Evelyn Evatt Salinger




Evelyn Evatt Salinger




Evelyn Evatt Salinger


Ruth Duncan

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Fairfax, Virginia


Ruth Duncan


Ruth Duncan (RD): Evelyn, thank you for participating in the Quilters' Save our Stories project. It's time we turned the tables and made you talk! It is January 21, 2004. The time is approximately 12:35. This is Ruth Duncan, pretending to be an interviewer and we are talking, of course, with Evelyn Salinger. Her number is 22302.07 and the interview is taking place in Evelyn's home in Fairfax, Virginia. For starters, Evelyn, where do you come from?

Evelyn Salinger (ES): I was born in Nyack, New York, and lived through my high school years in New York State, mostly Westchester County after that, namely Irvington, NY, which is where I graduated from high school. And then I went to Connecticut College--at that time For Women, in New London, Connecticut, where I was a music major. And after that, I went to Illinois, where I got a Master's in Education and was also newly married to somebody I had met at Yale. And after that we went to Brazil for a couple of years and that was kind of moving around. And we finally ended up in New York State and we lived there for--

RD: Where in New York?

ES: Something like 27 years. Albany, Troy, Schenectady area. Okay. I'd grown up in Westchester, which is southern New York, but this was the foothills of the Adirondacks and it was a very nice place to live when we raised our three children. [David, Peter and Andrew.]

RD: And when did you come to the Washington area?

ES: We arrived--I arrived here in 1991. My husband [Gerhard.] had come two years earlier. We had a commuting marriage while he worked here and I had my piano studio in New York but when we decided to move [here permanently.], we both were here from 1991 till now.

RD: How and when did you get interested in quilting?

ES: I have several memories and one is that I knew that my mother's mother, my grandmother, who was a pioneer woman out in Kansas and then moved in her later years to Washington State, would supply us now and then with quilts. And I think we beat them up terribly. And I think we didn't appreciate them as much as we should have. My mother made attempts at quilting. Two different attempts. One was a mosaic quilt, which is what I brought today to show and the other was that she was forever cutting up slices from the fabrics from all the sewing that she did. Those were to be made into Log Cabins. She never did that, she just had all these boxes full of different size strips. And finally, we put together--I say we, because my husband helped design the blocks. He would sit for hours and match different pieces together until he had the block for the Log Cabin, which was diagonally cut half light and half was dark. He just really enjoyed that. And I did the sewing. So that was a collaborative thing starting with my mother and ending with my husband and myself. Those quilts I finished sometime in the mid-seventies. '76. The quilt I brought today was started by my mother before I was born. And she got married in 1932. So that meant at the time, if you were a teacher, which she was, you were not allowed to teach if you were married. So she had some time on her hands and she went around in New York City to museums and took courses and so forth. And somehow she encountered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this beautiful quilt called Mosaic Quilt. And she decided she wanted to make the quilt. And she also found a book which I have still in my hand, the old "Patchwork Quilts and the Women who Made Them," by Ruth E. Finley. It was published in 1929.

RD: That's a classic, isn't it?

ES: I think so. It says second edition, but it's still very old. My mother used this as a reference, because in it, it has a picture of the Mosaic Quilt from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So, that's the one she started and I remember it because when we were ready to move from White Plains to Irvington, when I was about 10, she was digging things out of the closet and she pulled out this thing that was sort of in tatters. She had the center mosaic done, with 2 or 3 pieces hanging out here and there. And she had bits and pieces of the blue from the center, but not much else. There were just bits and pieces. It sat around for years. And finally, when she was moving to Florida in the late seventies, I said I'll take it and I'll finish it. So, essentially, it was started in the early thirties and I finished it something like 1982.

RD: Wow.

ES: It has faded somewhat, but the blue from the center was just enough so I could do the sides the same blue. Some of the other pieces I had to match; similar fabric of the time. She complained that when she went to look for fabrics that at that time, the early thirties, there was not much choice of small prints. So, there are several with stripes and several with kind of odd-shaped squares and dots. It didn't have the variety that we encounter later. So, that's the story of the Mosaic Quilt. We keep it in the family here and my husband and I use it a couple of months a year.

