Rita Burnstein




Rita Burnstein


Burnstein discusses her career as a quilter. She talks about how she started quilting, and her thoughts on quilting and history. She also describes her work as an art therapist, as well as working with the art quilts at the Sedgwick Quilt Show.




Art festivals.
Quilts--United States--History--20th century--Exhibitions.
Quilts--United States--History--20th century.
Quilting--United States--Patterns.
Quilts in art
Craft and art
Craft festivals.


Rita Burnstein


Megan Dwyre

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Le Rowell


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Megan Dwyre (MD): It is July 22 and I'm interviewing Rita Burnstein for the Quilters'[S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories project. The starting time is 10:00. Why don't we talk a little bit about the quilt which we named "Purple Mountains?" Can you describe it for me?

Rita Burnstein (RB): It's a 60 by 60 inch quilts with three-dimensional squares representing the feel of flowers and growth within the mountains. The mountains range from bases of deep purples up to oranges. They're two inch squares. The quilt is based on traditional quilting but reinterpreted into my own feelings. The squares are Log Cabin, which is a traditional pattern. The projections, which represent the flowers, are basically Prairie Points inserted into the Log Cabins and the whole, total background of the mountains are Nine Patch, but each square is a different fabric.

MD: And what materials does it--

RB: I basically use all cotton, and I'm currently using a lot of batiks, and some traditional printed fabrics. I have a huge collection of fabric. Cabinets and drawers, all fabric.

MD: I saw that. [laughs.] And how do you use this quilt?

RB: Basically they're wall hangings. They're quite large. They need to have a large wall. Unfortunately, I live in a little house so they're on small walls.

MD: And do you plan to keep it?

RB: Occasionally I've had people come into the house, and they've chosen to buy a quilt. Mainly I've sold through shows, art shows, quilt shows.

MD: OK. Let's talk a little bit about your quilting. When did you start quilting?

RB: I started quilting in 1981. My younger daughter was quilter [inaudible] at Penn State and it intrigued me. I basically spent my life, my past thirty years, teaching crafts in the largest geriatric center in Philadelphia. Quilting was not part of the background or the heritage of the population I was working with, but I enjoyed working with fabric and I had access to a lot of fabric at that time. So it became kind of something a little bit different, but I've done everything. Primarily I was doing a lot of knitting at that time. I was bored with traditional, repetitive, two color quilts, and I always tended to add something different to my quilts, and it just progressed from one stage to another.

MD: About how many hours a week do you quilt?

RB: Currently I'm up at 6, and I work from about 6 to quarter to 8. I go down eat breakfast, read the newspaper, and come up and I quilt to about a quarter to 11, and then I'm actually finished for the day.

MD: So a couple hours a day at least?

RB: Maybe four hours.

MD: Are there other quilters among your family or friends?

RB: My current friends are quilters, and nobody in the family quilts.

MD: So what would you say was your first quilt memory?

RB: My first quilt memory was the fact that I enjoyed doing it, and I just continued because there's always something new to do. It was a challenge. It wasn't repetitive, that I was doing the same thing over and over again.

MD: So you wouldn't say quilts were really part of your childhood?

RB: No.

MD: It was something you came into later?

RB: Actually I grew up in New York, and I was raised by an aunt who was a milliner. So I had a lot of sewing experience.

MD: So you had a background in sewing?

RB: Yes. In fact when you use the word 'touchstone', my little featherweight portable is there [gestures.] I bought that a week after I got married in 1951, and it actually, it did a lot of dressmaking, and helped me pay for my tuition. But it's still here. [laughs.] It still works though.

MD: How does quilting impact your family?

RB: How does it impact my family? Well, my family, my husband is very, what's the word to use, does not mind sitting outside of fabric stores [inaudible.][laughs.] He takes his puzzle and his book to read. My children have art backgrounds, own lots of my pieces. And I could tell a very funny story, my younger daughter who lives up in north Jersey came to visit the other day and I had a few of my small wall hangings sitting here, for lack of a better place to put it, and she saw one she says, 'Oh, I love it. Can I have it?' and I said yes, and then she called me a couple days later she says, 'You know where I decided to hang it?' and I said, 'The bathroom,' and she said, 'How did you know?' [laughs.] She decided it worked perfectly with her bathroom paper and the decorum in this little powder room and she says she has more visitors in there than she has upstairs in her bedroom.

