Renee Lessner


VA22302-016 A.jpg


Renee Lessner




Renee Lessner


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics/United Notions


Alexandria, Virginia


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): Today is May 13th, 2005, and we are interviewing Renee Lessner at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger and Ruth Duncan is the scribe. The number is 22302-016. [present is Shirley Shelley.] Hello, Renee.

Renee Lessner (RS): Hi.

ES: Thank you for coming all this way from North Carolina, actually, to have the interview today. You've been a member of the Cardinal Quilters for many, many years. Can you figure out when it was you were a member?

Ruth Duncan (RD): When did you come?

RL: Kent [Leathers, deceased.] and I came together. It's at least ten, probably between 12 and 15. [years.]

ES: I think first we will talk about one of your quilts: there's one that's here that we are looking at. Would you like to describe it for us?

RL: This is a Mariner's Compass with an open center with another Mariner's Compass set in. I'll quilt with any fabric. I'm not tied to cottons. I like sparkle and shine. I like glitz and so I usually try to jazz something up.

ES: Is it taffeta?

RL: It is taffeta and then with these puffy gold stars set on the background.

ES: Were these stars puffy to begin with?

RL: Yes, they were.

ES: It has twenty points. Do Mariners' Compasses have a certain number of points?

RL: You know, I thought they had an even divisible number of points and--

RD: I think it may be twenty-four.

ES: We counted twenty on the outside.

RD: And ten on the inside.

ES: And the color on which the star is [set.] is navy blue.

RL: This was actually done for a challenge. The print fabric in it is the Hoffman challenge fabric from the year I did it. I entered it at the Mid-Atlantic Quilt Show.

ES: When was that?

RL: You can tell by the--

RD: [reading.] '1992, Hoffman Challenge.'

RL: So, I was in Cardinals, before then.

RD: Pablo's Puzzle is the name of the fabric, I think.

RL: Uh-hum.

ES: Do you like to do Hoffmann Challenge, that sort of thing?

RL: No, this is the only Hoffman Challenge, I ever did. I just happened to like the fabric. We always laugh in my family. We say my favorite color is rainbow-- [laughing.] other than green. I liked the fabric; I liked the brightness of the fabric.

ES: Very nice. This is a wall hanging. Do you use it at home?

RL: Actually, my daughter has confiscated it. It hangs in her bedroom. It's one of her favorite pieces.

ES: I'd like to ask you your earliest contact or memories of quilting, quilts or quilters.

RL: I actually learned to quilt when I was a teenager. In fact I first learned to crochet. It all started when I was eleven, when an older woman in my neighborhood, Mrs. Chesseldine--and I always give her credit--had fallen. I grew up in Southeast Washington, D.C., and she had fallen and needed someone. And my parents—to keep me out of trouble—told me I had to go over there every afternoon and help her out. My mother didn't sew a lot, she sewed some things when I was growing up, but not a lot, [moving microphone, noises.] and Mrs. Chesseldine taught me how to crochet. She started out with doilies, and then she taught me how to embroider, then she taught me how to quilt.

In fact, one of the first things I ever entered in anything, I did a tea towel with a long stemmed rose on it, and I won a competition at the local playground with that. That I did around that time period. And in fact, one piece that I did not bring with me [to the quilt turning at our meeting of Cardinal Quilters.]-- the embroidery started early on, I loved embroidery—I did those blocks, Shirley, the ones I used in the Crazy Quilt vest, do you remember that? I did these blocks when I was sixteen. And I started collecting any time I could find a piece of velvet, which you know, fabric wasn't as big even when I was a teenager, you had to hunt and look. But I collected these scraps of velvets and I would embroider a flower on them, a different flower on each one. I had them in a box and I guess, about five years ago, [cough.] I was doing a Crazy Quilt workshop, and doing this vest, and I incorporated some of these pieces in it that I did when I was sixteen.

ES: You were very fortunate to meet this wonderful lady.

