Jean McCrosky




Jean McCrosky




Jean McCrosky


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Arlington, Virginia


Tina Gordon


Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is January 8, 2008, and it is 1:36 p.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Jean McCrosky for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts, and we are in one of the lower rooms of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington in Virginia. So, thank you Jean for coming to this interview. And tell me about the quilt that you selected to bring today.

Jean McCrosky (JM): Well, the quilt that I brought is--I customarily make a quilt for each grandchild when they were born, and this was the one I made for Anne Christine Roningen when she was born in three. I've got it embroidered on there [points to the date on the quilt.] '3/5/79.' And this one is a collection of things that were family jokes, family stories, family things. I have for instance her older brother was very much interested in Star Wars, so one block is R2D2 from Star Wars. And also, we had a tractor that we were all crazy about. We lived out in the county, and this was a little creepy crawling tractor, so we have the tractor. We have a place where one of the grandchildren was learning to write and he was practicing S's, so that's one of them. There's a maple leaf because one son had refused to go to the war in Vietnam and had gone to Canada instead. One of those resistors. There is a spaceship from one of the children there. And the one I love is one that's embroidered over [pointing.], 'I'm Daddy's computer.' This is when computers were relatively rare and new, you know, and we were all into that. This is a picture somebody drew. These are all different squares on the quilt. Any other ones you have questions of why--that's just the interesting ones.

LR: You were talking about the tractor. Where was this?

JM: We lived in South Carolina at the time. We were northerners if we moved south. The damn Yankees we used to say. And we lived way out in the country on a lake, a wonderful place--the home that we had built, a lot of it ourselves, and that's were all the family would gather about every other year for Christmas. Lots of good memories.

LR: Talk about the fabric in the quilt.

JM: They're just from the local quilting supply store probably. It was hard to buy. I never used any acetate or viscose. It doesn't do nicely. It was hard to find good quilting material. Finally, there was a little shop down the valley near the textile mills where they did have good stuff.

LR: And what about the techniques that you used to make the quilt?

JM: Well, most of them I guess appliqué and embroidery. The odd shapes, for instance, the computer is a freehanded drawing. I drew that and then embroidered with ordinary outline stitch. There's no technique. A lot of these are appliqué. The maple leaf is appliqué.

LR: And the piecing. Was that by machine?

JM: I never use machines on quilts. To me they were something that should be done by hand. I have a daughter-in-law that makes and designs her own quilts by the way, prize-winning quilts, and she does them all on machine. And that's fine for her. To me--and also you can sit and watch television while you're sewing something by hand, and you can get round things to fit easier. I don't know how you do it by machine.

LR: And your plans for this quilt?

JM: Well, it's just a quilt for a baby. The dimensions demonstrate that. I don't think they ever used it to cover them. They kept it. I don't know if they had it on the wall or in a closet or what.

LR: But this is Anne's quilt?

JM: Anne's quilt. Yes. When she was born.

Jane Roningen (JR): [JM's daughter who accompanied Jean and stayed in the room for the interview.] It was used on her bed. Used in her crib.

JM: I didn't remember.

JR: And then we hung it on the wall.

JM: It was used in the crib and hung it on the wall.

LR: Great. So, let's talk a minute about your involvement in quiltmaking. At what age did you learn to quilt?

JM: Oh, I lived--all my family were homemakers. There's a lot of them in farms and I don't remember as a child. I'm 90 years old and I don't remember ever sleeping under a blanket. I think you always had quilts as bedcovers and that's what they were. To me they were practical objects that I'd always lived with. You didn't hang them on walls. In those days you didn't. Of course, we've come to realize we should of kept some of them we didn't.

LR: But who did you learn from?

JM: I suppose my mother taught me to begin sewing. I don't know how I got interested, but I did become interested in quiltmaking and just decided that I'd make my own and I made--a lot of them are still in existence. The Canadian son took quilts up to Canada because it was the easiest thing to carry across the border you know. When we sorted things out from home, he took them.

