Olga Jean Christopher McLaren




Olga Jean Christopher McLaren




Olga Jean Christopher McLaren


Judith-Ann Saks Rosenthal

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Del Thomas


Houston, Texas


Olga Jean Christopher McLaren


Judith-Ann Saks Rosenthal (JASR): I am conducting an interview with Olga Christopher McLaren in Houston, Texas, for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee, Texas State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. It is December 10, 2008, 11:50 a.m. Olga McLaren is a quilter, and a 50-year member of the Lady Washington Chapter, Texas State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Olga, it is wonderful being with you today. How old are you?

Olga Jean Christopher McLaren (OJCM): I am 71.

JASR: Do you make quilts?

OJCM: Yes.

JASR: Do you make wearable art?

OJCM: I make clothing.

JASR: What kind of clothing?

OJCM: I make all sorts of clothing, but I have made quilted pieces such as jackets.

JASR: Do you sleep under a quilt?

OJCM: Yes.

JASR: Is it one you made?

OJCM: We do sleep under some that I've made, but right now we are sleeping under my husband's great-aunt Thelma Beasley's quilt.

JASR: Have you given quilts as gifts?

OJCM: I've made quilts for both of our grandchildren, Lorn Maxwell McLaren and Duncan Kane McLaren, and I made a baby quilt for our son, Theron Christopher McLaren, when he was born.

JASR: Are you self-taught?

OJCM: Yes, pretty much. I watched family members quilt when I was growing up. I remember my paternal grandmother, Eutha Christopher, had her quilting frame pulled up to the ceiling and it would be let down and she and others would work on it. So, I did observe a lot of quilt making.

JASR: You must have quiltmakers in your family, lots of them.

OJCM: We do. The oldest quilt we own was made by my great-grandmother, Sarah Rutledge Harkness, circa 1890, in the Feathered Star pattern.

JASR: That is wonderful. You have a whole history of quilt making. Do you belong to a guild?

OJCM: No, and I never have.

JASR: Do you collect quilts?

OJCM: I collect family quilts. I don't collect quilts that have no relation to my family.

JASR: Do you have a studio or sewing room?

OJCM: No, I don't. The quilts are laid out on our dining table and when I'm getting ready to put the layers together I do it on the floor. I don't have a special quilting room.

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

OJCM: The quilt that we have photographed, I began in 2002 when we learned we were expecting our second grandson, Duncan Kane McLaren [July 18, 2003.]. I had made a quilt for our oldest grandson, Lorn Maxwell McLaren [April 15, 2000.]. I wanted this one to be unusual and about our state of Texas and one that he could look upon and learn about our family and our state.

JASR: So, this quilt has very special meaning?

OJCM: I am proud of it because I totally designed it myself. I did absolutely all of the work myself.

JASR: Why did you choose this quilt over all the other quilts that you have made?

OJCM: Well, it is the newest one that I have made though I am working on another one now. I think it is a most unusual and original quilt.

JASR: What do you think someone viewing this quilt might conclude about you?

OJCM: They would see that I have a love of family, a love of history, and that I enjoy doing handwork.

JASR: How do you use this particular quilt?

OJCM: Since my grandson is so young (five years old), it is hung on a wall in his room instead of on his bed. That is where it was photographed today.

JASR: What are your plans for this quilt?

OJCM: It is for my grandson to remember me by.

JASR: Are there special things about this quilt that might be of interest such as the color that is so predominant?

OJCM: The embroidery is all in redwork called Turkey red. There were a lot of the early Germans who came to Texas that did this work. I thought it was unique to them until a friend gave me a book, "Red & White American Redwork Quilts" by Deborah Harding, that I learned the true history of redwork. And that this came from Europe. The old ideas were that people thought anything from Eastern Mediterranean countries was really from Turkey. This was the only fast red thread, so it became known as Turkey red. It was available in America after 1829.

JASR: Can you tell me how your quilt reflects your community and region?

