Dorothy Holden




Dorothy Holden




Dorothy Holden


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

A Friend of the Quilt Alliance


Charlottesville, Virginia


Evelyn Naranjo


Note: This interview took place by phone at the request of Dorothy Holden who was in the middle of moving from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Jackson, Mississippi.

Le Rowell (LR): This is Le Rowell and today's date is June 8, 2006. It is 8:10 a.m. and I'm conducting an interview with Dorothy Holden for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of The Alliance for American Quilts. Dorothy is in her home in Charlottesville, Virginia and I am in my home in Bethesda, Maryland. Dorothy, I want to thank you for taking time out of your very busy schedule as you prepare to make a big move from Virginia to Mississippi in a week and a half. Tell me about the quilt that you selected for our interview today, and, by the way, I am looking at it in color on my computer, so we have a mutual piece to talk about. Tell me about the quilt.

Dorothy Holden (DH): The quilt was a take-off from the poem written by Rita Dove, "One Volume Missing", [from the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner "Thomas and Beulah", a verse cycle loosely based on her grandparents' lives.]. When I read the poem and thought about it, I said, 'I wonder what volume is missing?' I thought it must have been some love letters. The invitation from the Second Street Gallery [in Charlottesville, Virginia.] was entitled "Love Letters". So, it fit in beautifully. Is there anything else you want to know about the quilt?

LR: Yes. First of all, you just mentioned the poem again and what was the gist of the poem? What was the theme?

DH: Well, I'm not good at explaining poetry, so I won't try.

LR: Well then, we'll just talk about the quilt. Tell me what are the fabrics you use, the techniques that you used.

DH: Well, it's all machine pieced. And my thought behind this was that I would use letters of my name. I didn't, of course, use all the letters of my name and then I would stylize the letters. I wouldn't just put a D there I would move it around and make it look different then I appliquéd it onto the quilt, a quilt formula so to speak with the backing, [filling.], and the tab in the top. Then I machine quilted it. After I did that, I machine stitched around the edges. I love raw edges and so that is why it has raw edges around it and then I painted on it. I painted symbols, romantic symbols like flowers and bows and candles and doves. I'm just trying to remember, I don't have the quilt in front of me, but that was what I did.

LR: You mentioned that you wanted to put your initials in it. Can you give me an example of one of your initials stylized?

DH: Well, there is an L there. I think that's down at the bottom. I don't have the quilt in front of me. I think there is an H and--

LR: Is the one, it looks like part of a shoe with an O in the center?

DH: Oh, yes. Now if you go to the poem, Rita mentions winged tipped shoes, […his wingtips balanced on a scuffed linoleum square….] and I always think of an angel as having wings, and so I ask do you see wings of an angel or do you see a winged tipped shoe. You can see winged tipped shoe, but I think if you stretch your imagination, you will see the wings of an angel. And I think that's the best kind of a loving symbol, an angel.

LR: The quilt, it looks like banners when I look at it. It looks like you have three banners. Are they separate or is that part of the whole?

DH: They're separate, and I like to do things in a very informal way. I didn't want it to be hung straight because I thought it would become so static if you did it that way. So, I just wanted it done that way and the grommets, also in each square. And each square is twelve inches.

LR: And you said the what, the grommets?

DH: The grommets, at the top. And I don't know what else I can say.

LR: Talk a minute about the fabrics that you used.

DH: Well, they're all cotton, or linen or a combination of silk and linen. And they are all natural fibers. The back is a kind of a waffle pique.

LR: And is there a batting?

DH: Yes. It's a cotton batting, no it is polyester batting.

LR: And the colors that you used.

DH: Well, I, they say Picasso had a blue period. I seem to be really loving blue these years. I used to do more bright colors. I just like the blue and then I painted in white on to the fabrics. There are some things that have been painted in yellow and then I painted a little white over the yellow. Then there was one, and I don't know why I did this, but there is one square that I painted in a kind of Rothko style, and I put a yellow strip through it. I think that it's in the second row at the top.

LR: At the top, yes. Ah, that's interesting, very interesting. What are your plans for this quilt?

DH: Oh, I absolutely love that quilt. I do have a price on it and--but there will always be a place for that quilt in my house.

LR: Not for sale?

DH: It's for sale.

LR: Oh, okay.

DH: But if it doesn't sell, there will be a place for it in my house.

LR: Good.

DH: I just love that quilt.

LR: Let's talk a minute about your involvement in quilting. What is your first memory of a quilt?

DH: My first memory is not a pleasant one because I was made to make a quilt. I made it when I was nine years old, and it was during the summer months when I would have preferred to be outside, hanging out, but I had a mother who was a home economics teacher and I grew up in the time of segregation, and we couldn't go to swimming pools and stuff like that and she was not going to have us just running up and down the street just playing. We had to be doing constructive things and making a quilt was one of those constructive things that I balked at. And I promised her that I would never ever make another quilt as long as I lived. [laughs.] I think that I was proven wrong.