LR: And you have other quiltmakers in your family?

JM: I don't remember that I do. My sister, Janet, might have done a little bit but not much. I'm not sure she even--I think I'm probably the only one.

LR: But your mother--

JM: Well, of course I'm sure that my ancestors. I had quilts. I don't know how old they were that I gave away. I think I've mentioned to you the fact that the tradition that you make in a quilt you always turn one piece a little bit wrong they say to prove that only God can make a perfect thing. [both laugh.] I always liked that tradition. And I had a quilt like that, but something happened to it somewhere. There was some exquisite quilts in my father's family. I'd give anything to have some of them, but the oldest child had them instead. They're out there somewhere. They had the tiniest quilting I'd ever seen. You couldn't see them, it was all this way, you'd come up and down this way [demonstrating the quilt stitching technique.] You didn't quilt this way, which I did.

LR: You didn't quilt out--

JM: No, no.

LR: Like a running stitch?

JM: I quilted a runny stitch, but these quilts that I'm talking about had obviously the only way they could have done it was to push down with the right hand and then find the right spot which was free and possible and come up in the next spot. Somebody had laboriously done them. They were really works of art. I've lost track of that branch of the family. I'll have to check up on them; I bet I could find out.

LR: When were those quilts made?

JM: Oh, they would have been made way back in the 19th century. I supposed probably 1850 or earlier than that some of them. I hope they've got them in acid-proof paper wherever they are.

LR: You mentioned something about fabrics.

JM: Well, it was hard to find. Most fabrics don't look like quilt material. Where we were we were oddly enough in the place where--in South Carolina where we lived when I was doing all this, that's where the textile industry moved south, right the valley next to us. And yet it was hard to find fabrics that you see looked like a quilt. You didn't want wild plaids and gaudy stuff. And as I say, I found one store finally where they specialized in stuff just for quilts and it was easy.

LR: Have you ever used quiltmaking to take you through a difficult time?

JM: Oh, I'm sure it's taken me through enough difficult times. It's a very soothing sort of thing to do. All I can do nowadays at my age is knit and I use knitting. I love to make things. I love it. I was a weaver and a knitter and all. I want to say too, maybe I've already said it, but I think it's important to remember, in preindustrial, stop me if I've said it, in preindustrial times everything was done by hand loom. So, any little scrap of cloth that you had left you didn't throw it in the wastebasket the way we do today. You saved it and made quilts of it; you know. And of course, that day's over, but there was a time that's the way you got cloth. I have a tablecloth that one of my great-great-greats wove. It was a tablecloth that was hand loomed. I bet it was done well. But that's another subject, anyway.

LR: You're talking about your weaving.

JM: Well, the weaving. I loved that. Weaving is a very creative art. I mean there's just nothing like it. I had a big loom, a good loom. An eight-harness loom and with eight harnesses you can make very intricate patterns. And I loved the names of the old weaving patterns. There was--oh what was it? My mind goes blank. Orange Peel was one. And there was something about poverty. I can't remember. But the names, old mountain names really. They came probably from Scotland and England. Traditional patterns. Log Cabin, of course, was one they wove. There was a log cabin loom. I forget.

LR: Have you used any of your woven fabrics in quilts?

JM: No. I don't think I ever did. I don't remember doing it. No. I'd weave them for specific purposes or specific things. I have a jacket that I spun the wool and wove the jacket. You can do that on an eight-harness loom, anyway.

LR: What do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?

JM: It's the fact that you can make something with your hands and it's a pleasure to have. It's kind of an expression of yourself. It's a great tradition, I think. And I suppose most all cultures probably have. I know I've seen the felt quilting of the eastern part of the Soviet Union is perfectly beautiful. And Hungary has some of that too. Hungary is mostly pastureland, you know, and so the shepherd they bred sheep there. And in the museums in Budapest, I will never forget the cloaks that their mothers used to make out of felt. They make it out of felt, embroider them, and then the boy would take that and lay it on a girl's doorstep, and in the morning when he got up, if she had taken it in, she accepted him and if she didn't, he'd have to go hunt another girl. [laughs.]

