Sylvia Matthews




Sylvia Matthews




Sylvia Matthews


Carol Porter

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The National Quilting Association


Hot Springs Village, Arkansas


Carol Porter


Carol Porter (CP): My name is Carol Porter and today’s date is February 23rd, 2010 at 3:45. I am conducting an interview with Sylvia Matthews in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas for the Quilters S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee Arkansas State Society of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Sylvia Matthews is a quilter and is the Chapter Regent of Akansa DAR.

CP: Sylvia, tell me about the quilt you’re telling us about today.

Sylvia Matthews (SM): My quilt is a memory quilt. It was made in memory of my mother, Idella Lynch, who passed away in August 2008. She was also a member of Akansa Chapter and it’s a celebration of an important life.

CP: How did you get the idea for this memory quilt?

SM: I stayed with my father for about four months after my mother died, cleaning out closets and boxes. My mother saved everything. At night I would sit with my dad while he watched TV, and I would sort through old pictures. I began to see a lot of old pictures and realize that the garments mother was wearing in the photo was the very same garment I had sorted through during the day. When I mentioned this to my brother, he suggested that I should take all of mom's clothes and make a quilt. As a matter of fact, he said I would have enough fabric to make a quilt for him, my dad and myself. Well, I just looked at him like he was crazy. That was a lot of work and I would be the one doing it, not him. However, the thought lingered in my head and as my work continued I started matching up the pictures with her clothing. Before long I had decided I had to make a quilt. Not one for each of us, understand, but at least one for my dad. At this time I didn't have a clue how I was going to do it, what pattern I would use, or even how I might incorporate her photographs into the quilt. But the fact was, I was going to make a quilt.

CP: What did this creative process involve?

SM: As I would find a garment that matched a photograph, I would fold the garment and lay the photo on top. Pretty soon, I had quite a stack of clothes. I boxed them up and brought them home with me and looked at them over and over for several weeks. I had used tee shirt transfers before and the idea came to me that I could scan these photographs and use them in the quilt. But how would I do that? Well, the photographs would not show up on the multicolored garments. Then I had another idea. My mother loved white slacks. I found about 20 pairs during my cleaning process, and for some strange reason, I had thrown them in and had brought them home with me. I decided I would use the white fabric and cut the center squares from the white slacks. This would be the base of the square and the photograph could then be ironed on. Well, after a number of tries at scanning and printing to get just the right size, I finally succeeded in getting a pretty good quality photograph on the white square. I then used the garment that she was wearing in the photo to cut the triangles around the sides to form a 12” square. Cutting the first garment was the hardest thing I ever did. I knew my mom would be furious that I was cutting up her good clothes. I even started way down low at the hemline of a dress so as not to damage the garment too badly. I can't tell you the guilt I felt every time I cut a garment. I even offered a little apology to mom every now and then, hoping she would forgive me. While working on the blocks I had a lingering thought in my head. How was I going to quilt it? I had no idea. I was totally focused on making the blocks. In my first try I came up with about 28 blocks, not enough for a queen sized quilt. Every time we returned to Virginia to visit my dad I would go back through the boxes of clothing and photographs looking for more matches. It took me about four trips back to Virginia to complete the search, going through the matching process again and again. Finally I managed to get 42 12-inch squares. Using the white slacks I bordered each block and used a black square to separate the larger squares. My finished quilt turned out to be about 90 inches by 116 inches, adequate for a queen size bed. On the back on the quilt I included a photograph of my mom along with her birth and death dates. I used an invisible stitch outlining the quilt blocks so as not to damage the photographs.

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

SM: Well, this quilt is very special. Every block tells a story and brings back a memory. In the center is the last photograph taken of mother about 3 days before she died unexpectedly. We had spent a wonderful 10 days visit watching her teach my daughter how to make corn bread in an iron skillet. They worked for days, with no recipe, until finally my daughter had mastered the cornbread process used by my mother for years. Would you believe I never even learned to make
cornbread in the iron skillet? Other blocks remind us of her 50th anniversary made from her gold jacket that she wore at the party. There's also the dress my mother wore to my daughter’s wedding 27 years ago. It was still hanging in a plastic bag in the closet. I told you she saved everything. Some of these photographs go back as far as the 1970's. The swimsuit pictures are very special and I know my mother would not approve! My mother never owned a swimsuit and the two times in her life she wore a borrowed suit, I managed to get a photograph. Since the swimsuits belonged to me I had the fabric.

