Elly Sienkiewicz




Elly Sienkiewicz


Sienkiewicz is a quilter and an author. She teaches women how to quilt, specifically appliqué. She is responsible for the revival of the Baltimore Album style quilt, in which each quilting block is unique and brought together with others to create an album of sorts. She focuses on appliqué and even hired out for some of her non-appliqué quilting. Though her love for quilting descended from elderly relatives, she did not pass it on to her children. She hopes her legacy will live on through her grandchildren. She finds happiness in her profession as a quilter.




Arts and crafts.
New England.


Elly Sienkiewicz


Allison Moss

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Mary Masal


Houston, Texas


Heather Gibson


Allison Moss (AM): My name is Allison Moss. Today's date is October 22, 1999. And I am conducting an interview with Ellie Sienkiewicz for the quilt oral history project in Houston, Texas. Ellie, tell me what you brought today to share with us.

Elly Sienkiewicz (ES): Oh, I brought an old quilt of mine, an early quilt. And I brought it frankly because it was very small. But also because I think it relates to the things that I'm doing today. It was done in the '70's. As far as I can tell it's '75 or '76. It needs a bit of a washing. But it's a New England Gravestone, and it's called "Autumn and Ancestors." It's size, I think, is 40" by 44", approximately- 40" wide by 44" long. It goes way back to when I was learning to quilt and teaching quilting, and I was fascinated by the old gravestones of New England. So this is what's called a "Soul Effigy," and I've done it in trapunto. And then I cross-stitched the inscription on it: "Stranger stop and cast an eye, as you are now so once was I. As I am now, so you shall be. Prepare for death and follow me." I've been fascinated because, during the bulk of my career as a professional quilter, I've been fascinated by the Baltimore Album quilts, which are full of symbols and stories. I find myself now going back to Victorian graveyards and taking some of the things off the gravestones. The oaks, laurel wreaths and floral wreaths. So this just appealed to me. This was New England, and the leaves are from my family farm. I'm a Hamilton married to a Sienkiewicz. And when the farm was sold when my great-aunt Orpha Hall Hamilton died--our last visit, I went and collected oak leaves and I quilted them. So, this is New England because we had temporarily gone up to New England to go back to school, and "Autumn and Ancestors." So it all ties in.

AM: So you went to a cemetery and found this?

ES: No, actually I'm sure I took this from a book. For all my quiltmaking, I've been interested in these immobile artifacts, the gravestones, with images and dates and names.

AM: So as a record of history--

ES: It's a record of history, and who knows what compels us to make a quilt. I wanted to try the stuffed quilting. And of course, a bas-relief sculpture is what gravestones are done in. Low-relief. So, it seemed perfect. I think if I did it today I would've flattened the background a bit, but it certainly looks like the original.

AM: Now you said you brought this because it has something to do with what you're doing now.

ES: In 1982, I saw a show of Baltimore Album quilts, and these are quilts with every different block being on a theme, just the way a record album or a postage album or a photo album would have different pictures. And I got drawn into them, and studied their symbolism and went on, finally, to write ten books about them, of which the eleventh is coming out this spring, "The Best of Baltimore," but I've kind of moved on, and yet I'm called to write about this issue- "Stitched in Cloth, Carved in Stone." The idea that symbols that are close to our heart are both stitched in cloth and carved in stone. And I had kind of forgotten about this quilt until one of the most recent blocks that I did- and this is for this collection on a theme- is from a gravestone in Lewes, Delaware. And I thought that this would be small, but significant enough to bring to our interview for the future.

AM: What do you use this quilt for? How have you used it?

ES: For a little while, it hung in our dining room. When we were in, I guess it was Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts; we stayed on for an extra year. I had decided to go to divinity school, and my husband was at Harvard in Political Science. And we decided to stay an extra year. He decided to get his Ph.D. So we bought, with my mother's help, an empty house, which we sold at the end of the year. We approved it. So I needed to decorate it. This hung in the dining room. And when we moved back to Washington, my husband said he was tired of having this "Soul Effigy" hanging in the dining room. It's been in a trunk for years, and that's where it is now. It's in the trunk.

