Wanda Warner




Wanda Warner




Wanda Warner


Eleanor Wilkinson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Marshall, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Eleanor Wilkinson (EW): This is Eleanor Wilkinson. This interview is being conducted for South Central Michigan Q.S.O.S., a project for The Alliance for American Quilts. Today I'm interviewing Wanda Warner at her home in Marshall, Michigan. Today is July twenty sixth?

Wanda Warner (WW): I think so. Yes. It is. Yes, it is. The calendar is in there. [shuffling objects on desk.]

EW: And it is 2:25 p.m. Let's start off, Wanda, by talking about the quilt that you've brought today.

WW: Okay. This is the first quilt that I made and that's why I selected it, because that's the starting point. It was the fall of 1975 and the country was really gearing up for the bi-centennial. So all the women's magazines and, oh, there were newspaper articles, but women's magazines, especially. "How to decorate for the bi-centennial." "Throw a bi-centennial party." That sort of thing. And so, this was in that fall and it was either Women's Day or Family Circle, I'm not sure which, had the directions to make that quilt. It was a bi-centennial quilt but in the picture it was pink and green, so I don't know why they were promoting it as a bi-centennial. Anyway, I thought well, 'That would be a fun project to do.' It looked like I could do it. 'Hey, I'm a seamstress. I can sew anything.' And so I got the fabric, and it was really hard in 1975 to find calico prints because the stores were full of fashion fabrics and synthetics and things like that. So, you couldn't find too many prints, but I did find that in the J. C. Penny catalog and it was kind of a coordinated group so I selected the red, white and blue. So there's not a whole lot of variety. It's just the blue print and the red print are the same print. They are just different colors. Thirty eight cents a yard is what the fabric cost. So it didn't cost too much and even the back of the quilt is done in that blue color. My husband was gone on a hunting trip with some friends and so I thought, 'Well this would be a good project after the kids had gone to bed at night I'll be able to do this.' So, anyway, I did and this was the days before rotary cutters so I made a template with sandpaper and cut out each piece individually because I wouldn't have thought about cutting more than two layers at a time. That's what you do in dressmaking. Right?

EW: That's right.

WW: Two layers. And so I got them all cut out and put together and I was so excited I had to go down and show all the other mothers in the neighborhood when we were picking our kids up at school. I did it in two days and the next day I tied it so it was on the bed when he came home from his hunting trip.
EW: That was cool. Was he surprised?

WW: Yeah, he was really surprised. He said, 'Wow, this is really neat.' So it was on our bed, then, for a long time. I'm going to say probably 25 years.

EW: It's held up remarkably well.

WW: For thirty-eight cents a yard fabric it's done really well. It was on our bed then and it was always the sick quilt, the family quilt, the quilt when you felt bad you needed to cuddle up in.

EW: The comfort quilt?

WW: Right, you grabbed the quilt off the bed and layed on the couch, the kids did when they were sick and home from school, or you had a headache or you felt cold on a January Sunday afternoon and were watching a football game, or whatever. So that was the all-purpose, comforting quilt. And now it's pretty ragged. I repaired it as best I can and I don't think I'll be able to repair it any more. That began. And then I did not do any quilting after that until 1988. So there was a big gap there and that was because, let's see, in 1975 Aaron would have been five and Amber would have been nine, just beginning to get involved in school things and there was always lots of other kinds of sewing to do, garment sewing. Because I made Amber's clothes and even through teenage years and made a lot of things for Aaron, too. Made costumes for school plays and all of that sort of thing. So I never had the opportunity to get back to it but I always liked it and knew that it was something, I just liked the fabric and playing with the fabric.

EW: Well, you know a sewer needs an excuse to sew after the kids grow up.

WW: Right. Absolutely. So my story is echoed by many people. I'll read articles in magazines about professional quilters and that sort of thing and many, many of they have the same kind of story. They started, piqued their interest in the Bi-centennial and then gradually got more and more involved. Just the other day I was reading that Marianne Fons actually won a prize in the New York quilt contest for '75 that involved the Statue of Liberty quilt and others that are so well known. I think it was the New York Institute of Arts. Anyway, just the other day I read that she had entered that as a beginning quilter like all of us were back then. But, of course, she kept on with it. So lots of people, you're right, sewers like that fabric. To us, to a sewer, to a quilter the fabric is like a box of paints to a painter and so, or a box of pastels to an artist.

EW: A palette.

WW: Yeah, they are. And so you just want to work with them.

EW: And who wants this quilt?

WW: Who wants that quilt? You know, I don't know. The kids would probably fight over it, because it has memories to them.

EW: Yes, it does.

WW: More so that some of the other quilts, the more recent quilts that I've made because they slept under this one. They cuddled under this one. This one made them feel better. And so they probably would be more interested in that than some of the others that are prize winners. And, that's no prize winner, but it's a nice quilt.

EW: Well, its importance is in how it's involved family experience.

WW: Absolutely, absolutely.

EW: And, it's an expression of love, too. Don't you think?

WW: Absolutely. Yes. And I think that's why so many people today, when in conversation someone will say 'What do you do?' or 'What do you like to do?' or 'What are your hobbies?' 'Well, I'm a quilter.' Then right away it opens the door for quilt stories from their family. Their mother made quilts. Their aunt made quilts. Their grandma made quilts. Everyone has a memory of a quilt.

EW: What do you think your first quilt memory is?

WW: Oh, my first quilt memory is a collection of Dresden Plate blocks that were in the treadle sewing machine drawer when I was growing up. [coughs.] My mother was not particularly a sewer. She was a mender, but she wasn't a sewer. But my grandmother had been a quilter so my grandmother had made the circles, the plates if you will, and then my great-grandmother on the other side of the family, after my grandmother passed away; she put those plates on the background and put the centers in. And then it just sort of stopped. And I was always getting those out and kind of looking at them and looking at the fabric would kind of leaf through them like through a book. Then, when I was done, I'd roll them back up. They were in kind of a little roll and I'd stick them back in the drawer. And I have those now and they still aren't in a quilt.

