Alma Wenger




Alma Wenger




Alma Wenger


Darlene Fiske

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Karen Alexander


Harrisonburg, Virginia


Paula Caldwell


Darlene Fiske (DF): This is Darlene Fiske. Today's date is the 26th of April 2003. And it is 12 o'clock p.m. I am conducting an interview with Alma Wenger for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance of American Quilts. We are in the Virginia Quilt Museum, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Alma, would you like to tell me about the quilt you brought today?

Alma Wenger (AW): I'd love too.

DF: Good.

AW: It belonged to my mother--to my parents. It was made by my grandmother before my parents were married in nineteen and ten (1910). And this was one of my dad's gifts from his mother when they were married. Well, actually it's never been used as a quilt. We hang it--I hang it up sometimes and it's been in a couple of shows, and it was also in the Quilters' Newsletter [Magazine.].

[Darlene and Alma speak at the same time and agree with okay and yes.]

DF: That's nice. So, it was your parents' quilt made by your great grandmother --

AW: By my grandmother.

DF: Oh, I was going too far back. [laughs.] I wanted it to be ancient.

AW: I would like for it to be – but no. [laughs.]

DF: So then, really--it's--you said it was made in 1910?

AW: They were married in 1910, so it's--

DF: So, ninety-five years. A pretty good age. A wedding gift and what's the pattern?

AW: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul. I love it. In the spring, we always had to air the quilts.

DF: I know.

AW: In the sunshine.

DF: Hung them over the clothesline.

AW: And I fell in love with this one. [Alma opens and shows quilt.]

DF: Oh, that's gorgeous.

AW: And I begged my mother if she would give it to me or fix it so that it would be mine. So finally--I guess she got tired of me [inaudible.] hollering at her, asking her if she would do that--

DF: So, she put a label.

AW: She put--[searches for label on quilt.]

DF: There was a tag. I saw a tag.

AW: [continues to search for label on quilt.] There's a little--there's a little white one--

DF: That? [points to label on quilt.]

AW: No. That was because it was in the museum. [refers to a label identifying the quilt as one which hung in Virginia Quilt Museum on exhibit.]

DF: Oh. [coughs.]

AW: I thought I had put it here. I might have taken that little tag off. But anyway, she put my name on that little piece of cloth and sewed it to one of the corners.

DF: So, it was yours.

AW: I would be sure to get it.

DF: Well, that was great. And you got it.

AW: Yes, I got it. [laughs.]

DF: And were the fabrics dyed by her or did she buy?

AW: This could have been hand woven because of the narrow width of the fabric. Yeah, the width of the backing. Because it took three widths and that's what my grandmother and her family did.

DF: Weave?

AW: They spun, wove cloth.

DF: What--you said you fell in love with it when it was hanging on the line airing out. And why did you choose this quilt to bring today?

AW: Because it's one of my favorites. The first one that I remember really falling in love with.

DF: Well, I can see why.

AW: My mother made quilts, but they were for everyday use because we needed them. These quilts she never used on the beds.

DF: I was just going to ask you how that quilt was used. Was it used for warmth or for decoration?

AW: Well really not for decoration. Back then we didn't0--at my home we didn't do much decorating. [laughs.] But I just fell in love with it.

DF: Well, how do you use it?

AW: It's been in shows, and I hang it in the spare bedroom from time to time. But I have not used it really.

DF: But you don't use it on a guest bed or anything like that?

AW: No.

DF: What are your plans with this – to just continue as you have?

AW: Yes. And it will go to my son. And I think he appreciates the quilts.

DF: How many children do you have?

AW: Only one.

DF: One son? Oh well hopefully his wife will appreciate it too. Is he married?

AW: No, not yet.

DF: Oh well [laughs.] maybe if she knows she going to get that quilt she'll marry him. Well, can you tell me about your own interest in quilting?

AW: Well, as a child I helped to quilt, not that I really liked it, but whenever my mom made a quilt, I tried to help. And we had to help a lot of times when she would sandwich them. When she would put them down, we would have to help straighten them out.

DF: Now your sandwiching is when you put the batting and the backing and the top all together and get it ready to baste it so you can quilt.

AW: Yes. As a young girl I didn't make any on my own. I've often said that I didn't think I liked quilt making. And when I went to work at the quilt shop which is now Patchwork Plus [located in Dayton, VA.], they laughed at me because I said, 'Forget the quilts. I wanted no part of them'. But they hooked me. And I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of it. I didn't think maybe I would. The first quilt that I put together, I didn't think maybe I would enjoy the quilting. But I did. I enjoyed the whole aspect.