LR: Where was this?

DH: This was in Kansas City, Missouri.

LR: So you have quiltmakers in your family?

DH: My sisters had to do the same thing. But they didn't make these big proclamations as I did.

LR: And are they quiltmaking today?

DH: My oldest sister makes quilts as lap quilts for senior citizens in her hometown which is Fairview Heights, Illinois. But my younger sister, she doesn't touch it.

LR: So, you learned to quilt from your mother.

DH: Yes.

LR: And as you went on did you take lessons, or do you consider yourself then self-taught kind of? Or--

DH: Well, after I graduated from college and had worked professionally for a couple of years and I'd gotten married and we moved to McLean, VA, then I took a lesson from two or three people and that's how I really learned to quilt. I learned how by making the nine patch out of scraps [from my summer experience.].

LR: Yes. [laughs]

DH: And it was a full-size quilt, but really learning how to draft a pattern and so forth, I didn't do that until later in life.

LR: What do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking.

DH: Quilting. I love the process of hand quilting, although I don't do it now. But I love that hand motion. It's just so soothing to me.

LR: And what aspects do you not enjoy?

DH: I don't like putting it together because I think it's awfully nice to have everything matched up, but if I don't get it matched up then I don't like to take it out [laughs.] and it just annoys me not to have it matched up perfectly. So consequently, I try not to do anything that requires the perfection that I admire.

LR: And how does the quilt making impact your family?

DH: Well, if I have a quilt that has to be in a show or being sold or commissioned, that tends to take all of my time. I am focused on that and so the meals are a little bit simple, and I don't have as much time for them as I usually do.

LR: Talk a minute about some of your quilt related activities. Teaching, maybe writing, exhibitions?

DH: Well, the most fascinating thing I did was to teach children to quilt. I started doing that and the in my home one summer. I had so much fun doing it. They seemed--their parents would drop them off about 10 o'clock in the morning and then they were to leave around noon time, and they would end up staying another two hours and finally I would have to put them out or tell them, 'Call your mother, tell her to come get you.' But I really enjoyed doing that. Someone heard about me doing that in my home and asked if I would do it in the public schools in Arlington, Virginia which I did. I got awards for about four years to do that. This meant that I taught in about eight elementary schools in Arlington, Virginia. For me it was an extraordinary experience. I'm glad I did it.

LR: What kinds of projects did you teach the children?

DH: They made a full-size quilt.

LR: And then what did they do with the quilt?

DH: The first quilt was auctioned to raise money. And I looked at that quilt years later. I always did exactly what the children wanted me to do. I would go to any lengths to find the fabrics that they wanted. The first one was a pilot program, and the quilt was a hot colored quilt. These students were Vietnamese. It was the pilot program for the quilting project, and they wanted [reds, turquoise, etc.]. And when the quilt was completed, it was so fiery. [laughs.] I just looked at it and kind of laughed, but they raised a lot of money, I don't remember the amount, but the people who won it, returned it to the school and it's been on display ever since.

LR: That's a lovely story [laughs.] Also talk a minute about your own work in exhibitions.

DH: Well, for years, I quilted with a contemporary art group in Northern Virginia and Maryland and Washington [D.C.] and we would quilt with themes in mind. And that was great. It was very interesting because you could see the creativity of the participants. And here in Charlottesville, although it's only ninety miles south, maybe a little more; people were much more conservative. I belonged to a quilt guild at that time. And if I ever wanted to get a reaction to suit whether or not my quilt was accomplishing its goal, I would take it to the quilt guild. And if they didn't like it, I knew I had something going for me. [laughs.] But if they did like it, I had to go back to the drawing board and find out what did I do wrong. [laughs.]

LR: And you have received awards for your quilts?

DH: I received awards for teaching kids to quilt. And I forget about these things because I think I'm just more interested in the process than I am in getting an award or being selected for something or other. And so, I tend to forget, but I do know I have gotten awards, but I couldn't tell you at this point in time what they were. Just being invited to participate in this Love Letters Invitational [at the Charlottesville gallery.], was an award in some respects because there weren't that many people selected. And it was not in the medium of quilting, it was in the medium of art.

LR: How do you see the role of say traditional quiltmaking and what we call art quilts or fiber art today?

DH: Well, that it is not conflictual. I see many traditional quilts being loved and appreciated and I see some art quilts that are mouthwatering and that will always be appreciated as art quilts. There is always that vast area of in between with a little bit of art and then put it on the bed sort of thing. And I myself did a quilt like that. I made a nude, and it was a life size nude in quilt form and then there was a poster that was made from that particular quilt and that poster was used as a fund raiser and it was very successful and a very interesting piece. I laid it on the bed one day and as I passed the room where it was on the bed it looked as if a person were laying there. I had to chuckle and said, [laughs.] 'Oh, isn't that interesting.' I guess that kind of says what I think about the difference between art quilts and bed quilts or traditional quilts.