AM: It has a real autumnal look, with the browns and the rust colors. It really is remindful of New England.

ES: It felt like New England. Of course, it's prime '70's fabric. It's what fabric would look like in the 1970's, and yet it's unusual. I don't think you'd probably see another one like this. I'm thinking of sending it back to New England. My eldest is living in Boston. They can hang it on their wall.

AM: Well, do you have a quilt here in the show this year?

ES: I have actually two. I have an Album Quilt, this historic style I was telling you about, which has become over the past dozen years--there's been a massive revival so that you'll see several of them. One of them with blue ribbons on it, which is quite something because people started doing this is 1989, 1990. That's when I did my first book on it. So one is in "Hundred Best Quilts," and that is a book-made album made for my daughter. It was made when she was probably nine, as her wedding quilt. She is now twenty-two. She's very proud of her wedding quilt, looking over the gentlemen very carefully! [laughter.] And then I have another quilt. I have a book that's just come out called "Fancy Appliqué," and there's a quilt in that that's an album but not a Baltimore-style album. It's small blocks, seven inches. But each one of them's different, carrying out this album theme of a collection. And that would be in the faculty exhibit.

Bernard Herman (BH): What's the draw, to you, of the Baltimore Album quilt?

ES: I think it was this sense that they spoke to us without words. Just a feeling. When I first went to see them I was tired. I had three kids, and I had a very booming mail-order business. And a friend asked me to go and I said, 'Okay.' And I went and I got tears in my eyes. Just that these were the old ones, just a feeling that you were looking into the soul of another woman. And I think for people who've made it, because now a lot of history has been unearthed about them. I think there is this feeling that you're connected to something in the past, and therefore you're confident that you're connected to something in the future. They're time-consuming quilts. They're not easy quilts.

AM: So this is really a part of you, in a sense, expressing yourself and putting yourself into these quilts.

ES: I would think so, yes. And I was trained as a teacher, as a History and English teacher, but I failed. I was good with high school, and the better I was the more they moved me down to seventh grade where I failed. So as a teacher, I love teaching grown-up women. They're so well-behaved, [laughter.] so supportive. AM: When did you begin quilting? When you first went to see this quilt with your friend?

ES: No, I actually began quilting twenty-five years ago, when my second child was born. Because these elderly relatives and they would be in my grandmother's generation--We went to the farm every year in West Virginia and it had no electricity. It had just gas lights. The one I stayed with was a rug-hooker. When she got quite elderly, up into her eighties, she started to pass us on to Cousin Wilma, who's the quilter. So they were in my blood. Sort of from childhood I wanted to make one. I saved scraps in fifth grade. And then as every quilter knows, you seldom use those scraps. You go out and buy new. So that's when I started to learn quilting, and I taught it. That was beginning in '75, '74, maybe even earlier than that. About twenty-five years ago I began to teach. And I only know that because my middle child is twenty-five. So it was in '82 that I was pulled to the Baltimore's. I started to do their patterns. And I published a book- a self-published quilter's book. And then I was so pulled, and so feeling like a square peg in a round hole that I sold my mail-order business, which was called "Cabin Fever Calicos." I sold it through the Wall Street Journal. When I ran the ad, eighty gentlemen called and wanted to put their wives to work. I advertised it as a business run by a mother from the kitchen table. So once I had sold that, then I went in to teaching and writing books full time; that "Spoken Without a Word", Turtle Hill Press, 1983, was the only one I self-published.

AM: So you enjoy the connection of teaching that you have with other women?

ES: I love to teach. I love to teach.

AM: You like the response that you get from the women? They're interested in what you have to offer?

ES: It's just a way of sharing something that you love. And it's very heart-warming to have other people love it as well especially if you love something a little odd or in the beginning a little unknown. So I've been very satisfied with that. It's really spawned a massive revival that's held for well over a decade, which in the contemporary quilt world is a long time for a quilt style to hold, and people's passions.

BH: How does quilting affect your life? Your personal and family life?