MD: I bet.

RB: So it's now hanging in her bathroom. [laughs.]

MD: But neither of your daughters quilt?

RB: My younger daughter is an art teacher and right now she paints. My older daughter was actually a textile major at Tyler. My granddaughter is photography major at Drexel.

MD: It's a whole family of art people.

RB: Yes.

MD: I'm just going to take a break really quick. [tape shuts off then resumes.] So why don't you talk for a minute about your work as an art therapist?

RB: Okay. Is it on? I grew up in Brooklyn. I went to Pratt, and then I got married, and I moved to Buffalo, NY, where I went to the University of Buffalo. At Pratt I studied Theater and Costume Design, but when I got to Buffalo there was no theater. [laughs.] So I worked at a community center and I taught art to the preschoolers up to the seniors. I was part of the Sunday, the art program. In my spare time I flipped over to, it's a very small town, I flipped over two days to the nursing home, and in 1965 my husband was transferred to Philadelphia, so I left Buffalo, came here, and called up the gentleman who had been my boss in Buffalo. He had gone to Florida and come to Philadelphia to say hello, and I had a job before my furniture arrived. [laughs.] And I [inaudible.] the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, which at that time was the largest long-term care facility in the state of Pennsylvania. We had a thousand beds. And I stayed there for 30 years. I did everything; cooking, painting, sewing, any kind of craft you could ever imagine, knitting, sewing. The population had a background in needlework. They worked in the factories here that were living in the nursing home, so I had seven production sewing machines going, and we just designed things and they made things, and through the years, because Philadelphia was a clothing manufacturing city, we received huge donations of fabric. We would get at the end of the season, from like Jones of New York, cartons that were the size of coffins is the only way to describe them. They would be humungous with every kind of fabric that they ever cut or had samples of. So we had closets full of fabric. So we were able to cut and sew and have the people sew whatever they wanted. You didn't have to limit what they did. And eventually the store called Elder Craftsmen was started by one of our board members, and the head of our institution at that time, to have an outlet for things that were made by the elderly, and Elder Craftsman was on Chestnut Street, and it continued up until recently, and people would come in just to buy things that were made, not only by our people, but by the elderly in the city. A lot of the elderly people were dependant upon the money they got from the things they sold. It just closed about 3 years ago. I should clarify that, when I retired I was active for a couple of years on the board at the Elder Craftsmen.

MD: So do you think quilting and art have a therapeutic value? Or is it more just to support themselves?

RB: Well, therapeutically it kept people, at the nursing home, kept them busy, and they had a goal. They had to make something, and they were proud of what they made. We had shows and we would have sales and things, and they would get part of the money. It's satisfying.

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

RB: For myself? After I retired, I ended up having lymphoma, which is a form of cancer. I never stopped quilting. I'm fine today, three years later.

MD: Great.

RB: Down the pike, I'm fine, and it's helped me make lots of friends. And through the years, one of the benefits of my job was I had an educational benefit. I went to Houston, which is the capital of quilting, as an educational benefit. For many, many years, about fifteen years, I have had the opportunity to get into Houston.

MD: Do you still go there?

RB: We were scheduled to go, but 9/11 came along and that kind of stopped. [inaudible.] , but I have my plane ticket for this year.

MD: Wonderful.

RB: I did exhibit in Houston. My work was exhibited.

MD: Yes. I did see one of your pieces online, on the Art Quilts at the Sedgwick.


MD: That's the only one I saw on there.

RB: Well that was started because there were so few art quilters that we knew of in the area, and we were kind of supporting each other, but I was the grandmother of the art quilters [inaudible.].

MD: Do you want to talk about Art Quilts at the Sedgwick a little more?

