Cyrena Persons




Cyrena Persons




Cyrena Persons


Nola Forbes

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Walden, Vermont


Nola Forbes


Note: Cyrena Persons is not a member of the DAR. While this is a DAR quiltmaker documentation project, membership in the DAR is not required for participation.

Nola Forbes (NF): My name is Nola A. Forbes and today's date is July 14, 2009, at 9:58 a.m. I am conducting an interview with Cyrena Persons in her summer home in Walden, 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. Cyrena tell me about the quilt you brought in today.

Cyrena Persons (CP): This is an example of my philosophy for use it up and wear it out or use what you have. I bought the fabric for the quilt at the thrift shop. Not exactly as yard goods, but one was a lady's blouse. To contrast with that I chose blue from a man's shirt and used the better parts of both garments. Put the quilt together, a border on it, bound it and feel that I have used something, recycled something.

NF: Was the red border also reused?

CP: No, that came from one of my little stash piles. I like red or shades of red, various. Depends on what I'm bordering, but I do like the red. It seemed to go with it for me.

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

CP: It simply shows that I can make something out of leftovers.

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

CP: Because it was small and I was traveling.

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

CP: They'd probably realize that I'm a Vermonter and thrifty. I do like to save things and use them again if I can.

NF: How did you decide on this quilting pattern?

CP: I wanted the quilting to tie down all the little bitty corners of the pattern. As you know, there are quite a few corners involved in this particular pattern of an Irish Chain. I wanted, too, to hold them down. My philosophy of quilting is to cover as much of the quilt as you need to in order to have it to turn out to be a nice, a nice hefty piece.

NF: I see the binding.

CP: Oh, yes, but you know you're looking at the corner. [laughs.] I do not like to do sharp corners so I use a spool of thread, mark it and bind around so it is kind of just a gentle curve on the corner.

NF: It is the same fabric as the woman's dress or garment.

CP: Yes. Is it? If it is, I don't remember. Oh yes, it is. Well that goes with the part of the quilt.

NF: Of course.

CP: Okay.

NF: How do you use this quilt?

CP: I just use it as an example of being thrifty and showing people what can be done. A lot of people like to buy fabric, myself included, but sometimes I like to use what I have and it's a challenge to use it in a piece. It may not be the entire quilt, but if I'm doing appliqué or something of that nature, I have a nice closet full of stuff.

NF: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

CP: I'm fascinated with quilting. I don't know that I've ever seen two quilts that were alike, unless they were meant to be alike. The designs, the people that make them, the fact that you can make so many different patterns and overall designs from the same fabric that really has kept me inspired. That and the people, of course.

NF: At what age did you start quiltmaking?

CP: Now let's see. I started, could I tell you about the very beginning?

NF: Sure.

CP: I started probably when I was ten or eleven. My stepfather's parents took me under their wing. I went to live with them in Hastings, New York for a summer. My stepfather's mother was brought up in South Carolina. She was brought up in a very proper household on a plantation. She thought that every little girl ought to know how to set the table, how to make a bed, how to do those household things that ladies are supposed to do and of course that included sewing. I don't think I'd ever held a needle in my hand. She had me piecing some little pieces of fabric together. At the time, I thought this was pretty silly. As time went on I had family of my own, I became interested in it. And that's sort of how I started.

NF: From whom did you learn to quilt, besides that gal?

CP: Well, no one, really.

NF: What was her name?

CP: Her name was Martha Scharf. S-c-h-a-r-f. She was a very proper lady. She taught me how to set the table and you know those things impressed me. They really did, they impressed me. My children can tell you about that. [laughs.]

NF: How many hours a week do you quilt?

CP: That's hard to say. I quilt sporadically in spare time. My health has limited me to doing a lot of things. So I do other type of handwork. Probably three or four hours.

NF: What is your first quilt memory?