RD: It's a very handsome quilt.

ES: Thank you. Originally it was in browns [in the museum.] My mother was also frustrated that there were no browns at the time so she ended up making the blues.

RD: Well, I must say that it's something that I might want to make myself so I may just want to borrow that book.

ES: Okay. It doesn't give you the pattern. It just gives you the picture.

RD: That would be enough.

ES: You were asking for early memories.

RD: Yes.

ES: I think there was another--no, I guess that was it. The fact that my mother started one and my grandmother made them and, that's about all until in the mid-sixties, when we were first in Schenectady, New York, after moving back from Brazil. I had 2 children at the time. And I saw in the Women's Day this wonderful quilt that somebody had put together with denim fabric. And each little square mustn't have been much bigger than four inches square. Each square had an appliqué on it of something of interest for a child. I thought, Ah! That's what I should make. And I started to work on my first quilt, which was a much larger square, probably 16 inches square, with a big sailboat appliquéd on it and various embroidery in the junction of all the squares. I took a Tupperware top and made a circle and embroidered around the circle and within each circle I did something nautical, so that it had all kinds of interest for a child. So that was my first quilt. I knew nothing about quilting and the quilt stitches were pretty large, but I did quilt around the sailboat and I quilted waves at the bottom of each square and on the sides I used the nautical flags to spell out P E T E R on each side, so my son, Peter, who is our second son, would get the first quilt. I was feeling sorry for him, because he was the second child and sometimes hidden in the chaos of being the second child so he got the first quilt that I made. That was 1968.

RD: You were ambitious!

ES: He was already about 5 years old when I made it. It has lasted very well till now. My children were always very good about quilts that I made and that I had about the house. We never had any problem with them.

RD: You mean with damage.

ES: With damage. And so that very same quilt has been used by our son Peter's older son and just recently we decided to give it to his second son. So, it goes from second son to second son. The second son is now 3 years old and living in Colorado. When I gave him this, he put on his snorkel outfit and his mask and he crawled around, pretending he was swimming on top of this nautical quilt. So, it's still being used.

RD: [laughs.] That's a splendid story. What is your favorite part about a quilting project?

ES: Oh. There are so many favorite parts. I think probably, I am finding that I like appliqué the best. But I do enjoy piecing. I enjoy being able to carry little bits and pieces around in a box so that wherever I go, I can always be working on something small. So, I enjoy most the little beginnings of quilting, when I can carry it around with me. When it gets large and I have to do machine squares, for instance, I don't enjoy the machine part at all. Sometimes, when I have a quilt that has irregular shapes, I find that I can do a lot better if I just do it by hand. And that's what I have done in several quilts. But probably in the interest of time--sometimes large squares, big sashings--have to be done by machine. Other favorite parts. I think before I ever do a quilt, I dream it for many, many months. I get ideas and I start in, and if I don't like it, I change. I rarely plan ahead of time what the whole quilt will look like or what quilting I will do at the end. It all sort of happens as I go along.

RD: It evolves.

ES: Yes. It evolves. Yes, that's right. That's how it goes.

RD: Are you a finisher, or not?

ES: I would say up to a year or two ago, I was a finisher. And now all of a sudden, it seems like my life has got busier and busier and I've been able to piece tops together, but I haven't had time to sit down and quilt them. So I feel very pressured right now because I feel that I have a lot of things to finish. One of my dear friends in the Daughters of Dorcas said, 'I never go very far ahead of myself, because what would happen if I would die and nobody would finish my quilts for me.' So now I'm beginning to feel as she does that if I don't get going and get my quilting done that I will be in the same state but I really enjoy the quilting. It just means that one has to stay around home more hours than my busy life seem to be doing at this point. [laughs.]