OJCM: Yes, this quilt has a number of aspects and all about Texas. It has the early flags of Texas, and the Texas flag is the dominant part of the quilt. I think our state flag is one of the most appealing and beautifully designed of any flag. There are other aspects of the state such as the heroes of the state, places of historical interest, and all of the state's symbols. I also included a lot of my grandson's family history, for instance how his ancestors came to Texas, brands they used on their cattle, the universities they attended, birthdays and where born, and other significant aspects. We own his great-grandparents' home in the Hill Country. We have a windmill and white tail deer.

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

OJCM: I have very strong feelings about this. In the beginning, they were just to keep the family warm. Quilts have reflected the history of our people, our communities, and our country. The quilts of the Underground Railroad come to mind as an example. Quilts have always been significant in my family's life, but I don't think the other quilters thought about passing on family heritage as I do. I have gone back and embroidered the names and life dates of all the quilters and put them on the quilts we own. I don't want that information to be lost after I am gone.

JASR: In what way to you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America?

OJCM: Quilting is one of the ways women showed what was important to them. At a recent quilt show here in Houston, there was an exhibit of political quilts. The quilters had incorporated all sorts of subjects into the quilts. It is a way for expression. In early days, we know that women were not educated but they could quilt.

JASR: How do you think quilts can be used?

OJCM: Well, other than on our beds, I think there should be more quilt exhibits so people can see quilts. This would rejuvenate interest in historic quilts. Of course, now this can be done on the internet as well as in books. I was happy to hear the curator of the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum say they planned to publish a book of the over 300 historic quilts they own.

JASR: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

OJCM: As I said at the beginning of this interview, I observed my family members making quilts and as a child, I was encouraged to sew. I didn't really make my first quilt until 1962 when our son was born, and I made a baby quilt for him. But I had been surrounded by quilts.

JASR: How old were you when you started?

OJCM: That would have been about 1962, when I was twenty-four years old.

JASR: With whom did you learn to quilt?

OJCM: No one really taught me to quilt. I knew enough about sewing to do it. I had been a member of the 4-H Club in elementary school and took home economics in high school. I would read books, but I basically taught myself. I'm happy to own two family quilting frames. One is my husband, Theron Dodd McLaren's mother, Gladys McLaren, and another is from a great-aunt. They are the ones I quilt on.

JASR: How many hours a week do you quilt?

OJCM: Well, there is no answer to that. The quilt I'm working on now is embroidered and I carry the squares when we travel. I'm ready now to piece the top, so I can't say an amount of time. Once it is ready to put in the frame, I work on it more. We set up the frame in front of our dining room windows so that I can look at the garden as I quilt. I will quilt every chance I get.

JASR: What is your first quilt memory?

OJCM: It is the one I told you about when my grandmother, Eutha Christopher, would let down the frame from her bedroom ceiling and work on her quilt.

JASR: So, there are many other quilters in your family?

OJCM: And in my husband's family.

JASR: And your friends too?

OJCM: I do have a friend on my street, Annette Frey, who is a quilter, but she is a machine quilter, and I am a hand quilter. I feel very strongly about that. I try to keep the historic nature of quilting alive. I even try to use cotton batting though it is hard to find. I have to use a blend. I want the quilts to look as much as they did in my grandparents and great-grandparents day as I can.

JASR: Was quilt making as special to the first and second members of your family? It must have been. It takes a long time.

OJCM: My mother never quilted. She was more a career woman. Both of my grandmothers and my great-grandmothers quilted. My husband's mother, grandmother and his great-aunt, Thelma Beasley, quilted. We own a number of their quilts.

JASR: How does quilt making impact your family?

OJCM: I think they all appreciate it. Our daughter-in-law's family does not do handwork. When her children were born, they got many quilts as baby gifts from family. She realized that our family was one that made a statement with quilts as a special gift.

JASR: Tell me if you have ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

OJCM: No, that is not something I remember. One unusual thing was when I was working on this quilt that you photographed, and I was newly retired. My husband and I were traveling back and forth the 200 miles to the Hill Country. He would put that quilting frame with the quilt attached in the car and I would work on it in both places. I thought that was an understanding and thoughtful husband. Plus, the grandchildren saw me working on the quilt and that was important.

