Rita Williams




Rita Williams




Rita Williams


Alice Helms

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Fletcher, North Carolina


Alice Helms


Alice Helms (AH): My name is Alice Helms. Today is October 2, 2011. I'm conducting an interview with Rita Williams for the Asheville Quilt Guild Quilters' S.O.S. - Save our Stories project. We're at the Asheville Quilt Show in Fletcher, North Carolina and it is 3:10 p.m. Rita, tell me about the quilt you brought today.

Rita Williams (RW): Okay, this is a Baltimore Album quilt. When I first started working with quilts, I was enchanted with appliqué quilts and particularly with Baltimore Albums. I was lucky enough to take a class with Elly Sienkiewicz at a quilt symposium near where I lived in New York state and she's a charming person and a wonderful teacher and I had bought all her books and just loved the needle-turn appliqué and back then I was doing all my quilting by--this quilt is entirely hand appliquéd and hand quilted. It was three years in the making and after I finished it I ended up having carpal tunnel surgery [laughs.] but it was--from the back of a galloping horse it's a good job. If you look too closely at things, it's obviously somebody who's a beginner appliquer and it's the kind of thing beginners do, they choose an enormous project like this to do, but Baltimore Album is a once in a lifetime quilt. You do one in your lifetime unless you're Elly
Sienkiewicz. So this is my attempt at it.

AH: But this wasn't the first quilt you made.

RW: No, no, no. No it wasn't the first but it was the first really involved appliqué quilt I made. I had done some appliqué and you know, taken some lessons and there was a woman in the guild that I was in in New York state who was just a marvelous appliquer and she encouraged me and taught me some things too. I had like a mentor, which was very nice to have.

AH: So why did you choose to bring this quilt, this particular quilt today?

RW: Because I think this represents--I worked on it on and off for three years and it kind of got me into just looking at Baltimore Albums and appreciating Baltimore Albums, kind of started me in quilting and it's a showy--Baltimore Albums are real show stoppers, people love them. People love appliqué quilts. And I've done other appliqué quilts after this. I've done a Tree of Life that I did by hand, needle-turn appliqué, but I quilted it on the machine. So, this is a little different.

AH: And how do you use this quilt?

RW: There's a space in my living room--the house we had before this one, it hung on the wall behind the couch, and I have a place in my stairwell where I display quilts and I change them and this is one of the quilts in the rotation. So I change them out every three, four months.

AH: And what are your plans for this quilt?

RW: Well, you know it'll probably go to my daughter. Actually, at one point I didn't have a place to display it and she had it in her house and I had some trouble getting it back. [laughs.]

AH: So tell me how you started quilting. When was it?

RW: It was, let's see, it was about eighteen years ago, when we still lived in New York state. I had always sewn, I had always done, as a young kid I did cross stitch, and I sewed clothing. I got quite involved in clothing. I had done all my daughter's bridesmaids' dresses. So, I was into clothing construction and I took a lot of classes in clothing construction and I had a good friend who was a quilter and so she kind of encouraged me to start quilting. And then when my daughter was pregnant with her daughter, my first quilt was a crayon quilt that I made for my granddaughter Alexandra. There was a great sewing store in Clarence [New York.] and I took a class and did this crayon quilt in this class and you know, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and I was hooked.

AH: And what happened to that quilt?

RW: She still has it. She still has it.

AH: And she's eighteen.

RW: She's eighteen.

AH: Have you made her any other quilts?

RW: Oh, please, is the pope Catholic? [laughs.] Yeah, I've made her all kinds of quilts. I made her one--I think her favorite was a Princess and the Pea quilt, when she was a little older. It has a little girl in a bed with this big pile of quilts and I found a button that looked like a green pea that I put at the bottom of the bed and it's got the four posters and the castle around it and I bought doll hair and put doll hair on it. The doll hair started out curly and by the time we finished it was all straight because she used to caress the hair. But I've made all kinds of quilts. And then, I have a grandson too so I've made quilts for him too.

AH: So you took that one class and that's how you learned.

RW: That's how I started. But I've taken lots and lots of classes. As a teacher I think I value the idea that you can learn from classes, so I take classes and we're fortunate here that we get some excellent teachers to come in and teach and when I was in New York state, I belonged to two different guilds and then one of our neighboring guilds. I belonged to the guild in Batavia, where we lived, and one in Clarence, which is a suburb of Buffalo and then the Lockport guild every year has a symposium and that's where I took the class with Elly Sienkiewicz and I took all kinds of classes. They had a three-day--or they did at the time--a three-day symposium every year, and they'd bring in national teachers and I'd take classes and I've taken lots of classes.