RD: Now, of course, there's always the embarrassing fabric stash question.

ES: Oh, yes, of course. I have a fabric stash. Last year we had a painter come and I was showing him various places that needed to be painted. I opened up my closet and he went, 'Uhhhhhhh.' [laughter.] He'd never seen anything like it. Well, when I had to clean out the closets. I have two full closets that had materials that have shelves on each side. And I tried to have everything by category. But when I'm very busy making a quilt, I can sometimes have the whole floor full of pieces of material. And then I have to put it all back. Well, the painting was a good thing, because I took everything out, dumped it on the floor and bit by bit, I ironed every piece and put everything in light green, medium green, dark green; light blue, medium blue, dark blue, et cetera.

RD: Oh!

ES: So, now I have it pretty well straightened. I just have to keep it that way. But, you know, when you're searching for something and you're in a hurry you need a little something for a sidewalk or a little window, or a little something on an appliqué and you have to rush around and you don't get it all put back in order. But I'm trying. And I also have a very forgiving husband, because he doesn't seem to mind that I buy material. Though he does announce [that.] every time I do a scrap quilt, I end up with more scraps than I started with.

RD: Well. It's true, though, isn't it? [laughter.]

ES: We also had an uncle--I have an uncle we visited way back in the seventies, up in Canada. He said, 'There's something wrong with these quilting women. They take these beautiful pieces of material, cut them in small bits and then put them back together again.' He thinks there's something strange about that but I find hand work is just the most rewarding thing, and it's my--actually, it's my reward for getting everything else done, so sometimes the hand work gets put off from day to day but I feel it's my reward for keeping--getting things done that I need to do. Mainly, my music, which is my other love in life. That takes, of course, practicing instruments, takes a lot of time so when I get my practicing all done and I have an evening free that I can quilt or work on pieces. That's my reward.

RD: That's splendid. That's just splendid.

ES: Thank you.

RD: Now, how did you find out about Cardinal Quilters?

ES: When we moved to the Washington, D.C. area--I live in Virginia, but it's not far I had put my mind to it that I would try to find some quilting groups because in New York, when I was teaching a full load of students, I was a lone quilter and I'd been a lone quilter from 1968 on. And I never really learned the right way to do some things. I've picked up stuff here and there. I decided I'd join a group here because I wasn't going to be tied down with as many students. When we first arrived in October of 1991, my husband saw an announcement that there was a group called Daughters of Dorcas having a demonstration at the Renwick [Gallery.]. He said, 'Oh, you must go there and check out that group.' And so I went and I found these lovely ladies there working on various quilts. In fact, they were trying to plan a butterfly quilt that they had made as a group quilt. I met several women there: Viola Canaday, Vivian Hoban, Joyce Nixon, Virginia Quinn, I believe was there. And I know Penny Rigdon was there. Penny was working on this butterfly quilt and asking people's opinion how to set it together. So I went up to her and I told her I lived in Fairfax and I was really interested in joining a group. Well, of course, I was invited to join the Daughters of Dorcas, if I would want to come there every Tuesday of the year up in the Northeast of Washington. But there was also, she said, a Guru of quilting named Beth Ford living in Fairfax. And that's where I lived so when I got home, I called up Beth Ford and she lived about two miles from me which is close for this area. And Beth invited me over and we got acquainted and I began to ride with her and we'd pick up a person named Ruth Duncan and go to a quilting group [Cardinal Quilters], which at that time was at the Duncan Library in Alexandria. It soon after that moved to the Trinity United Methodist Church in Alexandria, which is where Cardinals have been probably for the last ten years, more or less. So, I became a member of Cardinals. Cardinal Quilters. I thought it was a bit far to go, but you know once you get to know people, and you get to like the people you're seeing, you just continue. I know there are other quilting groups in Fairfax and all around, but I figured two quilting groups was enough--the Daughters of Dorcas in Washington, and Cardinal Quilters in Alexandria so those are the two I've continued in the last 12 years.