JASR: Do you think it made a difference to them to see you working on the quilt?

OJCM: They are still young and, as you know, you don't remember a lot when you are young, so we will see.

JASR: Have you let them try to do any quilting?

OJCM: They haven't shown any interest. I have demonstrated in school classrooms so maybe there are children out there that will quilt.

JASR: Is there an amusing experience that has resulted from your quilt making?

OJCM: It was one of the ways we could mark how our oldest grandson had grown. When I started, he could walk under the frame but two years later when I finished, he could not walk under the quilting frame.

JASR: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

OJCM: I don't like to piece. I like to embroidery and appliqué. So, for the most part, the quilts I make are not traditional pieced quilts. So, the part I like the best is preparing the squares.

JASR: So, you do this with embroidery and appliqué?

OJCM: Yes.

JASR: And you think ahead of time about what the scene is.

OJCM: I'm not an artist. I usually trace. The detail you took of the Alamo, I traced off of a bag from the gift shop at the Alamo Museum. I get traditional carbon paper like we used in our typewriters, and I trace it on to the square. Then I do the stitching.

JASR: What else is in the square with the Alamo?

OJCM: These are the other Texas Missions.

JASR: The Texas Missions have a lot of historical importance. They go quite a way back.

OJCM: We have visited them all and feel they are a very wonderful part of our state history.

JASR: I see you have a Mexican flag here.

OJCM: Texas was once part of Mexico. That flag was an early Texas flag and Texas was part of Mexico at that time.

JASR: The other flags here relate to Texas history too?

OJCM: Yes. Some of them are before the revolution and some of them after. There is one that was when Texas joined the Confederacy. Not all of the historic flags are here. In 2001, we had an exhibit, Texas Flags, at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. I received a book from the exhibit and photocopied these flags from it. I then printed them on a special fabric with my computer and appliquéd and quilted them on the quilt.

JASR: This quilt was on exhibit at the Clayton Library. Can you tell me something about that?

OJCM: It has been on exhibit twice. It was on exhibit at St. John's School in Houston. This was an art show featuring students, alumni, and faculty. I had been on the faculty there for twenty-five years. Clayton Genealogy Library had an exhibit this year called Threads of Families. It exhibited all sorts of needlework pieces. Mine was the only quilt.

JASR: And you have worked your own family history into this quilt such as putting the schools your family went to.

OJCM: And brands for their cattle, and how they came to Texas: train, stagecoach, covered wagon, birthdays and where born. I said when the quilt was on exhibit at the Clayton that I imagined my grandson, Duncan Kane McLaren, born July 18, 2003, sleeping under it and noting not only the history of our state, but his family history as well.

JASR: And you also have in this quilt all the things that are relevant to Texas such as--

OJCM: The symbols and I finally have to put a cut off in 2003 because every year new ones are added as official state symbols. I did the ones I thought would be interesting to him such as the state dinosaur, the insects--I'm hoping he will enjoy looking at those.

JASR: And I see you have the state capital and the San Jacinto Monument. And the early heroes of Texas and Texas certainly had heroes. Is that Sam Houston? And around him?

OJCM: There is Stephen F. Austin, William B. Travis, James Bowie, James Fannin, Davy Crockett, Mirabeau B. Lamar, and Sam Houston; seven in all.

JASR: This is certainly a unique and wonderful quilt that your grandson will enjoy. What aspects of quilt making do you find pleasing and what aspects do you not enjoy?

OJCM: As I told you, I like to do the squares and what I least enjoy is the quilting. It is a lonely activity, and I can see why women enjoyed quilting bees.

JASR: How long does it take to quilt a quilt?

OJCM: Well, it depends on the quilt. Some parts take a lot of time such as the large Texas flag. I wanted that to be heavily quilted. So that the pattern you chose for quilting is unique to the quilt.

JASR: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

OJCM: None.

