Alvena Armstrong




Alvena Armstrong


Alvena Armstrong is a quilter from Fort Worth, Texas who began quilting in 1979 when her daughter gained an interest in it. Armstrong is an experienced quilter and a founding member of the Trinity Valley Quilters Guild. Her mother was a utilitarian quilter, but never quilted artfully the way Armstrong does.




Melanie Grear


Alvena Armstrong


Kay Jones

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Fort Worth, Texas


Mary Green


**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.** Kay Jones (KJ): Alvena, you've brought a lovely quilt today. Tell us about it.

Alvena Armstrong (AA): This is a quilt, a part of my family. I'm one of eight children and we have a reunion every year. And I decided we'd have a reunion quilt. On the front of this quilt is 179 people, that it took me about 2 years to get the signatures or blocks from. I took it to the 1994 reunion and some of us quilted at the reunion, and then I finished it the rest of the year. It traveled around Texas some during that process with our other relatives. Since then, of course, there's been additions, very many additions to our family and on the back we have begun to put them on here. We just make a block for each one if it's a new birth or a new marriage we add it to the back but as of 1994 there was 179. Now there's about 279 I think [laughs.] We've grown. Being one of eight children I went into my closet and I had been in very much of an earth-tone era of my quilting and I had plenty of fabric in my closet to assign each of the children a fabric. And if you see, say one certain fabric that is my family. And it is also on my block which surrounds my mother and daddy, of a picture of them in 1907. I think we have it upside down but that's all right. See here. And I just happened to have been married 50 years that year [laughs.] so I put wedding bells on our block, 1907.

KJ: That's the date on your parents' picture. Was that the date they were married?

AA: The day before they got married, they got the picture after they were married. I think it was the day after. But this is the date of their wedding. All of us eight children have been married 50 years now, not then, but now. There's been three or four anniversaries since then. But we're a big family and I thought we deserved a quilt. The quilt travels to different towns that my siblings live in and then each one gets it for a year at a time. [laughs.] I said when I made it, 'We might auction it off,' and then my children said, 'Oh, no, Mother. You're not going to do that!' [laughs.] So it's not.

KJ: So is it your turn to have it this year?

AA: I get it back every year to make the additions and then I get it to whoever is going to have it for the year. Some of them enters it in County Fairs, just different things, and whatever they want to do. And so it's looking a little bit worn, not worn really, but it's always wrinkled. But it feels good.

KJ: So in terms of your plans for this quilt, is it--

AA: It will stay in my family.

KJ: It will stay in your family.

AA: And this is the last year that it will travel, probably. But they can get it anytime they want.

KJ: Now, do I understand that all eight siblings are still with us?

AA: No, not the in-laws. All of us girls are still alive but the men are gone. [announcement made by Quiltfest officials over the convention loudspeaker] But they all celebrated their 50th. All of them.

KJ: Eight siblings!

AA: Eight!

KJ: Oh, that's fantastic, Alvena.

AA: Delores just made it, just recently, and she's my oldest sister. Yes, we're very proud.

KJ: Tell me about your interest in quilting, Alvena. To make something like this, obviously you're a good quilter, an excellent quilter. Tell us how you got started.

AA: 1979 my daughter in Houston [Texas.] was getting interested in quilting and of course in Houston it was big. Fort Worth is always a little slow [laughs.] getting going. And I thought, well, I had just quit work, or it had quit me, anyhow, I had time. So I started looking for a teacher. The Quilt Box opened up that fall, l979, and she started classes in l980, so I took every class that I could get. And that's where I met Mary [laughs.] and a lot of these people around here.

KJ: Now who was the quilt owner? Was that--

AA: Janet Mullins.

KJ: Janet Mullins.

AA: And of course it was a couple years before we really got around to organizing the guild, and we've grown always. I think we're around 400 now and we were, what, 12 at that time, I think.

KJ: So you're one of the--

AA: Original.