AH: Did you have quilters in your family?

RW: No. No, although my grandmother sewed. And my father's father was a tailor. My grandmother used to sew, you know she was the oldest in her family and she used to sew. I don't remember her sewing when I was older but I remember her having this huge treadle sewing machine that was in a back bedroom and it had a skirt that went over the top of it and we used to go under that skirt and play fort when we were little kids. [laughs.] We used to sit on that treadle and rock back and forth, but I don't remember her sewing sewing.

AH: What's your earliest quilt memory?

RW: [seven second pause.] Quilts? I can remember my mother having a chenille bedspread that I used to love, you know with the little knobby things? [laughs.] And that's kind of a thing, but no, we never had blankets or I don't remember having a blanket. I don't remember any of my siblings having blankets but I remember that chenille bedspread.

AH: So when did you become aware of quilts?

RW: Probably as an adult. I can remember Georgia Bonesteel's programs on TV. When she started her lap quilts on television, I used to watch those so I guess that kind of made me aware and then as I looked at quilts and things. I can remember one time we did a trip to Lancaster, [Pennsylvania.] it was before I was a quilter and they had a beautiful Country Bride quilt hanging in, it was in a Hampton Inn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and they had a beautiful Country Bride quilt and I can remember going to a quilt show and talking to an Amish girl about that Country Bride quilt and she was working on an appliqué quilt and I was watching her.

AH: That would have been in the seventies or the--

RW: Probably, yeah.

AH: Seventies.

RW: Yeah.

AH: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

RW: Oh, well they're all aware. My husband has become--you know he can look at quilts and he knows patterns and he's so proud of himself, he can identify patterns and then he works at the Habitat for Humanity Home Store and runs their silent auction so when there are good quilts that come in--and people give away beautiful family heirloom quilts, they give them away to Habitat because the children aren't interested in them anymore. And so I have a collection of vintage quilts too and then a lot of them I bought before we moved here and then some of them I bought through the Habitat silent auction where I bid like anybody else bids on the quilts, but I have quite an extensive collection of vintage quilts, I must have two hundred of them. And I loaned some quilts to the Smith-McDowell House last year for a quilt display there.

AH: How old is the oldest quilt?

RW: 1865. And that's been dated by--oh, one of the big--who's the woman from Tennessee? She's been to the guild. I can't think of her name now.

AH: Merikay Waldvogel?

RW: Yes. And it's 1865. It's a wonderful quilt. It's just a top. It's not been quilted. And it's a Road to Tennessee and Alan, my husband bought it at an auction and it was just squares, it was in the bottom of a box that he paid five dollars for. And some of the fabrics were blasted, you know the way old fabrics are brittle and they disintegrate and some of them were, but the quilt for the most part is excellent, excellent condition because of course it was squares, and it was never used, it was never put together. So I put it together and I found some reproduction fabric of the era and I did put borders on it and Kaffe Fassett, when he was here doing a class stayed at my house and he saw that and he wanted to buy it, he offered to buy it but I wouldn't sell it. Because it's a favorite. I have a lot of tops that I've finished myself and I always feel like some lady is resting easier in her grave because she knows that somebody finally finished her UFO. It's just every time I finish an old quilt, an old top, and I've done four or five of them, I always feel like this lady knows somehow or another that somebody finished her quilt and is happy about it.

AH: Do you have a particular style or era that you look for in the antique quilts?

RW: No. You know when you first start collecting you'll buy anything that's vintage and then as you amass some of these quilts you get pickier. You want something that's well done, you want something that's different from what you have. For some reason everybody for a while made Dresden Plates. I have umpteen Dresden Plates. In my guest room, the beds in my guest room have Dresden Plate quilts on them that I made from old Dresden Plate pieces that I had found and it's funny, I bought two sets of Dresden Plates in two separate places at two separate times and they all match and so I made each one of those into a quilt. There's a set of twin beds in that room so each bed has a Dresden Plate that I made.

AH: Are they scrap quilts?

