Elizabeth J. Braxton




Elizabeth J. Braxton




Elizabeth J. Braxton


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Washington, D.C.


Evelyn Salinger


Evelyn Salinger (ES): This is Evelyn Salinger, and I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Elizabeth J. Braxton. Today's date is June 22, 2010. The time is 12:00 noon. [This interview is taking place during a Daughters of Dorcas Meeting in Washington, DC.]
Hi, Liz. How are you?

Elizabeth Braxton (EB): Hi, Evelyn. I'm fine.

ES: You have brought us something very beautiful here. Tell us the colors and pattern and so forth, would you please?

EB: Well, I call this "Sampler Number Two." This is the second Sampler I've made. The first Sampler was the quilt that I learned to quilt on, about ten years ago. And that was a much smaller quilt, so it's a wall hanging. So, I decided to extend it and make a larger quilt for the bed adding more samples. This one, I think, is about 80 by 60.

ES: We'll measure it later. It is a full quilt.

EB: It's a full quilt, yeah. It's more for a single bed than for a double bed. The fabrics, well, several of the fabrics I've had for many years. The purple and green fabric was one large piece, about four yards that I bought back about twenty years ago when we went to Philadelphia. I was going to make an African inspired dress out of it, which I never got around to. Some of the others, the greens are more contemporary. I bought those. And for the sashing, I bought everything else. Some of them ended up being scraps that I put in to vary the design.

ES: Did you do each of these samples by hand?

EB: Some by hand and some by machine. I began this maybe five to six years ago. At that time, this was my second project. I wasn't that good with points and corners, so I did the points and corners by hand. The more extended areas, I did by machine. The quilting is by hand. I don't have a lot of quilting. I have quilting in the sashes and around the border. I used variegated thread for that. I thought that quilting was not my forte. I think I prefer piecing.

ES: Did you use a hoop or a frame?

EB: I used a hoop for that. That's the way I learned, with the hoop.

ES: You have something interesting on the back, I see.

EB: The back is made of this plain white and leftover fabric from the front. When I counted up all my blocks, I had an extra block [laughs.] which was the Churn Dash. So, for quite a while I didn't really know what I would do with it, I said, 'Maybe I'll start another quilt.' And then one day it hit me. I don't have a label. So, I decided just to put a border around the square and use the Churn Dash as the label. On the back, let's see if I have the measurement of the quilt. Oh, '60" by 88".' This was on display at the Sumner School here in Washington, DC, about three or four years ago.

ES: For whom is this quilt?

EB: Well, at the time it was not for anyone in particular. But I gave it to my daughter. So, she has it now. I just asked her one day after I'd made it, I said, 'Do you think you want this quilt?' She said, 'Do you want me to have it?' I said, 'Yes, if you'd like to have it.' She said, 'Oh, yes.' She has that and two of my wall hangings in her house.

ES: Is your family supportive of your hobby?

EB: My family is very small. My family consists of my brother and my daughter. So, my daughter is tickled that I am doing this, mainly because I am retired, and she believes that when you are retired you need to do something to keep busy.

ES: Absolutely.

EB: My response to that is, 'Why?' [laughs.] I don't have to keep busy. But anyway, she was very happy when I took up quilting, which I did not really start until I retired.

ES: So, what were you doing before you retired?

EB: I was a social worker in the District of Columbia for Adoption Services, DC Department of Human Services. I did that for thirty years. But all during those years I also sewed.

ES: When did you start sewing?

EB: I was a teenager, pre-teen. My mother taught me how to sew. So, as the years went on, I made clothes for myself and for [my daughter.] Pat when she came along. And then as I got toward retirement, I sort of stopped sewing, not completely, but I did not do as much. I used to hang out in the G Street [Fabrics Store.] Everybody in the Washington area knows about G Street. Yes, well, I helped them buy part of their establishment for Rockville Pike [in Montgomery County, Maryland.] because of the money I used to spend there. [laughs.]

ES: Oh. Okay. [laughs.] Then they moved out of G Street.