JASR: Have advances in technology influenced your work?

OJCM: Well, the only thing is the quality of fabric and thread. As I told you, I am not a machine quilter. I admire some machine quilters, but it is just not my cup of tea.

JASR: It takes a long time to hand quilt. It is a unique thing. What are your favorite techniques and materials?

OJCM: Well, I really enjoy the beautiful fabrics available now. Most of my embroidery is simple embroidery. I don't use very fancy stitches. I thought the process of Xeroxing these pictures and being able to put them through your printer was amazing. You have to buy a special fabric.
Using that fabric in my quilting was probably the most advanced technology I used.

JASR: The colors in your quilt are basically red, white, and blue. These are the prominent colors.

OJCM: These are the colors of our state flag.

JASR: And the United States, too?

OJCM: Absolutely.

JASR: Red, white, and blue are very patriotic. What are your favorite techniques and materials?

OJCM: I think I described that when I said that I use a running stitch for my embroidery. I like a good cotton fabric. One that is easy to sew through and feels good.

JASR: You are trying to create a quilt like your ancestors; the same kind of techniques and materials.

OJCM: Yes, that's the idea.

JASR: To give the same feel. Describe your studio and place that you create.

OJCM: I don't have a studio, nor do I use a design wall. Since I don't do piece quilting, a design wall is not as necessary. I do my quilts in squares and do a square at a time. After each square is finished, I lay these out on my dining table or floor. I do machine quilt the squares and borders together. I don't hand stitch these. But all of the quilting is by hand.

JASR: Tell me how you balance your time?

OJCM: I'm retired now so I really don't have a problem with time. I work on quilting between other projects. It is a hobby. When I am working on the squares, I can take them with me. The quilt I am now working on, I have embroidered on each square where it was done whether we were in Scotland, France, the Hill Country, New Mexico, or at home. So, it is a traveling quilt.

JASR: You do not use a design wall, but you do have a table and the floor that you use. Does this help you create? Are the table and floor part of the creative process?

OJCM: No, I don't think it is part of the creative process. They are just practical ways for me to lay my quilt out.

JASR: How do you go about designing your quilt?

OJCM: In my mind. I just think about what I want. Some of it is by happenstance. For instance, the quilt I am now working on I found all the printed pieces in a charity shop; thirteen-inch squares were in a charity shop! I thought the design was nice. I added the places where stitched to add an unusual twist. I built a quilt around these found materials. Who knows what the next quilt will be or if there will be one?

JASR: I think our ancestors did something like this. They made quilts from the materials they had left over.

OJCM: Yes, you are right; with the scraps they had.

JASR: And they had to design something with what they had. What do you think makes a great quilt?

OJCM: I'm particularly drawn to quilts with strong designs and colors. I like Amish quilts and the quilts from Gee's Bend, the ones made by black women in Alabama who used what they had. I like those strong designs more than say a Baltimore quilt with tiny appliquéd pieces. What appeals to you in a quilt, as in art, is so personal. What I think makes a great quilt is not necessarily what someone else thinks make a great quilt.

JASR: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

OJCM: It is what I just mentioned. I think it is the bold designs of the people I have mentioned.

JASR: What makes a quilt worthy of a museum or a special collection?

OJCM: Well, it is certainly not craftsmanship because the Gee's Bend quilts have been shown all over our nation. Their craftsmanship is quite poor. They can make a quilt in a day. The stitches can be large and far apart. Their designs are what make them museum quality. At the recent DAR quilt exhibit at the International Quilt Show [International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas.], age was a factor as well as the craftsmanship. So, it is a personal thing.

JASR: What makes a great quiltmaker?

OJCM: I think having a mentor. We see that when we read the history of the quilters in Gee's Bend. The grandmother quilted then the mother, and then the daughter. Now there are quilters that give workshops and exert great influence. There was a beautiful handmade quilt at the recent International Quilt Show here in Houston made by a woman from Wales. It was one of the most beautiful, intricate quilts I have ever seen. She was influenced by a workshop she took by Ricky Tims from Colorado, and he quilts totally by machine. So, mentor and inspiration make a great quilter in my opinion.