RD: What other quilt-oriented activities have you done? Do you teach? Enter contests?

ES: OK. I will tell you things that I worked with. I've been a teacher of something all my life. I even taught sewing way back--swimming, everything but I'd never taught quilting. When I was in Iowa for a sabbatical year, I joined a group out there and they were doing the Bicentennial quilt so I contributed a square to that which was my imagination of WOI, the radio station there. Then we came back to Troy, New York--Troy and Schenectady, New York here my husband worked at RPI, which is Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, and the ladies there had not yet finished their Bicentennial quilt. So I said, 'Well, I'd work on that.' So I did a square for their quilt, which was the interior of the Troy Music Hall. I remember saying it took me 45 hours to embroider that. I did it.

RD: Oh!

ES: Those two were Bicentennial quilts I worked on. Then a little later on I had an opportunity three times to lead a quilt--to help put a quilt, an idea, together and give it to somebody--

RD: For a group?

ES: For a group. Right. I did not belong to a quilting group at this point but we had a very fine Provost and his wife at RPI, their names were Harrison and Wil Shull and various friends, especially of Wil, women friends. W-I-L Various friends of ours decided that we wanted to give them a goodbye present when they were leaving RPI to go to the University of Colorado. He was going to be president there. So, I never taught quilting, but in working with probably 30 or 40 women over the time, we put together a very beautiful quilt for them. And I was teaching people, because most of the people had never done a quilt before. We ended up with some varied skills in the group--some people had sewing skills but some people had none. We put together, really, a beautiful, powerful quilt for them. So, that was nice. I don't remember the date, but it was probably in the late Eighties. And then when a principal in the elementary school where our youngest son, Andrew, went to school--she was the most fantastic principal. Mrs. Cook. Kathleen Cook. She was a principal at a little school in Niskayuna, New York, where my son was at that time in fifth grade. She was retiring to Florida so again we put together a quilt. Again I had to teach people how to do it. This particular quilt was one that we had each person quilt her own square and then try to piece it together after. That was the first and last time I would ever put a quilt together in that you had to fold over all the pieces on the back, and so you have a very uncomfortable back of quilt. But it turned out to be wonderful, because everybody wanted to contribute to that quilt and there were parents of various children and they all picked different things that they thought were important about this principal and everyone thought she was just so wonderful for their particular child. So, that was the second one. The third one I did was for retiring physics professor Walter Eppenstein and his wife, Bertha, when they were retiring after many, many years of service at RPI, and wonderful teaching. We put together various people in the physics department got together and put together a quilt for them. Some of the squares, we had people sign their names, so we embroidered their names. Other squares, we had all the various aspects of Walter and Bertha's life, their children, and their interests, and so forth. It turned out to be a really lovely quilt. I'm pleased with all three of these because each of the people said it was the most meaningful thing that they owned. They were very pleased. I've got pictures back from the people.

RD: That's splendid.

ES: Very nice. Yeah. That was really fun. It was a lot of work. I remember for the third one, it was the spring before I was moved here, so that was 1990. No, 1990-1991. We had between February and May--I've forgot the date, but something mid-May that we had to get it done to present it to them at their retirement party. So I was putting night and day onto this. People were at my house, quilting it at the end. We'd have you know. I'd say, 'I'll be home between 7 and 10,' this night, that night, and the other night and people would come over and we'd work at it till we got it made and presented it the date we had set.

RD: Oh, wow. Mmmm.

ES: So, that was good. I enjoy those. So that was my sort of teaching experience until this last year when I've been helping a lot of people learn this Stack N Whack [Bethany Reynold.] method of doing the Dresden Star. It's something that I'm sure a lot of people know how to do, the Stack N Whack, but this one turns out to be a Dresden Star, which is a 12-pointed star and it's like a kaleidoscope when you sew together these 12 pieces that look so beautiful. This has caught on so much that I've been teaching it for about a year and a half now with the ladies at the Daughters of Dorcas and another couple of groups have asked me to come and teach it to them. So, that's been fun. But it takes a lot of time and organization. So, that's my teaching business.