LR: Interesting tradition.

JM: Right.

LR: What are some of the quilt patterns that you remember from your past?

JM: Well, of course, obviously log pattern, crazy quilts. I know where's there's some crazy quilts in this town that you would die for. It's in a home of a black friend of mine whose, I don't know, somebody in her family made it. It was made of silk and it's exquisite and she has the good taste. She has it framed and preserved properly and on the wall in her living room. The whole end of her living room is this glorious thing like a stained-glass window. It's just gorgeous. I tried making crazy quilts, but I didn't get very far. It never turned out.

LR: You made quilts. Have you made any other quilted items? Wearable art?

JM: No. I've seen some beautiful ones though down at The Torpedo Factory. You ever go down there and look.

LR: Yes. At The Torpedo Factory.

JM: Yeah.

LR: Yes. What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

JM: Well, I don't remember anything that I didn't enjoy particularly. I had a quilting frame. Oh, nobody's told about quilting bees. They were real social occasions you know of the last century. That was where you'd have a party, and all your friends would come in and everybody would quilt a different part of it. It's like a Lady's Aid Society, when farmwomen could get together. Most of my family I say came from the farms. A lot of them did, so they used to have quilting bees.

LR: Did you participate in those?

JM: No. I never got into a quilting bee. I had to do my own. Not enough quilters right near me to do that.

LR: But was your mother part of a quilting bee?

JM: No. My grandmother probably was. I never heard her tell about it.

LR: Have any advances in technology influenced your quiltmaking?

JM: Well, of course, I've had to quit quiltmaking because of my age. Your hands don't do what they're supposed to do, and I can't sew anymore. My daughter-in-law is really designing some beautiful, beautiful quilts and she's done them all like I say on--I told you that. She designs her own. She doesn't use patterns.

LR: So how do you--when you made this quilt for example, what did you use to do the cutting?

JM: Well, I'd make myself a template. What did I make them out of, there was something I used special, I can't remember, that I'd lay down. I had a design, for instance, these appliqué pieces, I'd just have to draw rough hand, you know, and then make a template and cut that particular one. But if I were gonna make a whole lot of them, I'd--oh I know, fine grain sandpaper. It will stick to the cloth, you know, it won't slide around, and you can cut around that. You would make the template of that.

LR: So that's how you cut out these pieces. [pointing out pieces from the quilt.]

JM: Well, those particular ones, of course, I only had to make one of those, so I probably just sketched. I don't know.

LR: But you sketched all of these.

JM: Oh yeah.

LR: All the designs on this touchstone piece.

JM: Spaceship and all. [LR laughs.] It's coming loose. I'll have to get Jane to fix that.

LR: Maybe it's supposed to be loose.

JM: I don't know. It looks like it's supposed to be loose, doesn't it? Well, we won't bother it.

LR: And your butterfly.

JM: I had designed that.

LR: And you did all these--did you do any machine embroidery or is it all hand?

JM: All hand.

LR: Yeah.

JM: As I say, basically, I think quilts should be made by hand. With the exception of my daughter-in-law's, which are so beautiful. [laughs.]

LR: What are your favorite techniques for quiltmaking? Do you like to appliqué or just piece?

JM: I kind of like the quilting. It's sort of restful. You can sit there, you know, and daydream and appliqué, you've got to get it just right or it will be crooked. So, I guess I would say definitely, oh, I made these with stitches [noticing a part of the quilt.]. I didn't realize that. They're not appliqués.

LR: You're talking about the stitches on the bear?

JM: The teddy bear.

LR: On the teddy bear.

JM: The nose and the hands and the feet.

LR: When you were making quilts, where did you make them in your house? Did you have a special place?

JM: We had a house that was like no other house in the world. As I say it was on a lake in the country, way out in the country, it had wild turkey, beaver, everything else on a lake, and there was a living room, the dining room had a loft above it and you could go upstairs. The television was up there and an easy chair and that's where I would sit and keep all my quilting stuff up there. It was a wonderful place.