CP: That's a quilt that came to us, I think from this same person from South Carolina, who lived in Hastings, New York. She gave us, when I was married, when I was first married, she gave us a red and white quilt. I can't tell you the pattern, I don't remember it, but I remember the quilt. That was the first quilt I really looked at carefully. I thought it was beautiful. We used it on our bed until it was all used up. Now I'm sorry about that. That was the first quilt that I really, that's where I became inspired, I think. The first quilt I made, is that what you are asking, or you're going to ask me? [both laugh.]

NF: You can tell me about the first quilt you made.

CP: The first quilt I made, so called “quilt”, you're going to laugh, it was bandanas. I pieced together red and white bandanas, blue and white. You know what they were, the old-fashioned farmer's bandanas. I tied it, which of course is not technically a quilt, but it was a coverlet. I managed to back it. I forget what I put in the middle of it. I suspect it might have been an old flannel sheet. That was the first attempt. Real quilting, I did when one of my boys went away to school, the first time. I had of course sewn for my children, I have six of them, so it was quite a bit of sewing and I saved scraps. I don't throw anything away. I made a quilt for him to take away to school. It did come back to me pretty well worn out, so that was another attempt. Serious quilting really didn't start until into the 70's.

NF: Are there other quiltmakers among your family?

CP: There's not a whole lot of interest in my children, I'm kind of disappointed that they haven't taken up quilting, but they're interested in fabric. One daughter especially who doesn't quilt. I do have a niece who's doing quilts. I haven't seen her work yet, but I'm going to in another week. I'm anxious to see that.

NF: You've told me that you have a neighbor that you're interested in helping with her quiltmaking?

CP: The little girl who lives nearby where we are here in Walden, I think she's fifteen or sixteen. She has shown me some of her attempts at quilting. As I said earlier to you, I want to get her down here so we can talk about the quilts.

NF: Can you tell me about some of your teaching at Fletcher Farm School? [for the Arts & Crafts, Ludlow, Vermont.]

CP: That took place quite some time ago, I can't remember too many details, except it was over a number of years. Fletcher Farm, as you know, is a school for traditional crafts, artwork. Beautiful work is done down there. They hadn't had quilting for some time. I've forgotten how I got started. There would be small classes, they would be intense. We lived right there. The students and I, too, lived there. They would get up in the morning and if breakfast isn't ready over in the main house, you go over to the classroom and sometimes I'd find people there already. They were serious. I just loved being there with them that were dedicated and focused on what they were doing. Even though I might have said, 'We're going to construct an Ohio Star.' They really worked at that. That's fascinating when you can teach and your student is dedicated to what they are doing.

NF: Were those beginner classes or intermediate?

CP: Some were beginners. We usually ended up with a picture of the class at the end. Some finished, some didn't. Once in a while there'd be something that was more advanced. I found that since there hadn't been any classes there previously, or not in recent years anyway, that I knew of, these were mostly beginning quilters.

NF: In the new Dining Hall building there, I believe that one of your pieces is hanging. A wall hanging?

CP: The Dining Hall must be new, it wasn't there when I was.

NF: I think it was in the original Dining Hall.

CP: In the main house.

NF: It is hanging up above the windows in the new Dining Hall.

CP: Could be. My memory is pretty--you know after all these years. I'm not young any longer. It could be.

NF: Tell about some of the other classes you've taught, in different states.

CP: I taught mainly local. Of course, I lived in Cabot [Vermont.]. More local classes were back in the seventies, the eighties, the nineties. In Barre [Vermont.], I taught. I remember I rented some rooms upstairs over a store and hauled these long tables up the stairs. I remember that. The ladies, again, that came to those quilting classes, were focused. They wanted to learn to quilt. That's where I wanted to be. I did teach there. I do have a book of all the names of those people that came to the early classes. I forgot to bring it with me. I taught in South Barre. Then we had classes off and on around Cabot. Just small classes.

NF: What about some of the other states?

