Nola Forbes




Nola Forbes




Nola A. Forbes


Catherine J. Carrara

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Del Thomas


East St. Johnsbury, Vermont


Marjorie Brown


Note: The photo printed on the back of the quilt (one of the closeups) is of Nola's grandmother Florence Eastman Tucker, who had been a DAR member. The three involved as interviewer, interviewee and transcriber are all DAR members, so four direct bloodline generations were a part of this wallhanging/quilt story.

Catherine J. Carrara (CC): [inaudible.] ...October 8, 2008, at 7:40 p.m. I am conducting an interview with Nola Forbes in her home in East St. Johnsbury, Vermont for the Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Vermont State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Nola Forbes is a quilter and is a member of Saint John de Crevecoeur Chapter NSDAR. Tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

Nola A. Forbes (NF): I had inherited some family quilts from the Eastman side of the family that my grandmother Florence Tucker had also inherited. And one quilt that she had--I could not find the pattern anywhere, so I wondered if perhaps it was hand-designed in the family. For a family reunion, an aunt suggested that we make a quilt to have people sign as a guest book. So, as I thought about the choices, I considered that quilt of Grandma's that was in poor shape, that she inherited in poor shape, and decided that if I made a replica of the pattern it would help to preserve that pattern. So that is what I designed and did in a smaller format, but the blocks themselves were the same size as her original quilt.

CC: What special meaning does this quilt have for you?

NF: It has that connection from Grandma's earlier generations that grew up in the town of Washington, Vermont with those of my mother's generation who were attending the [Tucker.] family reunion. There were seven brothers and sisters there. They were all able to attend and then each of their families. Some of them have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. So, by having their signatures on each of their sections of this wall hanging we have that as a preserved memory.

CC: Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?

NF: It's hard to look at my own designs without thinking about the connection to the other women in the family. I think they've always been seamstresses, those that sewed clothing, and I think that helped form me and some of my work ethic throughout my life.

CC: What do you think someone viewing your quilt might conclude about you?

NF: Probably that I appreciate traditions but also like to modify things so that they're tying in with things we enjoy today.

CC: How do you use this quilt?

NF: For the first couple of years each of the brothers and sisters that were at the reunion from my mother's generation took turns displaying this wall hanging in their home and they decided that after each had had a turn and their children who wanted to display it for a little while, were all happy with their own chance to display it. They decided they'd like me to keep it, so I now own it and I use it on my wall.

CC: What are your plans for this quilt?

NF: Possibly it will get passed down to one of my children. Catherine, you might even end up with it. Who knows?

CC: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

NF: Because I had grown up with sewing around me, I think it was a natural to take some of the scraps and leftovers in my scrap bag cutaways and turn those into quilts.

CC: At what age did you start quilt making?

NF: I can remember when I was in eighth grade and I was thirteen, Grandma Jane Brown who lived with us was working on a Cathedral Window quilt and she allowed me--she showed me how to sew the stitch that she was using to appliqué the patches in--and so I sewed one of those and she commented on me doing a good job. Years later when I was graduating from college, she presented me with that finished quilt. I discovered she had marked which block was mine--which of those little windows and so I now have a muslin tag I've attached to that spot, so my first quilt stitching is right there.

CC: From whom did you learn to quilt?

NF: I tried to teach myself some of the steps, because I guess I might have been a little bit stubborn some of the time. I had a Girl Scout Handbook when I was in high school that had some patchwork designs so when I was a senior in high school, I decided I'd had enough fabric in my scrap bag that I would try one of those patterns. The one I liked was Turkey Tracks. I didn't realize that that was one of the most difficult patterns a beginner could start with and, as I look back on it, I show to students of mine that almost every mistake you can make in quilt making is in that quilt. The different range of fabrics, the weights of them, some of them were very bright colors and others were more subdued. I ran out of fabric for the sashing, so had to substitute something else. The triangles have tips that were cut off. It is a good example of what not to do and so it's better if you can learn from someone else's mistakes and not have to learn those yourself. When I teach quilt making, I do use that as a tool.