LR: When you were laying out your patterns, how did you do that?

JM: Well, of course, I had a quilting frame, and I'd guess I have to use the tape measure for instance with squares like this, it was just a matter of getting them even with each other, so many inches from the border or something. I don't remember.

LR: Did you use a design wall, or did you lay this out on the table or the floor?

JM: Well, I would lay them out essentially probably on the floor or on the quilting frame. Of course, you can lay it out on that pretty well, as I recall.

LR: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JM: Well, a sense of color. Color and design. I mean it's definitely a creation of folk art. No doubt about it. And of course, you've been to those places in New York where they sell them for thousands of dollars right across from MOMA, as I recall. Very close to the Museum of Modern Art. And they have all this folk art over there and they cost a fortune.

LR: Is that the American Craft Museum that you're talking about?

JM: I think that's what I'm talking about. I forget the name of it now.

LR: It's across the street.

JM: It's so close to MOMA that you would know.

LR: Across the street. Yeah. And what makes a great quiltmaker?

JM: Patience. [both laugh.] And the ability to daydream. It's limited, you don't do much cake baking or anything else while you're doing it.

LR: When you think about some of your favorite quilts, what are they? Patterns or--

JM: I don't think I have any. Well, I think crazy quilts are beautiful. I love them, especially the ones that are embroidered. And I think friendship quilts are lovely. I started one of those, but I never got it finished. I had a few pieces. I don't know whatever happened to them.

LR: Were you making the friendship quilt for something specific?

JM: Well, there were people that worked--I was director of a health facility and different staff members had started signing their names, you know, and then I would embroider their names. I don't know what happened to that, it never got done.

LR: What are some other uses of quilts that you can think of? Obviously, beds and walls.

JM: Well, of course, when they began to wear out, they were used for everything under the sun [chuckling.] An old black woman said in South Carolina one time if you'd compliment somebody like that on something they're wearing, they'd say, 'Oh, that ole dog's bed.'

LR: That old dog's bed?

JM: Just dismiss it with that old dog's bed. I just love that. So, I guess eventually some at the end turn into dogs' beds probably. [both laugh.]

LR: How did you learn to quilt?

JM: I'd learn to sew very early. My parents--my mother and my grandmother; my grandmother lived with us, which was a rich memory of me, because it extended my memory. I know what my great great-grandmother was like because she lived in my grandmother's home when she was old. I mean it's a rich legacy, I've tried to put it all on tape for my children and tell them about it because I think grandmothers have a use and a purpose. And of course, I have three great-grandchildren to entertain.

LR: What are some of the things you remember from that experience with your--

JM: With my grandmother?

LR: Yeah. And the family.

JM: My mother died when I was quite young, when I was about 15, and Grandma was very old at that time. And of course, people got old faster than they do today. And she stayed with us and was mother to us. She was staunch; she was brave. My family runs strong women, [emphasizing.] strong women. They're tough in adversity. There's no sissies among them way back. And I'm glad of that.

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

JM: Well, I think they've become an art object and I'm glad they have. I mean they're not the practical thing anymore. You don't put them on beds anymore, I just think it's something worth, the tradition, well worth preserving. I'm glad you're going to have all this in the Library of Congress because I think it belongs there.

LR: Yes. You're talking about the material for the Q.S.O.S. project, which are archived in the Library of Congress.

JM: Yeah. They should be. It's a great tradition of American history really.

LR: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history?

JM: Well, women certainly couldn't do a lot of things. My mother, who was Phi Beta Kappa in classical languages couldn't vote when I was born, you know. She still couldn't vote. How'd I go on that? Well anyway, I think it represents some of the emergence of women into the Hillary Clinton day you know now. We women seriously might be having a woman president. I know I wondered from the subject. I often do, but that's what I think. [LR agreeing.]

JM: And I think quilts were a way they express themselves. I mean they had just as many brains, or more than the men did most of the time and they had to find different ways to use them.