KJ: --the founding members of the Trinity Valley Quilters Guild.

AA: I was one of them that went up and got the place for us to meet, with Wilkendorf and Rothicker, Barbara Rothicker and Jean Wilkendorf. And we got the place to meet which was the Recreation Center. Now we could not have shows in the Recreation Center. But we did have one, but we couldn't charge because it was a city facility. But we only had one show there and then we went to the Junior Achievement Building for our first show. And then in l984, the year I was president of the guild, we came to this building and we've been here ever since. To the Amon Carter Exhibit Building, the East Room is all we could afford. And we didn't really think we could afford that [laughs.] but it worked out.

KJ: You were president of the guild in '84. You were a founding member. What has the guild meant to you through the years?

AA: Oh, it's been everything until now I can't even come. But I have a small shop in Bowie, Texas, and so my Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays are taken and so I don't get to participate. The relationships with all the people have been beautiful.

[Tape turned off and started up again]

KJ: You were talking about the guild, Alvena, and that it had meant a lot to you. Is there some particular person in the quilting world that has been an example or been an influence to you?

AA: Of course, Janet Mullins. I used to introduce her to my friends and say, 'She taught me everything I knew.' [laughs.] But actually, of course, I went to Houston and took other classes and Denver. My daughter and I went to Denver for a convention for a whole week one year. And I just thought I'd found the wonderful world when I found quilting.

KJ: That brings up the question: Were you self-taught? Do you consider yourself self-taught?

AA: Not really, I've always sewed and so that's a plus, really especially for the older people. Seems like the younger ones can just pick any of it up and they're right away a winner. [laughs.] And it's wonderful to see the younger people doing that.

KJ: Let's see, did you tell us at what age you started quilting? Was it early or--

AA: Oh, no. I thought I'd never quilt. My mother quilted to keep us warm because we didn't have central heat and air. And with eight children, you know, we had lots of quilts so many that you slept under about four and when you woke up in the morning you didn't know whether you could move or not. [laughs.] It was a lot.

KJ: So, what was your first quilt memory?

AA: Quilt memory? It would be my mother doing string quilts and block quilts, and I really thought that I'd never do that, never. But when I saw the beautiful things that some of them were doing, I love appliqué, and well, I like all of it: quilting, piecing, whatever.

KJ: Were there other members of your family who quilted, and are there?

AA: No, none of my siblings. None of them. They appreciate quilts, but they don't do it themselves. Most of them worked in career jobs, you know in professional ways, at different times. I do have one sister that owned a knit shop in Abilene [Texas.] and, of course, she loves quilts too, but she doesn't want to do this. She wants to do her embroidery and her knitting and all. But they all appreciate nice handwork.

KJ: They appreciate it. Have you encouraged that appreciation by giving gifts to your siblings?

AA: Not to my siblings. We have five children and so mine go to my children especially the hand-quilted ones. Now grandchildren, they get machine quilted quilts. But it's mainly to my family.

KJ: Could you describe some of the quilts that you've given to your children?

AA: Well, I have one in the show here that was the winner for the 1992 show. It was for our oldest daughter on their 25th wedding anniversary. It was designed around a picture, a stained-glass window that her husband had given her on their 20th. And it had 20 hearts in the window with beautiful colors, greens, and mauves, and pinks, and with lace. And their pictures etched, and you can tell that it's them, Connie and Bill in the big heart. And the small heart has their child etched into the glass. And at that time she said, 'Mother, I need a quilt to go with my stained-glass window.' Four years later we got busy on it, you know, for the 25th wedding anniversary. When you have a deadline, you're gonna get there. So that's the way 'Love Those Hearts,' a quilt that's hanging here, that they've been very nice to ask for again.

KJ: Now, you had a stained glass window as a base. But essentially you designed that quilt?

AA: The two of us. She kind of knew what she wanted and she had a parson's bed, a brass parson's bed at the time, and so we designed the quilt. Actually, she found what she wanted appliquéd on it, a portion of it, and then for a central or main parts of it, and then she gave it to me and said, 'Now Mother, you can do anything you want.' And so it was mainly quilting white-on-white.

