Shirley Fowlkes Stevenson




Shirley Fowlkes Stevenson




Shirley Fowlkes Stevenson


Rachel Paris

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Karey Bresenhan, in honor of Jewel Pearce Patterson


Houston, Texas


Rachel Paris (RP): We're going. Okay. This is Rachel Paris. Today is November 3, 2011. It is 11:13 AM and I'm conducting an interview with Shirley Fowlkes Stevenson for Quilters' S.O.S. Save Our Stories project of The Alliance for American Quilts. Shirley and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas, and we're off. Shirley, will you tell me about the piece you brought today?

Shirley Fowlkes Stevenson (SFS): My husband and I both grew up on ranches in the Texas hill country and my husband and I moved to and bought part of a ranch outside of Kerrville [Texas.] in 1993. I had always wanted to do thread painting, which is free motion embroidery. I love appliqué, hand and machine. I decided I would put all the animals on the quilt that I had seen on either my dad's ranch, or our ranch, native to Texas. All of the animals we saw, except on the bottom left corner is an ocelot which we did not see. They're a little further south. We probably had them but they're out at night, and I didn't see them, but we did see all the others. I do not remember how many animals are on the quilt, but it was interesting.

RP: You have already talked about the special meaning that this had for you, do you use this garment?

SFS: I made it in my size and the inside has fabrics that are hand-dyed, bleached, or over-dyed. I did a lot of different things to the fabric. The inside has patchwork and is reversible. This is the inside. It has maple leaves on the inside and it has a matching vest and a skirt. I wear it to midnight Christmas Eve services or for something special. [laughs.]

RP: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking?

SFS: When I was a small child, my grandmother had a quilt frame in her dining room and ladies came to quilt. Which is very interesting, my grandmother was born with only one hand, her arm was off right below the elbow on the left side, but she quilted, she made all of her clothes, even her bras. That's my first experience with quilts, plus some were handed down to us, which we used as children.

RP: You were how old at that time?

SFS: Oh, probably four or five years old.

RP: What's your first quilt memory?

SFS: Happy memories really were when we took, that was before air-conditioning, we took the quilts off the beds and spread them on the lawn and my sister and I looked at the stars, and the stars just seemed bigger than life and wonderful, and ask our parents questions generally they couldn't answer, and that's the inspiration for the quilt on the cover of Lone Stars III, A Legacy of Texas Quilts, 1986-2011.

RP: I was blown away by the cover, the quilt on the cover of the book. Were you surprised to find Starry Night on the cover?

SFS: Oh yeah. It's the first competition quilt I had made in twenty years, over twenty years [laughs.] because I published patterns and was a vender at quilt shows and there was not time to spend on making competition level quilts. I also designed for Vogue and Butterick Pattern Companies for ten years in the 1990s.

RP: How did you get into that? How did you get into pattern design?

SFS: I have an art degree and I've always made my clothes for years, and all my kids clothes, and always did really fun stuff with them before it was even popular, so I just found another outlet. I love sculpture, that was my favorite, sculpture and pottery. So quilting was tactile like it was. In the late 70s, I lived in Dallas [Texas.] and the YMCA down the street from where I lived had a sign outside that said, "Quilt Show," so I went in, and was blown away, and then I joined the Dallas [Texas.] Guild in 1980.

RP: And you run a, or you have run, a pattern making business?

SFS: Yes. Twenty years I designed quilted clothing, quilts, all kinds of craft patterns like for pin cushions and dolls and pillows and different sort of things. Whatever was unique and different, and I thought would sell, I'd design it. They were always original, they weren't reproductions of anything that's been done in the past. I particularly loved animals and I did a lot of chicken quilts and cat quilts and rodeo quilts and all that sort of thing.

RP: Have you ever used a quilt to help you get through a difficult time?

SFS: Yes, yes.

RP: Can you tell me about it?

SFS: I started really when I took off in quilting, I wasn't in a real good marriage and that was something I could do that gave me pleasure, and being in a room with him while he watched TV [laughs.] which was boring to me, I hate to say that to tell you the truth [laughs.] but it's the truth. It filled a void there and I found my creative outlook.

RP: Can you tell me an amusing story about quilting?

SFS: One of the first shows, I guess that I vended in Paducah [Kentucky.] years ago. Two little old ladies came up in front of the booth and pointed at a quilt and one said to the other, "Mable, that's not a quilt, that's just something you hang on the wall." [laughs.] I still remember that.

