Nancy Smith




Nancy Smith




Nancy Smith


David Smith

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Escondido, California


Amy Tetlow Smith


David Smith (DS): August 20, 2002. I am David Smith doing the interview with Nancy Smith, who happens to be my mother [interview at Nancy Smith's home in Escondido, California.]. This is interview UDEL-002 and we are going to start mostly talking about this piece of Redwork that she began as a very small girl. So, tell me anything you want to, to begin. Why did you do this?

Nancy Smith (NS): Oh. [laugh.] Well, I told Amy [Amy is Amy Tetlow Smith, wife of David Smith, daughter-in-law of Nancy Smith.] in the letter that some friends of mine were having a little sewing circle and they were just stabbing a needle up and down and my mother said, 'Well, you're not going to do that. If you're going to sew, you're going to sew right.' So she got a stencil out and made me sew. And I can't figure out which one I started with.

DS: The year on one of the blocks

NS: Yes, I know--I was just--it was 1924, so I was only six years old when I did that. It was in the summer time when we were having a little party on the back porch and it was quite a thing to get my mother to let us have a little party with my toy dishes, which were cut glass dishes. But that's when I started sewing this and the other girls gave up but I kept at it--because I had to.

DS: Where did the ideas for the designs come from? Did you make them up?

NS: Oh, gosh. They came from everything, mostly stencils on thin paper that you ironed and then the dots came on and you followed that and some of them were pictures that we traced and I can't remember where we got all of the patterns. And especially these big ones with the big dogs and the horse; they were--I can't think where they came from, but they were something special. But anything and any place; we just picked up. But most of them were the iron-on stencils.

DS: Did you make those stencils or did you buy those stencils?

NS: Oh, you bought them.

DS: Oh, okay. From like a 5 and 10 or was there such a thing as a sewing store?

NS: Oh, yes. They came on a big sheet. And then you just cut out the one that you wanted and you got your linen and laid it down and pressed it right in the middle.

DS: Could you use the stencil more than once?

NS: No. Once you ironed it, the ink transferred right to your material.

DS: You told me your brother, David, helped somehow. What did he do?

NS: He made these – I think we found a pattern in a paper with all these little--I guess they're ducks holding hands [pointing to the border of quilt.]--and then he made a cardboard stencil that was bout three of them on. Then we traced around it then we moved it all the way around. It's all on one big piece of linen.

DS: The edge is--

NS: Right.

DS: Oh, I didn't realize that. And after the squares were all done, who put the squares together?

NS: Oh, my mother did all that work. It took me from when I was six until about 6th grade to finish it, because I only worked on it in the summertime--mostly to pass time and in the winter you were too busy with schoolwork. And you had to go to bed early because it was darn cold. But that took a long time and it took my mother just as long to put it together and quilt it. She did all the quilting by hand which my brother, David, was a great one for marking the quilt for her. You can see on the back, he just used a stick and made all the lines.

DS: So this is a real family project.

NS: Oh, yes. I don't--just looking at it now I can remember making some of them. That seems impossible, but I can. I told Amy the story about how God punished me for making one on a Sunday. It was a cat and I snuck up in the attic for something to do and I was sewing on it and then I hid it. Then Monday when I looked at it, it was all double threaded and I had to rip it out. So I knew it was God's punishment for sewing on Sunday, which was not allowed in our household. You didn't do anything on Sunday except go to church so I had to rip it all out and do it over again. Looking at it now it almost seems like I didn't rip it all out. [laughter.]

DS: It almost does look double-threaded.

NS: Yes. [laughter.]

DS: It's funny you remember that one.

NS: Yes.

DS: So, is there any one of them that's your favorite square?

NS: They all--looking at them I used to think how hard it was to do. Now these big animals, that's the ones I can't think where I got those patterns. But this dog in the basket, I thought that was hard. And now when I look at it, it's this one. I thought that one was really hard. That one was one we traced from a picture. A lot of them--and different people gave me different ideas.

DS: How long would it take you to do a square? Obviously some would be longer than others.

NS: Whenever the mood hit you. I don't know [laughter.] how long.

DS: It's seven by six. It looks like 42 squares [it is actually seven by seven.]

NS: It did take a long time because that was a big deal. At the time we thought, 'Gee that was really hard to do.'

