Lita Verts




Lita Verts




Lita Verts


Sue Bowman

Interview Date

December 7, 2009

Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Corvallis, Oregon


Sue Bowman


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Sue Bowman (SB): My name is Sue Bowman and today's date is December 7, 2009. I'm conducting an interview with Lita Verts at her home in Corvallis, Oregon, for the Quilters' S.O.S.- Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Oregon State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Lita is a quilter and a member of the Winema Chapter of Corvallis, Oregon. Good morning, Lita. I am so glad to have you do this with us. Looking at your Quick Questions, you make quilts, I understand.

Lita Verts (LV): I make a few. This is not my main hobby, but I have made lap quilts and I have done a few others.

SB: Let's get right to your object today. Tell me a little bit about the quilt that we are showcasing today.

LV: Okay. This is a memento, a memory, of my grandmother Zula Peeler. She pieced the top of the giant butterflies appliquéd onto a muslin background. It was the last quilt she ever pieced. [cries.] After she died, my mother gave me the pieced top and I had it several years before I actually decided to finish it. I went to a fabric shop and bought the backing which I think goes very well with the butterflies. While I was there, the woman who was selling me the backing was talking to me about how I was going to finish it and so on and she suggested given the size of the butterflies, given the way the pattern is spaced that I quilt it not with the standard quilting stitch, but with the crows foot stitch and she gave me a diagram of it and I practiced. And then I found, yes, this was probably the most appropriate stitch, quilting stitch, for this particular piece so I put it together. I filled it with just a standard batting and quilting it with crows foot stitch and I've slept under it every night since.

SB: Could you describe what you think the butterflies are made with?

LV: They probably came out of Mamaw's scrap bag. There are things in it that look like aprons that look like blouses that look like a man's shirt. I would not venture a guess as to how many years she had collected those scraps in her scrap bag. I know she had one.

SB: I noticed that some of the appliqués, most, are done in black and some in red. Why do you suppose that is?

LV: Well, that's a story in itself. My sister and I were looking at this one day and we said, 'I wonder why Mamaw did that? Why did she put those four butterflies on with a red appliqué instead of black as all the rest of them are?' And my sister piped up and she said, 'Oh, Mamaw was just so practical, she probably ran out of thread and just didn't want to go to town for one skein of thread to do four butterflies.' When I was in Salt Lake City a couple of years ago, I was on the second floor of the Family History Library and they had a quilt hanging right in front of the circulation desk and I got to talking to the lady behind the circulation desk about quilts and come to find out she was something of an expert. And I told her that story about the four butterflies being appliquéd differently from the rest of them and she said, 'Oh no, my dear, there's a reason for that. ' She said, 'Traditional quilters, if you will look at the Log Cabin pattern, frequently you will find the log cabin chimney is appliquéd in black thread but one or two of the chimneys will be in red or brown. And the reason for this is, it says to the world, it sends a message, 'this quilt is not perfect, I am not perfect. Only God is perfect.'' And that was an insight into my grandmother that I had not had before. Anyway, we assume that is why she appliquéd the four butterflies in red.

SB: Lita, what do you think someone viewing this beautiful quilt might conclude about you?

LV: Well, they might conclude I love butterflies and if they looked at my bedroom they would see that I do. I have one of Bonnie Hall's butterfly etchings hanging on the wall and butterflies are stamped all over my furniture, but basically I think it would say two things. I have a deep respect for tradition and the second one it keeps me near my grandmother.

SB: That's lovely. I know you touched on this, but I would like you to go into a little more detail about how you actually use this quilt.

LV: How do I use it?

SB: Yes.

LV: I sleep under it.

SB: Every night?

LV: Every night. And I suppose if I were very elegant and used the common terms of designers of today I would say, 'It is my duvet on my bed.'

SB: Perfect. What are your plans for this quilt for the rest of its life?

LV: For the rest of its life?

SB: Right.

LV: Well, I hope it lasts the rest of my life so that I can sleep under it. I will pass it down to my granddaughter whose mother is a more active quilter than I am but Rachel also--Rachel is my granddaughter. Rachel also has a respect for tradition and for history and I know she will take care of it.