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

SM: Well, I think this quilt is very unusual. It was very therapeutic in the making and it holds many memories for the family, and although memory quilts are quite common, I’ve never seen one with 42 pictures and the fabric from the garments in the photographs.

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

SM: I would hope they might think I was a caring and talented person. I would hope they would think I was honoring my mother. That I cared about her and miss her. And that I care for my dad because of the work and time involved in making this quilt.

CP: What are your plans for this quilt?

SM: I am giving this quilt to my father. He cries every time he sees it, but he said he is looking forward to being the first person to sleep under it. I will be mailing it to him after this interview.

CP: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

SM: I am not a quilter in that I am always working on a quilt. I have made a number of quilts over the years, but all my quilts have a special meaning. For instance, in 1975 my husband and I made our first trip to Hawaii. While shopping in Hilo Hattie’s, I notice that they sold a package of pre-cut quilting blocks made from the bright Hawaiian prints. I bought a package with the intent of making a Hawaiian quilt to remember our trip. Unfortunately, the small squares didn’t come close to making a quilt, even when adding contrasting fabric, so next time one of my friends went to Hawaii I asked her if she would get me another package if they still sold them. They did and she brought me another pack. I still needed some more squares so on our next trip to Hawaii I bought two more packages and finally I have completed enough of the brightly colored Hawaiian print squares to finish a quilt. All I have to do now is to find the time to put them together, choose a backing, and the quilting will begin.

CP: At what age did you start quilt making?

SM: I probably made my first quilt when I was in my 30’s. My grandmother gave me a bunch of squares with the little Dutch girl pattern. I don’t know if she had made them or if someone had given them to her. I took them home and pieced them together, choosing a green fabric for the back and quilted my first quilt. I still have that quilt in a plastic bag in the closet.

CP: From whom did you learn to quilt?

SM: I watched my grandmother quilt as a young child. I was never taught. I just watched and took it in, I guess. My grandmother used to use chalk to draw a fan pattern on the fabric and we would quilt along those lines. When finished she would beat the quilt until the chalk lines were gone.

CP: How many hours a week do you quilt?

SM: When I have a quilt in the making, I quilt several hours each day until it is done.

CP: What is your first quilt memory?

SM: I can remember at the age of 6 or 7 my grandmother would always have a quilt working. Made up of used clothing or feed sacks, the piecing of the blocks was done on an old treadle sewing machine. My grandmother would pedal away until she had enough blocks to make a quilt. She would purchase fabric ends from the local mill to make the back and they didn't always match. Then the quilt was stretched on an old quilt frame, and it's still in the family I might add, and would be spread over the dining room table with the frame resting on the backs of chairs. The neighborhood ladies would drop in during the day and they would sit around the quilt, each with their own spool of thread and pack of needles, working away and chatting about the problems of the world and neighborhood. These impromptu get to gathers proved to be a social networking in the days when no one had a TV. I just stood by my grandmother’s side and watched, until one day she gave me a threaded needle and told me to make little stitches down a chalked line. I guess I was hooked.

CP: Are there any quiltmakers among your family or friends?

SM: I am sorry to say that no one in my family quilts other than me. It’s a shame that none of my grandmother’s children or grandchildren ever took up quilting, or even sewing!

CP: How do you think the making of this quilt helped you so much?

SM: Like I said before, I think the making of mother’s memory quilt was very therapeutic. It allowed me time by myself to think about her and remember the good times we had during her life. Every square took me back to a memorable event. When my grandmother died, my daughter wrapped herself in the quilt my grandmother had made for her and stayed there most of the day. There is comfort in the handing down of family quilts.

CP: Have there been any amusing experiences that have occurred from your quilt making?