EB: They were on G Street downtown DC, and I used to love to take my lunch downtown. And I would drop a hundred dollars to buy fabric. Oh, I loved it. It was one of the best places in the world to shop. As time went on, I couldn't stop sewing and of course, I had a lot of fabric. A lot of fabric. Cottons especially, cottons and linens, woolens. You name it, I had it. And I decided to give some away to the daughter of a friend. She had a dance school and she made costumes. So, I gave her some of my fabric, but it seems like as I giving away fabric, it was still coming, it was still growing. I still had a lot left. So, I guess that's sort of how I got moved into quilting. I had not ever considered quilting. I don't know that it was a part of my family background. My mother didn't quilt. She was a registered nurse, but she sewed.

ES: Your grandparents?

EB: My grandparents, no. They were all dead when I was born. Both my father's parents and my mother's parents. So, if they did that, I'm the child oldest in the family, I didn't know about it. But I had done some traveling and I'd visited the Smithsonian and I saw Roland Freeman's exhibit. My daughter and I had gone out in 1999 to Chicago [Illinois.] to the Duke Ellington Conference. We are members of the Ellington Society here in DC. We went to the African American Du Sable Museum and they had this beautiful exhibit of quilts. And I started getting ideas on what to do with some of this fabric I had. So, another year passed. We went to Detroit [Michigan.] and went to museums on the same trip and there were other quilts. And I began to think maybe this is what I can do with some of this fabric. [laughs.] So, after I retired, someone told me about Quilt 'n Stuff. It was a [fabric and quilting.] store over there in Alexandria, Virginia.

ES: I went to that. Uh-hum.

EB: A lady named Betsy, taught a quilting class there for six weeks. I went over there once a week for six weeks and I'm one of these people, I don't think I learn well just observing. I really have to do it. I have to have structure and you have to give me homework, because I'll go home, and I do it. So that was the best thing for me. It had certain lessons. Some of these squares come out of the lessons. The first one I made was six squares. So, some of them are duplicated here. [in the big quilt.] After six weeks, they thanked us and said, 'Now, take these home and finish it.' Well, I took my quilt home, and I ended up putting it on a chair. [laughs.] And just about then, I got involved at the Wellness Center on Evart Street Northeast and I met Gertrude Braan, who has been in Daughters of Dorcas for these many years. She had a quilt group, so I said, 'Maybe I'll go over see what they're doing.' So, when I first went over, and I told her I had this quilt that I started. It was a quilt top. And we had put the sandwich together but that's as far as we got. She said, 'Well, bring it in. Let's take a look at it.' So, after she looked at it, she said, 'Oh, this is nice. You ought to join Daughters of Dorcas and meet Mrs. [Viola.] Canady. You ought to put this in the show that's coming up.' So, I brought this quilt over at one of the meetings and I met Mrs. Canady. And so, it was enough time, less than a year, before the exhibit was to go up at the Sumner School. So, I finished the quilt. I actually finished it, I couldn't believe it, and got it ready for the exhibit. Then I began to look at--I want to do this again and make another one. Then I found some use for this because I had four yards of this purple. I also had a lot of African inspired fabric that I had gotten over the years from people that I worked with. I used to work with a woman who was from Ghana, and she would go home and come back, and I would buy fabric from her. Another girl I knew who was married to--her husband was with the International Monetary Fund. He was from Kenya. And when she went to Kenya, she would come back with fabric, and I would buy fabric from her. I was going to make all these clothes. I made some of the clothes, but then after a while I stopped making African inspired clothing, but I still had the fabric. When I really got into quilting, and I saw some of the other African type fabric, I said, 'I've got plenty of that at home.' It gave me all kinds of ideas. For instance, that bag which we use to carry our quilts in, the inside of it is red tie-dye that I got from Gambia, when I traveled to Gambia back in 1984. And I bought four yards from this guy. And when I got it home, I was thinking, what am I going to do with it? Because I really had nothing in mind when I bought it. I bought that, I bought blue, I had bought some yellow.