SB: I see here on the quick questions that you have dabbled with wearable art. What have you done?

LV: Mostly embroidery- cross stitch, some traditional embroidery, but mostly cross stitch. I've made--I've taken some--one project I remember was a faded blue denim shirt that I embroidered the yoke of with--I can't remember now exactly what pattern I used but I do remember embroidering it.

SB: And so you are self taught you'd say?

LV: Oh yes.

SB: Taken any classes?

LV: When I was sixteen, I asked my father if I could not take home ec at high school which all little girls were supposed to take because I wanted to take biology. And he said, 'I'll make a bargain with you. I'll let you do that if you will promise to go down to the Singer Sewing Machine office here in town and take their sewing lessons.' And I did. I took the Singer Sewing lessons, two courses of it so I do know how to sew. Dad's concern was--Mother wouldn't sew on a button and his concern was that I learn how to sew. So does that answer your question?

SB: It does. It does exactly. That you haven't had any real formal training, but although you did to get started. At what age did you start your first quilt? When did you begin making quilts, lap quilts?

LV: Must have been over forty when I made the lap quilts.

[pause while SB finds her place]

SB: Are there other quiltmakers in your family or friends? I know you said your daughter-in-law is a quilter.

LV: My daughter-in-law is a fine quilter. I don't think she has ever had a friend, at least since I've known her that had a baby that she didn't make a quilt for. She's also made quilts for herself and other friends.

SB: Have you ever used or enjoyed, may not be the right word, quilts during a difficult time in your life?

LV: I can't say that I have. Of course when I cuddle up under this one, it's a safe place.

SB: Let me see here, what aspects of quiltmaking to you not enjoy?

LV: Well, I can't say that there's anything I don't enjoy. When I make a decision to make a quilt whether it's for a gift or like finishing this one, it's because it's something that I want. I want to have the finished product and so I study it and make it. Do I not enjoy? Well, when I'm making a machine quilt, if I'm having trouble getting the whole thing under the pressure foot of the sewing machine, yeah. [laughs.]

SB: That takes me to a perfect interlude into my next question. How do you think technology has changed quilting? Yours or quilting in general?

LV: Well, technology, and by that you mean the new sewing machines that do everything but the dishes. I think it's made it more accessible to people like myself who don't have quilting as their main hobby. That do the occasional quilt as the occasion warrants for a gift or to decorate, do a special type of decoration in your bedroom or on the sofa.

SB: Not necessarily quilts that you have made, but just looking at others, what are some of your favorite techniques or fabrics or materials that you enjoy?

LV: Cotton. There's something--well, I'm a southern girl, I grew up in the middle of cotton fields and rice fields but there's something very satisfying about the basics of cotton that you don't need silk, you don't need fancy expensive fabrics to make something beautiful for your own self or for your friends.

SB: What about colors? Are you drawn to the brights or the subtles or the pastels?

LV: Anything that reflects nature to me. Like the lap quilts that I made for my father and my nephew were wildlife prints, mostly browns and dark greens. How can just see the little wild ducks swimming across the quilts?

SB: Before we started recording, you told me a great story about a duck quilt you made I think for your dad? Tell me about that and how that went.

LV: Well, it was a lap quilt. It was not a big bed quilt, but it was a lap quilt. My father was elderly and shortly after I finished the quilt he went into a nursing home and he took the quilt with him and it had wild ducks and water was done in hews of brown and green and so on and my nephew saw it and he was an outdoorsman too and he just had a fit about that quilt and so I was not there but Mother was and she called me up and kind of hesitantly she said, 'Do you suppose that you could make another one like that for Mike?' And I said, 'Well, sure.' So I did. Mike, he wanted it so bad. And I think it's the one thing I gave Mike that he was totally, totally appreciative of was the lap quilt I made for him just like his grandfather's.

SB: That's a great story. It shows you how much meaning and love you put into the work that you do. How did you feel about machine quilting versus the more labor intensive hand quilting, or even the use of the longarm quilting machines?

