Janette Marie Swecker




Janette Marie Swecker




Janette Marie Swecker


Joan Kennedy

Interview Date



Des Moines, Washington


Karen Berndt


Joan Kennedy (JK): My name is Joan Kennedy and today's date is October 12, 2005. It is 9:00 a.m. I am conducting an interview with Janette Swecker in the Des Moines Historical Society at Des Moines, Washington for the Quilters' [S.O.S.- ] Save Our Stories project. We are doing this for the American Heritage Committee of Washington State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Janette is a quilter and a member of the Tillicum Chapter of the National Society of DAR. Janette, thank for allowing me to interview you today. This is a project that has gone on for many generations. I think in ancient times when people developed a fabric they were putting together this craft. And you brought us today a beautiful quilt. Tell me about it. Who made it, the original, the age, and then describe it please.

Janette Swecker (JS): Alright. I made this quilt for my granddaughter, Barbara Jan Swecker [2001-2003.]. It was intended to be a graduation present, a high school graduation present. And I have made six of them and they evolved over the years as I was making them and this is the final format I came up with. Each picture around the edge is some part of her life and I designed the pictures from the real things that happened, the activities she had. There is a block of quilt pieces my mother was quilting this particular quilt top when she became disabled. And she eventually gave me the parts that she had finished and so I took a piece out of that top and put a block in each of the grandchildren's quilts. And I have her signature on it [Marie Culmer Adams.]. The panel in the middle is my ancestor's and my husband's ancestor in Pennsylvania [New Holland, Pennsylvania, 1742.], our parents, and then our house and our children's houses. The church in Long Island [Southold, Long Island, New York, 1803.] I discovered in 2000 and that is my patriot family church. I was there for a Founder's Day service in 2000 and I made this dress I am wearing. And I put some of the fabric from this dress in the windows of that church [in the quilt.] and I wore the dress at the Founder's Day service. That connects it to DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution.] and me. The fabrics I used have been from materials I have made things for the family over the years and I made a legend so that the grandchildren will know what the meanings of the fabrics are.

JK: Well, I can certainly tell that this has, was designed with wonderful insights and meaning for you. Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview?

JS: I have given away all six of the quilts I made and so I had to borrow this one back. And this granddaughter [Barbara Jan Swecker.] lives close enough that I could borrow it from her [laughs.].

JK: One of the questions that says how do they use this quilt?

JS: She uses it on her bed. All the mothers make sure that the quilts are cared for because they will be their history. The first granddaughter [Marie E. Franklin.] received her quilt [1992.] and no one had seen what I was doing until then. And after 30 minutes of going over her quilt, she stood up and held it in front of her and she said, 'this is my life.' And at 13, that did represent her life. And I hope that they all keep them for that.

JK: Now, the last question in this segment is, and I think you probably answered it for yourself, what do you think her plans are for this quilt?

JS: I hope that she keeps it and hangs it on the wall eventually [laughs.]. They don't get as much wear that way.

JK: Right. Well, thank you.

[tape turned off for quick water break.]

JK: Jan, tell me about your interest in quilting and, of course, you have this wonderful demonstration of your work. But, at what age did you start quilting?

JS: I did not start quilting until, I must have been 50 years old anyway, and I made some baby quilts for grandchildren.

JS: Any particular reason why you started then?

JS: Well, I didn't have children to take care of anymore. And I liked to sew all the time and I didn't have any ideas of things to make for the grandchildren because they didn't need anything. So I decided that this would be something I could for their graduation presents and do them ahead of time. But, as it turned out, I was anxious to see their reactions so when the first quilt was done, I gave it to the granddaughter and she was only 13. So, I have continued to give them early as I completed them.

JK: Oh, I think what a wonderful gift. And how about your yardage supply? Have you [laughs.], do you keep adding to it or do-- [laughs.]

JS: I've been pretty good the last few years. The only yardage that I buy is the backing of the quilt and the sashing when I decide what the color scheme is going to be. Then I need to buy yardage for that.

JK: Whom did you learn to quilt from? You said your mother quilted and your grandmother. Were they in a position to show you or--

JS: No, my mother and my grandmother lived in Michigan. I have a quilt top she [grandmother.] made but my mother didn't live near me either. Since I sew all the time, it was not hard to pick up a book and get some tips on what I needed to do.

JK: Thank you. How many hours do you think you spend quilting or have you retired that?

JS: I don't quilt any more because my arthritis has damaged my hands so badly, but when I was making a quilt, once I would get the top done, I would borrow a friend's quilt frame, then layer and stretch the three layers, baste them together, then take the quilt off the frame, and take it home to quilt it. And I had a lap hoop that I put on small parts of the quilt and quilted it that way. I know I saw World Series games of many years [both laughing.]. I was quilting in the living room and it always seemed to be fall when I would get to my quilting. Since it was on my lap, I didn't do it in the heat of the summer. So I spent a number of winters, falls and winters quilting.

JK: Thank you. What is your first quilt memory?