CP: When I moved to Florida. I went down there to look after my mother in her late years. I taught at a church group in Port Orange, which is near where we lived. They were busy quilters. There might be twenty or twenty-five people there at a time. A little group was sitting at their sewing machines. They might have four sewing machines going. Then they would have another group that would be embroidering blocks, another group that was setting up a quilt frame. They were serious.

NF: Did you mention some in your present home?

CP: Now, yes, I live in North Carolina. That's mainly in our church group. We had a long course all over one winter. For I think four months. It covered a lot of ground. They were not all beginners. There were a few that had quilted before. They all learned, well I think they all learned, how to use a thimble. A thimble is important to me. But now, that course is done, of course. When I left this summer, earlier this summer, they all promised to keep going Thursday afternoons. I'm not sure that they've done this. They would come to my house while I was down there and we would quilt all afternoon. We promised not to do anything else. You know how it is we did a lot of talking and laughing.

NF: How many hours each Thursday?

CP: It would be three hours. I thought for a while that was too long, but not when someone is loving what they are doing. We have a good time.

NF: About how many are in this group?

CP: There are four. They don't all come at once. It's a very small group. As I said, they want to do this and they really want to learn.

NF: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

CP: Oh, they just kind of smile. You know how they're saying, 'Here she is buying this fabric, cutting it up into little pieces and then sewing it back together.' I think they really like to know that Mother quilts. They would like to have a quilt. I have tried to make a quilt for, well the grandchildren have kind of multiplied and I haven't gotten one to everyone. The first quilt I made that was for a little one. It was an appliqué when I knew nothing about it. It was Jack in the Bean Stock. I still have the pattern. Maybe I'll make another one. They do like the quilts. I try to give a quilt to each grandchild. Well there's some of my children that don't have one yet.

NF: Oh, my.

CP: They're fussy. [laughs.]

NF: Tell me about an amusing experience that has occurred from your quiltmaking or your quilt teaching.

CP: I thought about this earlier. I don't know that I can remember what it was all about. I think it's, I don't know if it's amusing or not, but it's interesting to me to see someone who has missed something along their years of sewing. Like the hole in a needle. There are differences. You know that and I know that. Thread is made in various ways. Embroidery thread has a lot of little, little threads together. Trying to get those threads through a round-holed needle is pretty difficult. It's like, 'Gee, never knew that before,' and it was like a whole new light came on. Those things, it's not really funny, but it's amusing to me. Now the difference between a pair of shears and a pair of scissors, which I'm still not clear about, but there is supposed to be a difference. It's those things. When somebody finally sees the light it's just fun.

NF: What do you find pleasing about quiltmaking?

CP: Color. Design. The fabrics that are available. There's no end. I like to look at these magazines with all these beautiful ideas. Not that I try to use them. It's mostly the variety. The variety of people. Their ideas of how to put together something. It's fascinating.

NF: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

CP: Oh, you know? [laughs.] Yeah, doing the corners. [laughs.] I do like to design things. I like to put together a portion of what I've designed. However, at that point, I'm apt to lose interest. I know what it's going to look like. I do all the preliminary work. That's what I really like to do. It's the finishing that I put it off. I'm afraid I'm a procrastinator. I know I've got to live to be over a hundred to finish what I've started. Who knows what will happen to it. I think it's the finishing, that I put it off. I like to see it done, but I'm afraid I don't enjoy it quite as much.

NF: That reminded me. I recall many years ago, seeing a system that you used, sort of a portfolio binder?

CP: Yes.

NF: Would you describe that?

CP: That was in teaching. All the samples. That's something else I love to do. To make an example of how to do whatever. Whether it's turning back the hems for appliqué. Do it in detail. I like to use pen and paper to describe it, step by step. Then make an example of that step. I'm not sure if that's what you're remembering or not. But I still have that and I refer to it every now and then.

NF: I think that's an important tool.

CP: I like to illustrate on paper what I mean. I think it is helpful.

NF: What quilt groups do you belong to, or have in the past?