CC: How many hours a week do you quilt?

NF: Not enough. During the school year I'm very busy teaching high school mathematics so most of my quilt making is during the summer. As part of the group, the Kirby Quilters, we have just a block at a time that each of us is responsible for, as a project. So, I fit in some sewing when I can, but it's not a regular commitment in my time frame.

CC: Are there other quiltmakers among your family or friends? Please tell me about them.

NF: Both grandmothers. Jane Brown, who was in my household when I grew up, she had made quilts throughout her life and in fact, one of her quilts she designed the block to commemorate Lindbergh's flight over the Atlantic and so she made an Airplane quilt. Alternate blocks were quilted with the Lone Eagle design. That was featured as one of the quilts in "Plain and Fancy" [book co-written by Richard Cleveland and Donna Bister.]. Grandma Tucker who was Florence Eastman (maiden name) and as far I can remember she was always making quilts. Her quilts were always tied quilts and, in fact, the quilting frame that she had worked on for stretching and tying all her quilts was one where I helped her do some tying. On her last quilt she worked on, she asked if I would like that frame and she gave it to me. Other friends that I have are in the Kirby Quilters and we always get ideas from each other, see what we're doing and try new things. Sometimes there are little challenges to see if we can use one theme but do something different from another person.

CC: How does quilt making impact your family?

NF: I think nearly everyone in the family has received a quilt that I've made. I think they appreciate the combinations of patterns and colors and the time that it takes to make a quilt, but also the fact that it is something that will keep you warm in the long Vermont winters. I did complete a quilt for my son Nate that is a wool quilt where the inside layer was wool batting made from the fleece of sheep that we had raised. So, he enjoys that even though he doesn't need a lot of quilts, he likes that quilt.

CC: Tell me if you have ever used quilts to get through a difficult time.

NF: I do remember working on some sewing at the time that my mother-in-law Wilma Halpin was quite ill. Sometimes it gives you some mental calmness and therapy. It helps you connect and think about good memories of other people at that time.

CC: Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quilt making (teaching)?

NF: I do recall one of the sessions that I taught at the Fletcher Farm Craft School [Ludlow, Vermont.] where an elderly woman was part of our class and we had gone down to a little quilt talk at the Black River Academy Museum. She insisted on riding in the back of the pickup truck with a few of the other ladies. To show that she was still young at heart, when we arrived, she got out of the back, and she jumped from the back and skipped into the lecture. She was just delighted to learn things about quilt making and I remember that fondly.

CC: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

NF: The fact that you can start with the same pattern as another quilter and by the use of your colors and choices of arrangement it can look like a totally different quilt. I really like the creativity that you can find.

CC: What aspects of quilt making do you not enjoy?

NF: The fact that I don't have enough time to devote to all the ideas that I'd like to try.

CC: What quilt groups do you belong to?

NF: The Kirby Quilters. I have been a member with that group since 1977. I joined them at Town Meeting right after they had completed the Bicentennial year of activities. In that group they make a new baby quilt for newcomers in town, the small rural town here in [Kirby.] Vermont. We also do other community work so in that group we don't work on our own projects usually; they are things that will benefit others. I'm also a member of the Green Mountain Quilters' Guild, a charter member. We had our very first meeting in Bethel, Vermont and they meet twice a year. I served as their newsletter editor for quite a few years, was their recording secretary for one or two terms and then was their president for one term. So, I now am a past president and lend support when I can. I've also been a member of the Vermont Quilt Festival Board of Directors. I volunteered with them for every year of the festival except for two. In my term on the Board of Directors I was responsible as the Volunteer Coordinator. I also worked with their consignment sales area, other areas of volunteering. I've worked in nearly every part over the years and seen lots of changes, met lots of wonderful people, have some friends that even though I see them just once a year at the Quilt Festival, it's like a family reunion. It's always fun to see them, very enjoyable people and every year you meet some new folks that add and extend that circle of friends.

CC: Have advances in technology influenced your work? If so, how?