DS: I notice that the different threads in different places are very different colors now. Some are almost pale, some look brown and some are still bright red. Some are pink. I presume they all started as red?

NS: Oh yes. They were always red. And I don't understand that. It was just poor thread, I guess. And it must have been the last ones that I did that have such a bright red that must have been a better type of thread. I was trying to remember whether it was a floss that I used. I don't think it was like string. I think it was like two-stranded floss, but I don't remember that at all. [pause.] It's funny how it comes back to you. I remember that dog head--that was hard. [laughter.] But it's very simple. But I'm amazed at how good some of the stitching is for a little girl to be doing. [laughter.]

DS: Did you always use the same style of stitch?

NS: Oh, yes.

DS: And your mother taught you that stitch?

NS: Oh, yes. It was straight--what were we calling it?

DS: Is that a stem stitch?

NS: No, no.

DS: Not a backstitch?

NS: Just outline stitch.

DS: Outline stitch.

NS: Just plain outline stitch. It took quite a while because the attention span must have been short, you know. You work on it hour by hour by hour.

DS: Well, you said you started this at the same time as some of your friends who didn't stick at it. How about your sisters?

NS: No, my one sister had some--I remember she had bigger blocks--but she didn't stick with it. She just did a few. But she was five years older than I was, so I guess she had other interests. She didn't stick with it at all. I couldn't tell you which one started the whole deal. It was just expected of you to do it. That's all there was to it.

DS: When you were sitting, working on this, would your mother be sitting there, doing other kinds of quilting at the same time? Or sewing?

NS: No, I'd be doing this while she was cooking and other stuff. I'd carry it everywhere, probably doing it out on the front porch or taking it to the neighbor or something.

DS: Did your mother do a lot of quilting?

NS: Oh, yes. In the wintertime, she had a quilt in the dining room. We had a small house with eight people living in it. But she'd have it over the dining room table and come Friday it had to be stood up in the corner because you had to clean on Friday for the weekend. You didn't do any of that kind of work. Friday was baking day and then Saturday was cleaning day and then Sunday was go to church.

DS: Do you know for sure when it was finished? You said you were in the 6th grade?

NS: I kind of think that was when it was, because when I got into junior high school, I was into everything else and going out with people in the summertime. I'm pretty sure I had it finished before I got into junior high. Probably some summer I didn't even work on it, for that matter.

DS: Did your mother quilt it right away when you finished?

NS: I don't know. I guess she did. I don't remember. I can't remember that.

DS: What I was getting at is, once it was finished, once you had your part of it done and she sewed the squares together and she did the quilting, what happened to it?

NS: Then she put it all together and I didn't even remember that she did all this feather stitching between each square after she had it quilted. And I made an effort to get it done. And I'm sure I didn't work on it past 5th grade.

DS: So 6th grade would have been 1930 or 31--

NS: I know I was 11.

DS: 29 maybe. And then, if your mother finished it right away, did it just sit until my brother was born? [note: that was 1942.]

NS: Yes, I guess so, because I don't think I ever used it at home. It just stayed there then she just gave it to me. And then I was very hard on it. I didn't think it was anything spectacular so I just washed it a lot because it was well used.

DS: And it was used by both of us?

NS: Yes, I think it was used by both of you. [pause.] You sat out on the front porch. You sat out on the back porch in the summertime with your hands going.

DS: Is this the only project like this, this kind of needlework that you did? I know you do lots of knitting and crocheting and cross-stitch. Is this the only quilt you ever made?

NS: The only outline one but I made an appliqué one with Sunbonnet Sue. [this is a reference to a different quilt.]

DS: Isn't she one of the squares here too?

NS: Yes. We have a boy and a girl her, yes. But these were--I guess, I worked on that then when I got older. I guess I worked on that in high school; that's when I was making that one. I used that so hard the top got all worn out and the basic squares for that were not always good muslin. A lot of those were made from washed salt bags and sugar bags and they didn't hold up. And in the constant wear, they'd just wear thin. And then the top end, from having it on the bed, it just wore off. I was always going to reconstruct that, but I never got it done.

DS: So is it fair to say that in your family quilts were for use, that weren't for decoration?

NS: Right. Although the ones my mother made were very utilitarian; they weren't--she used what she had. She'd cover old blankets. She covered old woolen things, just to use them. She wouldn't go out and buy batting. That was something you didn't do.