LV: That's a good question. I don't see anything wrong with machine quilting, and it's not traditional, I know that, but it's certainly efficient, assuming you can get all the material under the pressure foot of your sewing machine. And the two lap quilts I made, one for my dad and one for Mike, were both done on the machine. I did the quilting on the machine. You don't have to plan to work on it for a year before it's done, you can say, 'Oh, I think I will make a lap quilt for so and so for Christmas and you can get it done in a lifetime! [laughs.]

SB: What do you think makes a great quilt? That's a loaded question.

LV: Yeah, it is. Well, I personally think my grandmother's quilt is probably the greatest quilt I ever saw, but I may be a tad biased on that. What makes a great quilt is does it serve the use that it was mean for, if it's a gift, does it show love that one person has for another. I think it can be very reflective of the personality of the person who makes the quilt. I can see my grandmother sitting and watching Young Doctor Malone on the television and appliquéing those butterflies.

SB: And so she did those square by square which was a nice size to sit in your lap and work on.

LV: Right. She could have done--those squares have four butterflies on a square and that the right size to do handwork with.

SB: So when you came across--when you were given the quilt top was it in blocks at the time?

LV: Yeah.

SB: And you quilted it with the crow stitch?

LV: Right. The top was finished. It was ready to go on its backing and be quilted together. If you are asking me, 'Did I get the squares separately?' 'No, they were already.'

SB: The top was together ready to go. It's held up very well. How do you care for it?

LV: I don't let kids play on it.

SB: Or cats or dogs.

LV: Heavens no.

SB: It's really lovely. What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful? I think this is artistically powerful.

LV: Thank you. Well, I think it's the balance of colors. I guess that's it; I think it's the balance that you put in it. For example, the dark browns and the dark reds against the pinks and the blue patterns and so on, it's just

SB: I think it's definitely drawn to nature as you said and that's one of the reasons why you love it so much. What makes a great quiltmaker?

LV: I don't know. I think it's something instinctive in the person. Of course, if you go back to the history of quilts in this country, this was something mothers taught little girls and it was also a way to use up the scraps in the sewing room back in the days you didn't dare throw out anything.

SB: I think this would be a good segway into. Tell us a little bit about your grandma. Where she was raised? What kind of a life she had that helped her become this person that would make this beautiful quilt?

LV: Oh, she was very frugal about keeping things. My grandmother grew up in White County, Arkansas. She had two husbands. Her first husband died--oh I guess, within five or six years of when they got married and she had one daughter by him. Here she was left alone with a child to raise and she went to St. Louis and took training as a milliner to try to make a living for her and her daughter and then she went back to her home in White County and practiced her trade as a milliner for several years. And then she met her second husband, who turned out to be my grandfather who was a country doctor.

SB: His name?

LV: Crawford Monroe Peeler. And they lived together until his death which was, when did Daddy Doc die? In the 60s. He was only 62, but he died in the 60s. They had a modest home, but when I was a kid growing up they had bought an old resort hotel building made out of sandstone, two stories.

SB: And this was in the town of?

LV: Pangburn. Pangburn, Arkansas. My grandfather set it up. The former lobby of the hotel was his waiting room, the dining room was his examining room. He and my grandmother lived in the back and upstairs, mostly in the back. He had a couple of rooms set up upstairs on the second floor in case he had a pregnant lady who needed to be watched for a couple of days after the baby got here. But then I must have been--oh I guess it must have been before I was ten, they built a home, a real home, across the street from the old hotel and he still had his offices in the old hotel and they lived across the street. They had chickens and Grandmother had a big garden. Her peach tree grew up in the middle of her chicken yard because she fed straps to the chickens and when it came up she just let it go. They had a kind of life that one might call idyllic. I don't mean that they didn't have problems, they did. But it was probably a stereotype of southern country living and yet he was a doctor, an educated man- made house calls throughout the Ouachita Mountains where they lived. Owned a couple of acres down on the Red River where he raised strawberries and every spring would hire a crew to go pick strawberries. He would let me go but I couldn't ride on the truck. I had to go in the car with him. He wouldn't let me ride on the truck with the rest of the pickers to go pick strawberries but it was that kind of life. And because she was frugal and Carol was right when we were talking about the difference in the threads. She saved scraps and did things with them.

