Cliff Bailey


Cliff Bailey 2.jpg


Cliff Bailey


Oral History




Cliff Bailey


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Arlington, Virginia

Interview indexer

Jesse Moore


Tina Gordon


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is January 7, 2008, and it is 2:58 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Cliff Bailey for the Quilters' S.O.S. – Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts and we are in a room at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington [Virginia.]. Welcome, Cliff

Cliff Bailey (CB): Thank you.

LR: And thank you for coming and being a part of this interview. Tell me about the quilt that you selected as your touchstone piece.

CB: The pattern is called "Nosegay" and it's an old pattern and it's reminiscent of a nosegay when they had a container, a little bunch of flowers in it, and that's what the pattern looks like.

LR: Okay. So, talk about the fabrics. How did you collect the fabrics for this quilt?

CB: Like most quilters, I collect fabric and have a lot of it, and I liked especially the flowers. That was what really drew me to the pattern was that I could have all these different spots of color in a quilt. And I also like feed sacks. And part of the flowers or part of the pieces in the quilt are feed sack material.

LR: Where did you find the feed sack material?

CB: From auctions, from local shops, and from eBay.

LR: So, talk about how you put the quilt together.

CB: The quilt--the top is put together by machine and the nosegay is basically put together as a star. Then the leaves and the corners are set in pieces.

LR: And how did you do the work? Machine? Hand?

CB: The top, as I said, is put together on a machine and then it's hand quilted.

LR: And talk about the quilting pattern.
CB: The quilting pattern in the part of the quilt that is a solid yellow are leaves and flowers and the quilting in the part of the quilt where the nosegays are was meant to have the flower pieces look like flower petals and then the green leaf pieces I quilted a leaf in each one of them.

LR: [taking note of the quilting pattern.] Oh.

CB: And then above the leaves, I quilted what would be sprays like baby's breathe coming out of the nosegays.

LR: And what inspired this particular pattern? You said you liked flowers and nosegays. Anything more than that?

CB: When I saw the pattern, I really like it and I liked the idea of having all different colors in the flowers and all different kinds of fabric. And about half the fabric in the flowers are from feed sacks.

LR: Talk a minute about the feed sacks. Do you know some of the background of the feed sacks?

CB: Oh yeah. When I was a little kid I used to go out to my relatives in the country and we'd go out and feed the chickens, and I have fond memories of getting the chicken feed out of feed sacks that was material.

LR: Where was that?

CB: Oklahoma. Northeastern Oklahoma.

LR: So that carried through and to adulthood?

CB: Oh, absolutely. And that was one of the reasons I choose the pattern.

LR: To use the feed sacks?

CB: To use the feed sacks.

LR: Have you used that feed sack material in other quilts?

CB: Yes. I tend to make quilts that are from the designs from the '30s and to use fabric that's from the '30s, either reproduction or feed sacks, and so I collect feed sacks to use.

LR: How do you use this quilt?

CB: We use it on the bed.

LR: On the bed. [spoken in agreement.] And what are your plans for it? To keep it on the bed or you have other plans?
CB: Well, we have several quilts, both that I've made and that my partner's mother has made. And so, we rotate them. It's great to have different ones every few weeks.

LR: Every few weeks?

CB: Yeah.

LR: [chuckling.] So, you have a large collection?

CB: Yeah.

LR: Talk a minute about your collection.

CB: Well, there are quilts primarily from either my family or Chris' family, my partner. And there are also quilts that I have purchased that I saw that I liked, either a quilt top that I then quilted or a finished quilt.

LR: And how long have you been collecting?

CB: I have been quilting and collecting quilts for about 30 years.

LR: And is there a particular focus for your collection?

CB: My focus is on quilts from the '30s.

LR: Talk about some of the pieces that comprise this collection.

CB: Well, as I said, they're all patterns from the '30s and they're all different. I like the colors from that era, the pastel colors, and I like the patterns. They remind me of quilts I grew up with. So, quilters in my family were of my grandmothers' and my great aunts' generation. And for some reason quilting skipped a generation. My mother's and my aunt's generation didn't quilt. The quilts that I grew up with were made in the '30s by my grandmothers and my great aunts.

LR: What is your first memory of a quilt?

CB: Seeing a quilt at my great aunt's that she had made again sometime in the '30s.

LR: Do you remember what that quilt was?

CB: Yes, because I have it. [laughs proudly.]

LR: [in an astonished voice.] Oh.

CB: It's a quilt--I don't remember the name of it, but I call it a name quilt. It has blocks where everybody that she knew had embroidered their name on a block.