EW: That's what I was going to ask you.

WW: I keep saying, I think there are 27 or 28 blocks and I keep saying that's one thing I'm going to do someday, is get those sewn together. And then I read an article about how they're more valuable or have more interest sometimes, those old blocks, just to leave them be. Or an old top. Leave it be. Don't quilt it. Keep it in the top stage because eventually the fabrics become fragile and then it's easier to study the fabrics in the quilt when they haven't been completed. It hasn't actually been put into a quilt.

EW: I hadn't thought of that. It occurred to me that a three-generation quilt might be kind of interesting. It would then become more exposed to use and--

WW: Perhaps if it was completed with the idea that it was not a to-be-used quilt. It was just a to-be-enjoyed quilt. Something to put on a quilt rack but not to put on a bed. Perhaps then [coughs.] Actually, I had thought about completing it and have my daughter work on it with me because she is a good seamstress and then to have my granddaughter work on it as well.

EW: That would be very cool.

WW: So that would involve five generations.

EW: Five generations. Yes. What do you think that someone viewing this quilt might conclude about you?

WW: Oh, boy. What they might conclude about me. Probably that I'm really coordinated. [laughs.] Because there's nothing risky.

EW: Well, that's a way to start, isn't it?

WW: Yes, it is. And, you know, coming from a background of garment making, you learned that, along with the sewing, you didn't put checks and stripes together and the colors, you didn't put teal with navy blue.

EW: You didn't then.

WW: No, that's right. You didn't then. And so that was one thing that was hard for me as I got more involved in quilting, was to break away from those taboos and pattern taboos, and mix them up.

EW: It's more fun to mix them up, isn't it?

WW: Yeah, it is.

EW: I think it's a greater challenge, too, to the quiltmaker.

WW: To make it look good, acceptable to everyone and not get too far out on a limb. And it makes a much more interesting quilt when you have more fabrics in it.

EW: Did your quiltmaking interest or your interest in quiltmaking begin with this time in 1975?

WW: Did it begin then. Probably. Probably. I think I was buying into the Bi-centennial idea and then I enjoyed making that quilt so much. That was like, 'Wow, this is something else that I can do with my sewing machine. This is really fun.' And then I had my grandmother that I knew had quilted and then my great-grandmother on the other side of my family was a prolific quiltmaker. She was a Kentucky woman and so, I'm told that she had trunks of quilts that she had made, but I only saw a few of them. I probably saw six or eight of them. And it seemed like she was always working on some project of some sort.

EW: It would have been nice to see all those trunks of quilts, wouldn't it?

WW: Oh, I know. I know. And I just wonder whatever happened to them. Living in Kentucky, I'm sure they were more useful objects and they probably got passed around the family and used up, worn out, kind of thing.

EW: Probably made of necessity as much as anything else?

WW: Absolutely. Absolutely.

EW: Are you, then, self taught when it comes to quilting?

WW: No. I began taking some classes when I was able to get back to it in the eighties. At a shop in Coldwater [Michigan.], it was called The Sewing Basket and Marilyn Fisher was the owner, teacher of the store. And so I took [EW coughs.] my first class was a Trip Around the World. That's a good, easy beginner class. So at that point I was like a sponge and I just really enjoyed it, soaked it up. Then any place that I could get a class or hear about a class, I would try to take it to gain more skills. You take a class and you learn about the rotary cutter. Wow, you can cut six layers of fabric, eight layers of fabric. Wow, is this cool, or what?

EW: After your experience with your first quilt.

WW: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. That was just like a revolution. Oh, my gosh. I can cut this whole quilt in an afternoon. But, oh the other hand, I do well with learning from books. I can comprehend them pretty easily, especially if they have lots of pictures. And so, if there is a particular technique that I am interested in, maybe I've heard about but no one around here can help me with that, I am confident in buying a book and then working with the book. But as far as to just jump out there and do it on my own, no, I would need a little guidance.

EW: Do you mostly use traditional patterns or do you ever make up your own?

WW: No, I'm pretty traditional. I would make up my own quilt using traditional blocks, but as far as to just jump out there, no. I have figured out that I am not an original thinker. I can take someone else's design and tweak it to something a little bit different, maybe a little bit more to my taste. But to just start from an empty sheet of paper and go from there, no. That's not something that I can do.

EW: Before we go any farther, let's go back. I need to ask you if there is a name for this quilt.

WW: The name of the block is Clay's Choice. And so, in '75 I never really thought about giving the quilt a name, so the block itself is Clay's Choice.

EW: You've said your mother wasn't a quiltmaker

WW: No, she wasn't.

EW: Your grandmother did make quilts and your great-grandmother.

WW: Umhmm.

EW: And you've talked a lot about them and you have, now, friends that make quilts, since you're a member of the guild. [Cal-Co Quilters' Guild of Battle Creek, Michigan.]

WW: That's right.

EW: Are you involved with any other guilds?

WW: No, not with any other guilds, but two small groups. One is a circle that they're all part of the guild and then another is a small group that I kind of got together just in this neighborhood. It was a time when I was feeling the need for female companionship. You know how you just need to have some girlfriends? And so I called up a couple of people that I knew did sewing and they did other things, knitting, crocheting, that sort of thing. And I said 'What would you think about maybe getting together once a month or a couple of times a month and we can share our skills and visit and whatever?' 'Yeah, that sounds good.' Well, then those two people called another couple people and they said 'Well, gee, my next door neighbor might be interested.' And we built a little group. Right now there's nine or ten of us and we've been meeting, getting together twice--we meet every other week, beginning in September and then we meet until May, usually. They're all farm women or tied to rural lifestyles in some way and so summer is a really busy time for them. They really don't have time to quilt and meet and so on. But, along about the first of August I start hearing 'When are we going to start getting together again?' and 'Is it time to get together? What day are we starting? What are we going to do this year?' All those things. So, it's turned into a wonderful, supportive group or ladies.

