Lori Smith




Lori Smith




Lori Smith


Eleanor Wilkinson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Battle Creek, Michigan


Eleanor Wilkinson


Eleanor Wilkinson (EW): This is Eleanor Wilkinson. This interview is being conducted for South Central Michigan QSOS, a project for The Alliance for American Quilts. Today I'm interviewing Lori Smith at Westlake Presbyterian Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. Today is March 18, 2011, and the time is 10:50. Let's start by describing the quilt that we're going to talk about.

Lori Smith (LS): Well, it is a Redwork Sunbonnet Sue. It's Redwork on white background. Red and white sashing and borders. And the backing is red and white Sunbonnet Sue, miniature pictures of Sunbonnet Sue on that. There are seven blocks that are Redwork in there for every day of the week. She is doing something for every day of the week, like the washday, ironing day, cooking, going to church, mending. I can't think of every one of them, but those are the different things on the quilt.

EW: Does this quilt have a title, a name?

LS: I don't remember if I actually named it. I made it for a specific person, but I don't remember if I put a name to it.

EW: Does this have a special meaning for you?

LS: It does. I made it as a birthday gift for a woman named Betty Lewis and she was the woman who raised me. My parents both worked. Growing up, we had a large family and they needed someone to take care of the family when they were at work, so even before I was born, they hired her to take care of the kids. She was like a live-in nanny, housekeeper. She basically was like a mother to me. So, I made that for her for a birthday gift one year because she was the one who taught me all those things that were on that. All those things that Sunbonnet Sue was doing she had taught me. I had written something about that on the label when I made it for her, that everything that I can do was because of her. It had a special meaning because of her.

EW: And that's why you chose to bring that for the interview?

LS: Right.

EW: What do you suppose that someone viewing the quilt might think of you?

LS: [loud conversation is heard through the door.] I don't know. I guess it might depend on if the person knows me or not. Someone that knows me would look at it and say, 'This is all the stuff that she always does.' Because that's me, doing all those things. Those are the things I enjoy doing. Someone who doesn't know me I guess they would just think that that would just happen to be something I chose to do.

EW: Are you now the owner of the quilt?

LS: Yes.

EW: And how do you use it?

LS: Every now and then I use it. It's a lap size, not a full-size quilt. I use it if I'm sitting and watching TV or reading a book. A lot of times I just have it at the end of my bed on a quilt rack so I can still see it.

EW: What are your plans for this quilt?

LS: I guess that when I am no longer here that would be up to my children to decide which one of them might like to keep it.

EW: Have you labeled it in some way that they will know its history?

LS: I have. I made a label. It was to Betty, with my name and my location and the date. So, it is labeled. They know who Betty was. So, they know the story behind it.

EW: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

LS: Well, it began, I guess, through my sister. We both used to do cross-stitch, years ago. She got me into cross-stitch. She's my older sister and she got into quilting, and I was still doing cross-stitch and she said, 'I don't even do that anymore. I just started doing quilting and so I am really getting interested in it.' We live maybe an hour or two apart. All the time, we've always lived an hour or two apart. These are mostly conversations on the phone and every time I talked to her, she'd tell me about her new project she was working on. It just sounded so interesting and then I'd see the things that she was making and so I got interested. I didn't have fabric stashes or anything at the time. I worked on cross-stitch most of the time and some other types of crafts, but I never really had fabric that I stacked up. So, she said, 'Just wait. If you get into this, you're to have a closet just for your fabrics like I do.' So, she got me started and I started doing different things here and there, smaller things and then little bit larger things, mostly given away to people. She's the one who got me started.

EW: And did you have any quilt memories before that time?

LS: Yes. Betty made a quilt for my father for a birthday gift. I believe it was a birthday gift, not Christmas. I can remember her working on that a lot in the evenings. She would sit in her room and just work on that. And, I thought, 'Wow, this takes a long time. I was very young at the time. I don't remember the pattern that she used, but I think it was something in blues and white. I want to find out where that quilt is now. I think my mother might have it, but I've often wondered, now that I'm interested in quilting, I want to look at it because I don't really know what it looks like. [coughs.] Excuse me. I can just remember her putting in many hours working on that.

