Onalee Arnold




Onalee Arnold


Onalee Arnold is a quilter from Marion, Iowa who is a member of the Iowa State Society Daughters of the American Revolution, Marion-Linn chapter. She began quilting upon her mother's death in 1987. She is from a family of quiltmakers and taught her daughters to quilt as well. Arnold belongs to the Eastern Iowa Heritage Quilters guild.




Melanie Grear


Onalee Arnold


Patricia Otis

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Marion, Iowa


Patricia Otis


**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.** Patricia Otis (PO): My name is Patricia Otis and this is February 6, 2009 at 3:25 p.m. on Friday afternoon. I'm conducting an interview with Onalee Arnold in Marion for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. We are doing this through the American Heritage Committee of the Iowa State Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Onalee Arnold is a quilter and is a member of the Marion-Linn Chapter. Well,Onalee tell me about the quilt that you showed me today.

Onalee Arnold (OA): Well, it's one that has reproduction revolutionary war material. I think they went to the museum and looked at the old quilts and they reproduced some of the fabric of that time period. Then it is something that I had taken some swaths to our state meeting years ago and then eventually I made it up into this scrap quilt and then it was back at the state meeting. I used it on a table there when we had the trunk from the museum and it also has eagles on it and so I think that's some of the reasons it has special meaning for me is because it has something to do with our DAR, our Daughters of the American Revolution.

PO: Now how do you use this particular quilt?

OA: Well, it's one that I can throw over me if I take a nap or if I can use it on a twin bed, that's about the size that it is and so this is a size that if I had been to some meeting that we had to stay in a dorm this is a perfect size for using at night over my body [laughs.]

PO: So it's very functional. So you just plan to keep this for yourself?

OA: I probably will, yes.

PO: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

OA: Well, I decided that at the time that my mother passed away in 1987 that my, her grandchildren weren't going to get any quilts unless I made them. And so though I do have enough quilts that she has made for each one of my children, but anyway that's the time when I got interested in quilting again.

PO: At what age did you start?

OA: That's really when I started really quiltmaking. I do remember my mother sitting in front of the door in the spring or summertime pedaling away on the old treadle machine piecing quilts and she had me making a block and that was pre six year old. So that's my first rememberance or thought of anything about quilts other than playing under them when my mother was quilting with some other friends or neighbors.

PO: So then did she teach you then to make quilts or did you learn from other people as well?

OA: Well, she taught me how to sew and if you know how to sew, you can quilt I think. So you learn all the different kinds of sewing and that's how you start. However, quiltmaking is a little bit different than plain sewing. I had three daughters and so sewing dresses and things for them, clothing for them and for our son, and for myself. It's different than making clothes, actually.

PO: How many hours a week do you actually spend quilting?

OA: Oh I have no idea. [both laugh.] Some weeks none at all and others quite a few. [laughs.]

PO: Is it compulsive for you? Like when you start, do you have a tendency to want to keep going at it?

OA: I think maybe so. Now I'm a great starter and not a good finisher, but I'm getting a much better handle on finishing. [laughs.]

PO: So what is your first quilt memory?

OA: My first quilt memory? Probably that that I spoke of and then I do remember my mother quilting with some other ladies in the neighborhood. Then later on I have a memory that came to me one time that I thought now I do remember mother marking that quilt. It was set up in our living room and she and another church lady were there and they were quilting and so I got a hold of that lady's daughter, who now lives in Minnesota, and asked her if she remembered that quilt and if she had it or remembered her mother having it because we didn't have it, I didn't have it. She couldn't remember it at all, so I presume that they were working on a mission quilt or something to give someone that needed a quilt at that time.

PO: Who among your family are also quiltmakers? Either family or friends.

OA: Right now, middle daughter is a quiltmaker and she does quite a few quilts even though she teaches that's her one way to get off by herself. Her hobby at this time. And we enjoy going into a quilt show together. I look forward to her coming for us to do that. All the rest of them in the family have passed on, that were quiltmakers, my mother and right here in this old farmhouse, my mother, my daughter, myself, and then my Dad's mother and grandmother quilted here in this house. And then here in the neighborhood, my mother, when she, before she moved here when she married my Dad, quilted and her mother quilted and her grandmother quilted and her great grandmother quilted. [laughs.] And so I guess, as far back as I know of anyone, I think both sides of the family they quilted.

PO: How does quiltmaking impact your family?