EW: It's nice when that happens, isn't it?

WW: Oh, it is. And our youngest member is a daughter of one of the others so she is, oh, like 32 or 3 and then the oldest--we've got a couple that are in their 70's. So it's a broad range of ladies and we've all had lots of experiences and we've had a lot of experiences since the little group began. We've lost spouses, had grandchildren, taken wonderful trips, miscarriages in the family, just all kinds of traumatic events and joyous events that we have shared together.

EW: How has the group evolved in relation to your various skills?

WW: The group is involved totally into quilting now. We started out helping each other with--like one gal came because she wanted to learn to knit. [Phone rings.] And one of the other ladies is a good knitter. [Phone again. WW answers phone. Sound of recorder being paused.] So she would come and a couple of others came with crocheting and they would help one another and improve their skills. It just sort of evolved. That particular person left the group. She developed other interests. And then it just began to evolve more and more into quilting. And so that's pretty much exclusively what we do now. I usually pick a project, something that we're going to work on that will improve the skills of the group because most of them were, I won't say beginner quilters, but I wouldn't quite call them intermediate quilters, either, when we began. So they all wanted to learn things and I said 'Okay, we'll do this.' So one year we concentrated on appliqué. One year we concentrated on piecing. Another time it was Flying Geese. We did so many Flying Geese we should have had a flock. So we just pick a different project every year. And then we also do charity quilts. We do some Hospice quilts. Each week everybody brings a block. I'll have them make a block for their own and make an extra block that will become part of the Hospice quilt. We did a Round Robin one year. That really stretched their skills.

EW: I was going to say how did that work out?

WW: It worked pretty well, actually, for a bunch of newbies. It really tested their abilities and they did really well. They did. I was real proud of them. This coming year, I think, what we are going to do, instead of having one big project I'm going to have them do four small ones. We'll do like a fall wall hanging and a Christmas one and then a spring one and then maybe a patriotic one. That way they won't have a big commitment. They'll just have little commitments.

EW: How does quiltmaking affect your family?

WW: Well, Dan, my husband, has seen a lot more quilt shows than he ever thought he would see. [laughs.] And quilt shops. The kids are always interested in what I'm doing and my granddaughter has begun to learn to quilt a little bit. That folded up Christmas thing there is hers. She's got the top all done. The family always comes to the Guild shows to see my quilts and I give them a little behind the scenes tour while they're there. So, that's nice. I think they have come to appreciate quilting and quilts so that when these things all become theirs I truly don't fear they are going to become dog beds or water heater covers or any of those horrible things that happen to quilts. I think they will appreciate them.

EW: Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

WW: No, I can't think--I don't believe that I have. Because I have been really fortunate that I have not had very much difficulties in my life. I do have one quilt that I started working on when my mom was having chemotherapy treatments. I would go with her to the hospital and wait with her while she had her treatment, and sit and visit. And I took a block along as a little handwork, busy work, while sitting there. And she took an interest in it, what I was working on this week. And the nurses, and so on. And, so after she passed away I had the quilt about three quarters done, I think, when she passed. And so, when I get that quilt out I do always think of her and how much she enjoyed seeing the progress of that as it went along and it was a conversation.

EW: Will you finish the quilt?

WW: It is finished. I have shown it in shows and won a prize or two--

EW: Good.

WW: --and so, yeah.

EW: Have you had any amusing experience involved with your quilting?

WW: Oh, amusing.

EW: Or some of your teaching experiences.

WW: [laughs.] Oh, yeah. The classes are always amusing. It's always a question when you've got a group of people coming for a class. 'Okay, who's not going to know how to use their sewing machine this time around?' It always amazes me, especially today when you can get sewing machines that will sing and dance if you give them the opportunity. Ladies quite often have purchased machines that are way too much for their ability. And then they don't know how to use them. And because there are so many buttons and dials and gizmos they are afraid to use them. And I've had ladies who had sewing machines for maybe a couple of years, they bought a brand new sewing machine, they haven't changed the needle yet. 'Well, it's not broken so I didn't change it.' Oh, my gosh. Oh, and then I did have one gentleman who took a class. He was interested in quilting. It was a class there at Quilt 'n Go. He picked his sewing machine up off the curb. It was set out for junk. [laughs.] And that was pretty funny. We did tweak it enough that it could actually sew, but it was machine quilting, was the class he was taking and needless to say, his work was not among the top in the class. But, yeah, those are the kinds of things you run into.

EW: What do you find really pleasing about quiltmaking?

WW: Oh, just stepping back from the finished product and saying, 'Wow, I really did that. I did that.' Sometimes I'll look at a quilt, because I rotate, try to rotate my quilts around and I'll get a quilt out that I haven't had out for a while and say, 'Wow, that's pretty good. That really looks nice.' And then, the other thing is the camaraderie it gives me with other people, other women, an excuse to get together or do something, go somewhere, that pleases me. To spend the day in the company of other women, talk about girl things. When you're not employed outside the home, which I haven't been for a while, you don't have that many opportunities to be with other ladies.

EW: That's right.

WW: And so I really enjoy that community feeling, the camaraderie, the pleasure it gives me in that.

EW: Are there any aspects of quilting that you don't enjoy?