LR: Like a friendship quilt--

CB: Yes.

LR: --perhaps?

CB: Yes.

LR: So, when did you start quilting?

CB: In the early '70s.

LR: And how did that come about?

CB: Well, at that time there weren't very many quilt patterns. There were no quilt shops. And I saw in either "Good Housekeeping" or "Better Homes and Gardens" I saw a pattern for a quilt that I liked and that was my first quilt.

LR: So how did you learn?

CB: Well, I learned how to sew from my grandmother and a great aunt. So, I already knew how to sew and quilting wasn't a stretch from making anything else. It's just sewing.

LR: It's a little bit more. How about deciding that pattern? The colors? How did you go about getting that all together?

CB: I don't know. I just went down to the fabric store and bought fabric I liked. [LR laughs.]
Which is what I still do.

LR: So, do you take any lessons? Have you ever taken lessons?

CB: I have taken lessons. Over the years I have taken lessons.

LR: Okay. How about teaching?

CB: No. Never taught.

LR: No teaching. What lessons have you taken?

CB: It's usually lessons about how to make a particular kind of quilt. It's been a long time but like a log cabin or that pattern or stars. How to do points or how to do a particular technique. Like a Bargello quilt.

LR: How many hours a week do you quilt?

CB: It depends on what week. Some weeks not at all. Some weeks 10 hours a week. So somewhere between nothing and 10 hours.

LR: You make your quilts for yourself. Do you give some away? Do you enter some in shows? What do you do with the quilts you make?

CB: I've entered them in shows. There are some that are entered in shows. And I either use them or give them away. All my kids have quilts. I gave a quilt to my parents and to my sister.

LR: I heard you say earlier that you work best for deadlines?

CB: Yes.

LR: [laughs.] Have you ever used quilts and quilt making to take you through a difficult time?

CB: Yes. To get through a--in fact this one in particular, because it's so bright, to get through a depression.

LR: And how long did it take you? This is a beautiful piece [referencing the quilt.]. How long did it take you to make this piece?

CB: About 10 years. It was a very slow quilt. [laughs.] I very much enjoyed it.

LR: Did you work at it in a disciplined way or just kind of came and went as you--

CB: When I'm working on a quilt I tend to have three going at once. So, I work on one a little while and then I'll work on the second one for a little while and then I'll work on the third one a little while. A little while being days or weeks or months.

LR: Do you have a special place in your home where you do your quilt making?

CB: Yes. We have a large room and one end of the room is my office and the other end of the room is where the TV is and in the middle of the room is where I work on quilts.

LR: Describe your working area. How do you create? Do you have a design wall?

CB: I put the quilts--I tried a design wall. I just didn't like it. I put them on the floor. I put the blocks on the floor. I didn't like the design wall because the pieces tended to fall off and I got mad at the design wall, so I thought I don't want that. And I just put them on the floor and re-arrange them until I liked them. And then I picked the blocks up in order and taken them to the sewing machine.

LR: So, you do all your piecing by sewing machine?
CB: I also piece by hand, especially something like a grandmother's flower garden. Something that would be more time consuming to do on the machine than by hand.

LR: What other technique do you use for the grandmother's flower garden pattern?

CB: It's done with paper piecing. I think every quilter needs to make one of those before they die. [both laugh.]

LR: What do you find most pleasing about the process of quilting?

CB: Well, several things. First, it's like watching a big puzzle take shape and putting the pieces in this puzzle. And I also like the feel of the fabric and I like to see how the different colors look next to each other.

LR: And are there any aspects that are not as pleasing?

CB: No. I like the whole process. [repeating.] I like the whole process. I like hand quilting. I don't like machine quilting. The quilts I have machine quilted I send out to somebody. I've machine quilted a big quilt and I didn't like it at all.

LR: Have you ever experimented with long arm?

CB: No, I haven't, but the quilts I've sent out, that's how they've been quilted, on a long-arm machine.

LR: And do you belong to a quilt group?

CB: No, I don't.

LR: You don't. Have there been any advances in technology that influenced your quilting?

CB: [with enthusiasm.] Oh, the rotary cutter was the biggest advance. It allowed for more accurate piecing or cutting, so the piecing would be more accurate, and it allowed for strip piecing, so you could cut long strips of material and sew them together and then cut those apart. And it really sped up the process.

LR: Anything else?

CB: That's the biggie for me is the rotary cutter.

LR: So, what are your favorite techniques in quilt making?

CB: I don't understand.

LR: Well, you mentioned the paper piecing. Everybody should make a quilt that required paper piecing, so what other techniques?

CB: Oh.

LR: Is there anything else?