OA: I don't know exactly. My husband seems to approve of it other than me having fabric all over the place. [laughs.] At Christmas time, when my oldest granddaughter had not gotten a quilt from me since she had gotten married and I had two here, one was a very large quilt which would work for one of her beds which is larger; I mean it's not just regular size and thin. One was a little bit smaller, which would be perfect for a twin bed. And I said, 'Brenna, I want you to pick out a quilt,' so she called her husband Matt over and they looked at both of them and they liked them both. I said, 'Well you take them both.' 'Oh Grandma, I can't do that.' And I said, 'Well if you don't take them, I won't be able to quilt anymore.' [laughs.] So she took that and her next younger sister had gotten one before she did and so I was glad to be able to give her her's now.

PO: Have you other amusing experiences that have occurred from your quiltmaking?

OA: Amusing? Well I kind of got into, in Marion, the museum was wanting to sponsor a quilt show and I got into the middle of that and that was more like an amazing experience before we got through then it was amusing, but it was fun, too. And other than that right now, I can't think of anything.

PO: So what was amazing about the museum show?

OA: I said it was more like amazing by the time I got through working with the help. [both laugh.]

PO: What pleases you particularly about quiltmaking?

OA: Oh, I think it's the colors, of the fabric, and the feel of the fabric and the combination of the colors. I got into an old suitcase of my mothers and sat there and looked through the fabrics that she had selected for quilts over the years. Little scraps and pieces, probably from the twenties or the thirties, and I don't think any maybe past the early forties. I just sat there and cried because they were the same colors that I loved too.

PO: What quilt groups do you belong to?

OA: The Eastern Iowa Heritage Quilters, almost 400, I think in that guild. That's the biggest one I belong to. And then I belong to a smaller group called the Sowers and right now it's just two groups. At one time there was a much smaller group that I belonged to but different ones moved away and so that sort of fell apart I guess you'd say.

PO: Is there anything about quiltingmaking that you do not enjoy?

OA: Trying to decide on patterns to quilt. If I am going to have to hand quilt a quilt, I have problems coming up with how I want to hand quilt, the design I want to quilt, more than once I have started something and then I've torn it out completely because I didn't like the way it looked. So that I don't care for and so anymore I don't hand quilt like I did because of arthritis and problems I found in my wrist, just like other people my age, I guess.

PO: What advances in technology, [coughs.] excuse me, influenced your work?

OA: The mats and the rulers and the rotary cutters. The rotary cutters have changed so much the way that we cut our fabric and I think that is one of the biggest changes I can think of. My mother and her sisters used to send each other a new pattern and it was cut out of pieces that were cut out of newspaper or maybe, something a pattern, pieces I mean out of cereal boxes and so we've gone from that to using rulers and just things have moved so differently and so fast now and, and I think that's wonderful. I know my mother would have loved it.

PO: Do you use the computer in any way at all in your quilting?

OA: I really haven't. I've got some pattern books, a CD and I go in on some of the fabrics and sometimes I find a free pattern that I really like and take that off. That's about the only way so far that I've used it. I imagine that I will probably do more as things go along because I have a faster Internet now than I had for so long which took forever.

PO: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

OA: My favorite materials are 100% cotton and I guess maybe techniques I'm thinking about using different patterns. I like the plain old Nine Patch very much and that's one of my favorites. I like to use that technique and with other things.

PO: Have you used many exotic materials at all, [pauses.] like foreign imports or odd textures or dyed kinds of things?

OA: Ones with gold in, and in fact I made a quilt that I gave as a wedding gift that had quite a bit of gold in it. Till it would shine here and there. It reminded me of something out of India. [laughs.] Otherwise I don't think I've used ones like that but I do like to use like the Revolutionary fabric, the reproductions, and the Civil War reproductions as well as some of the other kinds of lightweight one and light colored ones. One of my friends keeps saying, 'You're using so many dark colors,' but I also do light colored ones too. Right now, I'm going to do one that reminds me in lots of way of the 1930's with a lot of white fabric.

PO: Are the reproductive materials very expensive?

OA: They're not any more expensive [laughs.] than any other fabric. And here they're getting to be kind of expensive, being nine ninety-five and eight and a half, nine ninety- five and sometimes they're even up to $12.00 a yard and that's getting kind of high.

PO: So describe the place that you create your quilts.

OA: Do I what?

PO: Describe the place that you make the quilts. Describe where you're where you're actually working most of the time and where you keep your equipment and so on.

OA: Either in the basement. [laughs.] I use the pool table. My husband says he hasn't seen the pool table underneath all that cloth for so many years now. [laughs.] In the winter, I quilt in our bedroom mostly. Once in a while, right here at this table, so I kind of do it all over.

PO: This table is off the kitchen so...

OA: This is a big old kitchen table in the family.

PO: What do you think makes a great quilt?

OA: Boy that's really difficult because I don't always agree with the judges. [laughs.] I guess it's the visual. What I see if I really liked it and that can be most anything. I mean a combination of colors, the different kinds of patterns, then all kinds of things put together I guess. As well as the sewing, workmanship.