RL: Oh. I just always--it's always been throughout my life. People used to laugh because I always have something with me I'm working on. I always have to have something in my hands. When I'm not working, I'm always working on something. I went through a knitting phase, and crocheting, and then needlework. And quilting, I like, because I could carry. I carry piecing in a Zip-Loc baggie and sit in the car and work on it while we were going, sitting in traffic going to D.C. and coming back. And even full size quilts. I would sit in the car with a big hoop and quilting and stuff.

ES: You use every minute, it sounds like.

RL: Yeah.

ES: That's great. You said you came from Washington, D.C. Did you go to school here?

RL: Yes, I did.

ES: How about after high school?

RL: I went to work.

Shirley Shelley (SS): You went to the Institute of Art.

RL: Yeah, I went to Corcoran when I was younger. I was on a gifted student program at Corcoran [Museum and Art Institute.] for all my junior high and high school, I did not go to school a full day.

ES: That's special.

RL: I guess I forget all about that because that's--I paint and draw and stuff, too. And now, one of my first loves, and this is where quilting plays in, too, to me it's the same—is stained glass. And I started doing stained glass when I was eighteen, which was almost forty years ago. [laughing.] Not quite. Thirty-something. I'm fifty-two, so, I can't do the math. Anyway, it has been a long time. About five years ago, because of all things I've ever done take so long to do, and I really won't give in to the machine quilting. I can't totally fold into the machine quilting, because to me this is really relaxing. I got into hot glass, into blowing and lampworking, and jewelry. It's like instantaneous—instant gratification compared to the needle arts and stuff. You have to have it finished when you get up. And actually, one of the reasons I really wanted to do that was to make buttons--so I could do my own buttons--because I didn't want to pay what they wanted for these buttons, for glass buttons. And I make jewelry.

ES: That's interesting.

RL: That's like my bread and butter. That's what I sell to pay for the glass. Yeah.

ES: Ah-ha. And what sort of jewelry do you make?

RL: [cough.] I probably don't have anything on--

ES: It's all wearable art?

RL: Oh, yeah. I do necklaces and earrings. Well, I make beads, and pendants.

ES: Did you make the beads on your jacket?

RL: No. Those are actually amethyst. They're real amethyst stones.

ES: That's the other thing we were going to discuss today was your jacket. Would you describe the jacket and the process that you used to make it?

RL: I made this jacket because everybody in the quilt guild had a jacket, but me. [laughs.] I wanted a jacket that was me. And I love pansies. And this was the year--I made that the year that all this Hoffman pansy fabric came out and I collected all these different pieces and I wouldn't use it in anything 'cause I just loved it too much--one of those things where you pat it--and finally I thought, well, I'm going to make my jacket and I'm going to use that pansy fabric. So that's what I did. So I pieced it, I appliquéd it on there.

ES: And you machine quilted with a gold thread.

RL: Uh-hum.

ES: Your basic fabric was a green batik?

RL: Almost a color wash cotton, yeah.

ES: And the purple that goes with that—and the gold?

RL: This was a terrific. Actually before I lined it, when I had the pieces cut out and all pieced, then I layered them and did all the quilting. And then, that's why the quilting is all the way through. I layered them and did the quilting, and then I lined it afterwards.

ES: Aha. And this is interesting, [RL.cough.] the ribbon here--

RL: That's to cover a mistake. [microphone noise.]

ES: That's very fancy.

RL: That's my God's spot. [laughs.] Everything always has a God's spot. I ran short on these panels that I was doing up, and I didn't have any more of the one fabric, so I knew I had to do something. So I went into my sewing box and found all these ribbons that matched and just sewed those in to cover this bare spot that was there. [microphone noises.]

ES: You'd never know. That's fancy.

RL: That's my God's spot on that.

ES: That's very nice. And these are amethysts that you sewed, as you say, by hand beforehand.

RL: Yeah. Before I lined it.

ES: It's a very stunning jacket.

RL: Thank you.

ES: It's all machine work, pretty much.

RL: That one is, yes.

RD: For garments it has to be.

RL: Yeah, for it to hold up.

ES: You say you really like hand work, the most. But you have done a lot with machine, too.

RL: I like that because of the sparkle you can do with the machine work. You can do even more with the metallic threads and stuff like that. They're just made to use with machines. Yeah. [playground noises in background.]