LR: How do you see the role of African American quilts?

DH: Oh, I don't understand that question.

LR: Do you see African American, sometimes people refer to African American quilts as something integrated into our quilt tradition?

DH: Well, Le, really, I still don't—integrated into our quilt—a quilt is a quilt is a quilt is a quilt. And some are made by African Americans, and some are made by Asian people, German people, they all have their merit.

LR: Absolutely. Absolutely.

DH: I do see in some of the earlier African American quilts, like the Gees Bend quilts that have been around for a few years. I love those quilts. I love them not because they are African American, but because they show a resourcefulness and a certain freedom of spirit that you don't always see in some other quilts. I just think they're magnificent, and I think other people are appreciating them as well.

LR: Absolutely. They're really works of art.

DH: They are, and they do show such unique use of simple leftovers. We will go out to the store and buy hundreds of dollars of fabric and cut it up, whereby these things have been worn out things in the shapes that we are accustomed to. I just like that.

LR: Yes. They bring joy.

DH: Yes.

LR: So, what do you think makes a great quilt?

DH: Sometimes it's just the intricacy of the pattern and, at least I really, I used to look at some of Jinny Beyer's medallion quilts and I thought, 'Wow, this is just wonderful.' I think that these kinds of quilts border on greatness. Then I see quilts, the appliqués from the Baltimore Wedding or Brides' Quilts, I've forgotten whether it's Wedding or Bride's quilts with all of that intricate appliqué, all done by hand. By the way, I heard that many of those quilts were made by African American slaves, but I don't know if that's a fact or not, but I read that somewhere. And then you see the Gees Bends quilts and I see people trying to copy those.

LR: Yes, yes.

DH: You know you'll never make it, because they are so heartfelt, you know you can't get into someone else's heart and do what they've done. So I think everybody--you ask me the question what makes a great quilt. I don't think I've really answered you, but those are comments on some quilts that I think are really good.

LR: And what makes a great quiltmaker?

DH: I think that a great quiltmaker is the same as a great anybody. The conviction of your thoughts. You know, if you really believe that this pink goes with this red and you just do it, I think that that's what really makes it great. You know, you have some courage and some integrity and some motivation to just do what you really think is worthwhile doing.

LR: And how do these great quiltmakers learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern or to choose fabrics and color? How do they learn?

DH: I think the same way that artists would learn, they just keep experimenting, keep working at it until they get it right in their own minds.

LR: How do you feel about machine quilting vs. hand quilting, long arm quilting?

DH: Well, I kind of like the long arm quilting. I had a quilt and it looked like it was drunk. [hearty laughs.] It was going all kinds of ways. I went into a quilt store in Charlottesville [Virginia.]. A woman told me that she could quilt any kind of quilt. So, I gave her my drunk quilt. [laughs.] She used that long arm quilting. That woman had my quilt laying straight, nothing was out of line. I said, 'Thank you'. She charged me a minimal amount of money. It was fabulous. It was my attempt to do an Amish style of quilt which had a few prints, but still it was Amish. [laughs.] I think a hand quilted quilt is wonderful. Speaking of Amish quilts, I don't know how they could have escaped me. I think some of them are absolutely the greatest quilts ever made. They're just wonderful. They come from such plain people. I don't know. You're asking the wrong person.

LR: No, I am asking the right person. [laughs.]

DH: I just about like every quilt. So, I just see so much good in each one, every kind.

LR: So why is quilt making important in your life?

DH: One thing, it's a relaxing endeavor. It's a way of getting to know people; it's a way of accomplishing something while you are getting to know someone. It's opened the doors to many different kinds of conversations; it's been a lot of fun.

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

DH: Well, I think it shows the kinds of contributions that we made to the domestic scene. You know we had to have those quilts ready because people would be cold. It was an essential part of our household. So, is that answering the question?

LR: Absolutely.

DH: Okay.

LR: Absolutely, yes. And how do you see that role in the future with special meaning for women's history in our country?

DH: Now that's a very difficult question. I don't really know because now you can get a handmade quilt, you can get a commissioned quilt—you know I don't know what kind of role it will play. I think perhaps it will play a kind of historic role and it will show the kinds of things we were interested in at a certain time of our history, you know, like during '76 when there were lots of red, white and blue quilts made to say something about our country, and their way of expressing what's going on in our culture. People have done all kinds of things in designing quilts to express what is going on in their lives, and in the atmosphere, in the cultural atmosphere of our country and of our world, and so it will be a pictorial and visual history of our country.