RW: Yes, they're scrappy twenties and thirties fabrics. But I have 1860's, 1870's, 1890's. I've been talking to Connie Brown a lot and I've done a lot of research into old quilts--it's fascinating because what the current manufacturers have done is they go to antique quilts and in some cases, some of the old manufacturers still have the print rollers that they used to make the old fabrics and they're stored. When the Biltmore House was looking to replace the fabric in her bedroom, the fabric of course had come from France but the company still had the rollers stored and so they were able to reproduce the fabric using the same original prints so in some cases what they've done is they've reproduced fabric from the old quilts and in some cases they'd had the original prints and they've reproduced. Now a lot of the fabrics in that quilt are reproduction fabrics, they aren't originals. If you go to quilt shows and you look at the antique vendors, it's fascinating what you learn and what you see in antique quilts. Like, the reason that a lot of these fabrics will shred and get brittle is because of the dyeing process. They used to use heavy metals in the dyeing process and because they wanted their clothing to swish, to make a noise when they walked, and so the heavy metals did that and so it eats at the fabric, so the fabric disintegrates. Those heavy metal dyes are not good for--it's like using chlorine bleach on fabric, it eats the fabric. But, you know there's just a wealth of information and knowledge and if you're interested in history, and that was my major in college, if you're interested in history, quilts as a form of artwork go along with the history of the era. So then I have a couple of old crazy quilts that are the silks and the satins and tobacco silks and tobacco flannels that they used to give out in cigarettes, ribbons that you'll see on old quilts, there's all kinds of history wrapped up and I think that's the other thing that interested me in the Baltimore Albums, was the history of it because certain things mean certain things and Elly does a slide show, she goes through cemeteries and willow trees are a sign of sorrow and this is that and that's different things so if you're interested in history, vintage quilts are a natural offshoot of that and I always was interested in history.

AH: And how do you use your collection of vintage quilts?

RW: Well, I display them, I change them. Like the Smith-McDowell House, I loan them to the Smith-McDowell House. You know I don't necessarily use them. I have an armoire in my living room that's just full of vintage quilts and it's a collection. And I have a quilt ladder in the dining room that's full of quilts and it's just like a disease. [laughs.] You start collecting something and then when Alan sees something--he used to go to a lot of auctions, he doesn't anymore, thank goodness, but when he sees something that he thinks I'd be interested in, it'll follow him home.

AH: And what do you think will eventually happen to all these quilts?

RW: I think what will happen is that I will end up gifting them to someplace like Smith-McDowell. It's funny, he made a book for me of pictures of all my quilts, the vintage ones and when she wanted to borrow quilts for her display at the Smith-McDowell House, the girl who's the curator of the fabrics, I took the book down and I said, 'Here's what I have. You look through it and tell me what you'd be interested in borrowing to display.' Well darned if she didn't pick out the pick of the litter, including that Civil War one, which was just a top, but she picked out eight or nine to display.

[ten second pause; voices heard in the background.]

AH: What aspect of quiltmaking do you enjoy the most?

RW: Oh, I don't know. I think I enjoy the planning. I really enjoy the planning. Harriet Hargrave said, 'Shopping for fabric is like foreplay.' [laughs.] Which I think is just the greatest line. And I think I enjoy the planning because I'm the kind of person who thinks about what I'm going to do and I think about it and think about it and I plan it and then choosing just the right fabrics to accomplish what you're looking to accomplish with the quilt, I think is interesting. You know, seeing it come together--I really enjoy the whole process, I really do. I enjoy it all.

AH: Nothing you don't like?

RW: If I make a quilt with a lot of the same blocks and the same colors, I think then I get a little bored. You know if you're going to make fifty blocks all the same, or twenty blocks all the same--I think that's another attraction of a Baltimore Album, every block is different.

AH: Right.

RW: I did make a Country Bride, I ended up making a Country Bride and every block is the same and that got boring after a while. I don't enjoy making umpteen blocks the same. I think that gets boring.

AH: Can you describe what a Country Bride is?

RW: It's two birds facing each other and there's a series of hearts in between and it's like a Pennsylvania--it's not Amish because it's too showy for the Amish and it's usually in pinks. The one I made has a white background with pinks and reds and it's essentially the two birds and I have it at home. I had originally planned it to be my granddaughter's wedding quilt, and when I told my daughter I was making a wedding quilt for Alex, she got all upset, she said, 'Why? Are you sick? Why are you making it now?' Because at the time I think Alex was about five or six but I wanted to make this quilt, [laughs.] so that was my justification for making this quilt. It was going to be Alex's wedding quilt. Well, since then I've made several other quilts that could be Alex's wedding quilt too and she can choose whichever one she wants, but my daughter got all upset. 'Are you sick?' 'No, I'm not sick.'

AH: Do you have a favorite technique?