RB: It's a wonderful show. This will going on fifth year, and we're projecting five more years. It's now internationally known. We have quilters that come from Norway and France, England. My particular part of the job was to take all the slides and information when they came in, and prepare it for the judges. Generally I like to peek at slides so I have a light box and as I'm putting them into the files and getting ready, I peek. I've begun to know a lot of the quilters by their applications.

MD: Are you actually one of the judges ever?

RB: No, I'm not a judge. The judges generally are, well this year, will be a famous, well known quilter; somebody who is in art education.

MD: Okay, but you see a lot of quilts though that come in?

RB: Yes.

MD: So what would you say, what do you think makes a great quilt great?

RB: Oh, that's a difficult question. I find some of the technique. I admire the people who paint and can draw, but I'm not enamored with it. I find it sometimes the thought of how color is placed, and the workmanship is important.

MD: This is sort of along the same vein, but what do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

RB: When you read the design, it has impact. It tells you, there's a story there that you can actually read, you can imagine in your mind, a story.

MD: Do you think your quilts tell a story?

RB: Well, basically when I started working on the series, they had secret messages in them, and because they have projections, and they project out, people have the tendency to feel they need to touch it. People come up to it at an exhibit, and I watch them because one of them was titled "Secret Messages," want to know where the message was.

MD: What kind of messages?

RB: Well, the first one I did many years did one for my granddaughter when she was 16, and I put messages in about life, what you find in a fortune cookie.

MD: So you actually wrote them.

RB: I wrote them and tucked them in.

MD: Ah.

RB: And they're there.

MD: And do you still do that with your quilts now?

RB: Sometimes, sometimes. But I don't always tell everybody where, they can't get to the messages, they're there, inside. Years ago I did the writing on the binding on the outside.

MD: Oh, yes. What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection?

RB: It has a visual impact. I find that some of the quilts now. [inaudible.] quilters are actually taking off on old quilts to make theirs look in that vein. It's not, to me, is not challenging. They haven't challenged themselves. [inaudible.] They haven't challenged themselves.

MD: So do you think there's kind of a little bit of a divide between art quilters and traditional quilters? Like maybe some tension?

RB: No, I think basically there's a lack of understanding of traditional quilters, of art quilts. They don't know why they should be called art quilt--quilts; they don't know why they should be called quilts. And the reason they're called quilts is technically they fall into the category of three layers, and they're held together by some means. It's easy to understand a traditional quilt.

MD: What do you think makes a great quilter?

RB: Somebody who can move on and not do the same thing over and over again.

MD: Good answer.

RB: Challenge yourself.

MD: How do you think great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially how to design a pattern and choose fabrics and colors?

RB: It's instinct. A lot of people color is their thing. They just have a feel for color. Some people work with pencil and paper first, and some people just move right in and just do it.

MD: Do you think having an art background would help in that respect? Or it's just something that some people have and some people don't?

RB: I think it helps, but I think some people really have an innate color sense.

MD: What time are we at? Okay. How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

RB: I think there are technicians who do machine quilting that is absolutely fabulous. I admire their skill. I do not have it. [laughs.] I don't know whether it's a lack of patience or a lack of ability. I found that now in my pieces I'll either do hand quilting, but my quilting is an overlay of another pattern on my pattern. It's not the same as shadow quilting. It's like two pictures, one on top of the other. I currently am using other techniques of a lot of beading, big stitching, and embroidery in my pieces. I'm not doing any per say hand quilting. I'm a [inaudible.] piecer.

[tape shuts off.]

MD: Okay, now that the tape recorder's working, I'm going to move into a little bit of a different subject. What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

RB: Here to stay. I think people who haven't had quilts in their life are beginning to appreciate them and want to have them as part of the thing to own if you can afford it. I think people who buy art quilts are people who are looking for other mediums of artwork and love them. I see people coming, at the opening of the Sedgwick there were 300 people there, it was wild because it [inaudible.] small. And people just were enamored. They're there because they like art quilts.

MD: Do most of the quilts there sell?

RB: I believe out of the 46 quilts, fifteen or sixteen sold. We were happiest about the one that didn't have to go back to Alaska last year, [laughs.] because it was big, and this year I believe the quilt from France sold.