SB: Do you remember there being quilts in their home?

LV: Oh, of course.

SB: On every bed.

LV: On every bed.

SB: And she probably made them all?

LV: Absolutely.

SB: Can you remember any of them? What they looked like?

LV: You know, that's funny; I can't. Not particularly. They were basically just pieced quilts.

SB: And you don't have any of those now. They're gone that makes this one even more precious.

LV: Oh yeah. This is one of the treasures of my possessions is this quilt.

SB: And the fact that you sleep under it every night makes it even more precious.

LV: I also have two pillows that were made from the feathers in her chicken yard. [laughs.] I still sleep on them. Of course, they say you aren't supposed to sleep on chicken feather pillows and you're supposed to throw them out every three years; so I went to Bed Bath & Beyond and got those plastic covers for it. So they are slipped in the plastic covers and the only problem with that is the pillow cases won't stay on them; they slide out.

SB: But those are from the farm?

LV: I wouldn't get rid of them. If they get down to the point there's one feather in each one of them, I'll still sleep on them.

SB: That's such a great story. When your grandmother, at the end of her life then, she was widowed, correct? And so then where was she when she died?

LV: She was in Jonesboro where I grew up. My Uncle Malcolm, who was also a doctor, came back from the Second World War and established his practice in Jonesboro which is where I grew up and when his mother became--got to the point in her life where she really needed someone to watch over her. My God, if you would have said that to her she would have objected, that she didn't need anybody, but Uncle Malcolm brought her to town to Jonesboro, bought her a house across the street from his. Didn't put her in a nursing home until she just was just really truly incapacitated and that was like one year before she died.

SB: Was she older, quite old?

LV: She did at 89.

SB: So it was a long life.

LV: It was a long life.

SB: And it sounds like a really good life.

LV: A good life, an eventful life. Two husbands, four children, one of which only lived 24 hours. That was my mother's twin.

SB: Thinking about her community and her region of America where she lived her life; let's use this quilt as an example, although I'm sure there were others, how do you think this quilt reflects that region of America? That part of our country?

LV: I think it's an essence of that part of the country. It does, it really does, reflect small town Arkansas families at the first part of the 20th century or all the way through the 20th century. I don't think, well, this is made from scraps from her scrap box, okay? That's kind of representative of people who lived through the Depression in Arkansas. They really didn't suffer like people in the cities did because, I've got a chicken yard, my neighbor has a couple of cows, we've all got gardens. Nobody went hungry in small town Arkansas.

SB: We have cloths to wear--

LV: Well, yeah. Feed sacks. Feed sacks made lovely clothes, especially summer clothes.

SB: And this quilt reflects that.

LV: It does, it does.

SB: Exactly. What are your personal feelings about the importance of quilts such as this on one American life?

LV: Well, I think it depends on the person. This one obviously is important to me.

SB: Right.

LV: The lap quilts that I made for my dad and for Mike were important to both of them. It expresses, the quilts express a number of qualities from small town life. Did people in big cities make quilts? I don't know. [laughs.]

SB: Probably.

LV: But you see, it's a combination of using up your scraps of making a gift of love, for beautifying life that could have been very stark and some of them were. I mean if you would have driven through the Ouachita Mountains when I was a kid growing up, you would see a lot of unpainted houses out in the mountains. You would see kids running barefoot through the yards, very dirty faces and so on.

SB: Not necessarily a bad thing?

LV: No, not necessarily a bad thing, but there were some very poor people there. They were poor people, but in a lot of ways they were not deprived. They had food to eat and there was a roof over their head. Now, beyond that I don't know what you'd say.

SB: I'll bet there were some beautiful quilts in some of those unpainted houses.

LV: There were, there were.

SB: How do you think quilts can be used? Do you have a certain, do you have a feeling about quilts being used in an unusual way? Such as art or clothing or?

LV: I'm not sure I would ever make a quilt just to hang on the wall. I have one over here but a friend made it for me and I just use it--I'll show it to you. [pause while she looks for it.] I just throw it over the back of this deacon's bench.

SB: That's lovely.

LV: This was made by a friend of--well one of my friends too, but a friend of my daughter-in-law.