ES: Well, it is my profession and my husband works for the government and was a political appointee. I have to say this- a Republican political appointee so when President Clinton came in he lost his job. And at that point he was maybe 49. And it was impossible to get a new one in the government. Although finally, he went so low he did something for which you needed a high school diploma and a test, and he joined a clerical course. And when he did that for nine months, basically where you're solo, they didn't care what his political party was or how old you were or what your race was. So now he's just moving up in the IRS. During those six years, two of my children were going to school. And since we're from the District of Columbia we have no viable public university so I basically put my babes through private university. So it's been a blessing that way. And it's been something I love to do. And part of that's also why I brought this early quilt. I think you get to a certain stage and see that you haven't changed that much. That something you might have done long ago that just seemed like a flash-in-the-pan is actually a thread through your life. I think it's helped integrate my understanding of who I am and I've just been really happy in this particular place.

AM: So you've found your niche in life.

ES: I've found my niche in life. I found paradise. My father was also a teacher, a professor. He had multiple sclerosis from before I was born and died when I was thirty. And I remember when he was about 55, he looked at me and I didn't know he had it disease. They thought we should have a normal childhood. He said, 'You know, I could die happy tomorrow because I've never done anything I regret.' And I remember thinking about that, and I won't die tomorrow, but I could. And I would die happy because I've had a wonderful life and quilting's been a lot of it. That's a comforting feeling, you know. Anyway, what else can I tell you?

AM: Well, that's wonderful. You told me how important quilting is in your life. How essential it is to who you are.

ES: It is, and I think it's been good for my family's life. It not only put my children through school. I think about the time the children went into their pre-teen years is when I was no longer quilting at home or running the mail-order business. I started to take to the road. It was very nice because my husband is a Russian immigrant, and Russians adore their children. And it was time for him- I think we would've competed- it was time for him to take over. He went to all the kids' games. When I would pop in once in a while, these women would look at me like, "he's mine." They'd bring him cookies. He did all those things. He was also the athlete in the family. And my daughter, when she was about sixteen, she said, 'Mom, I think it's good that you travel. A lot of my friends are having trouble with their mothers and I just miss you.' So we're best friends. We always have been. Of course I worried that this would not be good for a family of three teenagers. And they've all come out to be wonderful children.

AM: It really worked out for you.

ES: It did. Probably mostly because they had this very strong-minded dad who just--Somebody said he was a sort of motherly sort of man. So that worked out very nicely.

AM: Your children--are they quilters?

ES: No. I have two boys and a girl- 27, 25 and 22 now. And the middle one, the boy, was my only hope. He loves making things. He's just very good at making things and fixing things. He would make pillows as a child and did a little bit of rug hooking. He asked for a sewing machine and I said no. And when I could see that he really wanted to do this sort of thing--I have lots of sewing machines. I said, 'Alex would you like it?' And by that time he was a pre-Olympic wrestler. He said, 'Mom, I don't have time now.' So, I may have lost it. My daughter knits. I have a grandchild, though. I'm going to teach my grandchild. She's five months old. I'm going to teach her to sew. I have it all worked out.

AM: That's great. Now what is this technique that you were telling me about here to make that puffy?

ES: This is called stuffed quilting. I'm trying to remember how I did this. There are several ways to do it but I suspect what I did with this was sew the white to a brown background and do the quilting around the edges, and then I slipped back and stuffed it. And here I probably thread through yarn on the needle and put it through. Another way to do it is to put cheesecloth or something, and stitch it to cheesecloth. And then trim the cheesecloth off very close and stuff through the cheesecloth. But it was at a stage when I was learning quilting and teaching quilting, and I wanted to do something fancy with the quilting part of it.

AM: Do you mostly do all your quilting by hand?

ES: I probably quilted my first eight quilts. And this is living proof that I can do it. But since then, I've had them all professionally quilted by people in West Virginia, which is where my family comes from. I hire out the quilting because I love the appliqué.

BH: Could you go through the design process? It's very interesting that the quilting part goes out. Could you go through the steps for us, please?

ES: All right, I got the idea- this is long ago, twenty-two years ago--

BH: Or the one you're working on now.