DF: Well, which part do you like better? The putting the quilt top together or the quilting?

AW: I would have to say they're equal.

DF: Well, you can't do one without the other that's for sure. [laughs.]

AW: Right, right. And I always felt like the quilting would be my hard part. But this year I quilted a friendship quilt in two weeks all by myself.

DF: Wow. That's pretty something.

AW: But I didn't do much else. [laughs.]

DF: Well, I can see why. [laughs.] So, when was it that you learned to quilt? After you started to work in the Clothesline or Patchwork Plus?

AW: Yes.

DF: When was that? About what year?

AW: I worked there fifteen years and it's been three years since I worked --

DF: Well, that's eighteen, so that would be about 1985?

AW: Yeah, the 80's.

DF: And how did you learn to quilt? From whom?

AW: Well, I'll have to say I started learning from my mother and my sisters as they quilted. And then, I did take Mary Beery's class. Not particularly the quilting class but I took the patchwork class from her. But as she would have her classes and need the quilts finished up, I helped her a lot to quilt and finish them up.

DF: And your first memory of a quilt was hanging them on the line?

AW: Yes.

DF: I remember that part of it too.

AW: Every spring.

DF: The wool blankets--yeah wool blankets. We used to sleep between double wool blankets. I guess you'd call them. They were thin but they were wool.

AW: Yes.

DF: And they were so long that they covered the bed, or the mattress twice and then tucked under.

AW: I remember that.

DF: Scratch!

AW: You know, I don't think we ever had the wool, but we had the cotton blankets. But they were long like that.

DF: And then you had quilts. And then in the wintertime you'd use your comforters.

AW: Oh yes.

DF: And summertime, you'd use your quilts over just a sheet. We grew up about the same time.

AW: Yeah.

DF: Are there any other quilters among your friends or family?

AW: My sister.

DF: And does she live anywhere around here?

AW: Ah, no. She lives at Roanoke [Virginia.].

DF: Oh. That's where you're from isn't it?

AW: Yes.

DF: Thought I remembered. What kind of quilting do you do? Activities--do you write? Do you teach? Do you exhibit the quilts?

AW: Oh, I have exhibited. I did teach some when I worked, but since I don't work anymore, I have not taught any since then.

DF: Did you exhibit your quilts?

AW: Yes.

DF: And what do you find most pleasing about quilting?

AW: It's my therapy. I can lose myself – time and everything else!

DF: So, it takes care of the world's problems.

AW: Right.

DF: And yours too. [laughs.]

AW: Right.

DF: And do you have any sources of inspiration about what inspires you to quilt? Make quilts and the kind that you do make?

AW: Yes. In being a member of the guild and seeing what people show and tell there or quilt shows as you look and study the quilts. That gives me inspiration of what I would like to do sometime.

DF: Anything like a wedding or any family--

AW: Yes. I just made my son a Harley Davidson quilt.

DF: Oh boy. [laughs.]

AW: You must not have been at the guild the day I showed it. Cause people liked to fainted when they saw it (that I made a Harley Davidson quilt).

DF: I think When was it? It wasn't--

AW: Back in January.

DF: In January. I don't know whether I was there or not. Well, if I wasn't, I heard about it. What aspects of the quilting do you enjoy the most? Or you do not enjoy.

AW: I'll have to say that I enjoy all of it.

DF: And how do you balance your quilting with your friends and your family?

AW: Well. When I'm quilting, my family suffers.

DF: You ignore them.

AW: Yes.

DF: But you don't put all of your time in on quilting.

AW: No, no. I do it sporadically. I am working on one right now that's laid there a couple of weeks and I haven't done anything. It's ready for the border but it'll get there someday.

DF: And how does your family feel about it when you're quilting?

AW: They fuss.

DF: Well, [laughs.] they probably feel it'd be better if they didn't--because if this is therapy for you. I think needlework and all kinds of needlework is kind of a therapy.

AW: I guess each person really has to find that out for themselves. There are other people that it might not be--it might be work to them.

DF: A lot of things look like work. But when you really get down to it, it's pleasure.

AW: Right.

DF: And to each his own. What do you think makes a great quilt?

AW: Design. Fabric. And color.

DF: And what makes a quilt artistically powerful?

AW: There again I'd have to say design and color.

DF: And what makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

AW: Workmanship. There'd have to be good workmanship and also coordinated color and pattern.

DF: You cannot pass without workmanship. That's what holds everything together –quilting. And what makes a great quilter?