CB: No, I just find a pattern that I like and I make it. And usually inside that particular quilt there'll be several techniques. Like in this quilt [making reference to the touchstone quilt.] the center of the nosegay is a star and so you put it together like a star. And so, there's one technique, and then the outside pieces of the nosegay are set in seams, and so that's another technique. And then there's some big triangular pieces in this quilt. And I learned about bias edges the hard way.

LR: Oh. How was that?

CB: By putting the bias edge on about half the triangles and when I had the quilt together and I started quilting, I quilted from the inside out to the outside and I got out to the edges of these triangles and I saw that the straight of the grain border material was puffy along here [referencing the quilt.] and I realized that the triangles had stretched on two sides. Luckily, the whole quilt it was just two sides. And so, I quilted up to the edge of the quilt so that the triangles would be stable and I took the borders loose on both sides of the quilt--I unsewed them. And unsewing--sometimes there's as much fun unsewing as sewing the quilt. [LR laughs.] And I ran a line of stay stitching by hand down the triangles so that they wouldn't move and then I sewed it back together. And you can see on the back of the quilt where I learned about triangles, because the very last part of the quilt there is a pucker on the back.

LR: [looking at quilt.] Ahh.

CB: And it's because of the stretching of the triangles. So, I learned something. I don't know if you're a quilter, but I learn something on every quilt. And that's what I learned on this one.

LR: What are some of the other things you've learned?

CB: That I work best with a deadline. I worked on this one, as I said, about 10 years and I joined a quilting guild at that time because they had a show coming up and I entered the quilt in the show. And the show was about four months away. I was quilting it then and the deadline gave me the push to get finished with it, and I finished it two days before the show--put the last stitch in it.

LR: [laughs.] Well done.

CB: Thanks.

LR: Any other lessons you've learned from quilting and making a mistake?
CB: Well mostly that it takes a lot of patience to make these and I feel like--people say to me all the time, 'Oh, I could never have that much patience to do this,' but I think if you really like quilts and really like the process, the patience just comes. It's easy. I like quilts and I like the process.

LR: [nodding in agreement.] So, what do you think makes the great quilt?

CB: Well, I read that in your questions and I've been thinking about that set of questions. What makes a great quilt to me is a quilt that has a pleasing design and also pleasing colors and that's well put together. The points aren't cut off half an inch in. There are no ripples in the quilt. The quilting is appropriate for the design of the quilt. The quilt designs match the design of the quilt.

LR: Do you see a lot of quilt exhibitions?

CB: We usually go to two a year. One here and one somewhere else. And I like to see other quilts, both to see what other people have made and to get ideas for one that I might want to make in the future. My next quilt that's where I got the idea. I saw a quilt at a show here.

LR: In Virginia?

CB: In Virginia. And I really liked the design. And the design interestingly enough is an old design.

LR: And it is?

CB: It's called "Worlds Fair" and it came from the Worlds Fair. The design came from the Worlds Fair and I just really liked it.

LR: And you have the fabrics?

CB: I have the fabric.

LR: [laughs.] Good. What makes a great quilt maker?

CB: I think like what makes a great quilt. Somebody with a good eye for color and design and somebody that's a good technician. I mean putting a quilt together is not easy. And somebody with a lot of patience.

LR: So, I think you've talked about why quilt making is important in your life. When you were young in Oklahoma and you were talking about the feed sacks, when did you start sewing? You said that you were taught sewing.

CB: When I was a little kid. I don't know, five or six.

LR: Five or six?

CB: Yeah.

LR: And what kinds of things were you sewing?

CB: Usually clothes. A shirt.

LR: And with patterns?

CB: When I was bigger. When I was just a little kid it would just be to play with the material not to make anything. To play with a sewing machine. But when I got to be a teenager, it was with a pattern and I'd go down and buy my own fabric and make a shirt or slacks.

LR: Have you ever created your own patterns?

CB: No. I never have.

LR: No. That's coming.

CB: [laughs.] That's coming. [both laugh.]

LR: You have that creative process thing going. So, do you think your quilts reflect in any way the community of the region in which you live?

CB: Oh absolutely. They are very much from--Oklahoma was really affected dramatically by the depression and they very much reflect that era in Oklahoma.

LR: In what way?

CB: Well, from the feed sacks being used to make everything, clothes, curtains, tablecloths, quilts. Everything was reused. A lot of old quilts were made from old clothing. When the clothing got too out of date or out of style or parts of it were worn out, they cut out the parts that were still good and made quilts with them. So, it reflects that desire to use everything in two or three ways because there wasn't a lot of material, there wasn't a lot of money in that time, and again those are the quilts that I grew up with because in the '50s and the '60s, my mother's generation, didn't quilt. The quilts came from my grandmother's generation and before. So, I grew up with them. Using the colors in the fabrics from that period very much connect me back with where I grew up.