RW: I really like, lately I've really come to enjoy machine quilting. It's, not a short cut, but it's fun to take a commercial fabric, this year a good friend in my mini-bee, Robin Brooks lost her mother to Alzheimer's and so for years we had seen the Ami Simms Art Quilt Initiative for Alzheimer's so what our mini-bee did was we dedicated ourselves to doing a quilt a month for a year in honor of Jewell Obara and so a lot of the quilts I made for them were commercial pieces, I made five or six different ones that were commercial images that I quilted. The last one was, I found a panel in a quilt shop of eight different women from Matisse paintings and cut it up and offered to the rest of the mini-bee. I kept two of them. One of them I did--

[unidentified person is heard speaking in the background.]

One of them was too big, the Art Quilt Alliance, they have to be nine by twelve or smaller and one of them was too large but I did that one for myself and the other one was the right size and what I did was I machine quilted them and embellished them with beading and I was pleased with the way they came out and so I've been enjoying that and it's a very small, very doable kind of thing, you can do it in the nine by twelve size and it's a wonderful thing. They take them to Houston and the big quilt shows and they sell them and they sell them for--Ami Simms puts the price on each one and they go from twenty-five up to--some of them she saves for auction and they're auctioned online and so they're all different prices and people get a little piece of art.

AH: That is a wonderful thing. So, you brought up your bee, so why don't you tell me what different quilt groups you do belong to?

RW: Well I belong the Asheville Quilt Guild and have since we moved here. That was one of things when we were looking to move here, I looked up first was there a quilt guild. It was one of my requirements. I wasn't moving anyplace there wasn't a quilt guild. And then I belong to the Wee Bees which there are now eleven of us. Jewell was a member for a time, somebody else was a member who moved away but we meet twice a month and we're like a family and we support each other through thick and thin, through, like one of our members is having a recurrence of an old breast cancer and she's not doing well so you know we take food and we visit. You support your friends, that's what you do, that's what friends are for and we all have this pact: If I die, come to my quilt room and get all this stuff before my husband realizes how much there is. [laughs.] I once had a friend who actually said her husband came into her quilt room and looked around and said to her, 'Wow, you must have a hundred dollars worth of fabric in here.' [laughs.] And she said, 'Yeah, I guess I must.'

AH: Rita, describe your studio.

RW: Well, I'm lucky enough, we designed our house, so I was lucky enough to have a room that I could designate as a studio. It's a good size room, it's about twelve by fifteen, it has an attached "en suite" bathroom, they call them. There's commercial carpet on the floor. It has a huge closet that is probably--the closet ended up bigger because of something with the cinder block, I don't know, something with the cinder block, and it's got a nice big window, a double window, it has this huge closet that I had them put shelves on one wall, three layers of shelves because all my fabric is in those file crates by color and so they put in the shelving and they double reinforced it so that it would hold the weight of all this fabric and then I have hanging rods on one side to hang all my wall hangings that aren't currently on display, I have two cupboards to hold patterns and batting, I have a big bookshelf that has my books on it, and that's in the closet. And then I have a cutting table and I have a table that my sewing machine fits flush in and then Alan had it made for me so that when I machine quilt it has a drop leaf on the back and I can pull it out and move up the drop leaves so that I have a nice big area for quilting. I have a radio, I have a television. Last year we added a Murphy bed unit because the kids have gotten older and when they come to visit they wanted a real bed so we put in a Murphy bed unit that has two book cases where I have vintage sewing supplies, or vintage sewing things that I collect. I have posters and pictures and things like that and I face out the window which means I look out over the valley and the mountains and the squirrels and the chipmunks and the bears and the turkeys that go by and things go by that window. [laughs.] It's funny, one day a little bear cub came around the corner and stood there looking, and never noticed me. You know I've had turkeys go by and we have a flock of wild turkeys that live on our mountain, so the turkeys go by and the squirrels of course.

AH: Sounds very nice. Rita, what do you think makes a great quilt?

RW: It's a combination of design and color and execution. You know it's like on our evaluations. I think color and design are the top things. There are some quilts that I just love because the colors--and I like bright, vibrant colors in quilts. When I first started I liked muted colors, but now as I've gotten older, I think I like the bright colors the best. And people like appliqué quilts, you know people are drawn to them. If you have a raffle quilt that's an appliqué quilt, people are really drawn to appliqué quilts, they really are. I think there's something about--whatever. And it's personal taste. If we all liked the same things, you know, there would be--I have a friend who says some quilts make her itch [laughs.] because she doesn't like them. You know, 'That quilt makes me itch.' I've seen very few quilts I don't like.

AH: Okay. Whose works are you drawn to?

RW: Oh, I don't know. Well you know I don't know anymore. I'm kind of eclectic in my taste. I like strong designs, anything with a strong design I'm drawn to. It has to be a really eye popper.