NF: I used to draft a lot of patterns by hand, once in a while I still do, with a pencil compass, but sometimes I like to try stretching or changing the traditional design and I found that on the computer I sometimes use just regular draw feature within Word and am able to quickly show steps that I would use in building a particular block or design especially when I'm teaching classes I find that very useful. It's like having graph paper but you don't have to color and then make a mistake and erase it. You can easily modify it on the computer. I have some other software that will let me resize pieced blocks of any size. I can print templates that are ready with the one-quarter inch seam allowance, or I can print them without a seam allowance. I've found it very useful to test out some ideas. Sometimes printing a foundation piecing pattern that way is fast and I can try a single block without having to make the full quilt--it helps to show the lines quickly, so I have found that the technology is nice. Sometimes I've taken the scanner and scanned fabric samples and then I can, on the computer, cut them down to the pieces that I want to see how they look nice next to each other and reflected or multiplied. I found it takes a little while to learn how to do some of those features, but once you understand it, it saves a lot of time later.

CC: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

NF: Even though I can do nice appliqué work I tend to prefer the piecing and geometric patterns. I enjoy a challenge when someone looks at something and says, 'You can't do that with a sewing machine' and then my response is, 'Well, let me try,' or 'Watch me do it.' And it does sometimes take a little longer because you're testing out something different, but I find it a challenge and I like to give it a try. I predominantly work with cotton fabrics. I am one of those that prefers to prewash. I don't think all the time spent on something should be wasted if all of a sudden you have a problem with the fabric bleeding or shrinking more than you had planned. I enjoy that. Different battings serve their purpose for different finished products, so I have tried silk batting, wool batting, cotton batting, polyester batting. I haven't tried the new bamboo batting, am not sure if that's high on my list.

CC: Describe your studio/the place that you create.

NF: I do have a small bedroom that holds most of my fabric collection and sewing machine. It has one window so that the light comes in over my shoulder as I sew. I have space in the living room that I can hang up quilts full view or use as a design area so I can stand back, I can take pictures, and then take the picture and cut it up and try different things if I'd like. At one time my husband accused me of having sewing things in every room in the house, which was close to true, so I've kind of gotten a little better in recent years of keeping my things together in one room.

CC: Tell me how you balance your time.

NF: A lot of the influence is based on a deadline. If I have a deadline for one of our Kirby Quilter blocks, then I make sure and make the time to work on that. I do find that my thinking time is almost as much as my sewing time, sometimes more, so I'm apt to think while I'm involved in other things and then when I actually sit down to do the sewing, it goes right along nicely.

CC: How do you go about designing your quilts?

NF: I sometimes have a theme in mind and if I've seen pictures or gone to quilt shows and taken photos of color combinations that I like, or if I have a favorite fabric that I want to work into something I look at a design element that the fabric designer used and see if there's something that can play off that. Sometimes the quilt magazines show something that's becoming quite popular in another part of the country and, even though I might not like everything that I see in that, I can usually find something that interests me. So, it's kind of is a blend of many things.

CC: What do you think makes a great quilt?

NF: I think having good technique involved; a good visual impact both at a distance and then close-up, high-quality fabrics are important. I still tend to lean towards the traditional quilts but there are some quiltmakers whose works I see in the magazines or at some of the quilt shows that do draw me to them. Even though I don't replicate what they do, I still admire them.

CC: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

NF: I guess maybe a quilt that has been designed more as a wall hanging than a quilt. My view about artistic, I prefer quilts on the bed to be utilitarian but also enjoyable. You shouldn't be afraid to use them. If it's an artistic quilt then my thought is you shouldn't be handling it, but you should be looking at it. So I guess that's the distinction between the two for me.

CC: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

NF: I think being well preserved, showing a technique that may be difficult, sometimes makes it a valuable quilt that someone would want to add to their collection. To me a collection of quilts made by a same person or related people or family quilts that were inherited even though they may never end up in a museum collection because of the fact that they had been used and worn and starting to fade. The fact that they had been made for family members with love and intended to be used as quilts, keeps those together as a collection and, even though they may no longer be used--in order to preserve them because of their fragileness--having photos and being able to tell their story and pass it along, I think is part of a personal collection idea.