ES: Were they a narrower strip?

EB: No. They were practically the size of a sheet. Pretty good size. They were not narrow strips, three and four yards of it. So that was back in 1984, so I did not get around to using that until, what, 1996. That's the lining of that bag. That's what is happening at Quilters'. So far, I have three wall hangings and I have two regular sized quilts.

ES: You said something about the wall hanging downtown.

EB: Oh. Sumner School. I have one in an exhibit at [the Charles.] Sumner School, which is all Churn Dash. There are nine of them. And they are done in different designs.

ES: In African inspired fabrics?

EB: Uh-huh. I started to bring a picture of it. If you had been down there, you would have seen it. It's hanging--you go in and go to the room to the right and it's hanging up next to Maria's [Goodwin.] piece. I would have brought that for another discussion if I had it but it's still on exhibition.

ES: Very nice. Your daughter is using the quilt, except in the hot season of summer?

EB: No. She doesn't use it now, but she has a railing on her bed, and it hangs there.

ES: You came to Daughters of Dorcas, you said, about 10 years ago?

EB: About 1999.

ES: Has it been a fun thing for you to do?

EB: It has been a fun thing. I really have enjoyed it. I am not what you call a person who quilts one thing after the other. I have a lot of things that I like to do. But if I get inspired to do something, then I make it.

ES: Do you have other crafts that you like, to do?

EB: Well, I've done some watercolor. Back when I first retired, I took a watercolor class at the Capitol Hill Art Studio. Gina Clap was the instructor. She was really good. Gina. I think I was with her for about two or three years. We used to meet once a week and created watercolors. And she would teach us the various elements of watercolor and how to mix. I've always been able to draw, so it was just a matter of learning how to use watercolor. I hadn't done any artwork for many years. I've got about four or five pictures. We had to have them framed every year and we had to put them up in the Gallery. So, you really had to finish your work, which was good for me because left on my own, I may not finish. [laughs.] So, my daughter, again, has about four of the pictures. We had to have them professionally framed, so they could go up in the Gallery. So, it is kind of nice. I have one or two at the house that I've kept.

ES: You've done the Sampler Quilt here with all the different traditional patterns, have you tried an art quilt yet? You've studied art.

EB: I've not done an art quilt. I have done something called Skewed Nine Patch. Are you familiar with that?

ES: Yes, but I have not tried it.

EB: One of the girls who used to come here, Christine [Bradford.] taught me how to do that. And I haven't finished it, but it has sixteen-inch squares with the skewed nine patch colors within the square and they are all done in some of the African fabric that I have. So that's as artsy as I have gotten. But in terms of cutting and putting them on a background, it's in my head but I haven't actually stopped to do it. I have not been inspired to actually do it yet.

ES: Do you prefer piecing to appliqué? Have you done some appliqué?

EB: I've done some appliqué. I think there should be some appliqué on here. I prefer piecing. [looking over her quilt.] This one here, the tumbling blocks. That would be appliquéd. I think I rather like the piecing. I am sort of a traditionalist when it comes to doing these. I have not really sat down and come up with all different kinds of swirls and things.

ES: What is your opinion of machine quilting versus hand quilting?

EB: I learned to hand quilt. My instructor said that it is better to learn to hand quilt first so that you can understand how the pieces go together and once you got that together, and even though I had sewn before, that was not the issue, then you can easily go to the machine. Hand quilting takes a long time, much too long. So, I like machine quilting.

ES: Do you mean hand piecing?

EB: I would hand piece, right, when you really get your points.

ES: But the quilting process?

EB: I've done more hand quilting than I have machine quilting. I was trying out the freewheeling kind of quilting by machine, but I found that to be difficult. It really was on my shoulders because I did not have the proper gloves to hold the fabric in place. When you move it, you can deliberately move it rather than it moving itself. And I don't do a lot of detail. I sew in the ditch or around a quarter inch in.

ES: That's adequate.

EB: And here, you can see the indentation of the design going across the fabric.