[technical difficulties.]

RB: Is it working?

MD: When the red light's on it's working, but I keep seeing it go off. [inaudible.]

MD: In what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning for women and women's history in America?

RB: Well predominantly they're made by women, and they do tell a history of people who save fabric from clothing and use the bits as an attachment to memories, within the fabric, and I still have friends who collect and save old fabric. In fact I have a friend who saved her daughter's fabric and put it in her chupa, which is the marriage canopy of her daughter. There's a connection.

MD: How do you think quilts can be used?

RB: For warmth, for love, for the wall, visually to look at.

MD: And you have a quilt on your bed right?

RB: Sometimes in the winter three or four [laughs.] and so do all my children, and my grandchildren. When the boys, three of them went of to college, each one got a quilt.

MD: Do you distinguish between quilts made for the bed and quilts made for the wall? Do you make traditional quilts for the bed?

RB: Well, not traditional, but more in keeping with what, for example, my oldest grandson when he went off to Penn State, said he would like something in blue and green, which was fine, and I did a Flying Geese pattern, but a lot of the geese were going in the wrong direction because I felt he needed to go off and spread his wings and go somewhere, but always remember where home was.

MD: That's great. So that's sort of a message in that quilt.

RB: Right.

MD: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

RB: I'm not a sentimentalist, so I feel my quilts should be used, washed and used, and when I'm gone I really don't care. [laughs.] That sounds terrible.

MD: Do you know what has happened to the quilts that you've made for friends or family?

RB: I sent three wall hangings out to a nephew and niece in California, thinking that they would choose one and send the other two back. They kept all three, which was okay, but they hung two of them together that were not related to each other on one back board and sent me a picture. [laughs.] And I'm glad I'm not out there to see it because the quilts didn't belong together. My only request is don't hang it in a sunny window.

MD: But you do think they should be used and not just stored away.

RB: Absolutely, yes.

MD: I don't have too many more questions. Why is quilting important in your life?

RB: Because there's always another design or a thought in my hat. It's a challenge.

MD: What kind of stuff do you think inspires you? I know you had some quilts that seemed inspired by nature.

RB: Color, primarily, and at this point I'm trying to work out using natural materials, and my same theme, but working it in smaller pieces, and to be framed. I haven't quite gotten to solve the problem.

MD: Do you ever hand dye your fabrics?

RB: At this point in my life I don't have enough time. One year I took a class in Shibori, which is a Japanese technique where you roll the fabric on a pipe, and you scrunch it up, and you wrap it with thread, and then you dye it, and I put the whole thing in a plastic bag and got on a plane. It looked like a pipe bomb [laughs.] Got home, went to work, and I was very busy at work at that time, didn't undo it for two weeks, and it smelled so bad, I dumped the whole thing. I never got to see what it looked like. [laughs.]

MD: Oh, no.

RB: It was the chemicals [inaudible.] the dyes. That was the beginning and end of my dyeing career.

MD: Have you ever taken any classes besides that?

RB: Yes. I've taken a few classes in Houston. I find that most of, well I shouldn't say most, the best teacher I had was Nancy Crow because she taught on the college level. I find most of the teachers today write a book and they teach the class from the book, and I may as well just read the book. I don't have to sit and take a class. And I don't need a product. I just want a technique, so I've stopped taking classes.

MD: Yes, I've heard other people mention her name as an amazing teacher.

RB: Yes, she's phenomenal, really phenomenal. She's considered a living treasure. She definitely is a really treasure. She is, she really is.

MD: Well, I don't think I have any more questions. Is there anything else you want to talk about? Anything that we haven't talked about already?

RB: Nothing, but I would like to show you some of the quilts. The wall hangings and my current work.

MD: Okay, well I guess we will end this interview with Rita Burnstein for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project on July 22. Again this is Megan Dwyre and the interview is concluding at 10:32.

Interview Keyword

Rita Burnstein
Art therapy
Art Quilts at the Sedgwick
Quilts in interior decoration.


“Rita Burnstein,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2458.