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

DH: Well, there's a lot of ways in which the Smithsonian is doing it and I think that's the most significant way of preserving them. There are many things that you hear in the guilds about not putting them in plastic bags but more in a cotton or muslin sort of coverings, so I don't know much about that, Le.

LR: Well, what about the quilts that you have made for your family?

DH: Well, I've made all kinds of quilts. I made one which I dearly loved. It was made out of wool, and it was made in an Amish style. I hand quilted it. It was so beautiful. I gave it to my son which he lost. [Le says, 'Oh' followed by laughs.] I said, 'The next time you get a quilt, you have to pay me for it,' [laughs.] because you know a wool quilt is a very special quilt. I felt so very disappointed. I don't even think I took a picture of it, I felt miserable, but anyway I won't revisit that.

LR: But you have quilts in your family that will be passed down.

DH: I have two sons and one has two quilts, so you know I'm not sure what's going to happen to my quilts. I've never really thought that much, I sell quite a few and if I don't sell them after a while, I might give them away as a wedding gift or something like that. I don't make a whole lot of bed quilts at all, but I make sizeable quilts that go on the wall.

LR: Did you receive quilts from your family? Do you have old quilts from your family?

DH: No, the only old quilt that I have is the one I made when I was a little girl.

LR: What was that quilt? You said it was--

DH: It was the Nine Patch.

LR: The Nine Patch. Was it made with scraps?

DH: Yes, pinks and greens largely. All my pajamas and stuff like that were in there.

LR: That's a lovely memory quilt. What do you see as trends for quilting?

DH: I think there will be more art quilts, contemporary art quilts, I really do. And I am not involved with a guild or a group right now and so I'm not sure. Where I am going in Mississippi there is a woman who has done some wonderful quilts. She is African American, and she has done quilts on the history of African Americans in this country. The NAACP exhibited her work at their last national conference, they were on lynching, and the pictures that I saw of these quilts were heart rendering. And I forgot my train of thought right now. Go through your question again.

LR: Trends; art quilts--

DH: I think they will express what's on a person's mind and what that person is doing, and thinks is going on in the world today.

LR: Yes, and you already talked about encouraging quilting in young people. What are your plans in Mississippi? Will you continue your quilt making? Will you teach?

DH: I'm not sure how that is going to pan out, but I will be doing some fiber work, and I probably will be painting a little bit more on my quilts. I really enjoy the effect that has.

LR: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about? We still have just a few minutes.

DH: Well, I always--I would love to see African Americans and white Americans be more involved together in their quiltmaking endeavors. There seems to be these are African Americans and these are their quilts, these are the whites, and these are their quilts. And I would just love to see some kind of togetherness come there that would show that in some ways that we can work together, even if it's on this very simple level of making quilts together. That's what I would really like to see, and I don't know how that would ever come to be.

LR: Well, I loved your comment that you know there are all different kinds of people who make quilts. And defining one or the other, everyone makes some kind of a fiber art piece. And do you have any ideas of how to bring these people together more?

DH: Not really, not at this point. I am sure if some of us could get together and think about it that a really important idea would come out of that communion, that we can do this and have some kind of meaning, some reason for it to be. You know not too contrived, but important and essential. I don't know, Le, but I do think that there's a possibility, and there must be a possibility because we, you know, we want all these countries to get together and do things and we want this to happen and if we can't make this work, what can we make work.

LR: Yeah.

DH: But I've had lots of wonderful experiences with quilters, and I've gone to shows where my quilts were being exhibited when they weren't in my particular city, and it's been a lot of fun. People will look at your work and they'll make comments, and sometimes you'll hear what they say and they'll have you in stitches. [laughs.] So, it's very broadening, at least I've found it to be.

LR: So, you see a bright future for quiltmaking?

DH: Oh yes. Definitely see a bright future.

LR: And there certainly have been improvements in materials available. You mentioned the long arm quilting, the long arm.

DH: I won't forget that for a long time. [laughs.] Oh, I just think that there's going to be so many interesting developments. We've had so many wonderful artists that have used on the quilt medium, like Nancy Crow and Michael James. I'm not real up to date on things, I've just been doing my own things, but I do think that there are some really fine people who are quiltmakers and that they will continue to quilt.

LR: Good.

DH: And there are people coming up in quiltmaking who will be making their mark in this area, in this medium of art.

LR: OK. Well, our time is just about up, Dorothy. I want to thank you very much for agreeing to this interview today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. And our interview was concluded at 8:53 a.m.

DH: Well, thank you so much, Le, and I will look forward to seeing what I said.

LR: Okay, well, don't hang up the telephone but I'm going to turn off the tape recorders.

DH: Okay.

LR: Thanks.



“Dorothy Holden,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,