CP: Vermont ones of course. The guild has various chapters now. The Vermont quilt guild does. I have been involved in some of those chapters over the years until I left Vermont. After that, I belonged to a group in Florida. I did join the Asheville, North Carolina group. I just don't have time. Well, time, yes. I've had some health issues that kind of restricted me.

NF: You helped found two of the area quilt groups?

CP: The chapters for the Green Mountain. The one in Montpelier was called the Calico County Quilters. The one in Cabot, my hometown. I'm not sure what they ever did take up for a name. I think they're still quilting.

NF: They may be called the Cabot Quilters.

CP: It could be the Cabot Quilters.

NF: I'd have to check. This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Green Mountain Quilters Guild. You were one of the founding mothers for that group. [co-President with Lucile Leister from 1979-1981.]

CP: [laughs.] A founding mother. [laughs.]

NF: Could you describe some of how that came about?

CP: I think it was--Lucile Leister was the other gal that worked on this. I think she said it was a way of getting what she called, and I still call, there are still some of them, “closet quilters” out of the closet. Inspired by meeting with one another. I could see right away with the response. At the first-- I'm not sure how many people came, but I know there were quite a few people from around the state. It really meant something to them. If it meant something to them. I'm not sure how many people, if there were 15, 20, 25 people.

NF: It was a full room, in the Home Ec [Economics.] room.

CP: It would seem it meant something to more people. Maybe they were a little timid to come out and show their work or admit that they don't know this or whatever. I think that was the beginning of, well, the Vermont Quilt Festival as well as the Green Mountain Quilters. I'm so pleased that it got going and it's still going. That's inspiring.

NF: It is. Tell about some of your experiences with the Vermont Quilt Festival.

CP: That started out, the first that I knew about it, it may have started the previous year, in Northfield. At the Labor Day festival. I'm not sure what they call it, but Dick Cleveland decided that there should be a Quilt Show incorporated in this festival, this celebration. We met with another lady. I think it was Hutchinson.

NF: Jeannie Hutchinson?

CP: Yes, Jeannie Hutchinson. We met at the Armory. [laughs.] Dick thought we ought to judge these quilts that came in. I don't think there were more than five or six quilts. We had no way to hang them up. So somehow he had obtained some newsprint from the newspaper office. He laid it out. Rolled out this newsprint on the floor. A couple of layers of it.

NF: This was blank newsprint?

CP: Yes. We spread the quilts on it. Why, that was the beginning of my life. That was something else. We judged those quilts. I can't tell you who was-- [the winner.] I wonder if he's kept a record of that? It would be wonderful if he had.

NF: Then later you served on the Board of Trustees for the Vermont Festival?

CP: Yes, yes. That again, was interrupted by some health issues. A couple of open heart surgeries kind of put a kibosh on some of those things. I only stayed on the Board for a season or so. It was some distance from where I lived. But I'm still interested in what's going on, on that Board.

NF: Do you have any other favorite memory of the Vermont Quilt Festival shows?

CP: At the beginning? Oh my. I've always been amazed at the progression of the show. It started out to be local quiltmakers. Then more and more antique quilts came in. I was able to write the commentary about the antique quilts for a time. It's just a wonderful memory of going to those shows and seeing the progress that quiltmakers have made. The art quilts were developed along with that. Several years after the show got started, I think. It just amazes me. I am pleased that I could have been a part of it.

NF: Have advances in technology influenced your work?

CP: Not a whole lot. I'm still struggling with how to use a--what do you call it?

NF: The rotary?

CP: A rotary. I have two big mats and, I don't know, I have several little rotary cutters. It intimidates me to pieces to try to cut a great big piece of fabric into little pieces. So I'm still doing it the old-fashioned way. I read about it. I read about the new techniques on appliqué, and I do like appliqué. I really appreciate the fact that people have learned to these things in a quicker, more efficient way, probably with a better result. Going back to the antique quilts, I can remember looking at some antique Log Cabin patterns. The little strips that are supposed to be a log around the chimney, they could vary from maybe one inch to one and a half inches. Yet the whole thing would come together. Being more of a traditional quilt lover, I feel that some of the new technologies are good, and they make for perfect quilts, but I don't think a quilt needs to be perfect.