LR: Did you sleep under quilts when you were growing up?

CB: Oh yeah. Absolutely. And they were all made again mostly by my grandmothers.

LR: And do you have a lot of those quilts?

CB: I have three of them.

LR: And they're what? The feed sacks?

CB: One of them is made from feed sacks. One of them is made from just print material that was bought in probably the '40s because I had one great aunt that would not use feed sacks. And then the other one is a much older quilt and it's made out of wool--pieced with wool. It's from I'd say the first part of the 20th century.

LR: So, talk a minute about the importance of quilts in American life.

CB: Well, I think traditionally quilts have been made primarily by women and I think they were a way to express creativity in a way that women didn't have up until very recently--up until the '60s really. So, I think for me that's the big place they have in American life is they were a place for people to express their creativity who didn't have much of another place to express it.

LR: But were you aware of men also making quilts?

CB: Not when I first started. I am now. And there are a few of us around. Not many but a few. And there are a few and I have taken classes from men quilters. They have a different flavor to them.

LR: Talk about that and what was the class that you took?

CB: It was how to do a butterfly. A man--his grandmother had made this quilt and the quilt was a pieced butterfly and it was how to make that pieced butterfly. And I really like the quilt and taking the class from him was more like taking a math class. It was like taking a math class as opposed to taking a quilting class. That was kind of the difference in taking it from a man as opposed to taking it from a woman. And I like butterflies. I don't know if you can see them [making reference to the quilting motif.]. Do you see them?

LR: Yes. You've quilted a butterfly in the corner.

CB: In all the corners.

LR: In all the corners.

CB: And there are butterflies in all of these yellow pieces in this quilt.

LR: So how did that class come out?

CB: Oh, I really liked the pattern. I haven't made it. [laughing.] But I really like the pattern a lot. And again, it was a pattern from probably the '20s or '30s. Butterfly pattern was a real popular pattern in the '30s. It's one of the patterns that came out of the Kansas City Star is a butterfly. And there are not one of them but several different butterfly patterns.

LR: Is that the only class you've taken from a man? I was wondering if you see really any differences between the way men approach quilt making as opposed to the way women approach quilt making.

CB: Well, as I said, when we took a class from him about the butterfly quilt, it was more like a math class. He talked about angles. This is about 30 degrees and this angle you know is about 45 degrees and this angle is 30 degrees here and this angle is about 17 degrees. I would never have heard that from a woman in a quilt class as a quilt teacher. I never did. He was--in fact, I was astonished by how he described the piecing and the pieces and their relationship because he used a lot of geometry. And I think that's the first time and only time I've heard that. I've taken lots of quilting classes.

LR: [laughs.] Interesting.

CB: The quilts that I see men make tend to be geometric. That's not always the case, but it's more often the case than not. They are very geometric.

LR: Are there any male quilters that particularly stand out for you?

CB: Yes. I can't think of their names. [laughs.] Sorry.

LR: Michael James or Jonathan Holstein or--

CB: The man that's an engineer. [pause while trying to recall.] I can't think of his name. [John Flynn.]

LR: That's okay.

CB: Sorry.

LR: That's okay. That's all right. So how do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

CB: Well, do you mean the ones that already exist?

LR: Yes.

CB: Well, some of them are preserved by just not being used. One of the quilts I have that looks like it's new was never used. The friendship quilt was never used by my great aunt. And it probably looks like it did when it was first made. Because sunlight fades fabric, some fabric more than others. And using it on a bed--I've got a quilt that I made about 20 years ago and it's been used almost everyday for 20 years and it looks like it's been used everyday for 20 years. The binding is fraying. And it feels better than it did 20 years ago. It feels like an old quilt. They get softer as you use them. S
o I have the ones that I want to keep. Like I made a grandmother's--not a Grandmother's Flower Garden, a Double Wedding Ring quilt. And it was so difficult to make, I don't think I ever want to use it. [laughs.] I get it out and look at it every once in awhile and leave it out like on a chair, so I can see it and realize that I never want to make another one of those again, and that I enjoyed making it. And that was one of the classes I took. And it was several weeks long class. But most of them other than that not to use them. We use this [referencing the current quilt.]. We don't use it all the time because it took too long to make it, but most of them we use. Most of the quilts we just use on the bed. And some of them we don't use much because they're either special to Chris or special to me.