KJ: Is it hand quilted?

AA: Yes.

KJ: And do you have a feeling, Alvena, about hand quilting versus machine quilting?

AA: I especially love hand quilting. Some of the machine quilting is wonderful and we can't live long enough to make enough hand-quilted quilts so it's nice that we have the other, but hand quilting is my preference.

KJ: The quilt you brought today, is it hand quilted?

AA: It is.

KJ: But you didn't hand-quilt all of it.

AA: Most of it.

KJ: Most of it.

AA: Most of it.

KJ: Did you have some help?

AA: I don't have many quilters in my family, but I said, 'No, you quilt anyhow.' There's one place in here that's quilted by a little seven-year-old, a great-nephew of mine. He kept wanting to come and quilt, you know, and we said, 'Go wash your hands.' And so it got to where he would just come and he'd say, 'I've already washed 'em. I've already washed 'em.' [laughs.] And the stitches I left in, if I can find it, but I encouraged everybody to quilt on it. It didn't matter about the stitches, for this quilt, because it is mainly a--here it is. I just quilted right beside his stitches. See these? It took him several hours and it took several times coming back to get them. Right here. See right here?

KJ: He's quilted across the top of a triangle.

AA: Uh, huh.

KJ: Well, he quilted around the whole triangle.

AA: Well, he came around. I think he did. It might not have gotten over here.

KJ: Two sides of it anyway.

AA: Yes, two sides of it. Yes. And now then he's a great big boy. [laughs.] But it's been a nice thing for our reunion to have and it return every year.

KJ: Let's go back to the design, Alvena. Have you designed some other things?

AA: Yes, a ski lodge in Lake Tahoe [California.] needed a quilt for their lobby and they contacted me to do an eagle quilt. They had their interior designer send me samples from Florida, that's where her offices were, for Lake Tahoe, and for me to be able to choose fabrics to make a quilt for them to hang. And I think that quilt ended up 7' by 7', 84 [inches.] by 84. They just wanted an eagle because it's Eagle's Nest Lodge. I started out by choosing fabrics at the different quilt shops here in Fort Worth [Texas.] and Arlington [Texas.], using the interior decorator's samples. And I just glued pieces on to see if the fabrics would work. And when I could see that it was working to come up an eagle. Sometimes you have to tell somebody an eagle is there, but most of us can see it right away. And then from there I put trees because there's lots of pine trees at Lake Tahoe and there's lots of green in it. I had to machine quilt it, and I did it myself on my regular sewing machine, except for the big blank areas, I did do those by hand. I could not do that on a machine. I'm not that adept on the machine. It turned out real good. They flew me up there for the grand opening and wined and dined me for a week. [laughs.] Now I do have to say I had an inside to get the job. [laughs.]

KJ: It is an eagle in--

AA: This is 45 inches of this. The eagle is 45 inches in a Lone Star.

KJ: In a Lone Star. That's what I was looking for, the Lone Star.

AA: The Lone Star.

KJ: And you have brought the panel that you did with the fabric gluing--

AA: When I was working on it.

KJ: When you were designing it.

AA: It looked terrible, but I kept it thinking I might make another one and I didn't want to think the second time. And I have. I've made two or three more like it. And having the little mock-up helps me a great deal. I don't have to figure it out again except for the certain colors that anyone wants.

KJ: I think I noticed on the back of your reunion quilt that there was a ribbon. Have you won awards with your quilts?

AA: Not many, but this was entered into the Jim Bowie Days Show in1995 in Bowie, and it took a second place.

KJ: Are there other quilts?

AA: Well, Love those Hearts, the 25th anniversary quilt that is a prior winner that is back here again. It has won.

KJ: Alvena, was that Member's Choice or was that the Vivian Parker Award [an excellence award named for a deceased member of the guild.]?