PO: What do you think makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

OA: [pause for 3 seconds.] I don't know. Seems like many of them are what I call pretty far out. Now, they have them that are so small that there's no bed that would be that size, unless it was for a mouse. [laughs.] I really don't know. I have puzzled that out many times at a quilt show. Or, yes, at Paducah [Kentucky.] and sometimes--oh some of them I've seen at Paducah are just gorgeous. At any quilt show, there's some that they really talk to you. I guess that's what to me, what makes a great quilt is one that speaks to me.

PO: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

OA: I think that they're both great. I like hand quilting and I like machine quilting and I like long arm quilting with the long arm machines. We have one that's right, manufacturer of long arm machine is right close here. And so I think we're very lucky to have that. As far as machine quilting, I showed us at DAR the other day, the one my grandmother made that had machine quilting in 1882 to 1884. It was right in that period. So when someone tells me it has to be hand quilted, hand pieced and hand quilted to be a real quilt or that my grandmother only hand quilted and so I shouldn't do anything otherwise, I say phooey, cause my grandmother used a machine to quilt [laughs.]in the early 1880's and so I think that piecing by hand is something we that we used to do at night many times, as well, the little tiny pieces as well as quilting at night, but I think that hand quilting, machine quilting, and the long arm quilting are all wonderful! I don't see anything wrong with any of them. Right now, I have most of mine done by a lady that has a long arm quilting machine and that's what I enjoy having her do those because many of them are going to go where they are going to be used and like grandkids. If they're going to be used, that has good strong quilting, I feel.

PO: Do you do your own backing? On the quilts? Do you do the whole quilt?

OA: Yes. Yes.

PO: Because some people I know, they just do the front then they commission out the back. [laughs.] I just wondered if you did the whole thing.

OA: Sometimes I provide the batting and sometimes she provides the batting. It just depends on what I want, you know. And so the backing, I also do the backing also, the backing for the quilt.

PO: Why is quiltmaking important in your life?

OA: Well, I have something to show for something that I'm doing and so, and it's something I can pass on hopefully to the children and the grandchildren and even the little great grandchild so he has his and when I made him one, a baby quilt because he'll be two this month. It wasn't the size of a baby bed. It was something that he'll be able to use for a while. If he drags it around for a while that's alright too because it's being used and that's what I made it for to be used.

PO: How do you think quilts reflect our, our community or our region?

OA: Well, many of my mother's quilts do not; I don't think she has any that has a border. But then, my grandmother made some with borders. So, and they're both from the same community. [laughs.] I had heard at one time that [unknown noise.] Iowa quilts did not have a border. At certain times, if my mother is an indication, that certainly is true that at a certain period of time that they didn't necessarily use a border right here in this community. That would certainly reflect on this community of course.

PO: What do you think about novelty quilts, like the memory quilts or the history quilts or there are some where people put their friends names in 'em or something?

OA: I've seen some that, well actually, I've thought many a times I wonder what happened to my aunt's. I've slept under it many a times at her house and it had all the, not, I shouldn't say all the ladies, but so many ladies had put their name on a block and it was put together and evidently in that small town at one time they've made an awfully lot of them make because there are some of them left yet of that kind and I think they're great and I've seen the ones where the churches have made ones for their pastor and quite often it was a way of making money at that time, maybe ten cents to make a block, [laughs.] maybe with your name on it, or maybe with just some pattern that you like. Of course it had to be a certain size, but anyway, then it was given to the pastor when he either came or when he left. Especially, I imagine if they didn't like him, they'd be unwilling to give it to him when he left. I've seen many of those that I think are beautiful. Some of the ones I have seen where they put the pictures on, are really, I would consider a disaster, however there are some that are just gorgeous, so. Ones we saw pictures of the other day, of Helen's I think are sooo beautiful and those are really, really pretty so I just guess it just happens to be how they're done, you know.

PO: So you don't object then to the sort of graphic effects that the computer lets you add to the quilt?

OA: No.

PO: Why is quilt making important in your life?

OA: It gets me away from the TV. [laughs.] There's some quietness while I'm doing that. At one time I used to listen to books as I was quilting away, but my hearing has disappeared and then I have problems. [inaudible.] I enjoy going in there and just hearing the clank and the clink of the sewing machine. [laughs.]

PO: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life and while I'm on that subject, are there foreign quilts certainly and European quilts? Do you know anything about them?

OA: Well, there are different quilt makers from other countries. I've seen some gorgeous one that some of the Japanese gals have made that have been at some of our quilt shows you know. They're beautiful. Is that what you're thinking of?