DS: What happened to any of her quilts?

NS: Well, they got used and washed a lot. But the better ones she made my sister, Jane, had, most of them. And I don't know where they've gotten to. I hope my niece kept them when she took the furniture. But she made a lot of--all her quilts were hand-pieced, not on a sewing machine. That was not quilting if you pieced them with a sewing machine; you did them by hand. And I unfortunately, don't have any of those. I had one that just plain wore out. But she did everything by hand. Quilting designs were copied by my brother, David, and he cut them all out for her on cardboard with a razor blade, and all the designs that you see, he traced those. I remember there was a big bell and an interlaced one on the border and he did all those for her. Unfortunately, I had them, but I threw them away.

DS: A technical question I meant to ask: did you do this on a hoop?

NS: Yes, I always used a hoop.

DS: The designs are such that you wouldn't have to move the hoop around, just put it on once?

NS: No, you would change it around.

DS: Parts of this were harder than other parts; some of the designs were harder. Were there any aspects of it you didn't like? I'm not sure what I'm getting at, since you didn't do the sewing together of the squares or do the quilting; you just did the outlining.

NS: I think what I meant was following the outline was difficult to interpret what--like this girl on the sled. There were so many little things to go around and remember this was a kid trying to figure out just what the pattern meant. And that's why they seemed so hard.

DS: That's pretty thick thread.

NS: I don't know how even the stitching is. If you look at it, you think, why was that hard, like these. That's just a simple following; there's nothing to that.

DS: Is there anything else that came to mind while you were looking at this? You said you remembered doing some of them. Any specific memory about any one of them?

NS: I liked that one. I remember doing that one, I thought that was nice--the basket of flowers. And somebody else gave me that pattern. That was one that I know that we traced. But the simple animals, they were all the ones that were ironed on.

DS: As we now know, this style of work is called Redwork. Is that a term you knew at the time?

NS: Never heard of it. And I'm sure my mother never did either, but being raised in Pennsylvania and around the Dutch country and all [note: in Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County.], it probably was something that was handed down that you just did without calling it that, without knowing that that was what you did. [pause.] I guess the whole quilting is just diamonds. She didn't make any pattern or anything. But that's all done by hand.

DS: You and I read about the "penny squares" the other day, where you could buy the square that had the pattern on it but you put the pattern on all of these yourself.

NS: Did that article say that they were in use in early years?

DS: I think it said 1850, but it was really getting popular about 1880.

NS: Because I don't remember those until later years, when you'd see them in the stores. They were printed on a white piece of material and they just didn't seem like anything. But it was the same idea. You could buy them in a yardage store.

DS: You said at the beginning you always used red thread.

NS: Right.

DS: Presumably that wasn't a random choice.

NS: No. I don't know why, but we just used red thread. That's what we were given. And I can't remember whether it came on a skein that we used like, you know, floss, or how it came. But, no, you just used red thread. It was just the thing you did. And I can't remember anybody else making one. I know my friends didn't. They gave up even trying.

DS: You said your sister started but didn't do many. But you had a bunch of cousins and your mother had a bunch of siblings. Did any of her siblings' kid do it? Any of your cousins do it?

NS: I don't know. I don't think they did anything like this.

DS: It's interesting where your mother would have gotten the idea. [laughter.]

NS: Yes, yes. I don't know. It may have just grown. I kept making them and she said, 'Well, let's make a quilt out of them.' It could have just happened that way. I don't know.

DS: That's all the specific questions I had. Anything else you want to say?

NS: No, I'm trying to think what else you might want.

DS: You can always add on later, as well.

NS: Amy will probably think of a couple of questions.

DS: I'm sure. That was wonderful. We'll stop there.

NS: Okay.

DS: Thank you very much.

[tape restarted later that day.]

DS: A comment about the square with the date in it, where you say you're sure that's not the first one?

NS: No, I think that was the last one, one of the last ones I made, and then we decided to put the date in to identify when the quilt was started. It was not the first one, not by a long shot. [laughter.]

DS: It was just a good place to put it.

NS: Yes, it was just a good place to put it.

DS: And how about the one that has your name on it?

NS: That looks like an Easter basket and there was a tag out there, you just filled in the name. That was put in probably when we made it. I don't remember but I'm sure that was put in either as an afterthought or at the end.



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