JASR: Whose works are you drawn to?

OJCM: As I said, the Amish and the quilters of Gee's Bend.

JASR: Is there an artist who has inspired you?

OJCM: I do enjoy looking at art and I think there is a great deal of art that has influenced quilting. But not mine. Maybe in the back of my mind, there is color influence.

JASR: How do you feel about machine quilting vs. hand quilting?

OJCM: I think I have been pretty explicit about how I feel. I admire good machine quilting, but I'm a hand quilter.

JASR: Do you have an opinion on longarm quilting?

OJCM: I'm familiar with the machines and have worked with them at the quilt show, but they are nothing I'm interested in, nor would I invest in one.

JASR: Why is quilt making important to your life?

OJCM: I want to pass myself on to the ones that follow after me.

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

OJCM: There are wonderful textile preservers. I've just visited Williamsburg and the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C. So, these are places quilts can be preserved. I think if a quilt is a masterpiece, it should be preserved. But I think we should use quilts in our homes and should wrap our children in quilts. We sent our son off to college with a quilt his great-grandmother made. It has had to have extensive repairs, but he will never forget having had it there.

JASR: What has happened to other quilts in your family?

OJCM: I have a number of them here in my home that you can observe. The ones that other family members received; I really don't know.

JASR: What is the greatest challenge facing quiltmakers today?

OJCM: It is very expensive to make a quilt from new materials. Not a lot of people today are enamored with handwork as I am. The people I grew up with did handwork and that was one of the main emphases of the 4-H Clubs.

JASR: Olga, is there anything else you would like to add?

OJCM: Well, the quilt I am working on now can be one of the grandsons' wedding quilts, so I'll have to make another one because I would like them both to have a wedding quilt from me whether I am here or not. With my age, my eyesight will not be perfect forever, so I'll have to work a little faster than I have been working.

JASR: My name is Judith-Ann Saks Rosenthal, and it is December 10, 2008. We started this interview at a ten and we have concluded it at twelve-thirty. I thank Olga for letting me interview her for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We have some addendum to talk about. Olga has done some other interesting projects that I would like her to tell you about.

OJCM: I'll talk about a small quilt I have before us. It is my retirement quilt that celebrated my 42 years of teaching. The art teacher at St. John's School, Mary Jean Fowler, helped me to select fabrics and design this quilt. I did piece this quilt in the log cabin design because it is my favorite of the piece designs and it lent itself to this project. I incorporated the signatures of co-workers at St. John's School and that I liked. So, their signatures are all over the quilt and the quilt back is in fabrics in the school colors, red and black. I enjoy looking at this quilt every day. I fold it different ways so that I can read different people's names; some of them are no longer here. I thought it was one way to show a piece of my life's history. It is a memorable retirement gift even though I had to do it myself. But if you don't pick the gift you want, you may not get the gift you like.

JASR: It is a beautiful quilt in bold bright colors.

OJCM: As I mentioned, another thing I think I have done for the history of my quilts is embroider on each quilt the name and life dates of the quilter. One last story about a quilt I never expected to own came as a result of the research I did for the featured Texas quilt. I wrote to one of my father's first cousin who is in his 90s. I told him I was making this quilt and did he know of any cattle brands that the Daughtery family used. He wrote back 'no' because he said they marked them in their ears. But he had a Yoyo quilt made by my great-grandmother, Martha Daugherty. In her later years, she lived a few months with each of her children. When she lived in his home for several months at a time, she would work on this quilt. 'None of my sons will be interested in it,' he wrote. So, he sent it to me. I had no other Yoyo quilts, nor any quilts made by Mama and was thrilled to have it. This is one of my more unusual quilt stories and a quilt was saved that might otherwise have been lost.

JASR: This concludes our interview.

OJCM: Thank you Judy. You have been a wonderful interviewer.


“Olga Jean Christopher McLaren,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1999.