AW: A great quilter. Well, in the first place she has to like what she's doing. She has to have the time. She has to have the resources to put it all together--like the fabric and so forth. And I guess a personality would fit in there too.

DF: So, it's basically--it is somebody who loves to do what they're doing?

AW: Yes.

DF: And how do great quilters learn the art of quilting and especially how to design pattern or choose fabrics and colors?

AW: Guilds are a great help- a great source. Also, there are fabric shops who offer classes in the different designing patterns and things like that. Probably that would cover it.

DF: Well, it's what is available for one thing.

AW: Yeah, that would be too.

DF: Because years ago--What's the difference between now and then, when your mother or grandmother made this quilt and today? What's the difference in what's available?

AW: Fabric. Patterns. Because I had a box of my mother's patterns, and they were just cut pieces. When she went to mark, she used cardboard off of cereal boxes which they didn't have the cereal boxes we have today. But anyway, she used oatmeal box or whatever to cut her pattern with it. But the real pattern might have been cut out of a piece of newspaper and pinned together. And then she made samples. She had a sample for each pattern that she had there.

DF: And what else besides the pattern? Would you say the tools are different today than they were?

AW: Oh, much different today. Then they probably wouldn't have anything but scissors and paper and cardboard.

DF: And a pencil.

AW: Yes, and a pencil.

DF: And today, they have--

AW: Oceans of notions – quilting notions.

DF: Like your templates. They're made out of plastic. And your rotary cutters, cutting boards and all your different patterns – shapes and sizes are made out of your plastic.

AW: Well, even needles. I don't know what kind of needles they had. But I doubt they had the choice of quilting needles that we have today either – or thread.

DF: Yeah, thread is big. I think their thread was pretty--ah, sturdy type thread. It was cotton thread because at that time, when your grandmother was making this, she didn't have the rayon and nylon. She had different weights of cotton.

AW: Yes.

DF: Looks like she used a double thread--

AW: Yes, it does almost--

DF: Well, if she didn't, it was awful heavy. Here's a knot. I think it's just heavy thread though.

AW: I think it is too.

DF: From that. Cause there's where she knotted the thread. Gee. Well, it held up well. Do you find quilting is an art or craft? [pause for few seconds.] Is quilting an art – a craft? A lot of different crafts?

AW: Well, it would have to be to me, you know. For the different patterns that you work out.

DF: Yes. And the way you quilt it. Why is quilting so important in your life?

AW: Some of the things I've already said to you. It's my therapy. It helps calm me down and I don't like to be sitting around not doing nothing. When I read a book, I guess I'm enriching my mind a little bit, but I can't see anything that I can really account for the time when I'm reading.

DF: Yeah, but you can talk about it later and be somewhat knowledgeable about it.

AW: Yeah, that's true.

DF: I think reading is a very important part of life just like everything else is. But then quilting would be for sanity's sake we'll say.

AW: Absolutely.

DF: Or therapy. I think it is. I think all your craftwork is therapy. And what ways do you feel that quilts reflect your community or the region?

AW: Well, I am very traditional. I don't know a lot of the art quilts that are out there. I am very traditional. And I guess there are patterns that are more or less regional you know. They're made more in this area, the Shenandoah Valley [Virginia.] than they would be where I came from a hundred miles away.

DF: Well, kind of like the Russian quilts that were so decorative--

AW: Right.

DF: And they were more like a tapestry than a usable quilt.

AW: Right.

DF: You think that your quilts reflect more conservative--

AW: Tradition.

DF: Traditional ideas.

AW: Yes.

DF: And being from a rural area, which this is, and a farming area– it would sort of stand to reason that things would be more traditional than otherwise. What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

AW: Well, I think they're very important to life. Not only for use with our heated homes and so forth we don't really need them for warmth on the beds you know. But it's just --there's something about a nice quilt that warms your heart.

DF: Yeah, and your body. What do you think about these quilts they have made and sent overseas to the troops? Don't you think that has something to do with American [inaudible.]

AW: Yes, I do.

DF: And then what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history and experience in life?

AW: Well, it gives a statement or what they like to do – or what they wanted to do and what was available for them to work with at that time.

DF: Well, too, don't you think it was a lot of the quilts that were made in the past, I think we both agree, that they were made out of necessity.

AW: Yes, absolutely.

DF: And they were made with what you have on hand or could get like you said your backing on that quilt you thought was woven by your grandmother and her sisters. That makes it even more special.

AW: Yes.