ES: Do you keep pictures or an album of what you've done?

EB: I didn't bring it in with me today. Yes. I keep track and I have pictures taken of everything. Here we have donations to the hospitals for children, veterans' administration, so I have made the smaller pieces for those occasions.

ES: There's some of that every year, isn't there?

EB: The last one I did was this Spring for Walter Reed [Army Medical Center.] veterans. And I have a baby quilt that I did make last year but I did not make it in time to turn it in, so I have it now and I'll turn it in, in the fall, and donate that either to the children or the hospice.

ES: Do you find this hobby very satisfying?

EB: Very much so. I also like to read, so I have periods of time when I don't do any of this.

ES: Have you tried to listen to books while you're quilting? You get both your loves at the same time.

EB: I could but I don't. I maybe watch something on T.V. but I'm not sitting for long periods of time doing quilting and that kind of thing. It's maybe one or two hours.

ES: That's a good period. Do you have advice for new quilters?

EB: Wow. I never thought of that. [laughs.] It has to be something really good. It's a hobby for me. But it is a hobby that you really have to enjoy doing. And you need to learn to do it correctly because if you pick up bad habits, and don't learn to do just the basic techniques, then that is something that's going to stick with you. And not to try to be too perfect. That's another thing. I often say, I don't know if I should or not, but you know when the Gee's Bend quilts came out? I went down to the Corcoran [Gallery in Washington D.C.] to see them. And you know the irregular looks and so forth, and I said, 'Why am I worried about how straight everything is?' You know, it depends on how you feel. These ladies did these quilts when back in the days when they worked with what they had. They were very innovative, and their work is being appreciated. So, don't beat up on yourself so much if you are not absolute in your piecing and in your quilting.

ES: Do you have a sewing space at your house?

EB: Yeah. I have a small room. It's what's called, a hall bedroom. That's my sewing spot.

ES: Do you have enough light and so forth?

EB: In the hall bedroom? Oh, yeah. It has a window. Most of the older houses in the city have a small bedroom and a master bedroom. Years ago, I used the back porch bedroom because it has very good sunlight. Yeah, I have a good space for it. And my machine can stay up all the time.

ES: That's good. Have you lived in Washington a long time?

EB: I was born here and lived here all my life. Went to school here, graduated from Howard University twice.

ES: What did you do at Howard?

EB: I majored in home economics when I started out and that's what I got my bachelor's in. But I never practiced home economics. When I finished, I was working as a nurse's aide. I did not want to work in nursing anymore because I had done that for maybe 10 years. So, I joined the DC government in the '70's as a social services representative. At that point I got the opportunity to go for a master's degree in social work. I graduated from Howard University of Social Work in 1973. Back in those days, the DC government had a program where you could go on leave for two years and go to graduate school and you accrued all your leave. Back then, the DC government was under the federal system. So, we were federal employees although we worked for the DC government. Until 1986, we were federal, so you had Title 20, and all those other programs. The Social Services agency was supposed to offer to the people, advanced degrees. So, I got the opportunity to go to Howard for two years. Those two years, as I said, you have your salary, and you accrued all your leave. The only thing, you were requested to come back and work for the government for a certain number of years. I lived here, so it was not an issue for me. I got finished and I went back to work.

ES: So how many years in all did you work for the government?

EB: Thirty. And the nice thing about it is that when I retired, I retired as a federal employee. It has much better terms and benefits. So yes, I've been here all my life.

ES: Besides Daughters of Dorcas, do you belong to any other group?

EB: I participate with the small group at the Wellness Model City Center at 20th and Evart Street Northeast. It's for senior citizens. I just go there once a week when the quilters get together. We have a little quilting bee out there.

ES: Do you work on your own things while you are there?

EB: Yeah. You just work on your own thing. And Gertrude [Braan.] is very good in terms of how do you do this and what's the best way of doing that, in terms of instruction.

ES: Are there some people that go to that that don't belong to Dorcas or any other group?