RP: What aspects of quilting do you enjoy most?

SFS: Any kind of appliqué. I prefer appliqué, and I love paper piecing, and I either template piece or paper piece but appliqué is my favorite. Whether it's machine or hand, I've had my hand rebuilt and my shoulder replaced so I don't like to do as much handwork as I used to do.

RP: Are there any aspects of quiltmaking that you don't enjoy?

SFS: I guess because I did not have a mid-arm or a longarm machine, the most difficult for me is actually the quilting, moving all of that fabric and doing interesting good free motion quilting, that's very tedious and it's very labor intensive, that I enjoy the least. I like to hand quilt, but I have to be real careful how I use my hands today so they'll last as long as I do [laughs]

RP: Have advances in technology helped you or influenced your quilting at all?

SFS: No. I will never be able to make all of the things that are in my head. I do not need electronics to get me going. I draw it all out and well it's time to start.

RP: What are your favorite techniques? You said you liked appliqué?

SFS: Yes. I love appliqué, machine and hand; machine now works better for me because of the hand problems. I love selecting the fabrics, I love color, I love to play colors off of each other. Value is very important. I enjoy all of the design process and putting the top together, and I love the free motion embroidery or stitching.

RP: What materials, what are your favorite materials?

SFS: Hand-dyes and Batiks.

RP: Alright, you've talked a little bit about value, color, what do you think makes a great quilt?

SFS: All of that. Design, value, color, execution.

RP: What type of quilt do you see as appropriate for museums and collectors? Do you collect quilts?

SFS: Yes, old ones.

RP: What type of quilts do you like to see in museums?

SFS: I like to see any of them. I really am not prejudice, of course you know, I know what I like to personally make, but I enjoy everything except when they're so contemporary I can't get the meaning of it. Art affects me the same way. No, I can appreciate the color and everything, but if I don't pick up on what they're saying I don't enjoy something that I have to read to explain the meaning.

RP: That brings me to one of the quilts you have in the book, the one that features your great-grandfather.

SFS: Yes.

RP: Tell me a little bit about how you made that quilt.

SFS: For the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986, I wanted to design quilts to celebrate Texas, the Sesquicentennial and my great-grandfather's life. I made several Texas quilts with one featured in the last book, Lone Stars II, A Legacy of Texas Quilts 1936 -1986. This quilt is about my great grandfather, John Files Tom. When he was sixteen, his family came to Texas from Tennessee, they came down the Mississippi [River] on a paddle wheel steamship to the Gulf of Mexico where they took a clipper ship to Brazoria Texas, bought an ox cart and traveled to the Steven F. Austin Colony, the first official settlement in Texas. He, his father and another older brother threw up a log cabin, planted corn and sweet potatoes. John wanted to join his father and the other men preparing to leave for San Antonio [Texas.] to fight the Mexican army. Because 6" 5" tall John had no shoes and socks, his mother would not at first give permission for John to leave for San Antonio. He made himself a pair of moccasins and a girl gave him her newly knitted pink wool stockings. He was teased as "The Boy Who Went to War in a Girl's Stockings" and he is shown on the quilt wearing pink stockings. He and his father fought in the Battle of Mission Concepcion and the Battle of San Antonio [Texas.]. They and about a hundred men were left in San Antonio to guard the Alamo after the Texians captured it. The commander in the two previous battles, learned his wife was seriously ill back in the Austin Colony and he needed to return home. John and his dad escorted him home as it was not safe to travel alone. Shortly after their departure the Battle of the Alamo [Texas.] took place and all the Texians were killed. They learned about the tragedy when they returned home. Soon afterwards young John joined Sam Houston, an old family friend from Tennessee, who was raising an army to fight the Mexican army. They traveled south where they met up with the Mexicans at the San Jacinto River south of where Houston is today. The Texians defeated the Mexican army in "The Battle of San Jacinto" to assure independence for The Republic of Texas. Young John was shot in the knee with a musket and his best friend standing beside him was killed. The Zavala family (Zavala was one of first Governor's of the Republic) had a large ranch near the battlefield. They took young John into their home, cared for him and in two or three weeks were able to get word to his family that he was alive.
He limped the rest of his life, but he did tons of other things. He was one of the first captains in Texas Rangers, his whole territory was north and west of San Antonio [Texas.] where the Comanches were rampant, and his job was to make that area safe for the settlers to go in and he was out there a lot of times by himself and there are a lot of scary and funny stories about those experiences.