WW: Oh, yeah. The part that I have to push myself, and I'm in the middle of it right now, is getting the quilting done. It'll sit here on my table for a month, the quilt top all ready to go. I just have to sit down and do it. And I will just sort of put it off and put it off, and dread it because I think it's the step which I am the least comfortable with. I always feel like it's not--I never know quite what to do. 'Okay, how am I going to quilt this?' And I am looking at the big picture and I have come to realize to look at the small picture. I just start out with what I know I'm going to do. I start thinking. I start brooding about the quilting while I'm still doing the piecing, or still doing the appliqué. I'm thinking 'How am I going to quilt this when it's done?' So I try to think of just the small. I know I'm going to define the block. I know I'm going to define the appliqué. And then I'm going to work on the details. I'm going to put the leaf veins in and I'm going to define the flower petals, whatever. So as I'm working on it then usually the rest of it falls into place, but that's the step I dread the most. But once I get into it, and I'll be half way through it and then it's like, 'Why did I put this off?' This is not so bad.

EW: Not such a big deal, huh?

WW: It's not such a big deal. But of any of the steps that's probably the one that I don't enjoy as much as the others. The one that I enjoy the most is probably the planning and the choosing of the colors. I love the math. I can sit and figure out. I'll make little sketches of how to cut the fabric to get the best use of the fabric because sometimes the instructions will say, they always tell you to cut the borders lengthwise. So you'll have to buy five yards of fabric and you know you don't need that much. So I'll just figure out a way. At today's prices, if it's thirty eight cents a yard, hey I'll buy lots of five yard pieces. But at ten dollars that's a little different situation.

EW: Then you have to figure out the best way to use your fabric.

WW: Yes, that's right. Because I don't really want a lot of fabric left over. I really don't want to accumulate a big stash. Because after a while all your quilts start looking the same, if you keep pulling from the same stash all the time.

EW: I hadn't thought of that.

WW: Yeah, because I think naturally we tend to choose the same sort of palette. You have colors that you favor or designs that you favor and so after a while, yeah. There's a real popular designer right now that I can spot her quilts across the room because they all look the same. They're variations on a theme. It's the same color palette. It's the same hues. It's all the same.

EW: I wonder if we are thinking of the same person. Let's see, we talked about you belong to the Cal-Co quit guild of Battle Creek, Michigan. And you have two groups that have grown from your experiences. Are there any other quilt groups or art groups that you belong too?

WW: No, that's it.

EW: We talked about, also, the wonderful advance in technology that rotary cutters have [inaudible.]

WW: Absolutely.

EW: Are there any other things that come to mind that fall in that category?

WW: Well, all the little accessories that go along with that, the rulers and so on. But I really appreciate having a machine that has a bigger throat for being able to do my quilting. I quilt on my Bernina which is a standard; it's a 1992, I think. And I can do it. That's fine, but it's so much easier on this machine which is my Juki, because it has the larger throat. Of course over the last couple of years the other companies have come out with the larger machines but I was disappointed when I first heard that Bernina was going to come out with a machine with a larger throat. Wow, I could hardly wait. When that hits the store I'm going to be knocking at the door at 9 a.m. because I want one of those. But they put all that technology on a machine that does embroidery. And then they put a big price tag on it.

EW: Yes.

WW: And I have zero interest in embroidery. I don't want the expense of it. I don't want the time of it, the time that would be involved. I don't have a use for it. I like embroidery, but in small doses. How many shirts can you decorate? How many hats can you decorate? I just didn't want it and everything involved with that is so expensive; to buy the little CD's. They're anywhere from $75 to $120. Then you've got to buy gobs of different colors of thread to go along with that. Those are five to ten dollars a spool.

EW: Then you have to make a lot of shirts.

WW: Absolutely. If I really want something embroidered, and I did have something that I wanted embroidered. I made a banner for our pastor when he was ordained. He asked me to do something, and it needed some lettering on there. I took it to the local embroidery shop and had them do it. I think they charged less than ten dollars for all the letters that I needed on there. Why would I want to do it? Why would I want the headache of it? So, no, if I had something that I really wanted, I would guess that if I wanted a shirt that had a quilt design on it I could take my shirt to them and say, 'Here's my design. Here's my shirt. Call me when it's done.'

EW: Why not?

WW: Absolutely. So, anyway, when they put that bigger throat technology on a high dollar machine I was really disappointed and I thought they missed the boat on that one. I suppose they could sell two of those machines and they would only have sold three of the lesser featured machines and made more money on those higher dollar machines.

EW: Maybe we should write them.

WW: I did. I wrote to Harriet Hargrave. I had taken a class with her and I wrote to her and told her, after they came out. I said, 'Please tell Bernina,' because she has an inside track with them. 'They missed the boat on this one. We want a simple machine.' Like this machine here. It doesn't even zigzag. This Juki doesn't even zigzag. It is a straight stitch, but it's got the big throat and it runs like a dream. It's all mechanical. There's nothing computerized about it. And that's another thing. These ladies are buying these new machines that have so much computerization and so they are awed by it, and they're intimidated and, again, they're not using them the way they really need to, or should be used. But they paid a lot of money for all those features. If one of those companies would come out with a nice machine, and I have no interest in a longarm. I have the room for it. I think I could probably fit one in here, rearrange a little bit. What turned me off completely was the guild program about four, five months ago where the professional quilters gave a presentation. Do you remember that? And they talked about loading up this and they got to turn that and they got to do this and got to do that. And I'm thinking, 'Oh, my gosh. By the time they get all that stuff situated I can have mine quilted.'

EW: Yes, with an individual design.

WW: Right. Yes. Just as I go, make it up as I go along.

EW: Just exactly how you want it.

WW: Right, and I'm not tied in with a set pentagram or anything.

EW: I think that's a good point. You've talked about piecing and appliqué. Do you have a favorite technique?