LR: So how do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

JM: Oh, I think they'll keep on. I mean there's a guild that meets. I live at Goodwin House at Bailey's Crossroads [in Virginia.] and there's a guild that comes in once a month and uses our auditorium, sets up down there. I think it's growing. There was a period during my young years when nobody thought about making quilts. It's come back strong, and I think it will continue. I really think, as you know, there's shops now where you can get all kinds of quilting stuff and that didn't exist when I was growing up. So, I don't think there's any danger of it dying out.

LR: What is the guild? You said it's a quilt guild that comes to Goodwin House?

JM: Has their meetings there. And they all sit around, make quilts, and talk, you know. I guess they're still coming, they used to. We will rent free, we don't rent out - any eleemosynary, any non-profit organization can use our facility. I'm very much into Friends of the ACLU. We can use their facilities at any time free, everything from parking to restrooms, I mean it's available. It's a marvelous place to live, a lot of stores, and that's one of the nice things they do. And so, we got all kinds of people meeting down there. They'll sometimes rent the space and it's available to them. If it's eleemosynary--

LR: It's a what?

JM: Eleemosynary means tax exempt.

LR: Ahh.

JM: Like ACLU doesn't have to pay rent when they meet there. And I would imagine a quilting guild wouldn't either because they're tax exempt. I bet you're set up as a tax-exempt organization here.

LR: The Alliance is. The Alliance for American Quilts is. Yes. Definitely. You mentioned you do everything by hand. How do you feel though about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

JM: Oh, I think for those who, as I say, nobody could convince me more than this daughter-in-law. She can do anything anyway. But she just turned--I mean she doesn't just use traditional patterns. She just designs her own quilts, and she has done stunning ones by machine. You know you can't argue with success. But for me, the tradition is hand, but that doesn't affect my feeling about hers. Life moves on.

LR: What trends have you seen over the years in quiltmaking?

JM: Well, there was a period when I was a young woman nobody ever heard of making quilts. I mean it was kind of a quaint thing. Some people knew about it, but now everybody's quilting again, it doesn't die. It recycles every once and awhile, and I think will continue to do so because it's such an interesting craft and interesting art. Folk art you don't kill it, you just wait awhile.

LR: [laughs.] You've made quilts for gifts. Obviously, you did this one for your grandchild. What other gifts have you made?

JM: All the quilts that I had left with a couple of exceptions. The one son who is in Canada it's very hard to get anything through customs and carry them, you know, and everything, so he took, for instance, we had some Kilim rugs from Turkey, and he took those, and he took the quilts, the few that he was interested in anyway, things like that. When we divided up the contents of our house, you know I guess you'd call it a gift or an inheritance or something.

LR: Do you still have a collection of quilts yourself?

JM: No, I don't have any left at all. I gave them all away.

LR: But you collected quilts over the years?

JM: No. I just meant my own quilts and what ones were in the family that were up for grabs. My mother-in-law had some quilts. Maybe that log cabin quilt that Jane has up here. I think that probably was a McCrosky quilt.

LR: The log cabin one was a McCrosky?

JM: I think probably it's Bob's family, but I'm not sure.

LR: Well, it was a beautiful quilt.

JM: I thought so, too.

LR: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

JM: Time. I think they're all so busy, I mean you've got careers going, too, and you don't have the time. Well, women--God knows it makes me tired when people say, 'Did you work or were you a housewife?' I mean being a housewife back in the days when I started out was--we didn't have dishwashers or washing machines. I've seen a lot, you know. I've seen everything, I mean radio didn't exist when I was little. Certainly computers. I can think of so many things, television didn't exist, none of those things.

LR: And what do you think about the advances in the technology for quiltmaking?

JM: I think it's great. Anything that promotes it. I'm all for it.

LR: How do we pass this tradition to young people today?

JM: I don't think you have to pass it. I think you just--they see you doing it and they'll think what a silly thing you're doing and then when they get old, they start doing it, too. I mean I think the tradition is passed down from mother to children. I think men are interested now, too, I think that's fascinating. There are a lot of good men weavers, you'd be surprised.