ES: Do you keep track of all the things you've made?

RL: I actually do.

ES: Good.

RL: I actually have a huge--two photo albums. I always photograph, because I do. Like the ring bearer pillows, I don't know how I got into making those. I've made so many ring bearer pillows now for different people. That's why it will be a tragedy if I don't do my daughter's.

ES: Explain what you are doing.

RL: I do silk ribbon ring bearer pillows for people's weddings and usually try to incorporate the flowers from their wedding into them.

ES: Is there cross-stitching or is there embroidery?

RL: I used to do cross-stitching for the names. I always put the bride and groom's name and the date on it. I bought an embroidery machine just for doing that because it took so long [table noises.] [laughs.] doing them in counted cross-stitch.

ES: I noticed that you do a weaving for the back?

RL: Ribbon weaving.

ES: That must be very time consuming.

RL: I love ribbon weaving. Ribbon weaving is really neat. In fact, that's my lace board, that I do my ribbon weaving on.

ES: That's great.

RL: That's another thing. Lace making. Somebody burst a bubble. Who, was it you that sent me the e-mail about Mandy? [Stephens.]

ES: Yes. I mentioned Mandy.

RL: Did you get my e-mail back?

ES: You said you remembered taking bobbin lace--

RL: Mandy and I took those lace classes from Jean Hudley for a couple of years, down there in Fairfax. Paid her five dollars a week, bobbin lace, yeah.

SS: That's what I did.

ES: Yes.

RL: Shirley is a lace maker, yeah.

ES: It is an obvious question, but, you design your own patterns?

RL: Yeah, I do.

ES: You are more into contemporary--more just your own thing, rather than using traditional patterns.

RL: Yeah. Same with my stained glass. I think I've done one piece that was someone else's pattern. Other than that they're—one panel that was somebody else's and one lamp that's a Tiffany reproduction. Other than that, I do all my own designs.

ES: Do you ever do commissioned works?

RL: Yes, I do.

ES: What sort of commissioned works have you done?

RL: Mainly with stained glass.

ES: And these are things that hang in the windows?

RL: I have never done a lamp as a commission but I've done panels, architectural panels, several were actually incorporated into a house.

SS: Mention Kent's door.

RL: Oh, I did Kent's front door. Was that a Christmas present that year? I think it was.

ES: It's a long narrow panel?

RL: She had this door that had these three panes in it. You know, one of those things out of the 40's or 50's? [children's voices in the background.] I guess this house was built—it was the original front door, and it had the three panels. She wanted to do something with it and I said, 'Well, I'll make you a stained glass to go in it'—and her love of angels. We were on a trip to Arkansas and I found this stained glass bevel set that was an angel. I bought two of them. The center panel has the beveled angel in it and then there's like a fleur de lis on the top one and the bottom one. So I made three different panels to go in there.

ES: Very nice. Just another kind of patchwork, or piecework. [banging noise on table.]

RL: Talk about something, a lesson I learned. Oh, God. I was thinking about that just the other day. I made these panels for the outgoing presidents at VCQ. [Virginia Consortium of Quilters.] One year, they were the Virginia Star. Remember that Bowlsby [Pat.] cracked hers before they even got presented? I had them on my bed in the room. She leaned on it. I was like, 'Oh, you are taking that one. [laughs.] That is not going to the other gal. That is yours.' Oh, I was sick. She cracked one of the pieces in it before we ever got it given to her. I did these panels. They asked me if I would do them and I said, 'Sure.' Well, it was my first experience with tolerance, because in stained glass, you don't have any tolerance. And we're always going back and forth. You got seam allowance and everything in fabric, right? So I took the Virginia Star pattern and I thought, twelve inch block, that isn't going to take me too long, right? I forgot about seam allowance. So I cut these panels out and I was foiling them and I was putting them together and I'm like, 'These panels are bigger than twelve inches.' And I was thinking as I was cutting the glass, but it didn't register because I was whipping through it. So I got these panels laid out and the daggone things were like this. [gestures.] They were like eighteen inches or something like that. [laughs.] Every little quarter inch all the way across, twice on each side. So, it added--but they came out beautiful but it was funny because that was the big laugh because they said, 'Will you make these two small panels?' They said what they wanted and I said, 'Well, sure.' Here I show up with these two big panels. That was like seam allowance. It doesn't work the same in glass.