NF: You do use a sewing machine for some of your work? [both speak at same time.]

CP: Oh yes, I use it. I'm just starting, well within the last three or four years, starting to use the machine to piece the work rather than piece by hand. I still appliqué by hand. I've got that down to where I can handle it alright.

NF: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

CP: Techniques are, I don't know, what is a technique? Everyone has their own idea of what a technique is. I like to use the traditional running stitches. I like to make sure that the points and corners are together. They're not always that way. I'm not a perfectionist. As far as tools?

NF: Or materials?

CP: Materials. A good pair of scissors. A good pair. Sharp. This is something that I try to stress in my classes. You cannot cut a piece of fabric with dull shears. Anyway, I like to use a thimble. The right size needles. Sometimes different sizes work for different techniques. Good fabric. I have yet to find a good shop right around here. They're getting scarce. Where I live there are some good ones. But I do know it's expensive. However, I still believe that if you're going to put the time and the work into constructing the quilt you need to buy the very best fabrics that you can possibly afford. So, it's fabrics and tools.

NF: What do you use or prefer for your fillers?

CP: There's such a variety out there now. Didn't used to be. Used to be a wadded cotton. Of course I never did use that. I'm old but not that old. I started out with Fairfield Traditional battings and I still like that. I like the looks of the finished piece. I'm not a puffy quiltmaker. [laughs.] I understand now, and I have not tried it, there are some combination cotton and polyester. The cotton fillers, I like the feel of them. I like the way they look after they are quilted but they're harder to quilt. So there's a filler for every job. It depends on what you want for a look.

NF: You also earned a few awards over the years in quiltmaking.

CP: Well, yeah, probably.

NF: Could you tell about some of them?

CP: One that was a big surprise, was a quilt piece. A small piece that I made. It was Pyramids. Just plain Pyramids. In green. I think it was at Shelburne Museum. I had no idea that we actually were being judged. I thought I was being asked to just show a piece. Let's see, the award was the People's Choice, I think. I about fell over. I was very pleased. Normally I don't show.

NF: Do you think that was part of the Champlain Valley Quilt Show? [this was an Invitational Quilt at the Quilt and Hooked Rug Show, May 7-8, 1983 sponsored by Champlain Valley Quilters and the Green Mountain Craft Guild hosted by the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont.]

CP: Good grief, I don't remember, it was quite some time ago.

NF: Would you describe the place where you create your quilts?

CP: We live in a house with three bedrooms. It's a small house. The third bedroom we use. One side of the room belongs to my husband. That's his computer stuff. He's the genealogist nut in the family. The other side of the room happens to have a walk-in closet. So that half of the room plus the closet has come to my use. It's sort of like your clothes closet. He has a little over there and I have the rest. So it's cluttered. But he was good enough to put shelves all throughout that closet, so it's no place to hang clothing any longer. I have those shelves full of fabrics and craft materials.

NF: Do you use a design wall as you work?

CP: No, I usually have a little board. I design on paper. Graph paper. I use a lot of graph paper. When there's a block, say a pieced block that has lots of pieces, you know as well as I know, that you can lose track of which piece goes to which adjoining piece. I use a felt covered board to do that. That's probably the extent of it. I do use colored pencils, by using my graph paper sometimes. I plan by using tiny pieces of the same design, with the fabric that I'm going to use. Glue them to graph paper perhaps, to decide what colors, what fabrics go and what don't. I use the back of the living room sofa to decide whether a fabric has a very light or a medium value. See how it works. At dusk, when you can tell what happens to the dark and the lights. That's the extent of my design board.

NF: Tell me how you balance your time and fit in the quiltmaking.

CP: Good grief. My time is pretty flexible. I'm retired, of course. I just fit it in whenever I feel like it. I'm very fortunate to have the situation where I can do that. I may decide to do something at five o'clock in the morning and it may be just enough work. Maybe it's during the day. It might be in the car while I'm riding, seeing something that has inspired me. You might even design when you get to the fabric shop.