LR: [agreeing.] Go ahead--

JM: Men can do things, too. [laughs.] I used to be a perpetual [inaudible.] I wouldn't serve as secretary for any organization. I'd say I think Joe Blow can do it. Men can do it, too. That was a matter of principle.

LR: Do your grandchildren quilt?

JM: No. I don't know whether one of them can sew anymore. That's one skill that doesn't exist. One time, I decided I'd help each of my granddaughters make a dress. I almost lost my mind. In the end, I made all four of them because they didn't take to it.

LR: Well, you have a daughter-in-law.

JM: Sure.

LR: Who is doing it?

JM: Yeah.

LR: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about it?

JM: No. I think I talked about the two things. I didn't talk about the fact that they should be preserved. They always should be preserved in acid-free paper, and they should not be hung. If you're going to hang them, you should get some professional advice on hanging them because you could stretch them and damage them that way. [LR agreeing.] I don't think there's anything else.

LR: Okay.

JM: If you ask about the younger generation, I bet someday my aunt will make one of these for her little grandchild, I bet anything. I mean that's how it goes on.

LR: You've inspired her.

JM: Well, it's a tradition. It comes down to a family. [interference from microphone movement.] you rebel against it, and then you do the same thing. Some ways it's encouraging and some ways it's discouraging. [both laugh.] You've got to adapt. I just love this tractor [pointing out a patch on the quilt.]

LR: Oh, you love the tractor.

JM: I meant to tell you about the tractor, but the mike is turned off.

LR: No, it's on. The tape recorder is still on. It's all right.

JM: Well, that's all right. It's irrelevant.

LR: It's okay.

JM: Well, we lived out in this place in the country and we both had retired after we moved out there. And Bob one time saw in a motoring magazine or some kind of a men's magazine you could get a kit for a tractor. All the pieces for a tractor like this. And we'd been concerned. We had a tractor. You see we were building our own home out there. We did a lot of the work ourselves, almost all of it, which was fun. We'd lived ten miles away and could literally go home and get a hot meal. When we first went out there, we had electricity out and fastened to a tree and then we got a used electric stove for, I think that was $15 and a used refrigerator for $10 and plugged them in and put a tarp over them and when we'd go out there to work, we'd cook meals out there. [laughs.] But anyway, we did have a tractor, but it was on a sandy hillside, and I was concerned about it because a tractor can trip easily, but this one you see creeps along the ground. Well, he saw this kit in this magazine and he sent off for it. And one Christmas the whole family was home and they all got out all my muffin tins and they put all the bolts and screws and the instructions out and they built the tractor that weekend, put it together, and it worked. And it had a backhoe on it, and there was no sense of power like a woman using a backhoe, I mean, you can reach out there and get a great big half a ton of dirt and put it over there just with a little few twiddling of your fingers. I could operate one of these fancy backhoes out here that they use nowadays, it's just--that's the principle. I got good at it. I could put dirt anywhere. Well anyway, so that's why the tractor.

LR: That's quite a--

JM: Everybody loved the tractor.

LR: Quite an inspiration.

JM: Yes. My children have grown up with these stories and they watch. I think that they'll be some of them among them that will.

LR: Are there any other particular ones that have a story?

JM: The children you mean?

LR: From front your quilt?

JM: I think I probably told you all of them. [pointing out a piece in the quilt.] This is where Nels signed his name. I had forgotten that one. That was the oldest child, he's not alive now. So, things about him are particularly precious.

LR: Well, it's a wonderful piece and thank you Jean for agreeing to participate in our--

JM: I thoroughly enjoyed participating. I'm so glad I got to see all the lovely things you've had here [referring to the collection of quilts on display at the lecture beforehand on "Quilts as Diplomacy and Oral History".]

LR: Well, thank you very much. And our interview was concluded at 2:10 p.m.

JM: Okay.

[interview ends.]



“Jean McCrosky,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024,