RP: I believe you got his life really encapsulated into that quilt.

SFS: Yeah, and he was a State legislator, a sheriff, a rancher, anyway. He was involved in really helping Texas become a Republic and then ten years later they became a state. When he was about 88 years old he was thrown off his horse and it re-injured his leg that had been shot in the Battle of San Jacinto and he could only walk with crutches afterwards. He died within the year, but he lived a long time. He and his first wife had four girls. She died when he was about sixty years old and he married my grandmother's mother and had six more kids [laughs.]

RP: Tell me about, that quilt obviously required a lot design, tell me about your design process.

SFS: I tried to do original designs for each one of the segments that I wanted to show his involvement in Texas becoming a Republic and later a State. There are a lot more things about him that would make interesting quilts, but I really wanted to bring in the historic buildings that he was involved with, like the capital where he was a legislator, the San Jacinto monument where he was wounded in the battle, his name is on that monument, and then a picture of him as a Texas Ranger. I called the ranger museum in Waco to see what their uniforms were like in 1863 and they said, "Well honey, they wore whatever they had." I'm sure he wore cowboy type clothes, rode horseback all the time, carried a gun or guns so that's the way I dressed him.

RP: Do you use a design wall?

SFS: Yes, yes. I draw it up on paper and then when I get it the size I want, then I start cutting fabric and everything goes on the wall, nothing is ever stitched together until I'm happy with it. I learned that in art school, you get back away from your canvas or whatever and look at it, squint your eyes down and look at it.

RP: What about your studio space? Do you have a studio?

SFS: Yes, when we bought our present house I designed my studio in the same style as the house was built. It is added onto the back of house with high ceilings, a storage loft over one end, lots of windows and great lighting, three closets, built in shelves and looks out over the treed backyard with a pond and backs up to a creek with trees. It's real pretty, it's very inspiring.

RP: Do you teach?

SFS: I used to travel and teach at quilt conferences, guilds and craft centers, but I've stopped. Now I teach locally, just within my guild if they want to learn something new. About two or three years ago, I think about two years ago, I decided I'm getting too old to travel. I would rather stay home and quilt.

RP: If you were going to encourage a young person, or a new person, who wanted to go into quilting, what would you tell them? How would you tell them to get started?

SFS: I would probably tell them go to a quilt store, or join a guild, a local guild if they had one, and take a beginning quiltmaking class. They could sort of see what they enjoy, what they really enjoy doing the most, the appliqué, the patchwork, in beginning classes you get a little bit of everything. I teach all the techniques, paper piecing and everything in my beginning classes. Then, they can either read books and go forward, or they can take more classes, or come to a place like Houston [Texas.] and Festival and take classes here. You really, once you figure out what it is you really like, then you can focus on something, but some people just want to try everything new, so whatever turns you on.

RP: Which artist influenced you?

SFS: The first artist that I became very aware of that I just adored her work was Yvonne Porcella. I love bright colors and contrast and fun stuff and I loved what she did at that time.

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

SFS: As far as I'm concerned one is as good as the other. I think if my grandma had a five thousand dollar machine, she would have used it [laughs.]

RP: I would like to hear you talk about, a little bit about what ways you think quilts have had special meaning for women in America.

SFS: I have found that they can have special meaning, they're very healing in a lot of ways and I've met a lot of people that have used their quilts to work through difficult things and for happy things, like make special quilts for their grandkids or friends or that sort of thing. I think they're very therapeutic or they are to me.

RP: What has happened to the quilts you've made for friends and family?

SFS: Well some of them I don't want to know [laughs.] When I give something, it's a gift [laughs.] but some of them appreciate them, but sometimes grandkids and daughter-in-laws don't understand [laughs.] No, I think most of them, they really appreciate them, I guess what I'm talking about is the care of them.

RP: How do you store your quilts?

SFS: In cotton bags in closets on shelves and sometimes I take old sheets and sort of put a protector even against the painted back wall and the shelf too so they have two layers generally of at least some kind of cotton fabric because I don't want to get acid stains from wood or anything on them.