DF: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future? And what has happened to the quilts that you have made for your family?

AW: Well, mostly they're not used as they once were. We use them more for decoration. Some of the ones that I have made have been to use like crib quilts because you use them, and they are definitely going to be [inaudible.].

DF: They don't last an awful long time.

AW: Unless they're really taken care of--

DF: Yes, not used very much in the beginning.

AW: Right.

DF: Well, how do you think they can be preserved for the future?

AW: Well, I don't know except to make sure you give them to somebody or leave them to somebody who will take care of them – who will appreciate them.

DF: How would you go about educating somebody about quilts that didn't know anything about them and wanted to have them?

AW: I know and if they--if they have not made any themselves, they do not realize what went into the making.

DF: Or if they never had been around anybody making them too.

AW: [agrees.]

DF: Well, how can we encourage quilting in America?

AW: Well, by helping them– showing them. I have helped some young girls to get started and loaned them some of my patterns and things and have always told them if there's anything I can help them with, I will. They have to have to first, they got to want to--that's the first thing [coughs.] and then it's a process. It's a journey.

DF: Yeah, I guess you could call it a journey. You start it until you finish it.

AW: And they should start on something simple so that, and this is one joy of taking classes, that what I would always learn in taking classes, you could tell with the class whether you wanted to pursue a large quilt or whether you did not want to go that route for a large quilt.

DF: Another thing too if they start out in a class and something very simple, they can finish it.

AW: Right.

DF: And when you have to work, work and work and don't see the end, it gets very discouraging – just like anything else. To finish a quilt, I think, is a star in the crown. Sure, feels like it anyway. What is the future of quilting in America? What do think? What are the trends?

AW: Well, I think it's made a great comeback. There was a time when there was not patterns out there. There was not books. There was not help out there. But now there is--and more and more people are getting interested in it.

DF: Well, and they sort of pushed the quilting frames down in the basement or up in the attic and this was grandmother's, and I don't know what I'm going to do with it. And then, all of a sudden everybody's quilting again. Kind of like the chenille bedspreads. [laughs.]

AW: Right. [laughs.]

DF: They came and went. Some of us hung on to them.

AW: Like the saying, 'what goes around, comes around.'

DF: Yes, sure does. And today, it is so much easier than it used to be.

AW: Oh yes.

DF: Because of like you said the books, the magazines, the instructions, the instructors, and I think Mary Beery's name is known state over and probably the nation. You don't hear anything about The Clothesline or Patchwork Plus without Mary Beery with it. So, is there anything else you want to tell us? Did you bring more than one quilt?

AW: Yes. I brought one that I made.

DF: Let's see what we can do with that. [refers to Alma's grandmother's quilt.] That's a gorgeous quilt. I can see why you'd be so taken with it as a child. I think basically it's contrast.

[Alma unfolds second quilt that she has brought with her.]

DF: Oh. Appliqué.

AW: This one--

DF: No, it's not appliqué. Part of it is.

AW: Part of it is. This one won 2nd place at one of our quilt shows.

DF: That's gorgeous.

AW: And it's all made by hand. The only machine work is sewing the binding on.

DF: So, you piece by hand?

AW: Yes.

DF: All your quilts?

AW: Not all of them. But I enjoy it.

DF: And you quilt by hand?

AW: Yes.

DF: That is gorgeous. Did you have that at the quilt show and tell?

AW: I have had it--because it's been --I don't know--

DF: Don't, don't fold it back up. We'll take a picture of it if you'd like.

AW: It was made in 1993.

DF: It's ten years old.

AW: And it was in one of the quilt shows that we had out at EMU [Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.] and it was viewer's choice, 2nd place.

DF: That is beautiful. Well, it's just too bad somebody had to ruin the quilt display at the fair.

AW: I know. Well, did you hear the true story of it?

DF: No, I never did.

AW: I was told that somebody came--that the owner did not pick it up. She had somebody else to pick it up for her. And she laid it down and went to do something else. And then she came back, and it was gone. So, that puts a little different look on it. Because you know she should have--if it would have been me, I would have never turned that quilt loose until I got it under lock and key, regardless.

DF: Yeah, it's too bad. Well, I'm sure that she wasn't a quilter, or she would have kept hold of it.

AW: Right.

DF: So, I guess it depends on what you're interested in as to how you take care of things.

AW: Last year the quilt that was at the fair was pathetic. You know, as far quilting. I think that I've never put anything at the fair, but I'm thinking about putting a cross stitch in that--see Phyllis is getting ready to have a quilt show out at Patchwork.