AA: No, we didn't have that [Vivian Parker Award.] then.

KJ: You didn't have that then.

AA: No. I don't know that I'd have gotten it either. [laughs.] It was Member's Choice and People's Choice.

KJ: And People's Choice.

AA: And People's Choice.

KJ: A dual winner!

AA: But I tied with one other lady. I want to say this: Kathryn Anderson and I tied for the Member's Choice. That was special. Very.

KJ: I believe there is another quilt that you told me about, that had won some ribbons.

AA: This is a challenge quilt, with the Arlington Guild. Since well, almost the start of the Arlington Guild, I've been a member over there. And when I joined their guild I said, 'I want to come, be a member, but I probably won't be active.' But it didn't work out that way. [laughs.] But anyhow, this was a challenge. This was 1992, I think. It was 'Cultural Crossroads to Texas' so I won best-of-theme on it. I found this block, right here, without the 'Texas' and that is 'Crossroads to Texas.' That's the name of the block. So I blew it up to make me some places to embellish. And so I tried to do the French, Spanish, Indian, cowboy, these all aren't on the same level, but you know. The German people that settled in the mid--

KJ: You have appliquéd figures.

AA: Appliquéd figures. I'd never done anything like this before. I didn't think a quilt ought to have things hanging off it. But, you know, you change along the way. And I think this tomahawk right here. I was golfing and found the right rock and my husband made me the tomahawk. I think it was Kathryn Anderson gave me something here--it was this one. She found this in her backyard and she thought I could use that. I was looking for it. And then I had a grandson that went to eat Mexican food and they fixed him a drink that looked like a drink, and so I painted it over the blue or red.

KJ: That's the French figure with a sword, and that's what your grandson found. And the other one is--

AA: Kathryn Anderson found this in her backyard.

KJ: It's metallic.

AA: Well, it's plastic really. But it looks metallic.

KJ: It looks metallic. And that's the Spanish settler who has that sword.

AA: Uh-huh. Well, the pictures I found to use had some of this, and so I thought that's what I needed to do, collect little things. Since they were allowing that sort of thing. And the little pistol, you know, for the cowboy, and the rope. And the powder horn for Daniel Boone, actually here. They don't all tie together and yet Texas is a melting pot of people.

KJ: Uh-huh.

AA: So it did. And it won the theme and then workmanship.

KJ: Speaking of Texas, have you always lived in Texas, Alvena?

AA: Yes, I was born here, in Fort Worth, actually. My husband also. We moved away for many years and then we came back before I got into quilting.

KJ: Where else did you live?

AA: Midland [Texas.] and Abilene [Texas.].

KJ: But still in Texas.

AA: Still in Texas, yes. [laughs.]

KJ: So, as far as quilting influence, it would have been Texas all the way?

AA: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. However, like I said, we went to a convention in Denver, Colorado, for one week, when my daughter was still interested, which she isn't anymore. We had a wonderful time. We'd never done anything like that before, and that's fabulous. We'd take every class you could.

KJ: What do you find most pleasing about quilting, Alvena?

AA: Oh, it's peaceful for one thing. And for the most, people appreciate it. Not enough to do it sometimes but enough to want to have some of it. So it's nice. I love quilting.

KJ: Do you still quilt a lot?

AA: Not a lot, but especially hand. You know. I can make one quilt maybe every two or three years but other than that, I don't do a lot of hand quilting. Since I do have a small store, it kind of keeps me busy. But I can do it in the store too.

KJ: Tell us a little bit about your store.

AA: I have antique quilts and I have some antique sewing machines. I try to keep supplies for the local quilters. I cannot have the big supply, but they know that anything they need, if they'll let me know, I'll get it for them. And we have a group there that meets in my shop once a month. We're not trying to be a guild or anything but it's nice that the regular customers do come. I'm enjoying it.

KJ: What's the name of your shop?

AA: Bowie Sewing Center. It doesn't have 'quilting' in it. [laughs.]