SM: I found it amusing that every time my neighbors would come in, they would oooh and aaah over the quilt. Before long I was getting telephone calls asking if they could bring their friends to see the quilt. The same thing happened when I took the quilt back to Virginia for my dad to see. He told friends who told friends who came by to see the quilt. We were actually scheduling visiting hours for about a week.

CP: I think that’s so neat. What do you find pleasing about that quilt, about quiltmaking?

SM: As one who loves puzzles of all kinds, the making of a quilt is very much like putting together a puzzle. The matching and sorting of colors, the design of the squares, and just putting it all together to get a pleasing look is very enjoyable. It gives such a sense of accomplishment when that last stitch is made and you are looking at the finished product in your outstretched arms.

CP: What aspects of quiltmaking do you not enjoy?

SM: The pricking of my fingers is what I hate most. Grandma always said I had to feel the needle come through the fabric and prick my finger before bringing it back up. Well I still do that and sometimes my finger becomes raw! I just put a band-aid on it and keep going using another finger to feel the needle prick. Sometimes my fingers are so raw I have to wait a week or so to let them heal before starting again. I have tried over and over again to use a thimble but find myself using my finger and not the thimble so I just gave up on that.

CP: What advances in technology influenced your work and if so, how?

SM: Well I’m not much on searching out new technology, but there is one thing I love. I didn’t look for it but many years ago my daughter gave it to me at Christmas. It is a circular wheel cutter. You might not call it technology but that little cutter allows for quick and exact cuts and saves lots of time when piecing a quilt.

CP: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

SM: I am strictly a hand quilter and I work with cottons. The memory quilt is the first quilt where I used sweater fabric, swimsuit fabric and silky materials. Some of the fabrics had to be stabilized with an iron-on backing before I could use them. I love the new polyester battings, precut to quilt size so all you have to do is roll them out and you're done. My grandmother's quilts were lumpy even though she worked hard to pull the old cotton batting apart and try to get it even.

CP: Sylvia, please describe for us the place where you create your quilts.

SM: I have a small sewing area in my downstairs family room. When the quilting begins I work on a six-foot folding table. I do not use a quilting frame, not because I don’t like them, but because of the space requirements. I just don't have the room. I never put the quilt away during the quilting process.

CP: Do you ever use a design wall?

SM: No. When I am designing a pattern, I might use the computer or freehand something until I get it exactly what I want. I sometimes cut squares and different sized pieces from cardboard or paper to form my pattern right on the kitchen table.

CP: How do you go about designing your quilts?

SM: The quilts I make have very special meaning, as I said before. Usually the fabric used in the quilt has a special meaning so I try to design a pattern that will emphasize the special fabric. I also became fascinated with Hawaiian quilting. I purchased a book of quilt designs for Hawaiian quilting and have made several quilted pillows using their original designs depicting the Hawaiian fruits and vegetation. They use a lot of echo quilting and this method of quilting is very time consuming.

CP: What do you think about, or what do you think makes a great quilt?

SM: Oh, tiny hand stitches. At least 6 to an inch. Machine quilting is beautiful and probably would be something I would do if I was into making and selling quilts, but my quilts are special quilts, and without the caring hand stitches would not be special to me. I also think that any quilt that has a story makes a great quilt.

CP: And what makes a quilt artistically powerful?

SM: I think the design and the colors. A bold pattern with bright colors all folded into a beautiful design can be quite powerful. I like a quilt that makes me say ’Wow.’

CP: Can you tell me what makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

SM: Old quilts that tell a story and have lasted for decades belong in a museum for all to see and marvel at. The labor intensive quilts of our foremothers are very special.

CP: And what do you think makes a great quiltmaker?

SM: Patience, artistic ability, a good eye for colors and tough fingers.

CP: And how do you feel about machine quilting vs. hand quilting?

SM: Machine quilting is beautiful. Some of the swirls and designs are breathtaking, but I prefer the hand quilting.