JS: Oh, my first quilt memory would probably be a quilt that my mother made that she used on her bed. And then she made crazy quilts for each of my children and I expect, for most of her grandchildren. Only we used them. They were crazy quilt patch and she used a lot of the fabrics that I had given her from things I had made. So the one on her bed, I guess, would be the first memory.

JK: What color, do you recall?

JS: It was crazy quilt again. It was all colors. That one was heavy materials so that it was a very warm quilt. We didn't have the polyester battings that we have now so the batting was usually flannel sheets that were put inside the quilt. They didn't provide as much warmth as the polyester batting does. So even the crazy quilts she made for my children had flannel sheets for the inside.

JK: She was a practical lady, wasn't she.

JS: [laughter.] She was very practical. [laughter.].

JK: Now, this question might sound a little redundant, but we'll ask it anyway. Are there quilters among your family and friends, other than your mother and grandmother? Then please tell me about--

JS: My daughter-in-law [Robin Swecker.], the mother of this granddaughter, is a wonderful quilter. She does very intricate patterns and she has the patience for it [laughs.]. She started so early that she has made a number of quilts. She is very industrious. I have other friends that quilt but they became friends because they were quilters and we have that in common.

JK: How nice. This day and age you hear of more people getting together to quilt, don't you.

Now, tell me if you have ever used quilting to get through a difficult time in your life?

JS: I don't believe so. The most difficult times were before I started quilting. I sewed all the time. That was my relief to go each evening to my sewing room and spend time sewing. Even though I don't sew for a long time, I still get that peaceful sense just to go to the sewing machine. But when I was making the quilts, first to designing the block and then putting it together. The first quilt I thought the hard part was over when I got the blocks made. I discovered that choosing all of the sashing and things took a lot of concentration. So it does take your mind off of everything else that is going on.

JK: How does quilting impact your family?

JS: Well, because my children are grown and my grandchildren are pretty well grown now, it only impacts my husband and I [laugh.]. He has made a quilt frame for me to display quilts on which I only used once but he that has been his only involvement.

JK: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

JS: The satisfaction of seeing the finished work. The pictures I make, each one has meaning to it, that is very satisfying to me. I want to leave history for my grandchildren.

JK: What aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

JS: Let's see. Well, I'm sorry I can't hand quilt any more. I would like to be able to but, the size I guess is the most difficult thing to work with. When putting together the large pieces, the quilt gets larger then you have accommodations. The lady that made the quilt that is on my bed had a room that was dedicated to quilting and she had this fabulous big table that her son made. I envy that.

JK: I can see why it would be so practical to have a large enough room. Because your quilt is very, very good sized. Now, do you make wearable art?

JS: Yes, I do. I make vests. I make vests with appliqués on them and I've made pieced vests. I have one vest that is made from the Seminole pattern of quilt piecing. Most of my vests I give away and this one [Seminole pattern.] I decided I needed to have one for myself. So I did the Seminole piecing on that and I like that very much.

JK: Well, with all your quilting, do you sleep under the quilt?

JS: Yes, I bought one from a lady in Des Moines [Washington.]. She was near 90 when I bought it. She had a stack of quilts and she was getting to ready to move from her house so she was selling her quilts. So I bought one from her and she was still hand quilting [quilting kept her hands from becoming too stiff.]. I had no idea my hands wouldn't last until I was 90 also [laugh.].

JK: It is a shame when that arthritis hits. Do you belong to a sewing group?

JS: No, I pretty much do things on my own.

JK: And do you have a collection of quilting or sewing memorabilia?

JS: No, I have just the things I have gathered together to make my quilts.

JK: Now, have you ever done any teaching?

JS: Yes, I teach the method of making the pictures for the appliqué blocks at the Arlington Fly In [3-5 day event in early July each year by the NW Experimental Aircraft Association in Arlington, Washington in a tent designated for women.]. I teach three days in a row, sometimes four days. And I have a number of students that were extremely interested because they had never experienced this type of a quilt. I had a quilt on display, until I gave them all away, when I was teaching up there. Then I designed a quilt for a lady who was not able to do anything very difficult. I cut all the pieces for her and laid then out, numbered, so she could put the quilt together for her granddaughter, for her graduation. And then another lady that was 90 years old wanted to learn to appliqué because her granddaughter had provided her all the materials for doing an appliqué quilt and so I taught her how to appliqué.

JK: Wonderful.

[tape turned off for a short water break.]

JK: Janette, what do you think makes a great quilt?

JS: I think any quilt that is completed is a great quilt because so many people start quilts and don't finish them. The lady I bought mine from was the recipient of many started quilts. I appreciate the color of quilts. Knowing how difficult it is to make the pieced designs, I really appreciate that. The Apple Core pattern that my mother was doing has a block in this quilt and it has all curved edges. I would never have the patience to hand stitch all those curves. On the designs that have a lot of corners and all the corners meet, I have done some of that. I appreciate it very much doing that.

JK: [laughing.] Thank you. What makes a quilt artistically powerful, in your opinion?