NF: What do you think makes a great quilt?

CP: Color. All the elements of design. Which I'm not sure I can remember them all now. Value of that color. Intensity of the color. How it works with other color in the quilt. The design has a tremendous amount of impact. Secondary designs that are showing up. That's something that comes with planning. It's very evident in a finished piece. If you are to judge a piece, it immediately impacts your decision as to whether this is a good quilt. To say nothing about the workmanship. The workmanship is extremely important, too. But there are so many aspects of this. I just-- there's no end!

NF: Have you also judged at some quilt shows?

CP: Yes, yeah.

NF: Which ones?

CP: Golly. I judged down at Billings Farms. [Billings Farm & Museum, Woodstock, Vermont.] I judged at Washington County Field Days. [East Montpelier, Vermont.] I don't know how many years I judged there. I can't remember.

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

CP: For a museum, of course, is age as well as condition. The graphic impact that a quilt has. The techniques that maybe were used that were unusual. The design. There are a number of things that would say, 'Yes, we need that in the museum.' The condition, of course. That really makes a good quilt . All of those things.

NF: What makes a great quiltmaker?

CP: Oh, my! Being passionate. Quiltmakers that continue to explore for themselves what's available. What they can do and kind of stretching their own imagination. I think that makes for a good quiltmaker. I'm sure there are other good qualities, too. Like yourself, you've been at this for a long time. That means you are a good quiltmaker. It makes no difference how great or how short your stitches are. That's not the point, in my estimation. It's important to the quiltmaker to be satisfied with what they make. I think that's a quality. It's really needed.

NF: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

CP: Oh, Lordy. I always liked Jinny Beyer's work. I attended a workshop with Virginia Avery once, early on. I was amazed at what that woman could do. It didn't turn out to be my thing, but I was inspired just the same. It's the people that I work with. I think it's wonderful. I think they're doing a wonderful job and its an inspiration to me to see them. To see what they're creating. I never have taken a class or seen somebody's work without learning something.

NF: Are there artists that have influenced you, either quilt artists or non-quilt artists?

CP: Not per se. People that do. Not people, but things that do inspire me, sometimes, are maybe a greeting card. I notice design. In your newspaper, even. Books of designs. All kinds of things.

NF: How do you feel about machine quilting vs. hand quilting?

CP: I'm beginning to appreciate machine quilting more, as I get older, because it's a lot faster. I've never really done any myself but small projects. I think it has its place. I do think I still like the hand work. I admire people that can do it. Personally, I'm not going to be able to do it much longer. There's a place for both.

NF: Why is quiltmaking important to your life?

CP: It's been a hobby that's filled up my--I have an inner desire to create something, I think. I think that's a lot of it.

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

CP: Physically? I'm still a Vermonter and I like Vermont quilts. Maybe that's part of it. One of my early quilts was getting people to do a block for the Bicentennial Quilt. [United States Bicentennial in 1976.] That quilt is still there. It's still hanging down there. I think that is one thing that has kept me going.

NF: Is that a Cabot quilt?

CP: It's in Cabot. Yes. It's in the Historical rooms upstairs there.

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

CP: Oh, important. Important. Very important.

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

CP: I think it shows that we are attached to that history. It has carried through to our lives.

NF: How do you think quilts can be used?

CP: Bed quilts. [laughs.] No, I know there are art quilts, but bed quilts mainly, for me.

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

CP: By labeling them. Putting a name, a date, a place on those quilts.

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

CP: I used to sell them. Now I'm giving them to family. That's where they are.

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

CP: Passing it on. Passing on their skills to their children.

NF: Cyrena is there anything you would like to add to this interview?

CP: I think we've covered it pretty well, every bit. [laughs.]

NF: I'd like to thank Cyrena Persons for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 10:42 a.m. on July 14, 2009.

[interview concludes.]


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