ES: No. That is something. You said something before--you like to enter shows?

RL: Uh-hum.

ES: Where have you shown and have you won any prizes?

RL: Yeah, I've got ribbons. I do cross-stitch, too. Woodlawn. [Plantation, in Alexandria, Virginia.]

RD: Cross-stitch?

RL: No, I've done quilts. I've got ribbons for quilts in the Needlework Show. In fact,

Berryville [Virginia.] Needlework Show—they never invited me back. I took Best in Show and Viewers' Choice and they never sent me another thing to come back there. [laughs.]

SS: Sully. [Plantation.] [cough.]

RL: I've done Sully.

ES: These are all juried shows or invited shows?

RL: Yeah, they are all juried, pretty much. And then Woodlawn. I couldn't find that piece, the Marsh Robert piece. The little Crazy Quilt one that Kent did. I did one in like, kind of confederate type fabrics with a photo transfer of Robert E. Lee on it that I did for my husband. I entered a lot in Woodlawn over the years. Usually always in their Needlework Show, especially after they withdrew their quilt show. I took Best in Show and Viewers' Choice with one of my huge cross-stitch Irises I did. And I took Best in Show and Viewers' Choice with a huge stained glass panel I did, too. And I've taken second, third and fourth place for quilting in shows.

ES: You are certainly prolific. That's good.

RL: I like the challenge. It's like the fabric challenges 'cause it makes me go outside the box on what I would channel myself into. And I think that's why I like it.

ES: Do you have any advice for new quilters?

RL: Stick with it. Lots of bag balm, [laughing.] especially when you are under a deadline for a show. Oh, I'm not kidding. I don't know if you noticed how much quilting was in that Ginny Beyer piece, and I went to the wire on that one. I took off work the day it had to be out two hours from here, and I finished that thing and then I read the thing again. I had to have slides. Oh. Try to get slides in an hour. I found a photo place in Alexandria that would do them and I rushed down there. They did them and I was sitting there waiting for them. I think I left here at three o'clock that afternoon 'cause I had just put the last stitch in.

ES: And the deadline was--

RL: At five. They were closing at five. I made it. I pulled in just as that gal was walking out of that place. But, I'm going to tell you, there's so much hand quilting in that. And I don't care, I'll keep going. My fingers got so sore that I would go to sleep at night with my fingers in a can of Bag Balm, when I'd stop. And then I'd get up the next morning and, oh, they're not too bad. I can type today or--[laughter.] That was the biggest thing about hand quilting. I'm on a computer all the time at work, and boy, I just sometimes--but you just stick with it. People ask me where I get the patience to do the stuff I do. It gives me patience. That's how I get it out. It's fun.

ES: It's just great. How has quilting had meaning for the American woman?

RL: Memories. Family. The way to clothe their family, to warm their family. Not only that, but to create memories and events. I've always been fascinated with needlework and the historical things about it, like how it was used to memorialize things. It usually always has meaning. One of my biggest fascinations was that women traveled across this country with one needle and it was their prized possession. That just fascinates me. And that they could do everything that they did.

ES: Uh-hum.

RL: I think about that when I can't find a needle. [laughs.]

ES: I think about the lighting. How they could see without glasses—

RL: The oil lamps.

RD: And measuring.

RL: Right. And how exact the quilts are because I have some very old ones that are just phenomenal.

ES: So you collect quilts, too?

RL: Uh-hum.

ES: And where have you gotten those from?

RL: Just different places--picked up on trips. Like the Butterfly Quilt I bought in Arkansas to wrap Vaseline glass in to ship home. I said, 'Well, this one's kind of dirty. I'll buy it from you for forty bucks to wrap this glass in.' [laughs.] And she sold it to me. Beautiful.

ES: So you washed it at home when you got home.