WW: I really like to appliqué, I think, more than I like to piece. But, piecing has its place as well. In fact the last couple of quilts that I've made have been pieced rather than appliqué and I'm just itching to get an appliqué. When I get that Log Cabin done that sitting over there waiting for me I'll be doing an appliqué project.

EW: Maybe you'll have to put a vine on it.

WW: Yeah. Well, that's what I usually do sometimes, is I just can't stand it unless I put a little appliqué somewhere. And I didn't always like to appliqué. I was intimidated by appliqué when I first became a quilter because the only technique being done then was needle turn. And I tried it a couple of times and I just couldn't do it. My hands would cramp up. It didn't look smooth. I just didn't like it, and I couldn't do it. So I just decided I just couldn't do appliqué. I'd go to quilt shows and I would be drawn to the appliqué quilts or the pieced quilts that had appliqué elements, vines or borders, whatever, and I would just kind of turn away and say, 'I've tried. I just can't do that.' And then the Quiltery in Battle Creek was offering an appliqué class, one block a month. It was a year, twelve month deal. I thought, 'One block a month. Come on, I can do one block a month.' So I took the class and got started and it was using freezer paper rather than needle turn. That just opened the door. I began to use that technique and said, 'Wow, this is so easy.' And then it was just okay, let's do it. I really enjoy that very much.

EW: Are there any particular materials that you prefer?

WW: I always work with cottons.

EW: Any difference in prints or batiks, or anything like that?

WW: Usually just plain prints. The batiks, I'm a little concerned with the dye being fast in them. I always wash my fabric before I use it in anything. Before it even comes down to the sewing room it passes through the washer.

EW: It only takes one bad experience.

WW: And I had it. I had that bad experience and never again. And the thing that I had that bad experience was a hot pink color. I know reds sometimes are bad, but I had this hot pink, and I had used it in--I had half the appliqué blocks done in a totally appliqué quilt. I had used that pink in every block in some quantity, maybe a little bit in one, maybe a lot in another. Then something happened that I needed to rinse out one of the blocks. I don't remember what it was. I rinsed it out, hung it up to dry and came back to check it to see if it was dry yet. This pink is just bleeding out, everywhere, onto the white background and into the pale yellow that was also there. Oh, no. So I went back to my hot pink, began the rinsing, rinsing. I had rinsed that twenty-five times and it was still bleeding. That's the end of that. I threw it away. So, now what am I going to do. The only solution that I could find, could think of, was that I just had to remove it. That's all. So I went back to the blocks I had completed. Everywhere I had that fabric, took it out, replaced it. Because there was no way I was going to use that. So, that's what convinced me I needed to wash fabrics. Every time I have used a batik it takes a lot to get that extra dye out of there. So, I just wonder as time goes on. So, even though I love them, they're really pretty, they make up so pretty, beautiful batik quilts, I'm always just a little bit hesitant and so, for myself, I don't usually go there. I'm not really into the folk art look of the primitive, the primitive look of the checks and stripes and plaids. I'll use them some for accent. It's not like I don't ever use a plaid or a check or a stripe, but it's not something I would make a whole quilt out of, in that primitive style.

EW: Describe your studio or the place that you quilt.

WW: Well, this is it. Half of the house, it seems like. Lower level of our home, what started out as the laundry room and then evolved into a sewing room and then I took over our family room when the family got grown up and out of the house and didn't need a place to rough house and play. That becomes my place. Then this last year we got new windows in the basement and that really was nice too. I don't feel like I'm in a hole in the ground because I can see out in two places and see if it's snowing or sun shining or whatever. This is kind of my own little world. I can come down here and not even be aware of anything that's going on around me, outside, whatever.

EW: Do you listen to music when you're working down here?

WW: Especially when I'm quilting I listen to music because it helps to keep me from concentrating too hard on what I'm doing. It makes me looser, more relaxed. So I'm not really so into it. I also have found in the last year or two that it helps to have an old movie on TV or something like that so that I look up from my work, because if I do my work in a steady way, and I'm just looking at it, my eyes get locked into that focus and after a while I can't see and I start getting blurry. So I look up and that makes my eyes refocus and then I can look down and so I can quilt for a longer period of time. I also get up and move around. When I have music on I hope no one ever has a hidden camera because I'll dance around and whatever to get the blood flowing. You get a good 50's, 60's rock tune, you can't sit still with some of those things. I'll get up and move around and get some stuff going. I play my music loud. I could never criticize the kids because they had theirs too loud, because I play mine loud. It surrounds me so I do that. I enjoy that. There are certain CD's or tapes that I'll get out for certain, like when I'm quilting Abba is one that I like. I've got another one that's Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. It's a CD that I enjoy as well. So those are two good things, music to quilt by.

EW: You could publish an album.

WW: That's right.

EW: Music to quilt by. Tell me how you balance your time.

WW: Oh, boy. I try to not spend all of my time down here. My husband deserves a little bit. With grandchildren in high school, involved in sports it's usually how I find time to do my quilting. We like to be involved in their lives, too. We go to all their events, their athletic events and things like that. So we are busy with them. Then I balance it, probably, more seasonally. You can't take the farm girl out of me totally. This time of the year it's really hard to get down here and working on a project because I want to be outside. I want to be working in the garden. I want to be transplanting some flowers, which is what I ought to be doing right now. I'd rather be doing that outside thing while I can and then be working down here in the winter. I could come down here in the winter and work from eight until noon, get dinner and come back down. I have a wonderful husband who never complains about the amount of time that I spend down here, and he comes down and joins me. I have a movie going. I'll say, 'I'm going to watch such-and-such.' Okay. I've got two comfy chairs that he'll come down. We have the older computer down here because it has a quilting program on it and it also has card games. So he can come down and share time with me in that way.

EW: That's nice.

WW: Yeah.

EW: Let's talk about your design wall.