JS: The way color is used. There is a method of piecing now that is called Watercolor Piecing. And my daughter-in-law [Robin Swecker.] has done some of that. It takes shades of color and uses a number of small pieces to create a picture, as if I like picture quilts [short laugh.]. That's very appealing to me and it takes a lot of artistic--being able to see what it is going to turn out to be. They use a board and assemble pieces on a board. I have my drapes that I pinned my blocks on and that's where I designed my quilts--how the final design would be.

JK: That's very clever of you.

JS: Oh [both talk at once and laugh.]. Well, that's what I had.

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

JS: All hand work. I think hand work is really very important to have as one of the criteria for being a really valuable historic quilt.

JK: Thank you. What do you think makes a great quilter?

JS: Well, there again, anybody who finishes a quilt I think is a great quilter [short laugh.].

JK: I agree.

JS: But, back again to the lady that I my bought my quilt from, her whole life revolved around her quilt making. And it kept her vital and full. I think that probably she was a great quilter. I think my mother was a great quilter because she always had to have something to do. And she produced any number of quilts. She didn't have family home any more so she kept making quilts. Most of them were for her church society, which this top was for and that I have the blocks from. Her ladies aide quilting society made quilt tops and they all hand quilt them together.

JK: That would be very rewarding and, I would think, socially gratifying too. How do great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern or choose fabrics and colors?

JS: The patterns--a lot of patterns--have been published so that it is not difficult to get patterns now.

I think it was in the 1930's that they had a series they published in a newspaper and those designs still have popularity because they are just very pleasing. But now there are people who design them on computers. There is not a lot of hand designing done. Choosing the colors is really a lot of consideration because not everybody has an eye for color it turns out [short laugh.]. But on my first quilt I mentioned, when I got the blocks done, I thought I was finished--choosing all the colors that would work together and work with the blocks I made. So after the first quilt, I decided on what the trim fabrics were going to be before I did the blocks and then I could incorporate different fabrics in some of the pictures I wouldn't have otherwise.

JK: So your artistic skills grew with your level of knowledge and doing.

JS: Yes, my daughter said I was a fabric artist and that was a great compliment because I did not consider myself an artist at all.

JK: Well, I think we do.

JS: Thank you.

JK: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting? And what about the long arm quilting?

JS: I don't think machine quilting can come anywhere close to hand quilting. It puts so many stitches in that it loses the personal touch that you get with hand quilting. Each picture on my quilts has specific designs that compliment their-- they are all a part of the picture. On machine quilting, they have an all over design that they can put into the machine and they are pretty. But long arm quilting is a machine also and I would not put into the same category as hand quilting.

JK: Thank you.

[tape turned off for a short water break.]

JK: Why is quilting important in your life?

JS: Quilting is important because it gives me way to give something of myself and my family's history to my grandchildren. They don't need to know what the fabrics are but I have provided that for them, but it is something only I am doing.

JK: In what way do your quilts reflect your community and region? And, here again is another redundant question when I can see your beautiful work, but--

JS: Well, the picture of our airplane is in front of Mount Rainier [Washington State.] and that's a local landmark. And on the other side the granddaughters are at the beach on the Snake River that is at Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington where now Lewis and Clark is part of our current interest. And they are on the Snake River there and the mountains behind are the Lewiston Hills and they all understand that is where we grew up was there. And then my husband's ancestor came to New Holland, Pennsylvania and his house is on the quilt. I already mentioned the Southold, Long Island [New York] for my patriot's family and my mother's house and his parent's house. Ours and they are all local, well, the family--ours and other children are all local. And, let's see, is there anything else that is, nothing else is.

JK: It is wonderful how you are able to put that all together for your family. What do you think about the importance of quilting in American lives, in general?

JS: They started out being a very practical way for women to make bedding and they have provided an activity for ladies when they would become less able to get around, they could always do their quilting. The social aspect--there are quilting groups that get together and it is a great social event. My mother, even though the members of her group made the quilt tops at home, they always got together once a week to quilt on whatever project they were completing at that time.

JK: How do you think quilts can be used?

JS: A lot of them are displayed on walls now because of the decorative effect that they have. Even a doctor's office I go to has a quilt displayed quite often and they change it regularly.

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

JS: They have to be cared for, stored in cotton pillow cases--I know that. There are special soaps that you use when you wash them so that they don't deteriorate. We didn't know this back when my children had their crazy quilts or they would have lasted longer [laugh.].

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

JS: My husband's grandmother made quilts in her later years and she made a number of them. And it is very sad, I only know where one is. His mother gave him one and I don't know where all the rest of her quilts are. And that's sad. My mother's quilts are mostly used and I have the one top that my other grandmother made and I will make that into a quilt, eventually. I hope that my grandchildren will take care of theirs so that they will have the history. I have a wall hanging that I made. It's for our 50th anniversary. It is hanging on the wall and I intend to keep it there because it is only four feet square and it doesn't take up all the room.

JK: Well, thank you, Janette Swecker for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilter's S.O.S.-Save Our Stories project. Our interview was concluded at 9:40 a.m. at October 12, 2005.


“Janette Marie Swecker,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2088.