EB: Oh, yes. Several ladies. One lady does not belong to anything else. Another woman belongs to a group called the Weebees, I think. They meet in Michigan Park. And then I am a member of the Duke Ellington Society.

ES: What does that entail? You mentioned that before.

EB: Well, the Duke Ellington Society was started years and years ago by a group of people who loved Ellington's music. And they followed Ellington around. This goes back to the 1950's. I just joined maybe eight years ago. My daughter joined it before me, because she somehow loves jazz and got really interested in Ellington and his music. She was going to their meetings. And mostly everybody is a senior. So, she told me one day, she said, 'Mom you ought to come with me to these meetings. Everybody is as old as you are, or older.' [laughs.] I went anyway and so we celebrate Ellington. A lot of music that they have is original: things that have been recorded over the years. There are several members who did live recordings and we have put on a couple of conventions. We put one together, I think it was 1999 or 2000, here in Washington, DC. And then mostly every year there is an Ellington conference somewhere in the world. Europe is very much into it. And the other association that I belong to is the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

ES: You are doing research?

EB: Yes. Family research.

ES: How far back can you trace?

EB: Well, my daughter has picked it up and has gotten back to the early 1800's. Of course, she is doing, mostly right now her father's family. I was doing my mother and father's family. I wasn't doing my husband's family. So, she got interested in his family. He's been deceased for quite a while. She got interested in his family and had gotten information from her paternal grandmother and some of her cousins. And so, she's really gotten into it. She's been to the library of Virginia, LDS, churches of Latter-Day Saints, their web site. And we've been to a couple of their conferences. They have the largest genealogical depository around.

ES: You do have a lot of interests, as you say. In quilting, how many hours a day do you spend?

EB: [laughs.] One or two, I guess. I take care of my brother because he has the effects of post-polio. So, I have enough to fill my day.

ES: You are busy.

EB: But I enjoy quilting. As I said, I have not made a lot of--like some of the ladies have made tons of quilt tops. I have not done that, and I don't think I will. One thing I've liked about it, I found some use for this fabric.

ES: I have one more question that I usually ask people. How has quilting had meaning for the American woman?

EB: Oh. This is really philosophical. Well, I guess it has been an avenue for expression for many American women. But you know, men quilt, too. And some of the early quilters were men. It's a form of expression. For many women who maybe don't work out outside the house, it's a social outlet to get together with quilting bees and groups. And even though we as modern-day people do get out of the house because we have cars and we can go meet in places, we still meet people we would not have met had we not gotten involved in quilting.

ES: Very good.

EB: That's about as philosophical as I can get. [laughs.]

ES: That sounds good to me. Is there any other experience you'd like to describe about quilts or quilting that you can remember from your life?

EB: No. As I said, quilting is a fairly recent thing for me. The last ten years. It's funny I never was thinking about it twenty years ago. It was nowhere near my mind. I knew they existed, and quilters existed, but I hadn't stopped to pay attention.

ES: What year did you retire?

EB: I retired in December of '98. But I had a little introduction to quilting because one of the social workers I worked with. She was traveling with her husband. That's the social worker whose husband was with the International Monetary Fund. When she came by to visit, I said, 'What are you doing these days?' And she said, 'I'm meeting right across the street at that church over there. Calvary Episcopal Church. You know they got a quilting group over there.' Okay. And that was sort of in the back of my mind. And then one day I came over. I remember now. She said, 'Go over and see the lady over there, Mrs. Canady.' I stopped by. I had been out in the field, and I was parked on 6th Street. She was not here that particular day. And so I did not come back again maybe until about a year and a half later when Gertrude invited me to come. And then I remembered, 'Oh, yes. This is this quilting group that my former co-worker had told me about.'

ES: It has been a good thing.

EB: Yeah. It's been real good. I've enjoyed it.

ES: Well, it has been nice talking with you, today.

EB: It's been nice talking with you, Evelyn.

ES: Thank you so much.

End time: approximately 12:35 p.m.


“Elizabeth J. Braxton,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2138.