WW: Yes. Oh, boy. I love that. This is something my husband made for me. I told him what I wanted and I said, 'I want a design wall.' I'd seen someone else's that was just insulation board covered with felt. Okay. So he rigged it all up for me and ready to put the felt on, and helped me with that and, oh, I love it. I just absolutely love it. When I'm working on a pieced quilt, especially, I put all the blocks in place before I start sewing them. And I'll just get up, and that helps me, too, to get up and down. I can't sit on my butt all day long. So I'll just get up and pick up a row and come back and sew it. Then I'll stick it back up there. That is so exciting to see that quilt grow, to see it come together. That is just wonderful. Then as I am sitting here looking at it, then I can think about how I'm going to quilt it. 'Oh, that would be okay to do this or that,' as I'm sewing it together.

EW: You might see a secondary pattern coming out.

WW: Yeah, that's right. That's right. It's so much better than putting it on the floor or on the bed because you're not seeing it straight on. You're always seeing it at a slant, at an angle. To be able to see it straight on you can catch mistakes that way so much easier than you can when your vision is kind of skewed. There have been times I've sewed on a block sideways or upside down, or whatever, and as soon as I get it up there, 'Oh, yeah. That one's not right.'

EW: How much time do you think you spend quilting a week?

WW: A week. Again, it depends on the time of year. I do more in the winter than in the summer. I would say, probably ten to twelve hours, maybe, a couple of hours in the evening, a couple of hours in the afternoon. Over a weeks period of time that would add up. There might be a sports event on Sunday afternoon that I'm watching, or that I'm interested in. That would be a good way to do two things at once. Be watching, say a golf match. Wow, that's kind of boring, just to watch that, but maybe there's a couple of players that you're interested in and you'd like to see how they do. We all want to know how Tiger's [Tiger Woods.] doing, right? So I can be sewing and have that on or a football game in the winter time, see how my man Peyton's [Peyton Manning.] doing.

EW: What do you think makes a great quilt?

WW: I think a good balance of all of the elements, one where the quilting doesn't overwhelm the piecing or appliqué and vice versa. I've seen some really nice appliquéd quilts that, 'Boy, if they'd just had a little more, if they'd just had a couple of feathers here or there, or maybe a little wreath over in the plain blocks, of something.' It would have really spiced them up. On the other hand, I've seen quilts that were way over-quilted, in my opinion. I think usually color is what attracts most people at first glance. So I think color has to be the attention grabber and then the design and quilting draw you in.

EW: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

WW: Artistically powerful. I would have to say when all those elements come together and you just really have to study it. The use of color, and how it comes together, the proportions. Boy I've gone to some quilt shows and it was a good thing I was at the show by myself. I didn't have somebody else pulling at my elbow, because I've spent twenty minutes just looking at one piece because it has drawn me in to really come closer, study it. How did they do that? Figuring that part out.

EW: I think you must have made a quilt like that, too. What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

WW: If it is different or unusual or shows particular skill. I can see that in a museum. That quilt will never be in a museum, my touchstone piece there, because it's very ordinary. But one that shows particular design superiority and then the skills that are involved in it. Maybe great color, being unique. There are so many quilts being made in this period of time that it would take a really special quilt to be museum quality, I think, at this point in time. There are lots of really nice quilts out there. When you go down to Paducah [Kentucky.] to the quilt museum down there you walk through there with your mouth hanging open because every corner is one more fantastic quilt that you just have to say, 'How did they do that?" or 'How long did it take them to do that?' I think a lot of people could make museum quality quilts if they wanted to invest the time. Perhaps I could do that because I do have attention to detail and I think my skills are good, but I don't really want to spend 400 hours on one quilt. I'd rather spend a hundred hours on four quilts, than to concentrate on one.

EW: How are your quilts used?

WW: How are my quilts used? Well the bed quilts that I make are rotated through our bedroom on a pretty regular basis, probably every month I change the quilt on the bed. So we use those. Our daughter has two or three quilts that I've made for her and she generally has one; I know she has on her bed right now a nice appliqué quilt that I have made. She has an older quilt that I hand quilted that she uses for her Civil War reenactment because the colors are appropriate and it's old enough now that it looks kind of faded and worn. So, it suits the era. So she uses that. Our son has a good sized wall hanging that I made for them using scraps from their wedding, the bridesmaids' dresses and the bride's dress, because I made both of those. Then at the reception, rather than a guest book we had people sign squares of fabric and I incorporated those into the quilt.

EW: That's a nice idea.

WW: Yeah, and so that they have that. It's on the wall right now. They generally put it up at Christmas time and their anniversary is in September. Let's see, I think last year, gosh she's had it up since Christmas, since I think about it. I think last she put it up about their anniversary time and then, it's red and white, a kind of a cranberry and white and so that works through Christmas. I said, 'You know, you could stretch that into Valentine's Day.' I think she just got used to it being there and so it's been there. Wall hangings that I make, I kind of like to do seasonal wall hangings and then I rotate those as art work on the wall. As the seasons change, our house changes. Our house is fairly neutral so it's easy to change the atmosphere of the house by the wall hangings. And that's kind of fun.

EW: What do you think makes a great quilt maker?

WW: A great quilt maker, hmmm. Probably one who is constantly working to improve their skills and abilities, who always uses their current quilt as a stepping stone to the next. 'Hey, that worked really good. What if I added this to that element?' I see in magazines a lot of times that professional quilters will work in series. They'll have one, and I can see that so easily. You start out and, 'Gee, if I change these colors around, that would be an interesting way to--

EW: One thing tends to grow out of the previous one.

WW: Absolutely, yes. Yes. Always working forward and never being quite satisfied with what you're--always looking for something a little better, a little different, a little brighter, a little more wow, something.

EW: Another 'what if.'