EW: What age would you say you were when you started quilt making?

LS: Oh, probably in my mid-forties, so maybe around eight years ago.

EW: Were there others that taught you quilting?

LS: No one ever really taught me. It was all just experimental or what I saw my sister had done or what I saw on TV.

EW: Were you a sewer?

LS: Was I a sewer? I have made things like pajamas or boxers for my kids, things like that, robes, miscellaneous things. I've never made too many regular clothing articles. But I like doing that type of thing anyway.

EW: And so, you are pretty much self-taught when it comes to quilting?

LS: Mostly, or what I see on television, you know, different shows that you might see on television, or that I see someone else working on and I try to remember their methods of things. And somebody else might have another method, the same type of thing but their method is different, and you just work on whatever one works for you. I've tried different types of things and kind of settled on what works for me.

EW: Were there other quiltmakers in your family?

LS: I think my father's mother, my grandmother, had made quilts. I really don't know too much about that, but I know that she did sew a lot of clothing. I'm pretty sure she had done some quilts. I've never seen any that I recall, but I'm pretty sure she did.

EW: Now how does quilt making impact your family?

LS: Well, I don't know. I think everybody just views it as a hobby. It's just my hobby. I don't think there are too many people in my family that view it as something that could possibly be part of history. I don't think they have the same meaning that I do, that I hold for it. To me they can be something special or they can be just utility quilts. I don't think other people have that same view. Which is okay. Sometimes some people in my family just look at a quilt as just a blanket, which to me is not right. [both laugh.]

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

LS: I think I have when I've been stressed about something in particular or worried about something, that kind of releases tension or is relaxing to me. It's kind of a comforting thing for me.

EW: Has there ever been a kind of amusing thing that has happened in connection with your quilting?

LS: Not that I can recall right now. [outside conversation is heard again.]

EW: What do you find pleasing about quilt making?

LS: Just the cutting up things and then putting them back together to see what you can create. Maybe a sense of accomplishment.

EW: Is there anything about quilt making that you do not enjoy?

LS: Hmm. No, I guess I like all the phases of it. I can't say that there is something that I don't enjoy about it.

EW: What art or quilt groups do you belong to?

LS: The Cal-Co quilt guild [Cal-Co Quilters' Guild of Battle Creek, Michigan.] and that's about it.

EW: What advances in technology might have influenced your work?

LS: Nothing, really, I just use a fairly basic machine. I have a couple of different stitches that I use most often, but I don't normally do anything else. I don't have a real fancy machine. I don't normally do anything related to the computer so that doesn't come into my quilting. I guess the only thing might be a digital camera. When I see something that I like I take pictures of it so that I can see it and maybe duplicate it in some way. So, I guess that's about the only technology that I use.

EW: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

LS: I think I normally gravitate towards appliqué. That's the thing I do most often, some sort of appliqué and I think that's because I like seeing the pictures come to life, putting all the pieces together and creating a picture.

EW: Are these any of your own designs?

LS: Well, something that I am working on right now is my own design, but most of the things I've had are from patterns, most of the things I've done. I think I probably do appliqué more than I do regular piecing and I do machine appliqué as well as hand appliqué. I generally turn to more traditional types of fabrics and colors. I'm not a person who likes the brights and crazy designs.

EW: You mostly use cotton, then?

LS: Cotton. Yes.

EW: Do you have a studio or sewing room where you create?

LS: I do. I have a basement that was no longer used so I moved all my things to the basement and have a good area that I can spread out all my stuff. It's not organized right now because I just recently did that. I would like to get everything organized so it looks nice if someone were to come there. It doesn't look very nice right now.

EW: I don't think that's abnormal.

LS: That's what I've heard.

EW: Do you use a design wall?

LS: Yes, I do. I made that out of large sheets of Styrofoam and covered it with flannel, so I've got a couple of different projects going up there right now.

EW: And so, you use that to organize your blocks as you progress on it?

LS: Yes. Right.

EW: Tell me how you balance your time.

LS: Well, I guess most of the time I spend working around the home or the yard and spending time with my children or grandchildren. But I try to spend some amount of time every day or at least every other day sewing, or doing something toward a project I'm working on, whether it's fifteen minutes or two hours. I don't really spend a lot of time per day sewing.