SB: Now that's for art.

LV: This is for art.

SB: That's a wall hanging.

LV: It was really meant to be a wall hanging.

SB: Okay, so back to our question. I'm gathering you think quilts should be made to be used.

LV: I would hope so. And I guess here again, that reflects my grandmother. She was not one of those people who did anything just for show. If it didn't have a use for it, she didn't have a use for it.

SB: Well, she didn't have the luxury.

LV: That's true.

SB: I think very few people did, probably. How do you think quilts can and should be preserved for the future?

LV: Well, I'm not sure I'm treating this one in a way that will preserve it. I guess if you wanted to preserve something, you would put it in a glass case with ultraviolet proof glass in front of it and no dust would ever land on it. That would be the ultimate. It would also not appeal to me.

SB: And obviously, this has not suffered from its use.

LV: No, it hasn't, but as I said earlier I don't really let kids play on it.

SB: You take good care of it. You respect it.

LV: Yeah.

SB: Let me see here, what do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

LV: Time. Quiltmakers that I remember from my childhood would sit in front of the fire in the evening and work on their quilts or their crochet or their handwork. I don't think I ever saw my grandmother sit with her hands in her lap. If she wasn't snappin' beans or doing some kind of handwork, she would feel like she was being terribly lazy and useless. In fact, I remember driving down the road; we'd gone out the grandfather and we went past this house with this woman sitting on the front porch just holding her hands in her lap and rocking back and forth and it was like three in the afternoon. My grandmother was incensed. She said, 'How can she just do that? How can she just sit there and not do anything?' And that was a reflection of the way she lived her life. If she sat down before the fire at night she picked up handwork to do.

SB: What time of the day did you see her doing her work? You said probably obviously after dinner; sometimes was there a break in the day when she would--

LV: Yeah, sometimes in the late afternoon. Now, Arkansas in the summertime can be hotter than the hinges of Hell. Most people, in the time that my grandmother was active, did not have air conditioning. In fact, I don't remember anyone having air conditioning in the town I grew up in except a family that had an asthmatic daughter and they had air conditioning in their house. So the point I'm getting to is you got up early and did your work before the sun got too hot, usually four thirty, five o'clock you would go out in the garden or do whatever you had to do and then you would nap in the afternoon. You would stretch out.

SB: After your meal?

LV: After your noon meal. And the noon meal in the countryside where Mamaw lived, the noon meal was the big meal of the day. So then you went and stretched out for awhile and toward evening you'd get up, have a light supper, maybe walk out and weed the flowerbed or two and then do handwork when you came back in.

SB: Until bedtime.

LV: Until bedtime. Which was usually quite early.

SB: Well, yeah. Tell me about the word Mamaw. I know that you are a word person and this isn't a quilting question, but I love the word and I do know or I believe it's a southern word.

LV: I think it is a southern word. It was just the name that we called our grandmother. Now, I don't know how we got to it. I know there were several grandmothers that were called mamaw.

SB: It's a wonderful word.

LV: Well, it's a cozy word.

SB: And I'm glad you have given that name to this quilt. What do you think--I don't want to make you cry Lita--what do you think Mamaw would think about this quilt and us doing this to preserve its story for American heritage?

LV: I think she would be secretly proud. She tried so hard in her life not to be arrogant or put herself forward or expect praise or anything like that, but I think she would be secretly be very proud that I respect this quilt enough to say I want it on the register.

SB: I think not only because of its beauty but also because of its historical significance.

LV: Well, I do too.

SB: It reflects a time and place.

LV: It does. And since this was the last one she did, the last top she pieced and you can see that in the pieces because the pieces are big and the appliqué stitches are not so small that she couldn't see them.

SB: That's a very good point. I hadn't thought of that. It is very bold.

LV: It is a bold print. I mean it is a bold pattern and she was losing her eyesight toward the end of her life.

SB: Let me regress a little bit here. Back to the house across the street from the doctor's office where she probably made a lot of quilts. How do you think she put them together? How do you think she pieced them? Did you ever see a quilting frame in her living room or do you think she pieced them in her lap?

LV: She pieced them in her lap.