ES: I'm sure I got the idea of a gravestone quilt, and then I probably had a rough idea of how it would go together because I did this unusual rectangle with a rounded-off top to it, which is like a gravestone. I did something simple. I like simple, although a lot of the work I do is exceptionally fancy. But this is pieced, aside from this quilted panel. It's pieced and it's simple piecing; one piece sewn to the other by the sewing machine and then quilted. And clearly seeing this fabric must be part of the original inspiration for it because this is a pretty Indonesian batik. And both Washington and Boston-- I put on my form that it was done in Washington "question mark" Boston. I have a feeling that it was done in Boston, but with fabric that I brought from Washington, because we have an excellent "G Street Fabric" in Washington. Knowing that we'd be there for a year that turned into two years, I brought tons of fabric. So, to talk about something I'm doing now. Because I'm focused now on this block style where you make different blocks, and you do them one by one. They're very fancy blocks. I do the blocks, and the style of Baltimore is that a collection of these blocks is made to go together so that I don't worry too much in the beginning about them going together. And on the most recent one that I did I made an agreement with my publisher who felt that a book that I'd done on easy appliqué called "Appliqué 12 Easy Ways" needed a sequel. And so I said, 'Well, you know I'd love to do it, but I'm so swamped. I could make all the blocks for a quilt if you would hire this person who I think is wonderful to put them into a quilt and quilt it.' So Lisa McCully set the quilt together. And because I think you can be most creative when you're not within too many boundaries, I let Lisa design the set. She's a computer draftsman. She's an engineer genius. So she did two spectacular sets. Two quilts. The one that's in the quilt is one, and she came up with the design on the computer and quilted it by machine. And I did all my handwork that I love block after block.

BH: I know you're up on a tight schedule here, but do you have time for one or two more questions?

ES: Oh sure, that's kind of you.

BH: One of the questions I knew I was going to get to is: In your opinion, what makes a good quilt good, or a great quilt great?

ES: All right! That's a nice short question. [laughter.] I think that at the end of the twentieth century, our tendency has been to focus on judging measurable things in a quilt. That is, there has been for the past two decades, I 'd say, a procedure almost of judging quilts by different things: color, overall appeal, stitching, getting down to very detailed things like whether the corners lie flat when you fold it up, whether they're even. And I agree that that leads people to higher levels of workmanship and teaches them. But I'm also a maven of the auctions. And I watch these quilts, well I watch album quilts. One sold for $176,000, resold for $200,000, and a second quilt sold for $264,000 a couple years ago. And these are not quilts that are uniformly exceptionally well-made. That is, if you were judging purely by measurable things, they wouldn't do so well. But, if you try to assess magic- that is whether in fact they were a window into someone's soul, whether you looked at it and it brought tears to your eyes, or whether, as with many of the album quilts, it brought back a particular time and place; a sense of history or a sense of the person who made it. I think that makes a great quilt. And when someone's hitting on all cylinders, when they can do it well but their spirit's free, so that they're not making something like the other one, and they put an unspoken passion into it, then I think you've got a great quilt. So walk over to the "Hundred Best" and see if you feel that with some of the quilts. And I think you feel it with a lot of them. And I think that quilt-makers never say this but they know that it is their earthly immortality that they will speak to people yet unborn and someone will respond. Someone will understand it, because we all feel sure that in another hundred-and-fifty years there will be another revival. Things will come back again. It's not really just quilts, because needlework survives and is cherished. The thing that's maybe different about quilting is that it has always been so communally attached. You know, it's always joined us not only to our thoughts and to the cloth, but to one another. And it's pretty comforting in this vast universe to feel a kinship to so many people all over the world. That's a long answer to the short question. [laughter.]

AM: That's wonderful.

ES: Thank you.

AM: Well, we'll let you get back to what you need to do.

ES: Thank you.

AM: Thank you so much for coming to speak with us.

ES: It's my pleasure. I think this is a lovely idea. Do you need to take a picture of this?

BH: We do.

AM: The time now is 2:07. And thank you.

Interview Keyword

Baltimore Album quilting
Quilting books


“Elly Sienkiewicz,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 25, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2473.