LR: So, you actually have a people-powered machine?

KY: I have a treadle.

LR: A treadle?

KY: And I have a hand crank. Hand cranks are very nice for paper piecing, foundation paper piecing.

LR: Why?

KY: Because you can't go fast. You go slow, and then you have absolute control, where that line of stitching is. And that kind of thing, there's not that much sewing anyway. Speed is not an issue.

LR: How large a group is this, with the people-powered machines?

KY: Oh, in the TreadleOn, there's a thousand, twelve hundred, something like that. I've only met twenty of them. It was fun.

LR: Amazing. You said that you sleep under a quilt. Tell me about that.

KY: Well, I keep trying to sleep under a quilt. My husband is one of these hot-bodied people who can't stand the warmth of the quilt. I made a big bed quilt in a design that he liked. We had seen one hanging, actually, on a restaurant wall and he really liked the design. I said, 'Well, I can do that,' and I made one. And it's beautiful; I love it and he loves it too, but I used too warm a batting. The next time I make a bed quilt, I am going to use the lightest batting there is and see if that will work, but mostly, I use just a little throw-sized quilt on my half of the bed. [laughs.]

LR: Interesting. Have you given quilts as gifts?

KY: All the time. I've given most of my quilts away, really. I like to give them for wedding gifts, baby gifts. I love to make baby quilts. I make a lot of throw-sized quilts, which I think is a wonderful size. It's just not--big quilts are huge! And a throw size is big enough to give you some scope but it's--you can get it done in a reasonable time. And most people like to have them to have on the back of the couch when they aren't being used.

LR: And it's a memorable gift.

KY: Yes, they are.

LR: It's very special.

KY: And then those guilds that I belong to have community service projects where we donate small quilts to the women's shelters, and dialysis units of the local hospitals for people to use while they're having dialysis, and hospice and so on, and I like to make those, too. Those are fun, nice but simple.

LR: Do you consider yourself self-taught, or have you taken classes to learn to quilt, make quilts?

KY: I started off self-taught. I've taken classes from national teachers when we get them in, but as far as the basics, I would say I'm self-taught.

LR: You just went out and bought some books? How did you start?

KY: At first, all I had was Ruby McKim's book. Then I was probably on my third or fourth quilt before I discovered the rotary cutter.

LR: I hear some guests have just arrived. Hopefully that's not going to interrupt our interview, but we will push on.

So, you talked about your guilds. Have you been a board member or chair of committees in your guilds?

KY: I have. I've been president. I'm currently one of the vice presidents. I've chaired committees. I've been pretty involved.

LR: Do you have a collection of quilting or sewing memorabilia?

KY: That would be the old sewing machines.

LR: Okay.

KY: I have probably eight sewing machines. I've only recently begun to admit being a collector.

LR: That's a lot of sewing machines.

KY: Yes.

LR: Do you actually use them all, or are they just for viewing?

KY: They're all usable. They all sew. I have used them all. The machine that I sew with every day is an old Singer dating from the late thirties that was my husband's grandmother's machine. That's what really got me started on the old sewing machines is appreciating that one. One's a Singer 201. It's a fine, fine machine. And it drops its feed dogs so I can do free-motion quilting on it. So, since that, I've bought another one like that, just in case, and I have two Featherweights and the treadle one, the hand crank.

LR: Interesting. Okay, I'm going to stop this for just one second while we have people coming in here. [pause.] Okay, that was just about a minute out while the guests went up into the inn. So, let's talk a minute about the craftsmanship and design of a quilt. What do you think makes a good quilt?

KY: Well, I think there's a 'wow' factor. When you first see it, you go, 'Wow!' And that might be--I think it's mostly color, use of color, and good design, good balanced design. Some people get so hung up on workmanship, and I put that way down. If you have to look close to find flaws in the workmanship, who cares? You can ruin an otherwise nice quilt with sloppy workmanship, but I don't think that happens very often.

LR: How do you learn the art of how to design or how to choose colors? How do you learn that?