RL: Yeah. I kept that one. I have some others that nobody else will want. Ones with the holes in them, but that are absolutely exquisite, that can't be used. [cough.]

ES: Do any of them have names? Probably not.

RL: No.

ES: That's one reason we are doing this Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project, because we want people to know about who we are.

RL: That is one of the first things I learned getting into the guild, was label and date yourself.

ES: Are there any other thoughts or stories or experiences you'd like to share?

RL: [laughs.] It's been a wonderful. I've been very blessed in my life. I've had wonderful friends. Quilting is a great binding thing with women, I think, too. When we left Hayfield it was only because it wasn't fun. It was getting politics. It wasn't why I got into it or Kent got into it. It is really an activity that can bind people and something we always enjoyed doing. We just sit around sewing on something. And when you talk about history, that's one of the few ways that women did get together, was quilting. It's my girls' night out. [laughs.]

ES: How's your family impacted by your quilting. How do they feel about it?

RL: Oh, I got banned from quilting in bed. [laughs.] You remember that? This is true.

ES: Really?

RL: Oh, yeah. I don't even have that quilt with me. I gave that one to my mom. I was working on a full size quilt and I used to love to quilt in bed. 'Cause I always went to bed first. So I'd be up there and I'd spread the quilt all out and get that part I was quilting on. And I'd be quilting away. And one night, I lost my needle. And I folded everything up and put it over on my side of the bed or on the window seat. And I lost my needle one night. I hunted and I hunted and I hunted that whole bed and could not find that needle. So I shook the bed all out and everything and went on to sleep.

My husband came to bed and I swear, he must have just hit that bed and found that needle, right in his rear end. And he came flying out of that bed and I don't even remember what he said, but it wasn't very nice, and let me tell you, I was dead to the world asleep. And I knew what had happened. You know one of those things when you came awake and you knew immediately what was going on. He still to this day doesn't think this is funny, but [laughing.] I came awake and all I know is I was awake and on the other side of the room saying, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I tried to find it. I really did.' And he's standing there pulling this needle out of his butt. He must have jumped into bed and that thing just went right up into his rear. And I'm standing on the other side of the room. Whenever I am in trouble I laugh anyway--or I'm nervous so I laugh. I was just going, 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.' 'You're not quilting in this damn bed any more.' 'Okay. I promise, I promise.' Oh God, he has still never forgotten that. [laughter.]

ES: That is unforgettable.

SS: On one of those trips we went on, remember?

RL: Oh, hiding in the bathroom because you all don't get up in the morning and I get up at three or four.

SS: You quilted at night. And then I woke up about four and she's quilting in the bathroom.

RL: I get up early, that's my peaceful time. And then someone did that quilt later on with that gal sitting in the bathroom, quilting. So I wasn't the only one doing it. Yeah, I get up and go to the bathroom when we take trips, and sit in there and work on stuff because I don't want to wake anybody up.

ES: And it has good light, too.

RL: Right, exactly.

ES: Motels don't have good light.

RL: I don't like motels that don't have toilet seats on their toilets, because I don't like to sit on the floor with an open toilet. But I've done that. Yeah, that's probably my family's most vivid memory of my quilting.

ES: And you have given quilts to various members of the family?

RL: Yeah. And then the ring bearer pillows I give as wedding presents for people.

ES: What do you stuff the pillow with?

RL: Polyester stuffing, and hope their dog doesn't eat it.

ES: Do you have a family of one, how many children?

RL: I have two stepsons and one daughter. They're all grown.

ES: Do any of them do quilting or other crafts?

RL: No. What's really pathetic is my daughter is a phenomenal piecer. I think she'll take it up eventually. But she can piece like nobody's business. She one year did not have any money, years back, and she pieced all these Nine Patch sachets for all her friends. I was watching her do it and I was amazed. 'You are good. You are better than me.' I said, 'I don't know why you don't do this.' 'I don't like to do this.' I was like, 'Okay.' But I think she will. I really do.

ES: You have certainly left a huge legacy and it's a hard act to follow. Is there anything else that comes to mind? If not, we'll just close it at this point.


“Renee Lessner,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,