EW: So normally you might say an average of, what, an average of thirty minutes or so a day?

LS: Yes, about that.

EW: What do you think makes a great quilt?

LS: Oh, that's a tough question. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it would be a great quilt as long as the quiltmaker is happy. But there are many, many beautiful quilts that I've seen and then there are some that I don't particularly care for, but that doesn't mean that it's not a great quilt.

EW: If you were at a quilt show what would catch your eye?

LS: Probably the appliqué things. Things that are symmetrical. I guess I tend to focus more on that type of thing. That's more pleasing to my eye.

EW: More comfortable?

LS: Yeah, more traditional looking things. I guess those are the things that I like more when I go to a quilt show.

EW: What makes a quilt artistically powerful?

LS: I guess something that speaks to you. When you can look at something and you know right away what the quiltmaker was trying to accomplish with that, or what their idea was when they created it.

EW: It conveys their thought?

LS: Right.

EW: What do you think would make a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

LS: I don't know. That's a really good question. Because I wouldn't necessarily say that it was because of somebody famous. Just because somebody's famous doesn't necessarily mean that-- or just because somebody is not famous doesn't mean that their quilt wouldn't be in a museum. I don't know.

EW: What makes a great quiltmaker?

LS: [seven second pause.] I guess it would be someone who was happy doing what they're doing.

EW: Whose works are you drawn to?

LS: [nine second pause.] I really am not good with names. There's one in particular that I can remember because I just bought a pattern of hers and that's McKenna Ryan. She has a quilt pattern out called Forest Hollow and it's got owls in it, which is kind of like a family--everyone in my family has owls because my maiden name was Howlett. So, owlet was our like little family, so owl was our family bird. I don't know how else to describe it. So, everyone in our family has something with owls and so she had this design with owls. So, I bought that and it's also an appliqué design. So I'm looking forward to making that at some point. But I can't really remember too many people's names.

EW: Are there any artists that have influenced you?

LS: Then again, I can't really remember names.

EW: Okay. How do you feel about hand quilting versus machine quilting?

LS: I do machine and hand appliqué, not quilting. I'm not very good at hand quilting. I've only tried it a couple of different times because I've done mostly appliqué things and a lot of things that I've done were small that I could just put in my machine. If I did anything large, I sent it to be quilted. Just for the ease, just because it was difficult for me to do it in my regular machine. I think whatever gets the job done. I like those people that are the traditional hand quilters, but I don't think that it is wrong to do machine quilting.

EW: So, you don't have the philosophical problem with machine quilting?

LS: No. No.

EW: Why is quilt making important to your life?

LS: I guess it just gives me some way to be creative. I just enjoy it, so it's something that I can do whether I'm feeling sad or worried or whatever. It's calming.

EW: In what ways do your quilts reflect your community? Okay. What do you think about the importance in American life?

LS: [eighteen second pause.] I don't know.

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

LS: Well, just showing how much women can do, displaying their talents, I think is important. There's more to women than just working as a secretary or being a housewife or other. Women have so many more talents than some people know.

EW: How do you think quilts can be used?

LS: Well, for warmth, for display as an artistic item.

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

LS: They should be. For mine in particular, I would hope that my family would try to preserve those things that I have spent time working on. They should be preserved in some way.

EW: And how would you go about that? Anything special?

LS: I guess just trying to take care of them. Not abusing them, not that they would be treated just as a blanket.

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

LS: Well, my sister has a couple of them, I believe, that were made from other family members. You know, my grandmother or it might have been from my aunts. I'm not sure. I don't really know where anything else--the ones that I've given, I don't really know what has happened to them.

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

LS: [paper rattles.] [eighteen second pause.] Maybe finding time to do things that they want to do. Balancing all the other things in their life that are going on, along with wanting to quilt.

EW: We've reached the end of the questions on this interview. Is there anything that you would particularly like to add?

LS: No.

EW: Okay. Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview.

LS: Thank you.

EW: This concludes the interview, and the time is 11:20 a.m.


“Lori Smith,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 15, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2188.