KY: I don't know. I know a lot of quilters who think they aren't good with color, and I think they just don't have confidence. I think you just have to be brave and put stuff together. It doesn't all have to match. How you learn design, I don't know. Do you learn design? I don't know.

LR: Have you ever taken a course from someone who teaches designing quilts?

KY: No.

LR: What were the classes that you have – that you mentioned that you took?

KY: I've done, on three different occasions, weekend workshops with Mary Ellen Hopkins, and I came home from those looking at color, looking at the fabric differently. I learned a lot about construction, too, from Mary Ellen. Well, and then we had Bethany Reynolds here, and I took a class with her and did Stack-n-Whack. We had Karen Stone a year or two ago, and I took her machine quilting class which was very interesting. There have been lots; I'm not thinking of them now.

LR: That's good for starters. That's very good for starters. What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

KY: Well, historical value, if it's very old. I just saw an exhibit in New York City at the Folk Art Museum. It's of antique white-on-white quilts, and one was from 1796, and in beautiful condition.

LR: Interesting.

KY: Yes. Or just really fine examples of what they are.

LR: So, why is quiltmaking important to your life?

KY: It's a creative outlet. I thought about my grandmother, and she was an avid quilter. She was always working on quilts. She didn't have extra money to go out and buy fabric like we do now; she was using scraps, but she was always working on a quilt. And I think for women of her time, it was a creative outlet that was acceptable. It was making something useful. If she had wanted to paint pictures, you know, could she have gotten away with that? But making quilts, she could do. Of course, now, I can do anything I want to, but this is what I love.

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

KY: I think they have been very important in giving women a voice that they may not have had otherwise. Before women had the vote, they could make political quilts. And it's bridging the generations. I have a baby quilt that my great-grandmother made for me. I almost brought it today. And it's the only thing I have from her and it's a treasure.

LR: How do you--what do you do with that quilt?

KY: I don't do anything with it. It's in a closet.

LR: Oh, I thought maybe you had it out in a special--

KY: I should have it out in a special place. It's tattered, you know. My parents were very young, and the quilt got an amount of use. It's little, tiny LeMoyne Stars. They're about four inches. I would never put that much work into a baby quilt I would make.

LR: And so, it was actually used a lot?

KY: Oh, yes.

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

KY: This is a hard question for me.

LR: Just how have quilts played a role in women's history in America?

KY: Well, I think I touched on that some.

LR: You touched on it a little bit in your last answer.

KY: Yes, about women making political quilts.

LR: In the history of our country, do you see a role of the quiltmaking tradition in that history?

KY: Well, one thing that was interesting at my TreadleOn get-together, we made blocks for the Home of the Brave Project. Several of the state coordinators for the Home of the Brave Project belong to TreadleOn, and so we made blocks to send to them for the quilts they're making for the families of the bereaved, bereaved families that have lost people in the Iraq war. And the block that most of the coordinators are asking for is the same block that was used in a lot of the Civil War quilts made for the Sanitary Commission. I call it Album Cross. I'm not sure if that's the right name, but you get an X and there's a – we signed the little diagonal square in the middle.

LR: Your name goes there?

KY: Yes, we signed our name and where we live. And so, I was reading up on the Civil War quilts and it was interesting how women's groups all over the country made quilts for their soldiers.

LR: And they were larger quilts, but each square was that the X?

KY: Yes, they were like bedroll quilts, seven and eight feet long, four feet wide, something like that.

LR: And so, each quilt would be a square from a different person, and they put them together, or how was it done?

KY: That's what they're doing now for the Home of the Brave Project. Back then, I'm not sure, a woman might have made a whole quilt.

LR: And this project's going on, continuing?

KY: Yes, yes, this Home of the Brave is. So, I thought it was interesting that they're using the same pattern, and it's a traditional pattern.

LR: How do you think we can preserve quilts for the future?

KY: Well, we need to learn to take care of them better than we do sometimes. I know the quilt my grandmother gave me for a wedding gift, I didn't take very good care of it in those years, in the early years, and now I think, 'Why did I -- ' you know, I threw it in the washer and threw it in the dryer. I hung it on the line. I would never hang a wet quilt on the line now. It's too much of a strain [on the quilt.]. But most of the quilts that I make; I want them to be used. I don't want them to be wrapped up in acid-free tissue and stored away.