RP: Do you feel that you have a signature style? If so, what is it?

SFS: You know I love everything, I love it all. I guess I'm best known for my appliqué quilts; used to be hand now its machine. I love doing most all of it, to tell you the truth.

RP: The importance of quilts in American life, can you talk about why quilts have been important in American life?

SFS: One of the stories that I read which I thought was really interesting about Texas quilters was about a couple who had a ranch or farm somewhere in Texas, they had moved here from the East Coast like the Carolinas or Virginia and they had no children. A man traveling through with two young children needed a place to stay so they let him spend the night. When he took out quilts to cover the children, the rancher's wife recognized the fabrics in the quilts that she had sent her sister to make the quilts. Her sister had passed away and the children were her niece and nephew, so she and her husband adopted them. I thought that was a wonderful story.

RP: It is.

SFS: I wish I could remember their names but it brings tears to my eyes.

RP: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing quiltmakers today?

SFS: Limiting yourself with how much money you spend to buy things [laughs.] It's very tempting. It can become a very expensive hobby [laughs.]

RP: Oh yes, oh yes indeed. We have some more time, but I want to be sure you get to tell me anything that you really want recorded.

SFS: Okay.

RP: Is there any idea or particular thing that you wanted to talk about today? Either about your quilt here or in the book or in general.

SFS: [clears throat.] Excuse me. When I was three years old, I drew a chicken on the floor of my mother's bedroom. She did not mop or clean my art off the floor for weeks and told me how great it was, obviously it was, she could tell what it was. We did not have electricity until I was twelve years old when the R.E.A. (Rural Electric Assn.) finally brought electrical service up the west prong of the Frio River to our ranch. My mother was not a real patient person so she didn't teach me to sew, but when I was small she let me sit on her lap as she sewed on her treadle sewing machine and I watched everything she did. Mom's parents had a general store in a little town about six or eight miles south of our ranch. When she'd go into town she'd spend the day visiting with her parents and sisters. Dad always had hired hands on the ranch, so there was always someone around. When I was eight years old I talked her into letting me stay home because I wanted to make myself some shorts on her treadle sewing machine. I found one of Mom's old bathrobes in the rag bag. I loved the robe's fabric with a border of big pink roses around the bottom and it was blue at the top with white polka dots. I had seen a movie star magazine with a movie star, an actress; I don't remember who it was, Lana Turner or one of those ladies, wearing short shorts on the cover. My father was not real fond of us girls wearing shorts and I wanted some, so I decided to made myself a pair. I got a pair of blue jeans out, cut a pattern from them with extra fullness in the front for two pleats on each side, I sewed snaps on the opening side, but I just turned the raw edges at the top down and stitched it because I didn't know how to make the band. Anyway, when she got home, I was wearing big pink roses around my bottom. That was the first garment I made. She was gone for six or eight hours, so I had a lot of time to sew [laughs.]

RP: You've been designing patterns ever since?

SFS: Yeah. My daughter had scoliosis and had to wear a body brace in the first two or three years of elementary school and I designed all her clothes where no one could tell that she wore a brace.

RP: I believe I saw that you do not work in a group?

SFS: No, I was wanting to form one, and one of the ladies that I thought would be good, moved to Virginia, so I need to rethink that. We moved to Sherman, Texas ten years ago where there are a lot of quilters, but I don't think they are interested in a small creative group. There are two or three that do enter the county fair and the Dallas Quilt Guild show occasionally and I do not know if they're interested. I may talk to them. I have friends that I knew when I lived in Dallas [Texas.] one or two, Barbara Hartman is a good friend, I go see her occasionally and we critique each other some, but I would like a group.

RP: You're not opposed to working in a group?

SFS: No, I think it'd be fun. I think you'd learn a lot from what they said.

RP: Alright, we're going to draw this to a close and I just want to say what a privilege it's been to meet you.

SFS: Oh, well thank you very much. It's been a privilege to be asked to do this and I do hope that our young people go forward with quiltmaking because we're seeing so much pleasure from it and it gives pleasure to others.

RP: Well that's a good closing statement. I'd like to thank Shirley for allowing me to interview her today, for the Quilters' S.O.S.- Save Our Stories oral history project. Our interview is concluded at 11:42.

SFS: Thank you, appreciate it.


“Shirley Fowlkes Stevenson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 16, 2024,