KJ: It should! As you think about shows and quilts that you've had in shows and quilts you've seen, what do you think makes a great quilt?

AA: Well, great design in the first. But it's so wonderful to be able to get so many nice patterns that will interact and come up with new patterns. And so that's very interesting to me. I teach a few classes and mostly the basic quilting, appliqué, and precision piecing, of course, is my mainstay, to do it precision. But I do piece on the machine some now. We can't live long enough in order to make enough quilts by hand. There's just no way.

KJ: You mentioned the precision piecing. Where did you learn that?

AA: At the Quilt Box, Janet Mullins. She was very precise. [laughs.] A very good teacher.

KJ: Apparently it was a lesson well learned.

AA: Uh-huh, I hope so.

KJ: What do you think makes a great quilter?

AA: Someone that's willing to work. [laughs.] Hard work. But if you enjoy it, it's not that much work. I quilted from July the 7th to the first week in October last year on one of the quilts that's here in the show. And I mean I quilted 8-10 hours a day to get it done.

KJ: You have more than one quilt in the show?

AA: Yes, this one is for our middle daughter's 25th wedding anniversary which was last year. So she doesn't get it till after the show, [laughs.] on her 26th.

KJ: First things first.

AA: Right. [laughs.] She would understand.

KJ: Do you have any particular thoughts about preserving quilts?

AA: Yes, I think they should be preserved. I finally managed to cut one, you know an old quilt that you think, 'I'd never cut a quilt, never.' But I bought one quilt that was nice. I knew at the time that it was too far gone; it could not be a quilt anymore. And so I have cut one quilt and made a coat out of it, and it's nice. Very nice. I may have to start repairing and restoring soon [laughs.] in places. And it was hard to get all the pieces out because it was in such bad condition. And I'm constantly restoring old quilts. My husband, he kind of likes to go to garage sales, and he'll show up with an old quilt. 'I bought this for you.' [laughs.] 'Okay.' And so we will get busy and help it a little, and that's what I do.

KJ: Now, do you sleep under quilts?

AA: In the winter, I usually have one of my mother's quilts on the bed.

KJ: And how many quilts would you say you own?

AA: Well, most of them I've given to our children, really. Antique and all, or ones I've made?

KJ: Both.

AA: Both. Okay, I've probably made 20 or so. That's not very many. I don't really consider wall quilts as quilts and yet we do to a point. And then I own about 30 or 40 antique quilts that are nice.

KJ: And what are your plans for those?

AA: I sell most of them.

KJ: You restore and sell?

AA: Some. Some. I don't have a lot of time to do this. But I've done restorations for other people also.

KJ: How did you learn that?

AA: Just self-taught. You know, you just figure out how to get that piece back in there that's gone. And I'm restoring one right now at the house. I keep something going all the time [laughs.] and it's-- [interviewee stops.]

KJ: Just a couple other questions, and then Alvena I'd like you to think if there's something that I haven't asked you about that you'd like to say. First of all, do you think that quilts have had an impact on women in American life and if so what would that be?

AA: Very definitely. People that are drawn to quilts always say, even in my store, 'They're honest. Quilters are honest.' I've never had a bad check from a quilter, never. And I just feel like it's just the nicest group of people that could ever be.

KJ: How do you think quilts should be preserved for the future? You talked a little bit about taking care of them.

AA: Well, everybody ought to be conscious of just taking care of their quilts. And of course we all learned as we went that we shouldn't store them in plastic, always in cotton or the paper that is specially made for preserving the quilts. Even though they're not going to be a museum piece, they should be carefully preserved.

KJ: All right. We're about at the end of our time, Alvena. Do you have something you'd like to say that maybe we haven't touched on?

AA: I'd just say that anyone that does get involved with quilting, they'll never regret it. [laughs.]

KJ: I'd like to thank Alvena Armstrong for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 2001 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 1:53 p.m.


“Alvena Armstrong,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,