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

SM: I was born and raised in rural Southside, Virginia. While I never made one, I saw a lot of quilts made from the feed sacks that contained the corn for the chickens, or the seeds for the garden. Many feed sacks were quite colorful, some had very nice patterns, and someone with a lot of foresight had the idea that women on the farm could use the fabric, whether dressmaking or quilting. Quilting was done by taking a little of nothing and making something out of it.

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

SM: Quilts are a symbol of American life. They were made because they were needed, usually with much care and love, by hardworking American pioneers. Imagine traveling in a wagon across the country. What would they have done without quilts? They were used to sit on, sleep under, hide behind, and to remember the life they left behind. During my lifetime, I have seen numerous resurgence in the craft or art of quiltmaking. After the war, my grandmother made quilts for extra income. During the hippie generation of the 60's, quilt piecing became even more popular in clothing, hats and bags, as well as quilts. The derivatives we see today simply reflect a heritage that is being handed down from generation to generation, with changes you would expect to see with the passage of time.

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

SM: I think the making of a quilt reflects the power of a woman, in her expression of patience and creativity, her ability to provide for the needs of her family and to socialize in a productive and meaningful way.

CP: How do you think quilts can be used?

SM: I remember the quilts that my grandmother made were thick and heavy. She would use two or three on my bed and it would be hard to even turn over in bed. But I always felt safe and warm, like I was in a cocoon. Today our homes are so well heated that the quilts have become thinner and thinner and there’s really not a need for them. A lot of them are used as wall hangings or just folded at the foot of the bed for decoration.

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

SM: Most of the quilts I have made, and that’s not that many, are on my beds. There are a few in closets in plastic bags. I would hope that when I am gone my special quilts would be treasured by my daughter or my brother, both of whom love quilts. I would want them to remember me and understand my love for my family through my quilts. My grandmother's quilts have endured and are scattered throughout the family. She used a lot of her grandchildren's clothing and still today when I see one of her quilts I can pick out pieces that were part of my clothing. Grandmother always made a quilt for the new bride and groom or for a new baby. My daughter used to beg her to make her a quilt but grandma would say, ‘When you get married.’ My daughter would tell her she was never getting married, and she finally convinced her to make her a quilt when she graduated from high school. My daughter received that quilt just two weeks before my grandmother died. Needless to say, that quilt is very special to my daughter. My daughter also has the baby quilt my grandmother made for her when she was born. She’s going to be fifty this year. My brother, my daughter, my cousins and my nieces and nephews continue to enjoy the quilts that my grandmother made.

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

SM: The biggest challenge is that the original methods of quilting are not lost, that new fabrics and machine technology don’t make quilting so easy that the quilt becomes meaningless. I see that happening with the quilts that are being mass produced in foreign countries selling for less than $50. While these quilts are pretty and pleasing to look at, they probably will not stand the test of time.

[pause for one minute.]

CP: Sylvia, is there anything else you would like to tell us about your experiences with quilting?

SM: I’d like to tell you about a neighbor I had. After our retirement we left the Houston area and moved to Hot Springs Village. I discovered that my neighbor was a quilter and when I say a quilter and I mean a quilter like I‘ve never seen before. She had designed a room in her home for her quilting complete with little boxes to keep her fabric squares color coordinated and it looked like a rainbow wall. She used another wall as her art wall where she hung her quilt and did her designing. She used chicken feathers, she used sticks, she used jewels, whatever she had and she intimidated me so badly that I almost gave up on my quilting. She had entered quilts all over the U. S. She had taught quilting and she had won thousands of dollars on her quilts, and I might add that all her quilts were machine quilted. So I did feel like I had a little something up on her with my hand stitching. However she became a very good friend. I see her often in the paper when she goes to her quilt shows.

CP: And she is still quilting?

SM: She is still quilting; she is here in the Village.

CP: Do you know how old she is?

SM: Oh, she’s--yeah, she’s probably in her mid 60’s.


CP: Well Sylvia, thank you for allowing me to interview you today as part of the Quilters’ S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview has now concluded and it is about 4:20 on February 23rd, 2010. This is Carol Porter and I was the interviewer for Sylvia Matthews.


“Sylvia Matthews,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 14, 2024,