RD: Wow.

ES: Now as far as anything else. You asked about--

RD: Well, do you do other crafts besides--

ES: Well, the quilting has kind of eclipsed most of my other crafts.

RD: It tends to, I think.

ES: I had to make a choice. Early after my son Andrew was born--let's see well, he was born in 1967. When he was about 2, I went down to the YWCA in Schenectady and I learned how to do rug hooking, or rugging as some people call it. It was so much fun. We dyed all our own materials. We had to cut up everything into little spaghetti strips. We had a spaghetti machine that would cut up like 6 little strips at once. It would take you about an hour to do a square inch of this hooking. It's very fine but it was wonderful I have 2 or 3 items that I did and I still have all the equipment for it. But once I started quilting, I had to make a choice. And I decided that quilting is more portable. And there are more uses, I think, for bed stuff than there are for rugs on the floor. I have this one rug and I still have it upstairs. It's a cream-colored background and it has butterflies and moths on it that I looked and copied from the book of moths and butterflies. And I remember I had it in the living room. And I had a dear friend who came in and he wiped his feet on it, and, Oh, no. I couldn't bear to make rugs and have people think that it's a rug and it's standing right near the door, 'Why can't I just wipe my feet on it?' So, that's I guess that's [why.] I decided quilting is somehow better. Since now I have 3 sons and their significant others and 4 grandchildren, various aunts and uncles, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews. I have plenty of people to make quilts for. So that's really my focus: quilting. I do like to knit, and one thing I do not like to do is make clothing. I had to make--my mother made my clothes, and then I started making clothes. I didn't have my first store-bought dress until sophomore year of college. And I guess I didn't realize maybe how dowdy my clothes were. They never wore out. You could wear them for years and years. 'Good quality material,' my mother would say.

RD: Yes.

ES: And the seams were well sewn. But it was sophomore year and I went and bought myself a sheath dress, which was popular at that time. I remember going out on a date and the guy said, 'Gee, Evelyn. I didn't know you had a figure.'

RD: [laughs.]

ES: So, I guess all my other clothes must have not revealed that I had any figure at all. [laughter.]

RD: Well, you certainly did have a figure. No question.

ES: So, then I decided I guess clothes are not my interest. So, I don't even want to waste time struggling with the sewing machine to make clothes. So that was the end of sewing for clothes. That's a lot of talking.

RD: Now on a larger, larger scene. What do you think makes a quilt great?

ES: I guess it's purely subjective. You look at something and it really makes you eye dart from one place to another, to another. It just looks--something looks very interesting about it. It could be the colors, or the design. It could be the way the person pieced it or appliquéd it. I guess it just has to feel right when you look at it. I don't know how else to say it's great except when it feels right. Just like when you're trying to choose materials for something. You're trying to choose a background for something for instance in some of these Dresden Stars. We take the stars out and we put them against several backgrounds and yeah, this works, and yeah, that works, but when you find the one that works it just goes Zing, and you just know it. And I think it's the same with great quilts.

RD: Now do you want to talk a little bit about what quilts mean or have meant for women in American life?

ES: Well, I do think they are an expression of their artistic abilities. And when they had nothing of beauty and nothing but drudgery and toil, it must have been a very wonderful source of peacefulness and also gives them a chance to be creative because they certainly didn't have much else. When I think of how these women ever did it in their little dark dugouts, maybe they had a glass window, maybe not.

RD: Measuring.

ES: And how they ever got the geometrics reasonably straight. It's really remarkable. And of course, they often didn't have anything but just the scraps of clothing from which they cut every available piece that wasn't threadbare. Maybe have one little piece they would purchase at the store and intersperse it with all the old stuff. It's very remarkable to me how women created such beautiful stuff. It just was reminding me of the play "Quilters," which I've seen in three different places of the country, and have enjoyed that really gives you a good feel of what women had to go through and various patterns that evolved from the move west. Since my mother came from Kansas and my grandmother and some of the other relatives from Iowa and Kansas, I always have a real strong feeling for what it was like to go out there in like the 1880s and what it was like to have nothing. And the only joy would be maybe to get together with a friend once in awhile and so a little bit of piecework.