LR: And you said you give away most of your quilts.

KY: I hope that people use them. You know, when I give somebody a baby quilt, I like to give them a little poem along with it. "It's Okay if You Sit on Your Quilt." It's by Nancy Liddell, I think, L-i-d-d-e-l-l. "It's okay if you sit on your quilt. It's okay if your bottle gets spilt." It goes on like that. And because I want them to use the quilt for the baby – I can supply the poem later, if you like.

LR: Good, and her name, that would be good.

[Poem "It's Your Quilt," by Nancy Riddell, from "Quilter's Newsletter Magazine" #279, Jan./Feb. 1996:

It's OK if you sit on your quilt.

It's OK if your bottle gets spilt.

If you swallow some air

and you burp, don't despair.

It's OK if you spit on your quilt.

There are scraps old and new on your quilt.

Put together for you on your quilt.

If your gums, feel numb

'Cause your teeth haven't come,

It's OK if you chew on your quilt.

We expect you to lie on your quilt.

If you hurt, you may cry on your quilt.

On a cold rainy night,

Don't you fret; you're all right.

You'll be snug, warm and dry on your quilt.]

LR: So how can we encourage quilting in young people? How can we keep this tradition going?

KY: A lot of people seem to have good results working with their grandchildren. When you're raising your own children, maybe it would be hard to find the time, but with grandchildren, it seems to work well for many people.

LR: Have you been involved in any school projects? Are there school projects in this area that focus on quilt making?

KY: I'm not aware of too much. One local school district, a small school district, they have the children, I think it's first graders, maybe sixth graders, I don't know. Somewhere in the elementary school, they have all the kids make a block, and then somebody puts them together in a quilt and when those kids graduate, they have a drawing, and somebody gets the quilt.

I was at a show recently down in Russell, Pennsylvania, given by the Warren Quilter's Guild, Warren, PA, and it was at the Russell Elementary School. And they really got the kids involved in the upcoming show. Some classes made blocks, some of them made like paper blocks. That was neat to see, all the things the kids had done.

LR: In your years of quilting, what trends have you seen, and what trends do you see for the future? What's the future of quilting? You mentioned you discovered the rotary cutter, for example.

KY: I think in years past, when quiltmakers were doing more by hand and maybe working more on their own, they were more original. I see so many quilters now slavishly following patterns, and you have to use the same fabric, and 'Oh, no, I ran out of one.' And I just want to say, 'It's your quilt. Do what you want. Use a different green; it's okay.' And often, quilters who are newer quilters don't know how to resize a pattern, for instance. If they're looking at something that has eight-inch blocks, they don't know how to make the block bigger if they haven't done it by hand. They're so used to having all the cutting directions laid out.

LR: It might be a good math course.

KY: It might. It might be a good little workshop to do someday.

LR: Interesting. So, you see a good future for quilt making in America?

KY: Oh, it's astonishing! Every year, the new things that come out, the new products, the gizmos, the fabric, the explosion of fabric, there's always new stuff and yet the old stuff comes around again. I mean, look at Redwork.

LR: It's coming back.

KY: It is. It's very exciting.

LR: Have you ever thought about doing your own fabrics, dyeing, batiking or anything like that?

KY: I've thought about it, yes, but I haven't gotten any farther than that. I think it would be fun, though. I know someone who does marbling and that just looks so cool.

LR: Well, we are just about out of time. Is there anything else that you would like to mention or that we haven't talked about?

KY: Not in particular. We could talk [unintelligible word or two here.].

LR: That's true. [laughs.] Okay, well, thank you, Kathy, for taking the time for this interview as part of our Quilters' S.O.S. – Save Our Stories project. And it is 2:20, and our interview is concluded, and it's May 19th, 2006. So, thank you very much.

KY: Thank you.



“Kathleen Yaw,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1962.