DF: Oh.

AW: In May. And I took one out there. It was a cross stitch and then I joined it and hand quilted it. I'm thinking about putting that one in the fair this year.

DF: Well, I look forward to seeing it. Well, is there anything else that you can tell us? How many quilts have you made do you suppose?

AW: Not that many.

DF: Well, you've made two or three I know.

AW: I make them because I enjoy it. I'm not – I don't want to just make them so I can say I've made "x" number of quilts. I do it because I enjoy it and if I had to work at it like that, then it would be work and I would not enjoy it. And I don't know how much time I'll be given, but I still have a few ideas. But they're all the older patterns that I really like to work with.

DF: Ah, what was I going to ask? I can't think of it now one of those senior moments. [laughs.] Do you have a quilt in the making now?

AW: Yes.

DF: Is it the counted cross stitch?

AW: No. It's Grandmother's Flower Garden.

DF: Oh, that's a pretty quilt. Are you using particular colors or is it just a flower garden type thing – no particular color in it?

AW: It has--some of them have bunny rabbits on and some of them have bumble bees and honeybees and flowers that I-- he first, where I did use the print that I picked the same flower to go all the way around. But it's mine.

DF: It's your idea.

AW: And then I joined it with a path – a little green path which gives them the triangles.

DF: Well, then what's the center of the flower garden?

AW: Yellow.

DF: Yellow.

AW: Nice yellow.

DF: Then print around.

[Darlene and Alma speak at the same time.]

AW: And then--

DF: Solid color--

AW: The green--

DF: Sounds real pretty.

AW: The solid color and then a white and then the path.

DF: Okay. The yellow print, solid color of--

AW: To coordinate with the print--

[Darlene and Alma say in unison.] -- then white, then the green path.

DF: Sounds pretty. No particular color on the prints?

AW: No. Just whatever.

DF: Well, are you going to be teaching? Are you working on the quilt for the guild--quilting?

AW: I will. I haven't yet. Well, I made a basket, and I probably will do some quilting on it.

DF: Well, is there anything else that you would like to talk to the machine and me about?

AW: Nothing I can think of.

DF: You got started by helping your mother hang the quilts to air in the summer.

AW: Right.

DF: And how did you take care of your quilts then? Did you wash them? Did you ever wash them?

AW: This one has never been washed.

DF: No, I mean as a child. Do you remember how you took care of your quilts?

AW: Oh. The ones we used.

DF: Yes.

AW: Yes. They were washed. My mother was very protective. I think when they were married, my grandmother gave my Daddy at least seven quilts. And my mother never used them because she thought they were too nice for her to use because her quilts were more utility quilts. Made to use and to use up the scraps--

DF: Yes, the scraps.

AW: From garments that they made.

DF: And the cuffs that didn't wear out or get worn.

AW: Yes. And she used her quilts, but these were never used.

DF: Do you remember how they cleaned them? Did they wash them? And when they washed them, did they--going back, I know if it was a rural area or in that time frame a lot of people didn't have washing machines and they washed on a board--a washboard.

AW: Right.

DF: Did your mother have to wash her quilts on a washboard or did she have a machine that--

AW: I don't remember. The first washing machine that I remember was a wooden tub washing machine that had the foot pedal that they stomped it to turn the agitator.

DF: But that's what she washed her quilts in?

AW: Yeah, it would have been because that was all she had.

DF: Well, there's another thing that has changed in quilts is that the way you take care of them and clean them. Because you don't wash them now, you spray them with something or other and wipe it off and or use a certain kind of soap to--a detergent. A lot of things have changed in quilting.

AW: Lots. These people--if my mother came back today, she wouldn't believe it.

DF: What's available.

AW: Right.

DF: And it's so convenient now. The cutting boards, the rotary cutters, all kinds of scissors.

AW: That changed in such a short time because when I took the patchwork class with Mary Beery, she didn't use that. We were told to mark our patterns, cut them with scissors you know, and Mary did very, very little rotary cutting. But she changed along--she realized she had to in order to acquaint the public with what's out there and how to use it.

DF: Well, and it was a business too for her and the store to have these classes and keep up with the modern-day things because if they didn't, they would be left behind as far as sales were concerned.

AW: And whatever you use in class and demonstrate, you'll sell it.

DF: Yep. Well Alma, I want to thank you for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. And if you have nothing more to add, our interview is completed.

AW: Alright. Thank you very much for having me.

DF: Thank you very much.

[tape ends.]



“Alma Wenger,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 24, 2024,