WW: Another 'what if.' Yeah. That's right.

EW: Whose works are you drawn to?

WW: You mean in quiltmaking? One of my favorite designers is Jan Patek and Cherie Ralston. There designs are--oh, and then also Barbara Adams and Alma Allen. They have nice appliqué. They're not little tiny pieces. They're usually a little bit bigger pieces. They're usually bright colors, and I do like bright colors. And a little bit folkie but not primitive, almost traditional looking. I kind of like those designers a lot.

EW: Are there any [WW clears throat.] artists that have influenced you?

WW: That's one area that I am not very versed in, is actual art. I would almost say my son. He is an artist because he is always taking risks. He'll be up for a challenge, up for something new, up for trying something different. That inspires me to not to get in a rut, not to just stick with what I know, to try something new.

EW: A new challenge.

WW: Yes.

EW: We talked a little bit about how you quilt and about the longarm quilters. Do you have any feelings about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

WW: I don't particularly. I know that there are, that is a controversial thing, but machine quilting has become much more accepted in the last few years. Harriet Hargrave, the queen mother of machine quilting, tells the story about when she first was machine quilting there in Colorado. They wouldn't even let her exhibit a quilt because it was machine quilted and it was not hand done. So, a family member, I want to say it was her mother or sister, lived in Chicago and said, 'There's going to be a big quilt show here. Why don't you enter your quilt here?' She did and she won. She won first place and all of a sudden people are saying, 'Hey, how'd she do that? That looks so good.' It has become more accepted and now when you go to a quilt show, more quilts are machine quilted that hand quilted. I admire hand quilting. I can hand quilt and it's beautiful and lovely but I don't want to spend the time. I have hand quilted two large, full sized quilts and I enjoyed it. But all the time I was doing it I was thinking of other things that I would have liked to do. So, I admire it and I like it, but it's not for me. I want to machine quilt, because that's the process that gets it finished. I want to get to the finish line. It's not like I'm in a hurry. I'm not in a race, but it's part of the process. Then, a lot of the machine quilting I think has kind of gone over the edge. The pendulum has swung a little too far and I'm seeing a lot of quilts that I think are over quilted at shows. Now, for a wall hanging, maybe that's okay. It keeps them firm and square and they hang nice. But for a quilt, do you really want it to be that stiff and heavy? And I'm a little guilty of that myself. I did a quilt; one chicken quilt was criticized because it didn't have enough quilting when it was judged. It needed more quilting and I had debated about that when I was finishing it. I thought, 'Mmm, do I really need to quilt the background in the chicken blocks? No.' I outline quilted them, I think, twice and there wasn't that much extra space behind them and the batting that I used was Warm and Natural and you can quilt up to nine or ten inches apart on that, so it didn't need it for the batting. But both of the times that I entered that in shows that was the comment. Needs more quilting. Needs more quilting. I said I wasn't going to, but I went back and I did put just some background quilting in those blocks and I entered it in a show again and I did not get that comment about it needing more quilting, so I guess it needed more quilting. But, I see quilts, especially ones that are done by professional quilters, that are just way too much as far as I'm concerned. I'm hoping maybe the pendulum will swing back a little bit, but I don't think it will in the near future because they're making longarm machines more affordable and available so that more people are getting them. So I don't think we are going to see going back anytime soon.

EW: You do all of your quilting?

WW: I do, yes. I do. I've been real tempted; there have been times that I've been really tempted to have someone else, a professional, do the quilting for me. But then when I got it home it wouldn't be my quilt. It would be mine and their quilt. So, I just can't do that.

EW: I understand that.

WW: I can't give it away. I can't give away half of my quilt. And that's what I'd be doing.

EW: Why do you think quiltmaking has become important in your life?

WW: Because of my desire to create things and I really like to sew and I don't need the clothes. My kids are gone and my grandchildren today don't want to wear homemade clothes. I still love to work with the fabrics and create things with the fabrics. I have never felt that I was artistic in the way like my son is to be able to draw things and create things in that way, but to work with the fabrics, yes. Then it's mine. It's a different color than the pattern, so mine's different or the quilting is different or whatever.

EW: You've made the pattern your own.

WW: Right.

EW: In what ways do you think your quilts reflect your community or the region?

WW: It's a pretty traditional area and that's kind of the way my quilt taste goes, is traditional. I'm not one to go off on a funky sort of tangent, or even to use funky colors, and I say that knowing that right over there in the cupboard I've got a whole pile of funky fabrics that I can hardly wait to get into. I got a coloring book that had a lot of kaleidoscope designs in it. There was one in particular that appealed to me. [beads rattle on desk.] When I opened it up, I thought, 'Oh that could make a fantastic quilt.' So I wrote the company and got permission to use their design for a quilt and so when I get it done, I already know the name of it. It's going to be a Psychedelic Dahlia because it's sort of round like a dahlia but it has these unusual shapes. I'm going to use this really funky fabric.

EW: I think that's [inaudible.]

WW: Yes, they're just wild prints and swirls and, oh I think it's going to be cool. But, I live in a traditional community, a rural community and I think that shapes my taste for enjoying those kinds of things and feeling comfortable with those kinds of things.

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

WW: Right now it's an economic thing. The quilting industry is--oh boy, I read that statistic not too long ago, several billion dollars-a-year industry. Economically it is important. And there is the importance of women like myself being able to commune and share with other women. I think women have more of a need for that, perhaps, than men do. I went out and formed my own group so I would have a group to be a part of, and I wish my husband had a circle like that, a group of guys that he could go cut boards with [laughs.] or whatever they would do whenever they would get together, have coffee and solve the problems of the world. I don't care. I think women have more of a need for that. It gives them something socially to do and be involved in. It can be as involved as much money as you want to put into it, or none. You know, there are a lot of ladies, I think that belong to the guild that have never made a quilt. Probably never will make a quilt, but they like quilts and they like to hang around quilters and they like to be a part of the group.