AH: Rita, why is quiltmaking important to your life?

RW: Well, to me it's a very satisfying hobby. So much of what we do as women, we do again and again and again. You know, you cook meals--it's like Thanksgiving, you spend days cooking Thanksgiving dinner and in thirty minutes everybody's done and they expect to eat the next day again. [laughs.] You know you wash clothes and you wash the same clothes over and over again. You clean house and you clean the same house over and over again. But a quilt has a beginning, and a middle, and an end. It's finite. And that gives me a great sense of accomplishment, whereas so much of what we do is neverending.

AH: Yeah.

RW: And I think that's what makes it a very satisfying hobby, because there's a closure there, that we don't get with so many other things we do.

AH: That's interesting. That's a good point. What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

[ten second pause.]

RW: You know what? Each other. Some quiltmakers are not very nice to other quiltmakers and I think in terms of teaching and encouragement and acceptance and maybe that's the person, but I think it's important for quiltmakers to encourage other quiltmakers and I think sometimes we've met the enemy and he's us. And some people say, 'Well if you're this good, then that makes me less.' Well it doesn't. It's like, you know Harriet Hargrave--Diane Gaudynski was a student of Harriet Hargrave's and Diane has become--I can remember talking to Diane at Houston the first time she won the Best Machine Quilting and she's a wonderful machine quilter, she's a fabulous machine quilter, and Harriet Hargrave says proudly, 'I taught her.' And the fact that you teach somebody and maybe they surpass you, well they were a good student and you were a good teacher. And I think sometimes quilters forget to mentor other quilters and I think that's so important. And I think that's the biggest roadblock to quilters.

AH: The theme of this year's quilt show, that we're at today, is "Once Upon a Quilt, The Stories our Quilts Tell" and you entered a quilt in that theme category, so I was wondering if you just wanted to say something about that quilt.

RW: Well we were fortunate enough to go on a trip to East Africa, to Kenya and Tanzania this past winter, last winter, and we took lots of pictures and I just loved the whole trip. It was just a wonderful trip. We were very fortunate and so I took some--I had been collecting African fabrics because I had another African piece I was going to work on and after we went on this trip, a friend helped me scan--Ellen Levine helped me scan the pictures onto fabric and then I made them into this quilt and it was hard to, from all the pictures we had it was hard to choose what to include in the quilt, but I chose some favorites.

AH: How many photos are in the quilt?

RW: I think there's about twelve or fifteen in the quilt.

AH: And then those are arranged with the African fabrics around them?

RW: I did half-square triangles with all the African fabrics and I made squares of the half-square triangles and borders of African fabric and I put the pictures on to a black and then arranged them on the half-square background.

AH: Well it's a beautiful quilt.

RW: Thank you.

AH: I saw it. Okay, well we're almost at the end of our time, so do you have anything else that you want to add to this?

RW: No, no. I think this is an interesting project and I think it's nice and one of the things I try to do is, I volunteer at the Folk Art Center two days a month and when I do I usually bring something to work on and a lot of times I'll bring quilts and it starts conversations with people and they'll start telling me about their experiences with their grandmother's quilts or their great-grandmother's quilts or great-aunt's quilts and one of the things I try to do is encourage people to label quilts. Oh, but I've got to tell you the funniest story--

AH: Okay.

RW: --I ever got about a quilt. This man that I didn't know from Adam. I happened to be working in the shop and somehow or another we got on the topic of quilts and he said when he was a little boy his grandmother used to take him to the Methodist Church or the Baptist Church or whatever and he would sit under the quilt frame that the ladies sat around and quilted on and he would pick up dropped pins or needles or thimbles or thread. One day somebody dropped this thimble and he was, I don't know, three or four at the time, and so he looked at this thimble and he looked at this thimble and he said, 'And I dropped trou and I put the thimble on the appropriate appendage and I stood up and said, "Look grandma, Johnny has a hat."' [laughs.] And he said, 'You know I'll bet if any of those ladies are alive today, they still remember me.' [laughs.] And he just told me this story out of the blue and I've always remembered that, the funniest story I've ever heard.

AH: And just you sitting there quilting inspired him to--

RW: Yes.

AH:--tell you his quilting story.

RW: Tell me his quilting story. [laughs.] Is that not the best quilting story you've ever heard?

AH: I've never heard that one before. [both laugh.] Okay. Well on that note then, I guess--

RW: We can't top that one, can we?

AH: No we cannot top that one. So, this concludes our interview. It is now 3:52 and thank you very much Rita.


“Rita Williams,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 19, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2217.