PO: Then what about in terms of American life and American quilts. What meaning do they have for our country?

OA: Well they've really kept us warm since the day of the Mayflower. [laughs.] They haven't always been filled with things that were the, what we think of now as batting. Even what they had to fill them with leaves and grasses to help keep warm. I think they've been the things that kept us, our families warm for so many years and at one time they made them out of scraps from men's suits and things like that and they were the woolen ones and at least I know that's what most of my one grandmother's were or were left over pieces of the men's suits that they made for the men. That was the way to keep warm when we didn't have any central heating at all. I know I've slept under some that felt awfully good when it was so cold in the house.

PO: And why do you think that they have special meaning for women's history?

OA: Because the women were the ones that made them of course. [laughs.] That's one of the things and it was also I think their way of showing their artistic ability. There were so few outlets for them to show their artistic ability at certain points of time. I think.

PO: Not much time for them to do other things. [laughs.]

OA: No, no. But of course, they were taught, I was taught you sit down you pick up some kind of handwork and so that was one of the things that they did. I know my mother had to have done a lot of English paper piecing to do some of the quilts that she did. So many women you know, when you sat down you pieced.

PO: How do you think quilts can be used?

OA: Oh my goodness, you see them used in corporate headquarters now, in hospitals and all kinds of places other than the home. Of course, they are beautifully used in homes not just on beds but on walls and so on. In one home where they had a large space above a stairway they had a big ole Nine Patch hanging up there, it was a two color Nine Patch and it was just beautiful hanging up there. I don't know if that lady happened to change them very often or not cause we were only there one night. But anyway, of course I think they make lovely gifts.

PO: How can they be preserved for the future?

OA: Well, the museums are doing a lovely job. They have places just for that, for the quilts now. That would be nice for some of the rest of us to do. I put those old quilts in a used pillow case and that's about what I can do here right here. Or wrap them in an old sheet that's clean and that. Hopefully I will be preserving them that way and I don't know how, in the home, in an ordinary home whether you're going to be able to preserve them as long as you'd like to or not. But they have special air, special heat, special lighting, and a special place for them in several museums now and it's wonderful to see that they are having these quilt museums too, you know, especially save some of these quilts.

PO: Do you know what's happened to some of the quilts you have given away to friends and family, what people have done with them.

OA: Well right now I can think of one in the not too distant future, one that was made, that has old fashioned farm animals across it and my daughter-in-law says that they get all kinds of compliments on that. And often times they'll have it out on the davenport, across the davenport and get all kinds of compliments on that. They have one in the bedroom there at their house. Some of the others, I don't know. I think one grandson has used one so much that I don't know if there's too much left of it. And another grandson--[laughs.] it looks terrible, but he just loves it to death. And it was embroidered with little fisher boys and he loves to fish and it's in blues and white, and he's just worn that one to a frazzle. [laughs.]

PO: What is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

OA: [six second pause.] Boy, that is a difficult question. One of the challenges is that you hope that someone that gets the quilts will appreciate them and not use them to throw over an engine somewhere [laughs.] or hang them, wash them and hang them on a line and leave them on the line for two or three days so that they drag down in the mud and that. Maybe that's an old fashioned challenge instead of what the quiltmakers big challenge are today. With the one guild, the big guild I belong to, with the flood in this area this fall our challenge has been terrific. I'm sure we've made over two thousand quilts that have been given to flood victims. So challenges are different at different times. I think that's being able to step up to the challenge that you face is going to be one of the most difficult things.

PO: What do you think about imported quilts or commercial quilts that seem to sell for so much less than our handmade quilts?

OA: I think they have their place. Some of them are very pretty I think. I have one daughter that likes to use those on their bed all the time and then she has handmade ones that her mom has made or her mother-in-law has made someplace else. I mean stored at this time.

PO: So there's room for all of them?

OA: Yeah there's room for all of them. There's a place for all of them.

PO: So, is there anything else you would like to add to this interview, anything you feel may have been left out or that you'd like to add or comment on.

OA: One of the challenges nowadays is so many of the beds are so big and I like to make quilts for the beds so that the girls use them and fellows too. They get harder and harder to manipulate the bigger the quilts get. [laughs.]

PO: You mean for the king size beds.

OA: That's right and so I find that a little bit more difficult, but I don't like to have a whole lot of small quilts around and there's so many people that do because you're done with them and I mean they're so much faster to do and I mean I understand that and that's great. But how many quilts can you have that you can't use. [laughs.]

PO: Anything else?

OA: That's all I can think of at this moment.

PO: I would like to thank Onalee Arnold for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview concluded at 4:10 on February 6, 2009.


“Onalee Arnold,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/25.