EW: I hadn't thought of that.

WW; There's a lot of people that you never see have anything that they've made. Now, maybe they're closet quilters. Maybe at home they've got stacks, but you never see them at any class. You never see them at show and tell. They never have anything in a show. You never see them doing a charity quilt. But they're always there at the meetings.

EW: That's very interesting. I hadn't thought of that. I think I should find one of those people and interview them. [WW laughs.] You talked about quilts being used on beds and as wall hangings and charity quilts. Are there any other things that come in the way that quilts can be used?

WW: The guild has their children's quilts. I don't know if that counts as being on beds or not. I think in many cases those are comfort quilts for emotionally struggling little ones and children. That's a really good thing.

EW: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future? Or do you think they should be preserved?

WW: That's an interesting question. Because, I have heard of a professional quilter who has her quilts in a climate controlled room and the lights are never turned on except for a few moments when she goes in and out of the room? That's carrying preservation a little too far as far as I'm concerned, because those quilts will never make a memory for her family. They'll never be anything other than, 'Well that's what she did for business.' [clears throat.] So the quilts are made from natural fabrics for the most part. They aren't going to last forever anyway. So I guess I would have to say use them. Love them, and enjoy them for what they are. I'm a good quilter but I'm not a museum quality quilter, so why pretend that I am and just let my family enjoy their quilts. There are thousands of me across the country and we're all making quilts. They aren't all going to wind up in museums.

EW: But they're all going to be loved.

WW: They're all going to be loved. Exactly.

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

WW: Expense. I think that's it. I see some block-of-the-month programs. I was online a week or so ago. I was at the library where they have really blazing fast speeds. I could enjoy that. So I was looking at some of the shops across the country. There's a shop in Texas, I think, Stitch In Heaven, or something like that, that they kind of specialize in doing block-of-the-month. And then there are some designers that specialize in that, too. And the sign-up fee, I guess, it was a fee to get started was twenty dollars. Then each month was thirty dollars. And it was ten months and then you had the finishing kit that gave you the material for the binding and the borders and all of that. That was another thirty-five or forty dollars. Anyway, by the time you got that all added up it was like $450 into the quilt and all you had was a pile of fabric and the patterns. You still had to make it. And then with fabric being ten dollars a yard and we all know how much goes in, how many yards goes into a full-sized quilt, you know, six, eight, nine yards maybe. So you easily got a hundred dollars into a quilt unless you can find fabric on sale or shop those bargains, things like that. So I think it's expense. Machines are getting expensive. We are bombarded with all these little gizmos and doodads, so I think it's the expense.

EW: That brings us to the end of our questions. Is there anything that you would like to add?

WW: I have a fun story.

EW: All right.

WW: About this quilt [removes picture from plastic bag.] which was one of my early quilts. It's a Irish Chain. It has those little printed panels that look like a pen and ink square in there. They were originally designed to be calendar squares. And they all feature little quilts in some way. That quilt had won first place in the St. Jo [St. Joseph County Fair, Centreville, Michigan.] County fair and it was then automatically entered into the State Fair. It's called the Golden Ribbon Program. It got a golden ribbon on the county level and then they bring all the gold ribbon winners together at the state fair. Then they select the best of those quilts and they get first place and so on. So that quilt went to the state fair and the day after the fair closed I got a phone call, at work, from someone at the state fair saying that they were sorry to inform me that my quilt had been stolen along with seven other quilts, a jar of hot peppers, a homemade bottle of wine, an afghan and could I send them a picture? Did I have a picture that I could send them and so on. And I'm like, 'My quilt? It's not special. It's a nice quilt but it's no big deal. Why would anyone steal it?' As it turned all the quilts that were stolen were prize winners of some nature as were the other items. Fortunately the detective who was assigned to this was interested in quilts. His mother quilted or something and so he really pursued it. He didn't just let it fall through the cracks and get lost. He suspected from the beginning that it had something to do with security. It turned out it was the security guard in the building that had stolen these items and he had traded them for drugs. He drank the wine. He ate the hot peppers and he gave them names and places of where he had traded these quilts or sold them. They were able to recover all of them. The last one they actually recovered in Mexico because the drug dealer liked that particular quilt especially and so he sent it home to Mama, only Mama wasn't all that keen on it and she was literally going out the door on her way to the market with the quilt on her arm to sell it, when the police showed up at her door to recover it.

EW: That was a close call.

WW: Very close. But they got them all back, all in good condition. They hadn't been damaged or anything. And, as it turned out, my quilt had not been stolen. It was in the box to be mailed back to me and it had been stuck under a desk in the office and in all of the hubbub and upset when they discovered that some of the quilts, indeed, were missing, they couldn't put their hands on mine. They didn't know where mine was and so they thought mine was a part of that as well.

EW: That's quite a story.

WW: Isn't it, though? Isn't it? So I did, of course, get the quilt back and that was the story. So here I have the newspaper clippings [plastic bag rattles.] from that. This is the police officer. That's a little, small picture of one of the quilts. Oh, I forgot, there was a jar of beans, too. A jar of hot peppers, a jar of beans--

EW: He needed a loaf of bread.

WW: [giggles.] He did. The state fair folks actually put out a $10,000 reward for the recovery of those. I don't think it was ever, probably paid out, because the police were the ones who recovered it. So that's kind of a fun story.

EW: Oh, it is really.

WW: I mean, it has a happy ending. And that's what makes it fun.

EW: That was good, too. Thank you for sharing that. This ends our interview [papers rattle.] and the time is now 3:45. Thank you very much, Wanda.

WW: You're welcome.


“Wanda Warner,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2175.