CC: What makes a great quiltmaker?

NF: Someone who is open to new ideas and new styles, who doesn't just make the same pattern over and over and over again. Someone who breaks out of the box a little bit and stretches. The quiltmaker still has to be someone who enjoys what they're doing. If it gets to be sort of a factory setting for them, I think you start to notice that in their work and so the quiltmakers that are evolving I think are very vibrant to others.

CC: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

NF: There are a couple of quiltmakers in Vermont whose works I have admired over the decades that I've been fairly involved in quilt making. I admired Lucile Leister's quilts from early, early on. I could not believe how beautiful they were and what high workmanship she showed. I remember Jeannie Hutchinson from Northfield, Vermont as being one of the first people who did beautiful machine appliqué work with a regular zigzag stitch sewing machine. You couldn't tell until you were about a foot away that she had done it by machine, and it was just beautiful work. I admired that so much. Mary K. Ryan and Jan Snelling are another pair of quiltmakers, who always seem to have pizzazz in their quilts even though they're fairly traditional quilts and I always enjoy seeing their newest pieces. Muriel Liberty, who lived in Irasburg, Vermont was another well-known quilter for years and she had just beautiful work. Most of hers was traditional. It really surprised me when I saw some pieces and found out later that she had made them and she tried doing some things very out of the ordinary, but her workmanship was just beautiful.

CC: Which artists have influenced you?

NF: I like seeing the colors that Caryl Bryer Fallert uses in her quilts, a lot of hand-dyed fabrics. Mickey Lawler's quilts are fun to watch and look at. I don't make mine as bright as hers, but they still influence me, and I think she has quite an artistic eye as she works. There are many others, people read about them all the time. Every time I look at somebody's work there's something that stays with me.

CC: How do you feel about machine quilting vs. hand quilting? What about longarm quilting?

NF: I think it comes down to the quality of the quilting as opposed to how it's accomplished. I've seen very beautiful machine quilting, both with a regular sewing machine and with a long-arm machine. I've seen wonderful hand quilting. I recognize it takes a lot of time and practice to become adept at any of those. So, to me, I admire very well-done work no matter which technique was used.

CC: Why is quilt making important to your life?

NF: It's that chance to be alone with your thoughts, to do something that you want to do. If you're not satisfied with it you can try again, you can change something. You can do some of that famous reverse sewing and modify it. If you really don't care for a piece after you have it finished, you can donate it to a charity. There are so many needy organizations that they think every quilt is beautiful even if I might not be as happy with one myself at that point. So, it gives me a chance to have proof that I've accomplished something with my time and others appreciate it. All the quilters that I've met are very enjoyable people and we get on one wavelength we can talk about things. So, as I am doing my own quilting, sometimes something will come to mind that another quilter has said in a conversation, so I find it very peaceful and relaxing. Unless I'm working towards a deadline in which case it's not quite as relaxing.

CC: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community or region?

NF: Especially when I'm working with the Kirby Quilters, we do many sampler quilts and I have a few patterns that, depending on the theme, I might repeat a same pattern, but I use it with a different fabric, and we've had a few times where we've shown some of the quilts that we've given away and then borrow back to display. It's always fun to see how some of our same patterns that we gravitate towards appear again and other people that see a quilt by the Kirby Quilters are drawn to it and say 'Oh, I knew it was a Kirby Quilters' quilt.' We tend to have some traditional themes although once in a while we break out and say, 'Let's do something really bright this time.' Or one pattern that we see in one of the magazines that's just come out and we all want to try it. I think a lot of times what I do is similar to what our group does, as our benefit quilts that we work on together.