RD: We have it so much simpler, don't we?

ES: Oh, yes. We think our lives are simpler, but we're all trying to cram so much into our lives that our lives are a little bit frenetic at times.

RD: Yes. Is there anything else that you think we have not covered that we ought?

ES: I was thinking that I should mention that I do make quilts mostly for my family, but I certainly have made--I get involved with whatever group quilt there is when we are doing things. For instance, with Daughters of Dorcas, we did quilts for the flood victims of North Carolina a couple of years ago, and I did a few quilts for that. They were mostly putting together quickly large pieces that we had in the house.

RD: Really.

ES: And then, of course, for various nursing homes or Main Street [Child.] Development Center, various lap and nap quilts that I get involved with. Several of those, it seems like every year, as well.

RD: Can you give me any kind of a number for your output in these 20-30 years?

ES: I was trying to think about that. But what we usually say is, a quilt is like a baby, it takes at least nine months. And sometimes a year. But I know I average more than one a year, quilts, from 1968 to now. And I've done certainly a lot of baby quilts and pillows and Christmas tree skirts and activity books for two-year-olds.

RD: Well, that's something you really should talk about. A little bit.

ES: Oh, yes.

RD: The ones you made for your grandchildren.

ES: Ah, yes. Well, I have two sets of 2 kids. Two different families. So the older ones--

RD: That's grandkids?

ES: Two sets of grandchildren. The older ones in each family [Sarah and Evatt.] had essentially the same book and the second two [Adam and Curtis.] had essentially the same book. The first two, I made a sort of outside cover that made like a satchel in which the little book fit out of quilt material. And I had various activities--I guess it was a Humpty Dumpty on a wall and he had buttons you had to undo to take his head off and his legs, and snaps and various things. There were also zippers and various things. The second set I got more creative, because at the time I was making the second set, those little guys were really interested in trains, so I decided to make a train book. It's a set of 6 or 7 panels that fold out into a long train. There's Velcro at one end so it can attach itself inside the little satchel so it can be carried. [Evelyn goes into detail about the train activity books, including shapes, colors, numbers, activities connected with each train car and a small music box sewn in.] And the whole thing folds up like an accordion back into this little satchel, which has the child's name on the front. I really spent a lot of time on those, but I think it was fun.

RD: Is there else?

ES: I did the Christmas tree skirts [for my three sons' families.]. Those were fun, too. I did them in 4 wedge [shapes.] and each wedge had some appliqués of various Christmassy ideas. I embroidered notes on each one, so there were 2 Christmas carols on each panel and they could guess what it was just by the rhythm of the notes and the shape of the phrase. I'm hoping that my children--my grandchildren will also enjoy music as the years go by so those are some recent little things I do. They take almost as much time as a quilt!

RD: Is that the lot, then?

ES: That's all I can think of at this point!

RD: In that case, thank you ever so much for participating in this wonderful project and it's been splendid.

ES: Thank you, Ruth, very much, for interviewing me.

[After reading what she had said, Evelyn wanted to add the following: I wanted to add my thoughts as to the importance of documenting one's quilts. Many quilts have their own stories; how they came about, what events surrounded them, how certain fabrics were found, decisions made and broken, et cetera. I have signed and dated my quilts. With that, my family, who will inherit my quilts, will know at least when they were made. In addition, I have taken photos of everything I've made, whether it be a charity piece or an 'heirloom'. (!) I hope to record some special stories of certain quilts, before I forget them, for my children to read and enjoy. And if I should live so long, I will be able to peruse, remember and derive pleasure from my quiltmaking of my earlier years.]


“Evelyn Evatt Salinger,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2033.