SB: And then probably tied them or quilted them.

LV: I don't ever remember seeing, now wait a minute, I do remember seeing a couple of tied quilts. And the only quilt my mother ever made--there was a travelling salesman that came through town and he had a sample book of men's fabrics-tweeds, surges, and so on and he was going around selling custom made suits for the men. Well, somehow or other that sample book got left at the store and mother took it and made a quilt out of it. And she tied it and it was wool and it was tied. I believe that's the only one Mother ever made.

SB: Do you know what they used for batting?

LV: Cotton. Cotton batting. This is not. This is acrylic or whatever you call it.

SB: But in her time it would have been cotton. And it would have probably been local.

LV: Oh sure.

SB: Another case of using what you have.

LV: Well, there were two crops where I grew up. One was cotton and one was rice. If you ever want to see anything beautiful, drive through the rice fields in early summer. They look like quilts. Because the levies, the young rice grows up over the levies you know and it looks like--

SB: Green?

LV: Beautiful, beautiful green. Gosh you got me nostalgic about my youth. [laughs.]

SB: This has been an awesome, awesome interview and there's nothing I'd rather do than spend 45 minutes talking about quilts. I want to just think here and make sure we have covered everything we should. We didn't talk about your place here in Corvallis and today's world. Tell me where you do your handwork, your artistic sewing.

LV: Right over there in the corner where I have two sewing machines.

SB: I know you have two operating sewing machines, but I think you also have a collectible in your house.

LV: That sewing machine is sitting on top of the treadle machine.

SB: And that's a treadle machine. Is it a Singer?

LV: I think so.

SB: I think so too.

LV: I think so, yeah. Mamaw tried to teach me to use a treadle machine one time and I'm afraid I disappointed her. I was not able to get the rhythm.

SB: I think it's a real art. Where did you get this little treadle sewing machine?

LV: The people across the street were having a tag sale.

SB: I'll be darned.

LV: And I decided I could make use of that.

SB: It probably had a story it could tell itself.

LV: It does and I don't know it and I just use it as a base for that machine.

SB: Lita's little studio is in the corner of her living room/dining room area where she has her treasures. I'm so glad we could do this Lita and I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have.

LV: It has. As I said, you got me very nostalgic about my childhood here.

SB: Well, let's tell people a little bit about where you live now and what you do in Winema Chapter.

LV: Okay. Well, I've just been a member of DAR for about four years. I am retired. I was a university professor for twenty five years at Oregon State University, assistant professor. I think we have to be particular, you understand. I have two linguistic degrees. On fact, I told someone about the Civil War game last week, I said, 'I can't lose either way because I have a degree from both schools.' After I retired I sat around here for about six months with my thumb in my mouth thinking, 'Nobody loves me and I don't have anything to do.' And then I volunteered for the long term care ombudsman's program for the state which was working in assisted living facilities and nursing homes and adult foster homes being an advocate for the residents when they had problems either with the facilities or with their families. And that was the shock to me that families sometimes abuse their elderly. I did that for nine years and found it was affecting my health. The stress was getting too much for me and when my son came to visit and looked at me and said, 'Mother, you are thinking about quitting, aren't you?' I realized if he could see the stress on me then I wasn't hiding it very well. So I gave that up and again went through this period of nobody loves me I don't have anything to do and now I'm volunteering with Lincoln School. I'm reading to five year olds.

SB: Perfect. Maybe you should start a new quilt, Lita.

LV: For five year olds?

SB: No, for you.

LV: Well, that's an idea. I've got enough scraps around here somewhere.

SB: Well, Lita. Is there anything else you would like to add to the interview before we close?

LV: Well, you know. Doing the stories of quilts is a very appropriate thing for the DAR to do. Because it's another avenue for protecting our history and keeping our histories alive. And isn't that what we do?

SB: And I think you really did a good job with that today. This wasn't just about the quilt. It's about a woman's life and it's just amazing. I'd like to thank Lita Verts for allowing me to interview her today as a part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Our interview concluded at 10:27 a.m. on December 7, 2009.

LV: Thank you.


“Lita Verts,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed November 30, 2023,