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

NF: I think that quilt making is one of those traditions that takes a back seat for a while and isn't out in the news, isn't recognized as being something that ties generations together. But on the other hand, it's part of our American heritage. It's one way of reusing fabric that still has life left in it. It's satisfying for me for creativity, for beauty, for utilitarian warmth, for sharing, for giving a gift. One other type of aspect I've worked with, I've worked on three Quilts of Valor that were donated anonymously to soldiers that have returned from conflict that have lifelong injuries that they'll be living with. And, to our surprise, the third group quilt that I worked on for the Quilts of Valor was reserved and presented at the Pentagon to a young chaplain that had returned, and he was able to write a thank you note that was passed along back to us, so we actually have that connection from him. For him to receive something from strangers and for us to provide a little way of thanks that we have for the sacrifices. They're not always physical scars. Sometimes the kind of scars that he has to carry are just as deep but knowing that we've been able to help somebody else is important. I think that with all the quilting groups around the country, all the individual quilters that are taking on similar projects, thinking of others instead of just yourself is one of those important things that Americans are known for. We don't find that as heavily in some other countries or other regions of the world. I feel very deeply that that's one of the connections that quilters find very satisfying.

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

NF: Considering in most of the generations the women's work involved growing, processing and creating the fabric that clothing for the household and the furnishings, bed coverings, curtains, decorative parts of the household was part of their everyday routine. Even though to some people it was work, it was also self-satisfying having something to show for what you've done. And over generations there were some men, of course, that were involved with making quilts. But it was predominantly looked at as women's work. Now, more of us look at it as women's play. We're out in the work force, many of us. It's something that takes a little bit of a back seat but as part of women's history they were able to express themselves. They could have their own coded messages in quilts that they made. Certain patterns might have carried a little anecdote with it among circles, like an inside joke might. So, over the generations it was seen as a women's necessity but has evolved into an art form and women are starting to get the recognition that went with that. So, I think it's something you cannot separate from women's history.

CC: How do you think quilts can be used?

NF: As I said before, they have many uses. Sharing yourself with other people, offering warmth, offering something for needy people, needy emotionally, maybe physically, sparking creative juices in other people, learning techniques. It's a wide span of opportunities and a chance to learn and develop. It's something you can do lifelong. You don't have to buy a lot of equipment in order to make quilts so even people who cannot afford all the expensive gadgets can still produce something beautiful that they can be proud of.

CC: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

NF: I think it's important for museums to define what kind of collection they would like to be able to maintain. If families own quilts that are in suitable condition, instead of keeping them tucked away, if they would consider finding an appropriate museum that could add it to their collection and keep it in acid-free archival storage or display areas is good. Being able to go to quilt shows and finding that private collectors are willing to share their quilts with the public in that manner or museums that have quilts in storage to be able to share them on these occasions with the public in addition to publishing them in books and magazines is helping to continue this tradition of quilt making and not only preserving the actual quilt, but preserving all these ideas that go with quilts.

CC: What has happened to the quilts that you have made or those of friends and family?

NF: Some of the quilts that I have made and given to family members have been used, they were intended to be used and they've just been used right up. Some of our Kirby Quilter quilts that we have borrowed back are in tatters and shreds because they have just been loved to death and, actually, we are pretty happy to say that. We have had some quilts that have returned to us to be repaired because the families have cherished them and want to keep them in better shape now that they realize that they won't last forever without doing things like that. It's important to be able to share the stories as well as the quilts.

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

NF: Maybe finding the time to do all those projects that they would like to do and not being hindered by that great element of time.

CC: Mom, Nola, is there anything that you would like to add to this interview?

NF: I do want to thank you, Catherine, for agreeing to be my interviewer and I remember that when the Kirby Quilters ran their own quilt shows, there was always a children's category that you and Nate and other children of the Kirby Quilters would always try to sew something to enter in the children's category. Every child would receive a ribbon and I think encouraging the next generation to appreciate quilts and consider trying to make quilts is important. Even going the other way, I have had the opportunity to show both my mother and mother-in-law how to make quilts and they've each given it a try but not everyone gets totally bitten by that quilt bug but they certainly all appreciate the time and effort that goes into quilts.

CC: I'd like to thank Nola Forbes for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 8:17 p.m. on October 8, 2008.


“Nola Forbes,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 16, 2024,