LR: How do you care for the ones that you use? Or how do you care for all of them? How do you keep them? Do you wash them? How do you care for them?

CB: The ones that we keep, some of them are in cedar chests. Some of them are just folded up in a closest. I keep them out of the sunlight because as I said sunlight--I saw a very pretty quilt that was hung on a two-story wall in somebody's house and you could see where the sun came in the room by how the quilt had faded. So, I keep them out of sunlight after seeing that. And when I wash them, I put them in the bathtub with just a little bit of soap and let them set there for usually half a day. Rub them around, drain the water out, and then put rinse water in twice. Just regular laundry detergent and then after they've been rinsed twice, get as much of the water out as I can and put them in a laundry basket and taken them down to the washer and spin the rest. Just run it through the spin cycle and spin the rest of the water out. And then I hang them up, usually over six chairs or four chairs, depending on how big it is, and let them dry. And I've never had any problems doing that.

LR: A labor of love.

CB: Yes.

LR: [laughs.] So, what do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quilt makers today?
CB: I read that question and I've been thinking about it and I would say the challenge when I first started doing this was that there was not very much information, and I think the challenge now is there is too much.

LR: Oh. In what way?

CB: When I started quilting there was a mention. About once every three months there would be something about quilting in a magazine, but there were no, at least I didn't see them, quilt magazines per se. And now there are I don't know probably two dozen quilting magazines if not 50. I don't know. I don't look at them all. And there are lots of quilt stores and more than anything there's lots of fabric to use. And in the early '70s, there wasn't a lot of fabric to use. There just wasn't. And there's more choices in kinds of batting. You know then there was like polyester or cotton. Now there's lots of choices of batting. There's lots of choices of fabric, and if you subscribe to one quilting magazine, every month you'll get four new patterns. So, it's which of these do I do? So, we've gone from having way too little to having, in my humble opinion, way too much. The choice. What do I do? It can be a little overwhelming.

LR: What trends do you see in quilt making?

CB: That's a good question. I don't remember seeing that one? [laughs.]

LR: Well actually you're talking about going from nothing to too much, so what other trends?

CB: I see that. From having very few resources to having this enormous resource for quilting. Because quilting almost died in the '50s and '60s. It was very looked down on, and when it started coming back in the '70s, there was very little to choose from and the trends have been--one of the great trends has been to have more and more tools to use. Again, the best one being the rotary cutter. I just think it's wonderful. Long rulers, big cutting mats, TV shows about quilting. There were no TV shows about quilting in the '70s, at least when I started. And a much bigger choice in fabrics. I can't tell you what the changes have been, but over the years there are definite periods when the fabric looked a certain way. Like I like the look of the '30s and then every decade has its look just about of the fabric.

LR: And patterns?

CB: And patterns.

LR: What do you see in pattern trends?

CB: Well, what I see is I see a little bit of everything. At one time there were patterns had a look. Again, a look from the '30s or a look from the '40s or a look from the '50s, but when we got to the end of the '70s up until now, because people like different eras of fabrics and patterns, I see a little bit of everything when I go to a show. And there are companies that just make reproduction fabric, all the way from the 1700s fabric up until the present. So, I see a little bit of everything. I think there's more variety is what I see now.

LR: So, you see a bright future for quilt making?

CB: Oh, absolutely.

LR: And did I ask you, have you taught quilt making?

CB: I have never taught.

LR: No. Okay. We just have a couple of minutes left actually. Is there anything else that you would like to mention or talk about in your quilt world?

CB: I think from my experience if you want to make a quilt go out and do it. It's easier than it looks. It's easier and more difficult.

LR: More difficult in what way?

CB: In that it requires a lot of patience. It's not an instant. In an instant gratification culture, it's not an instant gratification. It takes a long time.

LR: So, your next project? You said you had something in mind. What is your next project?

CB: My next project is that Worlds Fair quilt.

LR: That's it. Yes. And you're working on that exclusively or do you have others?

CB: No. I have two others I'm working on.

LR: And what are those?

CB: [laughs.] One of them is the Grandmother's Flower Garden. And I think maybe when I'm 85 I'll have put the last stitch in that one. They take a long time. And the third one is one I'm doing for my daughter and it's a Double Irish Chain. I made one for my sister and I had cut out enough material, I didn't realize it, to make two of them. So, Rachel is going to get that one.

LR: Any feed sacks in that one?

CB: Oh yeah.

LR: [laughs.] Wonderful. Okay. Well, Cliff, our time is just about up and thank you very much for participating in our Quilters S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. And our interview was concluded at 3:41 p.m. Thank you very much.

CB: Thank you.



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